Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Composite Self: Some thoughts on being a practitioner-scholar

Although most of my scholarship has mentioned that I am an oungan, an initiated priest of Haitian Vodou, I am routinely surprised by how few of my colleagues register, or at least openly acknowledge, this fact.  Too often, I believe that this is because it never occurs to them that my initiation was inspired by sincere religious conviction, rather than undertaken to gain increased access to the culture I study.  I find this to be an especially ironic mischaracterization of my choice to initiate: since my initiation, there are in fact fewer things I feel comfortable addressing as a scholar, rather than more.  Whereas before, I could speculate about whatever I pleased, as an initiate, I will not write about any aspect of the tradition that is secret, or that involves privileged and proprietary information.

Until quite recently, the prevailing opinion was that practitioners of African and African diaspora traditions were ill-equipped to study their own faiths because they would be biased, and would therefore have clouded judgment.  The fact that it is not objectionable when Christians study Christianity or Jews study Judaism should alert us that such prejudices are informed by social Darwinist beliefs that rank the relative “evolution” of the world’s religions (and, by extension, peoples).  According to social Darwinism, monotheistic religions–with Protestant Christianity reigning chief among them–are seen as the most sophisticated religions.  Indigenous, polytheistic, magical, ancestral, and animist religions (religions largely of disenfranchised peoples) are said to reflect the lesser evolved states of their adherents.  Naturally, then, practitioners of African and African diaspora religions would be poorly suited to study their own religions–in fact, to study at all–because they de facto possess degenerate intellects.  Such beliefs are on the wane, but they have lasting, intergenerational effects.  I believe that one of the ways this still plays out is in the skepticism I regularly encounter that I could actually believe in Vodou.

Throughout my life, my academic pursuits have been shaped by my attempts to understand how I can best engage with, and live in, our world.  Not surprisingly, then, I became a scholar of Vodou as I was becoming an adherent.  As a convert to Vodou–and, perhaps more relevantly, a non-Haitian–I have found that my composite identity as a practitioner-scholar is reflective of the complicated negotiations that take place around my being at once an insider of, and outsider to, Vodou.  Vodou cosmology makes much of mirrors and mirroring, reflective of the way our world often presents us with things that seem to be at once this and that, themselves and their own contraries/complements.  Seen through a Vodou lens, my composite identity is yet another way that I engage with the mirror, by being both a scholar and practitioner, an insider and an outsider, the one who is doing and the one who is watching.  Opposite to what one might expect, I experience this twoness–this internal back-and-forth–as a gift.  In particular, it helps me to remain self-critical, and therefore humble, when I am speaking and acting on behalf of a tradition to which I have no natal claim, but in which–through the grace of both the spirits and my initiators–I have been afforded a place.

A friend who is an initiate of Ifá is required by her initiation to dress in ways that communicate, even to those who know little about it, that she is a practitioner of an African faith.  This is not the case for me, and while I don’t doubt that it is sometimes a heavy weight for my friend to bear, I admit to occasional pangs of jealousy that her role as a priestess is more often acknowledged by acquaintances than is my role as a priest.  At the same time, paradoxically, I value that the inconspicuousness of my initiation affords me opportunities to act almost like a secret agent.  Unfortunately, to some whites, my testimony about Vodou is more convincing expressly because it comes from another white person.  This presents a unique opportunity, even as I am bent on eroding the racism that creates this perverse dynamic in the first place.  Similarly, when I bring up the subjects of Haiti and Vodou, other Americans will sometimes respond with surprisingly unguarded, hurtful stereotypes because they believe they are talking “amongst themselves.”  Thus, I am sometimes given these chances to shift opinions, even as I am confronted with the reality of how much work remains to be done.

This kind of engaged scholarship is a spiritual discipline, and one of the principal expressions of my priesthood.  Words that disabuse people of hurtful stereotypes about Vodou and Haitians are, I submit, performing acts of spiritual healing.  There is a place for–indeed, a need for–scholar-priests.  Equally, through scholarly reading and writing, I am constantly learning and growing in my own faith, thus feeding my spirit and making the harder work possible.


Filed under Vodou

What’s in a name?

In my introduction, I took for granted that the name of the religion is “Haitian Vodou,” and “Vodouisant” what one calls an adherent.  However, the uses of these terms and other near-synonyms have long histories that deserve some attention.

