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The Believers –An Intriguing Look into the World of the Occult

The Believers –The Hidden World of West Indian Spiritualism in New York by Dr. Glenville C. Ashby is a regular ‘jumbie story’ and then some more.  This always intriguing effort focuses on the core beliefs of the West Indian immigrant in the most modern and hard-edged of metropolises.  These are beliefs that operate in tandem-sometimes secretly-within the hearts, and in the actions, of the West Indian migrant community.

While this book has its share of the jolting and jaw dropping, there is little by way of the spine tingling and macabre concoctions associated with Stephen King and his genre.  This is about real people, with real problems, real fears, and who reach, somewhat tremblingly, for the relief and comfort of ancestral traditions and another outside-the-mainstream solution.  In The Believers, Dr Ashby provides readers with surprises and confirmations; and an appreciation of this other side-a hidden side-of individual and regional religious beliefs and practices.  This book is a collection of curious, fluid visitations-all somewhat loosely interconnected-in a continuing search for not only answers and solutions, but discernment, strength, and a different kind of comfort.

New York City is the setting, and the characters are mainly Guyanese, Haitians, and ‘Trinis’ with a handful of Jamaicans and small Island denizens thrown in for good measure.  It is a methodical, slow moving development with context and color supplied by immigrant sketches, their embedded fears, and the grimness of gray winters.  These are fused together to form a sobering, if not compelling picture; indeed, many pictures.

Readers are treated to the names, language, and tools of these spiritual arts and a glimpse in their many forms in cold matter-of-fact prose.  Here in the concrete jungle of New York City, one is afforded a look-sometimes no more than a fleeting peek-into the mysteries of Kali, Obeah, Voodoo, and Orisha practices to name a few of the more robust streams of spiritualism and tradition bound folk worship.  Here is the familiar talk of ‘spirit lash’ and an introduction to (perhaps a reiteration of) the powerful fruits of the graveyard along with the damage they can inflict.  Here is disclosure of the significance of ‘mourning’ and access to the sanctum sanctorum of spirit worship; this same ‘mourning’ is described as “the greatest spiritual experience.”  There is the occasional flash of flair, but this work is all about facts and circumstances in constant movement.  In all of this, there are the unfamiliar names, the unintelligible words, and the unwavering principal characters.

In this repeated journeying to the other and believed dark forbidding side, there is revealed the conflict between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practitioners and practices.  In the search for answers, seekers and believers traverse from house to church to cemetery.  “You must know the depths and heights of wisdom to understand the mysteries of life” is a dominant philosophy of true Believers.  It is the guiding philosophy.

Dr. Ashby lays bare a different kind of world, one that is whispered of, frowned upon by many, feared by many others.  There is the use of protective passwords and devices; the extreme physical contortions and convulsions; superhuman feats; trances, exorcism; and the presence of ‘evil eye.’ and curses and spirits.  And while the doors are open to the uninitiated public, it is still a world lathered in the clandestine and levels of murkiness.  There are shades of the Masonic in some of the partial revelations.  There is hesitancy on the part of some newcomers, sometimes trepidation, but never indifference or outright rejection of these fascinating belief systems and forms.

Not surprisingly, readers would experience the layering and fusion of mainstream (and acceptable) religious involvement with the more earthy practices of voodoo and Kalbhairo and Kabballah.  There is the mixture of occult elements with religious emblems; the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel comes in for special mention.  Roman Catholicism and Hinduism are generously represented, with snippets from Islam.

As for stalwarts and monikers in this pantheon try Bablawos, Pujaree, and Grandmaster; they make the listener and observer stand up and pay attention.

The Believers: The Hidden World of West Indian Spirituality in New York is an eye opening, enthralling look into the reserved, sheltered world of the occult, as practiced by Caribbean folks while they pursue health, happiness, upward mobility, and the American Dream and dollar.

The Believers: The Hidden World of West Indian Spiritualism in New York by Dr Glenville Ashby

Hansib Publications, UK

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Rating: Highly recommended