This article is from Embodied Philosophy’s MindBody Studies Track.
I gather cornmeal. Without fresh rose petals, dried ones from last week’s bouquet will do. A small bowl holds water laced with a few drops of orange oil. Sweetened for the sit. Slowly, slowly, I draw the cornmeal in a vertical line, and then one horizontally, across. The cornmeal forms a crossroads. With each line, I trace lineage. I remember African-American ancestors and their use of cornmeal for cooking and spiritual work. I recall Xicana/Mexican ancestors from whom corn has long been sacred. Now, to let the rose petals fall, fall, wherever they may. And then for a moment, I sit. Sit with the crossroads. Sit with my eyes closed. Sit until I am no longer focused on this line or that line, but am drawn to the center…
Last year, the world faced a crossroads. We remain at one still, as the pandemic calls attention to longstanding social and environmental injustice. Widespread activism is lifting up these injustices, from the Movement for Black Lives to indigenous calls for “Land Back.” These movements press us to articulate “we” carefully during these times: we are not “in this together” in the same way due to legacies of race and racism, privilege, and oppression. The crossroads amplifies these legacies and demands for transformation.
In more than one contemplative tradition, the crossroads signal literal and metaphorical death. They symbolize a crisis or a point where a shift must be made to claim an alternate future. As a geographer and cultural worker, I devote particular attention to black geographies. These include the material and expressive ways blackness is lived, oppressed, and (re)claimed; they encompass how Black folks have reimagined space and place amid historic and on-going oppression throughout the diaspora.
In black geographies, (untimely) death and crises are all too familiar, as are dreams for the future. As Holloway writes, “African-American’s particular vulnerability to an untimely death in the United States affects how Black culture both represents itself and is represented.” In this current moment, this untimely death is again publicly visible due to the impact of Covid-19 on African-American and other communities of color, and as movements address police brutality and vigilante violence.
Black geographies are crossroads. Because of systemic conditions past and present, they maintain an intimate relationship with uncertainty, liminality, and death – all emblematic of crossroads in global religions and mythologies. Amid these conditions, African-American crossroads practices and cosmologies challenge dichotomous notions about life and death. While the cosmologies offer maps of the universe, crossroads practices involve contemplation using wide-ranging tools and materials. From occupying the crossroads, African-American geographies offer contemplative wisdom into living through – and beyond – crises.
In this reflection, I consider these crossroads practices and conditions in a global context. But first, a return to the altar.
At the Altar
Toni Morrison might call the meditation that begins this piece a practice of rememory. Rememory “as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, and the population of the past.” When Morrison repeats “as in” more than once, she emphasizes how rememory is a process. Rememory involves reconnecting across scale (body, family, population) and across time (present to past). Her repetition also marks rememory as a necessity. Rememory is necessary for herself and for her work as an African-American author, because so much memory remains unknown and untold in black geographies. So much memory has been systematically suppressed. And while she is specifically speaking to how she wrote her famous novel Beloved, her words hold relevance for crossroads work.
As I re-collect global meanings of crossroads here, my point is not to offer a comprehensive history, but to lift up some shared coordinates across geographic contexts. From these coordinates, I remember Black contemplative practices as a Black/Blaxicana geographer who continues to gather personal memories, while archiving collective ones for the future. Rememory and the crossroads further involves centering Black knowledge, which requires reassembling in yet another sense of the word.
Too often Black diaspora traditions are not considered contemplative, although they contemplate the shape of the cosmos and involve practices like centering, reflection, and awareness of the mind and body. In scholarship and in popular media, diaspora traditions such as rootwork, hoodoo, and Santería continue to be minimized as superstition without due attention to their contemplative wisdom. Furthermore, dominant narratives discount black geographies themselves as a site of reflective knowledge production where contemplative practices and philosophies have long been created, re-membered, and expressed.
This “othering” is pervasive, and writing about Black crossroads traditions requires disassembling assumptions, so we can reassemble how we understand (Black) knowledge in the first place. And this requires inner work or self-reflection:
Whether reclaiming ancestral practices as Black/African-Americans, practicing solidarity with Black lives as fellow indigenous and other people of color, or practicing anti-racism as white allies, centering Black knowledge and lives involves inner work. Assuming that Black knowledge matters involves inner work. Considering how this knowledge relates to other communities involves inner work. Understanding how this knowledge holds global meaning involves inner work.
Social identities are complex, and many more could be named here. But the broader invitation to inner work still stands. To facilitate contemplative reading, I include (Pauses) here, invitations to stop, slow down, and reflect. Where you find these pauses, I’m pausing too.
By crossroads, I mean the crossing of three or more physical or figurative paths. Physical paths may be roadways or trails. Figurative paths may be decisions or options. In ancient traditions throughout the world, crossroads in the physical landscape mark a threshold between the living and the dead. For example, some societies have buried their dead where roads intersect. Metaphysical keepers of crossroads both thrive on and provoke uncertainty, among them Coyote in many indigenous/Native traditions, the messenger god Hermes-Mercury from the Greco-Roman pantheon, the goddess Hecate from Greek antiquity, and the gatekeeper Eshu in Yoruba and other Black diaspora religions, also known as Papa Legba, Elegbara, and Exu, among other names.
