Today’s blog has been written by guest writer, Richard Ravalli. If you wish to know more about Richard please see his contact information at the end of the article. Enjoy!
The black dog (or ghost dog) is a tradition most often associated with British folklore. Yet a rich body of literature exists documenting stories of spectral hounds in the American South, particularly within African American communities. Even with attention from 20th-century folklorists, some confusion exists regarding the ghost dog in black lore. I discussed this briefly about ten years ago in an article for Journal of American Culture, in which I analyzed the tradition as expressed in the early 21st century films Bones (a horror movie starring Snoop Dogg) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (starring Forest Whitaker). I thank the editors of The Curious Fortean for allowing me to return to some of that research here. A better understanding of the black dog in African American tradition helps not only for opening up cross-cultural perspectives on the phenomenon but it also offers unique insight into the folk history and how complex relationships between animals and men in early America shaped supernaturalism.
The ghost dog in black folklore has been misunderstood in part because one of the most prominent books on the subject, Dog Ghosts and Other Texas Negro Folk Tales (first published in 1958) by folklorist J. Mason Brewer, focused on accounts of friendly creatures. Brewer cited an African myth about the dog as a helper to man to justify his collection of benevolent canine spirits, and while others have pointed to African traditions to explain different North American stories involving animals and dogs, EuroAmerican sources may have provided more inspiration for the southern dog ghost. One does not need to travel far from Texas to encounter the malevolent black dog motif among African American storytellers. By the early 20th century, folklore collectors were documenting numerous examples.
For example, in his 1926 study titled Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, Newbell Niles Puckett recorded tales of huge, calf-sized dog spirits with fiery red eyes. Hallie Hanson from Augusta, Georgia told Works Progress Administration researchers in 1938 of an encounter with a frightening headless white dog near a tree when she was around 10 years old. She ran to her house and looked back, only to find that the “ha’nt” had disappeared. Friends believed that the legendary Delta blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads to gain his musical talent. His song “Hell Hound On My Trail” has been read by some as a consequence of his supposed Faustian bargain. Mary Richardson told folklorist Richard Dorson of the time she met with a “colored” Devil who also appeared as a hound that chased her into a field. As she recalled, “Why he struck my track to run me in there I don’t know, ‘cept that was just before I got converted.”
Yet as Brewer’s book makes clear, there were also many “good” spectral dogs associated with African Americans in the South. One of the earliest examples that I have been able to find comes from Barbara Allen Woods’ classic 1954 study in Western Folklore, in which she includes a story recorded in 1894 of a West Virginia colonel who murdered a female slave. After being acquitted, he was hounded by a ghostly canine, ultimately confessing and dying thereafter. Hopefully, researchers can help to uncover earlier accounts of southern ghost dogs involving African Americans.
In general, ghosts reflected the vibrant sacred universe of American blacks as well as the harsh realities of life both before and after emancipation. As cultural historian Elliott Gorn summarized in a 1984 article in American Quarterly:
For no apparent reason, ghosts drove people from their homes, spectral flames
shot out of the ground, ‘hants’ chased terrified blacks over the countryside.
These spirits lashed out fiercely, their motives beyond the realm of normal
human understanding. It should not surprise us that Afro-American folklore,
like that of other poor and oppressed peoples, sometimes expressed a
fatalistic, even paralyzing sense of insecurity. Life on the social and
economic margins of society gives individuals good reason to view their
environment as dangerous, chaotic, and out of control. Poverty, short life
expectancies, and feelings of powerlessness encouraged folklore filled
with pain and violence.
Perhaps Gladys-Marie Fry, in her book Night Riders in Black Folk History, exaggerated the extent to which whites reinforced these frightening supernatural landscapes as a means of social control. Occult traditions were not simply forced upon African Americans but were integral to their spiritual world beginning in colonial times. Nevertheless, dog ghost stories helped to encourage a realization of the dangers of nocturnal activity in the 19th and early 20th century South. One story in Brewer’s collection about “Uncle Henry” contains such an injunction. Forced to walk home in the dark after a delayed baseball game, Uncle Henry begins to see “all kinds of eyes shinin’ up at ‘im” from the railroad tracks. Eventually, a giant white dog with red eyes appears before him and chases him. Uncle Henry sprints home to Aunt Jenny and relates his spectral encounter, where he is informed that the ghost “was ‘jes some good Christun frien’ what done come back from de grave to bring you good luck an’ ‘tect you on de way home.” As Brewer’s informant relates, “De dawg sperrit didn’t meck Unkuh Henry stop goin’ to ball games, but he nevuh did stay ‘way from home attuh dark no mo’.”
If dog ghost lore has origins in earthly fears rooted in antebellum and postbellum black experience, then stories were also shaped by relations with dogs. Slave dogs provided numerous benefits for their owners, including companionship during hunting. Many masters allowed the practice until laws prohibiting dog ownership for slaves intensified in areas of the South just prior to the Civil War. Perhaps the substantial psychic bonds that developed help account for stories like those in Brewer’s collection, yet the use of the animals for slave patrols and chasing runaways are likely reasons why the canine was prone to be imbued with frightening otherworldly qualities well beyond emancipation. According to Mark Derr’s A Dog’s History of America, Will Glass recalled how his uncle in Alabama often tried to escape only to have the master’s dogs set on him. After being treed, the hounds were occasionally allowed to bite him for their reward. Glass’ uncle received his revenge one day by biting back, taking off a dog’s foot, much to the shock of his master.
During his journey through the South in the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmstead noted the existence of “[n-word] dogs” trained to hunt escaped blacks. As Derr summarizes,
He first encountered the dogs nears the Great Dismal Swamp along the border of
Virginia and North Carolina, extending from near the coast inland,
a favorite hiding place for fugitive slaves. Any breed would do, he found:
bloodhounds, foxhounds, bulldogs, curs, and crosses between Scotch staghounds
and foxhounds. Although some of these dogs may have been used to hunt
a variety of game in addition to slaves, most were specialists, trained from
puppyhood only to chase blacks. As puppies, according to Olmstead’s
informants, they were allowed to see a black person only when being trained
to catch him.
Hence ghost dogs in African American folklore are not simply shocking but otherwise friendly companions. They represent the horrors of the countryside and an oppressive system that often treated African Americans no differently from the beings that chased them. Fears both natural and supernatural were expressed in the many accounts of the creatures among blacks. Yet the tradition did not disappear following 20th-century migration out of the rural South. As I have argued elsewhere, black dogs made tracks to the city and can be found in turn-of-the-millennium representations of the urban ghetto. In 2001, “Snoop’s Devil Dogg” stalked Chicago as both supernatural revenant and hell hound.
Richard Ravalli teaches History at William Jessup University in California. His previous work on paranormal lore has appeared in Strange Magazine, Journal of Scientific Exploration, and Journal of American Culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook.