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CSSC Faculty Studying Slavery: Kameelah Martin

By Grayson Harris
Posted on 19 January 2021 | 10:47 am — 

Kameelah L. Martin is Professor of African American Studies & English and directs the African American Studies Program at the College of Charleston.

This post, written by Kameelah Martin, is one of a series that documents work studying slavery by faculty members of the CSSC.

My scholarly expertise sits at the crossroads of African Diaspora literature(s), primarily of the US and Caribbean, Folklore and Black Feminist Studies. I define myself as a cultural studies scholar, but I am specifically trained in the African American literary and vernacular traditions with emphasis on twenty and twenty-first century prose. My interdisciplinary reach also involves broader interests such as film, popular culture, and African spiritualities.  Outside of the profession, I engage in genealogical research and acts of recalling ancestral memory. I am committed to the fields of African Diaspora Studies, Black Feminist Studies, Literature, Folklore, and Film Studies—all of my interests and expertise converge around the histories and legacies of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

It made sense, then, for me to accept a position to lead the African American Studies Program at the College of Charleston. The spiritual and historical significance of Charleston was what called me to apply for the position and I am humbled to be so deeply engaged in both academic work and the work of Spirit in the hallowed space of the port of entry for an estimated 40% of all of the enslaved Africans that entered this country. As I stand by the adage that “the personal is political,” I openly share that this work is not merely attached to my profession. My own paternal lineage finds its roots in nearby Williamsburg County, South Carolina. In 1825 an eight-year old enslaved boy “Cain” arrived in the Port of Charleston from Savannah, Georgia. I believe this to be the earliest record of Cain Cooper (b. 1817), my 5th great grandfather. And so, the work I undertake in support of CSSC is, in part, to honor my own Ancestors—the ones who rest in the Trouble Field community of Kingstree, South Carolina.

This manifest of individuals on board a slave ship is the earliest known document referring to Professor Kameelah Martin’s 5th great grandfather, Cain Cooper.

And the Ancestors have a funny way of affirming the work we do on their behalf. In 1998, as a sophomore in college I read Ntozake Shange’s novel Sassafras, Cypress, & Indigo (1982). The novel is set in Charleston, South Carolina of the 1960s. I fell in love with the youngest of the title characters, Indigo, who has “got earth blood, filled up with Geechees long gone, and the sea” (Shange 1). Never having set foot in Charleston, I vowed that if I ever bore a girl-child she would be named after my favorite novel! Well, twenty-years past before I found myself carrying that girl child—and living in Charleston, ironically. In the time between, I had studied the significance of indigo as a cash crop in the Low Country and the process of creating traditional Adire cloth in Nigeria. I had even procured a few indigo seeds from a former plantation on Ossabaw Island and successfully cultivated it (the Ancestors stay invokin’ cultural memory). I discovered that indigo was one of the sacred plants of the orisha Oshun, the Yoruba deity who has claimed my (spiritual) head. In doing spirit work with my Egun, I also discovered that indigo was the color my spirit guide wore when she walked the earth. All of this obsession with indigo was preparing me for bringing this unborn child into the world—unbeknownst to me. In the hazy, humid late afternoon of June 29, 2018 that unborn child, Indigo Amelia-Marie, made her debut in the Palmetto State—whose official state color is, of course, indigo. Her paternal lineage is “Geechee up”—to use the local parlance. Shange was right, it seems that “the slaves who were ourselves knew all about indigo & Indigo herself” (40). I stand ready for another lesson.

Tweet announcing the birth of Professor Martin’s daughter.

It has been my distinct privilege to honor the Egun with whom I  share a cultural memory and legacy during the City of Charleston’s Reinternment Ceremony for the African remains discovered at Anson Street. I spoke on behalf of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and marched proudly as the city remembered and honored those 36 souls. Led by our beloved ‘Dr. O’ and the Gullah Society, the celebration of and spiritual rites performed for the Anson Street Burial Project is exactly the type of work I expect to be called to do while in Charleston. This is sacred work.

Front Cover of Kameelah L. Martin’s Conjuring Moments in African American Literature: Women, Spirit Work, & Other Such Hoodoo

More to my professional endeavors, however, the subject I have privileged as a teacher-scholar explores the lore cycle of the conjure woman, or black priestess, as an archetype in literature and visual texts.  In 2012, Palgrave McMillan published my first monograph Conjuring Moments in African American Literature: Women, Spirit Work, & Other Such Hoodoo which engages how African American authors have shifted, recycled, and reinvented the conjure woman figure primarily in twentieth century fiction.

Front Cover of Kameelah L. Martin’s Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics: African Spirituality in American Cinema 

I also authored  Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics: African Spirituality in American Cinema (Lexington 2016) which explores the treatment of the priestess figure in American cinema. My interest in film representations of black women engaged in ‘spirit work’ of the African Diaspora led me to co-edit a collection of essays, The Lemonade Reader on Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade (2016).

I’ve taught courses on the Gullah Geechee presence in African American Literature, Folklore of the African Diaspora, Voodoo & Visual Culture, and a new theory—“Conjure Feminism” that I am developing with my colleagues Kinitra D. Brooks (Michigan State University) and LaKisha M. Simmons (University of Michigan).

Front cover of Kameelah L. Martin’s The Lemonade Reader

The conjure, hoodoo, and root medicine traditions of the US South are deeply entwined with the religious, healing, and metaphysical beliefs that enslaved Africans preserved from their ethnic origins on the continent. The conjure woman, I argue, has become a folk hero in the black imagination but to fully understand how that evolution happened I had to turn my attention to rigorous study of West African practices and the process of transculturation that took place at every settlement where enslaved Africans were held in bondage. To understand the African origins and function of practices such as the Ring Shout, making indigo dye, cooking red rice, or weaving sweetgrass baskets is to study and research the ways that enslaved Africans navigated their past with their present in the mundane, daily drudgery of their lives. This, too, is part of the important work being done through the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and I am elated to add to the incredible work being done to foster a deeper understanding of the impact the institution of slavery has had on the everyday lives of people of African descent even in the 21st century.

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