So, you’re standing alone in a cemetery as the sun is rising behind you. Suddenly, you hear someone say, “Hey, could you move?” You step to one side and turn to look around, but you see no one. You turn the other way and look around. Again, you see no one. Then you hear someone say, “At least you could quit standing on my toe, Dammit!” You look down and realize you are at the foot of a burial plot in an old African American cemetery.
QUESTION: Which way do you run?
A: North, because the Resurrection Men only worked in the South. if you saw them about to rob a grave, they’d kill you and sell your body to a medical school.
B: South, because you don’t have time to read the constellations in the sky, find the Little Dipper, and locate the North Star to guide you north. You have to haul ass!
C: East, because if a Haint follows you, the rising sun would destroy it.
D: West, because heading east would mean you’ll be greeted by Gabriel blowing his horn to welcome you and all the recently deceased souls into Heaven.
A: Yes, you could run north. If you did, you might come across Resurrection Men robbing a grave. But only if you were in the 17th to early 20th centuries when the number of cadavers needed to teach anatomy boomed with the increase in medical schools. The supply of cadavers of executed criminals, insane patients, and people too poor to afford a grave was quickly exhausted by the demand. These men operated at night and supplied bodies to medical schools from New England to Missouri, and Texas to Florida. No one believes this practice still occurs because laws were enacted to prohibit it and the modern idea of donating bodies to science filled the need. Unfortunately, many of the stolen bodies came from African American cemeteries which were on the outskirts of towns or were less well protected. Because medical students were among the Resurrection Men, their white coats gave rise to another term, Night Doctor. Because black people venerated their dead, they feared having their bodies desecrated by the Night Doctor. Black fears of a white-coated man were used by slave owners and Klansmen. A white-robed man in the dark scared slaves from escaping plantations as much as it scared free blacks from venturing out at night.
B: Yes, you could, but not because you couldn’t read the constellations. While the North Star does point true north, who has time to worry about that when you’re running from an angry ghost?
C: Sure you can, but make sure you read D before you choose. African American (particularly Gullah Geechee) folklore includes belief in the dreaded Haint. A haint is an evil spirit (of a ghost or evil person) that needs a human body to inhabit during the day or it would be destroyed by the sun’s rays. But after the sun sets, haints are free to travel outside a human host in the darkness. After their carousing, however, they must return to the safety of a human body before sunrise. It is believed that haints can be kept from entering a home by leaving something with many many small parts in front of entrances. A broom, brush, or even salt or rice would do. This is because haints are naturally drawn to count each individual bristle or grain. That counting distracts them all night. They can also be repelled by Haint Blue paint which is painted on porches or shutters throughout the South. But to truly rid yourself of the offending haint, you must capture it. How do you do this? Tradition holds that if a haint can’t find a human host before sunrise, it will find refuge in a bottle. Because bottles represent such a safe haven to haints, Haint Bottle Trees are seen in front yards throughout the South. The bottles are preferably blue. Once a haint enters a bottle, it is trapped there. When the sun rises, haints are destroyed by the sunlight.
D: Definitely, but . . .African American burial tradition holds that graves are aligned such that the headstone is at the western end of the plot. This way, spirits of the recently deceased sit up to face east, where they will see Gabriel blowing his horn welcoming them into Heaven. So, now you should rethink heading east!