Thursday, March 17, 2016

Positive Connotations Of Crows & Vultures (Buzzards) In 18th century & 19th century Jamaica & Black American Cultures

Edited by Azizi Powell

In the United States and other Western cultures, crows and vultures are rarely considered positive symbols. However, in some African nations and elsewhere in the world vultures had and/or still have spiritual and/or positive connotations.

This post presents some examples of spiritual or otherwise positive connotations of vultures (buzzards) and/or crows among people of African descent in 18th century and 19th century Jamaica and the United States. I believe that it's likely that those New World representations of buzzards or crows were greatly influenced by the West African positive/spiritual connotations of vultures & crows.

The Addendum to this post presents some information about the King Buzzard folktales, a negative folkloric depiction of the buzzard (vulture).

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Regarding the spiritual/positive connotations of vultures (buzzards) and crows among 18th and 19th century Jamaicans and Black Americans, here's a quote from a pancocojams series on the symbolism of vultures in Africa:
Quote from Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou by Sandra M. Grayson (University Press of America, 2000), Page 36 [Google books]
"Among the Akan, the scarab and the vulture symbolize self-begetting, self-creation, and self-birth. An Akan maxim says of Odomankoma [the infinite, the interminable, absolute being], ‘The animal that symbolizes Odomankoma who created the world is the vulture.’ “Odomankoma a oboadee ne kyeneboa ne opete. (Meyerowitz . The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt. See also Danquan, The Akan Doctrine of God".
Click for Part I of a three part pancocojams series on spiritual and/or positive symbolism of vultures or crows in certain traditional African cultures. Part I of that series focuses on the Akan culture of Ghana & The Ivory Coast. Part II of that series focuses on the Yoruba culture and Edo culture of Nigeria. Part III focuses on aspects of ancient Egypt mythology. The links to the other posts in that series are found there.

In Jamaica "John Crow" (the turkey vulture) has been associated with death and ugliness for a very long time. However, death hasn't always been viewed negatively. Here are some quotes from a few online sources that I've come across. Numbers are assigned for referencing purposes only.
Excerpt #1:
From Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing By Mark Knowles
"Anthropologist Melvin Herkovits suggests that the name of the John Canoe dance is derived from the Ashanti people of Africa and is a reference for the yankoro or buzzard. In the United States the climax of the John Canoe included a buck dance known as the buzzard lope" [page 32].*
"The Ashanti is the major indigenous tribe of the Akans in Ghana" []
*Hat tip to slam2011 for alerting me to this quote.

Information about the buzzard lope is included in the Black American section of this post.

Excerpt #2
[Quoted in]
From Extracts from the 'Jamaica Journal' - "Plants, Spirits and the meaning of 'John' in Jamaica ; Published: Sunday | May 17, 2009, John Rashford, Contributor
“The word 'John' appears 33 times in the Dictionary of Jamaican English as a generic term in the compound common names of people, birds, plants and other objects. This paper will show that objects named 'John' are often associated in Jamaica with the world of spirits.

I will focus on the vine Abrus precatorious, which Jamaicans call John Crow Bead, and it links - by virtue of John as a generic term - to the Christmas dancing in Jamaica called John Canoe (also spelled Jonkonnu) and to the vulture called John Crow (Cathartes aura). This paper suggests that the dance, the bird and the plant all have the name John because of their relationship to the world of spirits and spirit possession.

Practice of obeah

It shows that John Canoe, who is the chief dancer of a troupe of dancers, is the spirit person or obeahman (variously described as a witch doctor, magician, jumbie-man or sorcerer) and both the John Crow and the John Crow Bead are associated with death and with materials used in the practice of obeah.

In the Caribbean, the common names for Abrus precatorious point to its association with the spirit world and suggests that John as one of the generic terms in its compound common names is an expression of this association. The link is made by the fact that in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the plant is known as Jumbie Bead, and in some places, as, for example, the Virgin Islands, it is also called Devil Bead (Williams (jumbi, jumby, jumbee, jumbay, jamby) or zombie are just different terms for spirits. These terms are more widely used in the eastern Caribbean than in Jamaica (Cassidy 1971, Beckwith 1929)."

