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.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “A Composite Self: Some thoughts on being a practitioner-scholar

  1. Wonderfully reflexive and thoughtful, Adam! Indeed, there is a place and an absolute need for those of us who approach these traditions from the emic perspective. Keep up the good work!

  2. cheshirecatman

    I very much agree about the ranking of religion, which is ironic as many of the “lower” religions predate the major monotheistic ones.

    • Thanks for following and commenting! Regarding the idea that such religions are supposedly older, that was precisely the point: The idea was that polytheistic and animist religions were like glimpses into the past, revealing to us information about the origins of religion. Their present-day practitioners were people who were stuck in the past, and therefore less evolved. We now know that this is a completely erroneous view about the development of religion, and that present-day polytheistic, animist, etc. religions are as modern as any other religion–all of which are constantly being adapted to the needs of their adherents.

  3. “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.”

    This is an issue that academics in religion and anthropology have been thinking about and talking about for years in various permutations so it surprises me to see that it remains a point of controversy. Nevertheless, weren’t most of the important books on African diaspora religions in the academy in the last quarter-century written by scholar-practitioners? Far more interesting to me, and problematic, is the racialization of academic writing on diaspora religions. It’s an explicitly political issue, and I think that the “two-ness” that you (with a hat tip to DuBois) write about is indeed a gift, but only perhaps because it can be reconciled, and perhaps destabilized (ironically) by the assertion of white male privilege in those contexts where it matters the most.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Yvonne. I think one can still see these issues playing out in a number of different setting, academically and politically. Lawrence Harrison’s recent book and WSJ op-ed are great examples of this: Harrison argues that Haitians are obliged to abandon their beliefs, which he describes as inimical to progress, if they wish to become fully modern (Harrison clearly supposes that they are not already).

      The uncertainty about how many scholars of diaspora religions are also practitioners in certain respects supports my point. I can say anecdotally that I have talked with many who are, but are nervous about saying so too publicly. As I say, it is changing, but not uniformly everywhere and all at once.

      I’m not sure I grasp your second point. Perhaps you can say more about what you mean by “the racialization of academic writing” and what you mean by its reconciliation by the assertion of white male privilege. If I understand you, I believe a better word for what you have in mind is “overruled,” which I don’t think any scholar should have as a goal.

  4. Well, I don’t know whether Harrison or any of those neo-Weberians would object to the kind of “engaged scholarship” on Haitian Vodou that you are arguing for, but my point has more to do with the notion that historically there has been a uneasy tension between academics of religions and those scholars of religions (non-theologians) who are also practitioners of the religions-that-they-also-study, which seems to take on a particularly negative valence when you consider scholars in the field of African diaspora religions. But this has to do with race in every respect! The “reconciling” of racial privilege for [white] academic writers on diaspora religions has more to do with the tradeoff that comes with being able to assert an authority position “from within” a culture, or any culture of which one is an outsider, and the authority to speak “to power” on behalf of others within those cultures. That’s privilege, is it not? Are you not claiming to speak for the subaltern?

    • I wasn’t questioning that race is extremely relevant. You were just more circumspect last time, so I wasn’t sure I understood the precise point you were making. I appreciate that this time you were quite direct.

      I can’t comment on what others are doing. For my part, I am making efforts in my scholarship to speak with Vodouisants rather than on behalf of them. There are a number of ways I try to accomplish this, whether it is working behind the scenes to facilitate events, having what I write approved by my spiritual mother, or working collaboratively with her and other Haitian Vodouisants. This blog is also an attempt to make my scholarship into a conversation with the Vodou community, rather than a unidirectional act.

      Your read is a provocative reminder, though, of how easily such a dynamic can slide into replicating colonialist dynamics if one relaxes one’s self-policing for even a moment.

  5. One of the most interesting reactions from an academic that I have ever experienced was from someone in my own department. While my own dissertation chair was very supportive, and I was initiated into Palo during my dissertation research (in fact my path toward, through, and beyond initiation coincided with and was my fieldwork), when the fact that I had experienced possession and had written about it become known, I could see the look that said, “contagion” in the eyes of at least one faculty member. I think Yvonne is correct in suggesting that much pivots on the point of race, or at least ethnicity, as attempting to essentialize racial experience across international and more importantly intercultural borders in the diaspora is at the very least, problematic.

    There is another aspect to this for you however, that did not figure in the equation for me when I did my doctoral research. There was no issue of a non-Cuban Palo community vs. a Cuban one. Few non-Cuban latinos in the US were Paleros at that time, and no predominantly non-Cuban Palo community existed, much less non-latino ones. I am not certain where I am leading with this, as I honestly have not yet unpacked the conflicting issues that surround the non-Haitian Vodou community for me. I will note that many of those issues align with questions of both cultural continuity and translation. The biggest of these is that in Afro-Caribbean as in African cultures, religion is not easily separated from the rest of human experience and activities. This is definitely not typical of Anglophone experience.

    I do not wish to take any position on these issues, as I am still wrestling with a number of them, including the residual ghosts of “authenticity.” However, I do think there will be challenges for you.

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