While each of these keepers possess distinct histories, they each occupy a liminal space. They often facilitate crossing from one dimension, place, or life chapter, to another. Seeking their insight may exact a cost. Joseph Campbell observes, “[N]ot infrequently, the dangerous aspect of the ‘mercurial’ figure is stressed; for he (sic) is the lurer of the innocent soul into souls of trial.” Every decision at a literal or metaphorical crossroads involves a path not taken, a sacrifice or a loss. Even if a gift or blessing is received, a death of some sort takes place.
In African-American geographies, the story of blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads exemplifies a fateful decision. According to the legend, after Johnson sold his soul he played the guitar with unworldly talent. Lore attributes his early death to this crossroads exchange. Some scholars compare the surrender of Johnson and other blues artists to the Devil, to crossroads dealings with Eshu. A mischievous and revered waymaker in Yoruba tradition, some African-based religions in the Americas align Eshu with the Devil from Christian faith. However, as Gussow points out, the devil in blues music can also signify other disruptive forces, from “women trouble” to white supremacy in the Deep South.
— Pause —
The blues traveler is never alone. In Najeen Dorsey’s collage and montage art, for example, the musician sometimes carries a banjo or guitar while standing at a crossroads. Trees, flowers, and long stretches of grass border the pathways. In one scene, a hearse and train stand in the background, depicting, perhaps, traveling to or away from a funeral, or the traveler’s own passage from life to death. In another piece, a horse grazes in the foreground.
The crossroads are occupied.
But even if Dorsey depicted the traveler without any other signs of life or symbols of movement, blues legends mark the crossroads as forever inhabited. The presence of a keeper or guide, is understood and assumed, maybe even more so when they are visually absent. In a close reading of Dorsey’s creative work, Sipp describes this crossroads landscape from blues and other Black geographies as a “third space” that “was always here and there and always will be here and there;” storytellers and shamans, tricksters and lovers, occupy the space. His mention of lovers again emphasizes merging or surrender at the crossroads. And while some of the travelers he names may be passing through, others reside there in the way of global crossroads. As he puts it, they are always there.
No matter the context, all crossroads demand a reckoning. Although the word reckoning commonly carries ominous overtones, the root of the word offers a more expansive meaning: a reckoning provides an opportunity “to give an account of items received” and “to mention things in order.”Crossroads offer an invitation to pause and to take stock. While they can and do facilitate movement – moving along paths, arriving, departing, changing direction, passing through – they can also inspire stillness. Precisely because keepers of the crossroads inhabit a site or point where paths converge, their awareness is complete. As travelers and seekers traverse the crossroads, their awareness can expand. Like the center of the spiral or circle in religions and mythologies worldwide, the center of the crossroads holds infinite potential.
From Black diaspora geographies, the Kongo cosmogram reflects this sacred center. Originally from Kongo or Bakongo cosmology, the cosmogram depicts four lines crossing, with arrows moving counterclockwise between them. A horizontal midline represents the threshold between the physical and living above, and the spiritual and the dead below. The arrows map the movement of the sun.Thompson writes, “The cosmogram of the Kongo emerged in the Americas precisely as singing and drawing points of contact between worlds.” Similar drawings appear on the bottom of pottery by enslaved African-Americans and in-ground drawings – drawings directly made on the earth for concentration, ceremony, invocation, and more – throughout the Black diaspora. The centerpoint marks divine communication and wisdom, which scholars suggest both are only achieved through spiritual death or surrender familiar to the crossroads.
Gaskins points to the Kongo cosmogram as a motif among Black artists such as Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Khalil Joseph, noting,
Artists and cultural practitioners of African descent often use themes, symbols and images that can be associated with specific elements of the Kongo cosmogram such as the kalunga (water) line to draw on cultural ethos, ritual and spirituality, technology, and artistic actuation (moving from thought to action) in a self-determined, representational space.
Reflective of Afrofuturism, this use of the cosmogram both reclaims and reimagines ancestral knowledge as artists mobilize “cultural designs as portals or pathways linking the past, present, and future.” Similar to Morrison’s concept of rememory, invoking the cosmogram and other crossroads challenges any linear sense of time. Instead, the crossroads becomes a conduit, and those who evoke its form and meaning can become conduits themselves.
Black Geographies and/as Crossroads
At the altar, the crossroads made of cornmeal recalls ancestral practice and honors the global significance of the symbol. I remember Black diaspora cosmologies and practices in ways that involve, as Morrison puts it, re-membering the body: the stretch of the arm, the folding of the legs, the lifting of the hand. As I do, I re-member family and call upon ancestors. I connect with populations past. I draw the crossroads on the ground with intention . . .