Excerpt #3:
This quote is included in
New York Times April 11, 1886

..."negroes are so constituted that they must have something tangible to worship and believe in-something they can see and feel....

They are wonderfully fond of stuffed figures. Nearly all their ceremonies have a figure worked in in some shape or the other. For instance, look at “John Canoes”. They rarely have a festival without a John Canoe, the stuffed figure of a man, that is treated with great respect. Sometimes they have two of them, which they consider father and son – John Canoe senior and John Canoe junior. If John is by any possibility left out Aunt Sally is substituted. She is the same as John, only, being a woman, she is not treated with the same respect. She is carried to the place of merry making, laid out on a board, like a corpse, amid cries of “Here comes Aunt Sally; poor Aunt Sally! she’s dead. They take" [end of online article]

Excerpt #4: [added February 22, 2017]
From A Glossary of Lucumi Words and Ideas
"Ibu Kolé – A road, or manifestation, of Ochun. Ibu Kolé is the vulture, a peacock whose feathers were burned away carrying the prayers of the dying world to God/the Sun. In this road, Ochun is a sorceress."

From Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou by Sandra M. Grayson (University Press of America, 2000), Page 36 [Google books]
Notes from page 36 of that book:
6. "After Nunu was killed later in the film [Haile Geima’s Sankofa] no one could find her body. Shola says that the people believed that Nunu did not die; rather that a buzzard swopped down and took her back to Africa.
7. Opete is the Akan word for vulture."
Here's information about the film Sankofa from
"Sankofa is a 1993 Burkinabé drama film directed by Haile Gerima centered on the Atlantic slave trade. The storyline features Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Kofi Ghanaba, Mutabaruka, Alexandra Duah and Afemo Omilami. The word Sankofa derives its meaning from the Ghanaian Akan language which means to “go back, look for, and gain wisdom, power and hope,” according to Dr. Anna Julia Cooper.[1] The word Sankofa stresses the importance of one not drifting too far away from one’s past in order to progress in the future. In the film, Sankofa is depicted by a bird and the chants and drumming of a Divine Drummer.[2] Gerima’s film showed the importance of not having people of African decent drift far away from their African roots. Gerima used the journey of the character Mona to show how the African perception of identity included recognizing one’s roots and “returning to one’s source” (Gerima)...

Nunu .... is an African-born field hand who went about her day-to-day life with Africa still living in her heart and was characterized as a “strong motherly slave with a rebel mindset.”

Editor's note: Initially when I learned about the enslaved Black American dance "The Buzzard Lope" I thought was a dance that had no meaning other than people imitating the movement of buzzards (vultures). However, it's clear from careful reading about "The Buzzard Lope" that it was considered to be more than a social dance. Here's a video of a re- enactment of the the Buzzard Lope as well as some explanations of that dance.

Throw Me Anywhere Lord

Uploaded by mediageneration on Dec 12, 2009

Georgia Sea Island Singers from the DVD- The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes- available from

Here's a comment from that video's uploader:
"The dance is called the Buzzard Lope, and John Davis is the buzzard circling the carrion and picking it up at the end of the song."
-mediageneration; 2010

Click The Films Of Bess Lomax Hawes "Buzzard Lope" page 8 of 34 for notes to this song and video. Those notes include considerable information about how the Buzzard dance is performed and the possible origin of that dance among the Ashanti-Fanti people of Ghana where the vulture is a sacred messenger to the gods. Among the information included in those notes is the statement that the dancer wanted to wear his suit coat because it would show the flapping of his wings better. However, not understanding this, the film producer [Bess Lomax Hawes] told him to take off his coat since he hadn't worn it for any other segments of the film.

My interpretation of the lyrics "Throw me anywhere, Lord" is that this statement wasn't directed to the Lord (meaning the person didn't mean for the Lord to throw him or her anywhere.) Instead, I believe that the word "Lord" was used at the end of the line in a similar manner as the phrases "my Lord" or "Yes Lord".

From Sep 1998, Barry Finn
[Regarding the song "Throw Me Anywhere, Lord":
"From the Georgia Sea Islands comes a song from slave times on the Plantations, when the slaves were discarded after falling down on the job....

Common enough in the West Indies, such miming dances are rare in America. The song tells of a time the slave was not properly buried when he died but was simply cast out in a field"...