To begin, the idea of separating out certain beliefs and activities into a category one calls “religion” is fairly unusual in the history of ideas.  The definition of religion as a unique thing set apart from the rest of one’s life–so distinct, in fact, that it can be separated from other kinds of activities–is largely a European idea with roots in the Enlightenment.  This is, by itself, neither good nor bad.  However, it is simply worth noting that, for many people, past and present, it is a peculiar concept.  By extension, if you don’t see your religious activities as separate from everything else you do–and moreover, you have no interest in attracting converts–you probably have little need to give a name to what you believe and do.

In the case of the religion now commonly called Haitian Vodou, the term “Vodou” (or “Voodoo,” “Vaudou,” “Voudou,” “Vodun,” etc.) has a long history of use by Europeans and Americans.  Typically, the word has been used by outside observers who sought to denigrate the worship practices of Africans and their American descendants.  These were frequently seen as akin to witchcraft, sorcery, superstition, Satanism, and idolatry.  While the Atlantic slave trade was foremost about profit for Europeans, it was often conducted under the pretense of bringing Christianity to supposedly benighted Africans.  Beliefs described as Vodou/voodoo, sorcery, witchcraft, obeah, and conjure were high on the list to be stamped out–ostensibly for religious reasons, but more realistically because they were suspected of having revolutionary potential.

As it turned out, they were right.  From 1791 to 1804, the inhabitants of present-day Haiti, the majority of whom had been born in west central Africa, fought a long and eventually successful war to gain their freedom from France and be recognized as equal before the law.  Both oral and written accounts of the Revolution support the hypothesis that African-derived religious beliefs (including Islam and Kongolese Christianity) were crucial to sustaining Haitians during their long struggle for manumission and independence.

For many Europeans and Americans, the Haitian Revolution was their darkest nightmare sprung to life, violent delights come to violent ends.  As the suspected catalyst for the Revolution, Vodou was envisioned by its “cultured despisers” to be peopled with all the fiends of hell.  It is ultimately owing to racist, pro-slavery propaganda that Vodou came to be one of the most despised and misrepresented religions in the world, even down to the present day.

Within Haiti, the term “Vodou” was not, until the twentieth century, commonly used to describe the religion as a whole, but only a particular rite and its related dances and drum rhythms.  It was Haitian intelligentsia and foreign scholars who first began to speak of “Vodou” and “Haitian Vodou” as descriptors for the religion itself, for reasons that frankly remain unclear.  In time, the term became popular with Haitians, who now largely agree that this is an acceptable name, even if one with a heavy history.  However, the term presents at least a few challenges:

  1. The term has a great deal of negative propaganda stacked against it.
  2. It is confusingly similar to the term “voodoo,” common in the American South, as well as the use of “Voodoo” or “Vodun” as a name for African indigenous beliefs in West Africa.  Thus it requires the disambiguating term “Haitian.”
  3. By having the same name as the indigenous religion of the Fon/Ewe region of West Africa (especially Togo and Benin), it misleadingly suggests that Haitian Vodou is derived directly from this religion, which is not true.  If anything, Haitian Vodou is as much or more influenced by eighteenth century West Central African beliefs (notably, those of Kongo and Angola).

In fact, Haitian Vodou does have an internal name, Sèvis Ginen (Service to Ginen), corresponding to the closest thing one will find in Vodou to an affirmation of faith, the often employed phrase, “Mwen sèvi Ginen” (“I serve Ginen”).  The word Ginen (alternately called Gine, nan Ginen, peyi Ginen, Lafrik Ginen, etc.) can be literally translated as “Africa.”  The word owes obvious debt to the French word Guinée—the name for the region, the so-called Guinea Coast, from which numerous Africans were deported to St. Domingue (present-day Haiti) as slaves during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  However, in the context of Vodou cosmology, the Africa of Ginen is different from the continent presently identified by that name, for which a different Kreyòl word, Afrik or Lafrik, is used.  Rather, Ginen is the home of the spirits, a forested island residing simultaneously at the bottom of the cosmic waters (anba dlo) and at the backs of mirrors (do miwa).  As a living and accessible mythic past of ancestors, heroes and divine spirits, Ginen serves as a vouchsafe for matters of religious practices and belief.