Along with ground-drawings, crossroads appear on material objects, walls, and roofs as part of creative and spiritual practice in accounts of African-American geographies. Soul-surrendering legends in the blues tradition reflect still other traditions of “consulting the crossroads” in African-American hoodoo, Haitian and Dominican voudoun, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian candomblé. The crossroads reappears in quilts sewn in crossroads and “monkey wrench” patterns; in gardens cultivated in with intersecting paths; and in contemporary art. Many of these are well-documented in the Southern United States. From my on-going interviews with community members in other parts of the country, these traditions continue to travel.
While each of these practices appeal to the crossroads and speak to interconnected understandings of the cosmos, they also allude to broader conditions of Black life. In the 1920s and 1930s when Robert Johnson and other famed musicians reportedly sold their souls for talent, musical prowess could open up opportunities within and beyond the South, where social and economic injustice compromised Black livelihoods. This time period coincides with the early decades of Great Migration, or the mass migration of an estimated six million African-Americans from the South to the American North and West from about 1916-1970, sometimes with music as their trade.
— Pause —
In this very moment, Black untimely death is again publicly visible due to the pandemic and anti-Black violence. On Black geographies of quarantine, Summers notes how Black folks already know what it feels like to feel trapped or contained, as states pass stay-at-home orders: it is a privilege to know freedom and mobility, a privilege that is deeply racialized (white) and classed (wealthier). Hawthorne asks how data on Black death is being used: how might data reproduce Blackness as a “biological pathology”? As an illness itself? And as if Covid injustice is due to “race,” rather than racism?
Meanwhile, Western science continues to show how chronic stress and racial trauma can compromise overall wellbeing across the life course and between generations.Racial trauma, weathering, and slow death – these and other concepts have traveled well beyond the academy, into grassroots movements, and in the media. For justice work, these concepts provide further vocabulary for how oppression can impact the mind, body, and spirit. Beyond accounting for trauma, related research, movements, and storytelling on racial trauma names practices that attend to Black wellbeing and everyday anti-racism, to personal and collective transformation.
— Pause —
Black geographies are crossroads where death, uncertainty, and transformation pervade everyday lives, and these crossroads involve making a way. When I interview African-American holistic and old ways practitioners, they describe a sense of self-empowerment from practices like yoga and breathwork. They describe how rootwork or hoodoo fortify them for everyday life and for surviving quarantine. We reimagine meditative rituals, as I practice in this piece. Some do not explicitly engage with crossroads practices or cosmology. Crossroads symbols may not guide, for instance, their time on the yoga mat. But contemplative practices help navigate and reimagine the crossroads conditions of our lives.
For the Future
Living the crossroads means inhabiting a threshold. In a reflection on expressions of joy during recent Black Lives Matter protests, Perry writes, “Joy is not found in the absence of pain and suffering. It exists through it. The scourges of racism, poverty, incarceration, medical discrimination, and so much more shape black life.” Her use of the word through – joy existing through pain and suffering – evokes a crossroads where multiple “scourges” pass through a joyful center. She names conditions while centering the possibility of unconditional joy, which I also read as being unapologetically alive.
In a similar spirit, Stuckey underscores “sadness joy” in African-American spirituals, placing the words sadness and joy side-by-side to communicate the simultaneous possibility of the two. Geographer Clyde Woods considers how famous blues lyrics like “sittin’ on top of the world” emerged during the Great Depression in the Mississippi Delta: “We must ask how could someone trapped in this web of social destruction assume the supernatural position, the superimposition, of ‘sittin’ on top of the world’?”
— Pause —
From the crossroads, joy emerges as a potential underlying condition, pun fully intended right now. From the crossroads, this joy can be acknowledged without minimizing the underlying oppressions (aka underlying conditions) which render African-Americans and other communities of color unduly susceptible to Covid-19. What emerges from black geographies, offers insight on non-duality of life and death, on holding complex emotions all at once, and on reclaiming the past for the future. Through spiritual and creative practice, and through precarity and possibilities, black geographies produce contemplative knowledge.
Morrison’s concept of rememory guides me here, and rememory is situated inner work. For fellow Black practitioners and I, this piece is an affirmation: our lives matter, and so does our knowledge. For allies of color and white allies practicing anti-racism, this piece is an invitation: taking Black lives seriously also means taking Black contemplative practice and knowledge, seriously.
— Pause —
At the close of the crossroads meditation, I open my eyes. Remembering crossroads practices, again, I feel the grains of cornmeal beneath my fingers. I trace the vertical and horizontal lines of the crossroads, and they come apart. Rose petals crinkle and crunch between my fingertips. One more moment. Breathing in, breathing out. I release with a prayer for myself and my family, community, and the broader planet. And so it is.
Authors Note: Every practice named in this piece has become public knowledge through journal articles, news stories, or popular publications. However, many of these practices come from Black traditional, indigenous, and ancestral traditions that should be approached with reverence.
Featured Image: Crossroads meditation ritual with cornmeal, rose and carnation petals, and crystal