Lydia Parrish also collected & reported of the dance the Buzzard Lope in her "Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands". She says "This group used an old religious song with narrative lines of a suitable character. In ante-bellum days the slaves called the graveyard 'the ole field'". The song being close to what's already been given, called "Throw Me Anywhere". She also has another song "In That old Field" sung in a minor key that she relates to a dance but doesn't connect this to any dance in particular much less the Buzzard Lope even though it's clearly related to the others already given. She does mention the song being of a spiritual or religious nature but not the dance itself."

"The Buzzard Lope (1880s)
The Buzzard Lope was similar to the more modern Eagle Rock Dance and was very popular in the South and most likely related to the W. African Buzzard dance. Sunbury Georgia was the first discovery of this dance but may not have originated there.

The Buzzard Lope used outstretched arms like a bird and consisted of a shuffle step and a little buzzard like hop. The dance is said to be similar to the West African Buzzard Dance. It's original form is representing a Turkey Buzzard getting ready to eat a dead Mule (some report a Cow). Many people in the sidelines watching the dance would do a 'Patting', or make a rhythm by slapping (patting) their thighs, etc. while someone would call out the cues."
I'm not sure what that 1880s writer meant by "West African Buzzard dance". However, here's a quote that mentions a buzzard dance in Dahomey (now known as Benin):
"The Buzzard Lope had been known to song-collector Lydia Parrish since 1915. M. J. Herskovits told her that he had seen a similar dance done in Dahomey." quoted in 25 Nov 06 - 04:01 PM Azizi and 25 Nov 06 - 03:53 PM Azizi
That quote includes Lydia Parrish's description of the Buzzard Lope dance that she observed in the Georgia Sea Islands.

UPDATE: March 22, 2016
Here's a passage from the 1972 Georgia Sea Isle [Gullah] book Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs & Stories from the Afro-American Heritage by Bess Lomax Hawes and Bessie Jones. That passage describes a ring shout movement called "Eagle Wing" which is described as being the same as "the buzzard lope"
"EAGLE WING: Arms bent at elbows are flapped slightly by rotating the shoulders joints in parallel motion. This is the same step as the secular "buzzard lope" motion."
That passage is included in

Although the buzzard (vulture; crow) had spiritual connotations in certain African nations, and may have been depicted as a spiritual figure in some Jamaican and African American folk cultural forms, there's no question that for a long time the negative connotations of the buzzard (vulture, crow) have outweighed any positive connotations of those birds. Folktales about King Buzzard are foremost among Black Americans' negative depictions of these birds.
From The Buzzard In African American Folklore
"King Buzzard, an African king, was condemned to travel alone through the world as a buzzard for betraying his own and other people into slavery. When Africans enslaved other Africans, they did not view themselves as betraying their own people. They would have regarded themselves as Aro or Asante or Wolof selling Igbo or Akan or Malinke. Folktales like the one about the King Buzzard, created in America to explain the origin of African slaves, gave to these different people a common origin on the distant continent." This account comes from Robert J. Allison, in "The Origins of African-American Culture," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 30/3 (1999): 475-481."
Click for one version of the King Buzzard folktale.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. I believe that in the United States, in Jamaica, and in other nations the black color of vultures (buzzards) and crows' black color is central to why those birds are considered ugly.

    However, considering the color black ugly is a cultural notion and not something intrinsic to that color.

    Here's a quote about the meanings of the color black and the color white in Ghanaian and The Ivory Coast kente cloth:
    "BLACK derives its significance from the notion that new things get darker as they mature; and physical aging comes with spiritual maturity. The Akans blacken most of their ritual objects to increase their spiritual potency. Black symbolizes an intensified spiritual energy, communion with the ancestral spirits, antiquity, spiritual maturity and spiritual potency."

    "WHITE derives its symbolism from the white part of the egg and from white clay used in spiritual purification, healing, sanctification rites and festive occasions. In some situations it symbolizes contact with ancestral spirits, deities and other unknown spiritual entities such as ghosts. it is used in combination with black, green or yellow to express notion, spirituality, vitality and balance."
    A post on color meanings in kente cloth will be published asap and its link will be added in the comment section of this post.