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.