To say that one serves Ginen it to say that one serves the ancestors and spirits that are perceived to come from, and continue to exist in, Ginen.  This mythical present-past is a source of limitless spiritual power, in large part because it is seen as the true source of authentic, which is to say right, religious practice—of konesans (spiritual wisdom) and règleman (ritual knowledge).  At the same time that Ginen is a past and an eternal present, Ginen is also a sacred future, a place which is longed for, and which one hopes to see someday.  All Vodouisants hope eventually to become holy spirits that can dwell in the utopian world of Ginen.  For these reasons, Ginen is in some respects comparable to the Christian idea of heaven, the New Jerusalem of the Revelation of St. John, Augustine’s City of God, Aztlan of the Aztecs, and the Dreaming of Aboriginal Australians.

The term Sèvis Ginen has obvious appeal, first, because it has no immediate associations with a campaign of fear and denigration.  Additionally, by emphasizing a verb–to serve–it signals that Sèvis Ginen is not a static set of shared beliefs but an active way of engaging in shared, family- and community-sustaining practices.  More than being a religion in the Enlightenment sense, Sèvis Ginen is a way of living.  The term for someone who practices this way of life is sèvitè, literally, one who serves.  Unfortunately, this has no appealing direct translation into English.  “Servitor,” while functional, is ugly, and “servant” has undesirable connotations.

While I advocate for using the term Sèvis Ginen when possible, it is inevitable that one will often have to use the name Haitian Vodou.  As mentioned earlier, it has been widely adopted by both insiders and outsiders of the tradition, and is recognizable in a way that the term Sèvis Ginen is not.  For what it is worth, I do think that the term Haitian Vodou has several positive aspects.

  1. It signals a uniquely Haitian contribution to the world’s great religions, and emphasizes that it cannot and should not be disentangled from its deep rootedness in Haitian culture and history.
  2. By correcting the record about Vodou, one contributes to a slow erosion of centuries of racist beliefs that have rallied around the abuse of this term.
  3. The choice to spell the word as “Vodou,” the official Haitian Kreyòl spelling, acknowledges the right of the Haitian people to shape their own language.

Regarding names, I am only unyielding in my refusal to use the English word Vodouist, which I find too evocative of Hollywood stereotypes.  Instead, I prefer the term Vodouisant–or Vodouwizan, in Kreyòl–as the name for an adherent of Vodou.  In addition to being prettier, it seems to hold fewer negative connotations (at least for native English speakers), and is widely preferred by Kreyòl speakers.

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Nan Ginen, nan Ginen o, nan Ginen!
Si w pa rele Ginen, solèy a pa leve. . .

(In Ginen, in Ginen o, in Ginen!
If you don’t call Ginen, the sun won’t rise. . .)

 In Vodou, all things begin and end with song, so it seems fitting to start like this.  These lines are from a song that speaks of Ginen, the home of the lwa, the holy spirits of Vodou.  Here, the singer announces that the ancestral and divine power of Ginen is so necessary for life that, without it, nature will abandon its course and the sun will fail to rise.

I felt urged to start this blog because, while my job is to produce information about Haitian Vodou, the requirements of the Academy–ranging from the kind of language one uses, to the places one publishes–make that work nearly inaccessible to Vodouisants themselves.  This blog is an attempt to make my work broadly available both to Vodouisants and to well-meaning others who may wish to know more about this faith tradition.  In the process, I hope that it will inspire robust conversations among Vodouisants about the issues I am raising.  At the same time, this blog is an attempt to be accountable to Vodouisants for representing their religious lives in a way that is honest, recognizable, and sensitive to anxieties that have arisen from a long history of being misrepresented.

As a scholar, I write about a wide range of topics relating to Haitian Vodou.  My work especially focuses on the way that Ginen–a mystical place with deep ties to ancestral Africa–figures centrally in the lives of Vodou practitioners.  I also write about the importance of dreams in Vodou, and the damaging effects of pop culture images of “voodoo.”

In addition to being a scholar of Vodou, I am also an initiated priest.  In 2007, I was made oungan asogwe by Manbo Marie Maude Charles Evans, lineage head of Sosyete Nago.  When this happened, I became the adopted bearer of a remarkable and long tradition of Vodou that Manbo Maude received from both her mother and father–as well as from her initiatory mother, the celebrated diviner Selide Bo Manbo (Mme. Maurice Sixto, Miracea Zephyr).

Some of the first entries in this blog will explore what it means to be both a scholar and a practitioner of Haitian Vodou, as well as a convert to the tradition.  I hope that, through comments and emails, this will turn into a conversation about what is gained by not taking such identities for granted–including what it even means to call the religion “Haitian Vodou.”

Thank you for sharing your time with me, and I hope that you will continue to read and comment on this blog.


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