It dangled from a branch for days, wrapped with bright ribbons and studded with large nails and oversize safety pins.
It weathered and hardened from gray-black to a leathery brown. From a distance, as professionals and students walked past the tree at the west end of Palmer Square Park to trains and buses each morning, it could have been mistaken for a hanging length of bark. But within 10 feet, it was clearly something else: a footlong tongue.
Why was a tongue, likely a cow’s, so carefully disfigured and displayed near the luxury apartments and condominiums in rapidly gentrifying Logan Square? In a neighborhood that’s now home to loads of 20-something hipsters, it could be an elaborate performance art piece or a joke.
But Logan Square and nearby Humboldt Park have much longer histories as working-class enclaves filled with first- and second-generation immigrants, so another possibility presents itself.
Tongues have long played roles in Afro-Caribbean religions like Santeria. The symbolic engine of speech, a tongue can be used in many such faiths to try to get someone to remain silent, according to Lisa Poirier, an assistant professor of religious studies at DePaul University.
“Often it has to do with a court case,” Poirier said. “You can take a tongue and bind it up to get someone to shut up.”
Are Santerians joining the fight against gentrification? Was the tongue just there to get the hipsters to shut up, for maybe five effin minutes, about the latest greatest cable series?
More likely it’s a personal dispute involving gossip or snitching. But there’s no fun in that.
Such practices flourished for centuries among enslaved populations in North and South America and the Caribbean who didn’t believe police and judges would treat them fairly, Poirier said.
“They had to find these religio-magical ways to bring about the ends they sought,” she said. “You could put a name on a piece of paper and put it inside the tongue, then seal it in with pins, but you wouldn’t necessarily need to do that,” she said. “You could just have someone’s name in your mind as you dealt with the tongue, bound it up.
“The logic is clear,” she added. “There’s a clear connection between the tongue and speech, and you can find the things you need in an urban setting like Chicago. Cow tongues are easily available.”
I can get you a toe, Dude. I can get you a toe this afternoon.
The clear “logic” is actually homeopathic magic, attempting to influence events or control people through mimicry–here the ritual tying up of the cow tongue ties the tongue of the target by the law of similarity.
Of course, all roads now lead to racial justice, so the stubbornly benighted nature of blacks and browns is–need I say it?–the fault of white laws.
Poirier said that despite the shocking appearance, it’s not that out of the ordinary, even today. “It’s sort of widespread throughout the Americas,” she said. “It speaks to the fact there are still people who feel they won’t get a fair shake in the justice system.”
It remains to be seen how much more normalization of voodoo and superstition will be necessitated by our new diversity. The expectation that it will wither away over generations, which would have been taken for granted, probably can’t be articulated without controversy now. Now the expectation is that we’ll bring any new religion or culture into the “mosaic” of American diversity, unaltered and celebrated as Vibrant! Make a little room, Lutheranism, there’s another brotherhood of faith here.
The practitioners of voodoo may have magic on their side, but up against real estate equity they haven’t a chance. It’s only a matter of time. The shocked reaction of suburban Americans to the witch doctors and others displaced by gentrification in their midst will provide plenty of grist for the anti-racism mill–from the same poseurs who displaced the diversitypes in the first place. How dare those losers not tolerate this tradition that’s every bit as venerable as any other?
Walking near Palmer Square Park while the tongue was still in place, local resident Marina Goldshteyn noted the area’s shifting demographics.
“I know the neighborhood is changing a lot, but it hasn’t entirely,” she said. The cow tongue, however, is no more. A Chicago Park District worker noticed the tongue and cut it down earlier this week.