Category Archives: Vodou

On “The Miami Zombie” and popular representations of Vodou/voodoo

Representations of Vodou have been important fixtures in Western popular culture since at least the 18th century.  Such representations served on a number of fronts during slavery.  First, slavery was marketed in part as a soul-saving venture, so falsified depictions of Vodou as degenerate superstition served as propaganda for the Christianization of Africans.  Additionally, portrayals of Africans and blacks as reduced to a bestial state by Vodou practices allowed writers to argue that they lacked civilization–perhaps were not even entirely human–and therefore slavery was no great crime.  As the 18th century progressed, black religiosity, and Vodou most of all, became a tremendous source of anxiety as it was feared to possess revolutionary potential, a suspicion that was proven correct by the Haitian Revolution.  Afterwards, attempts to crush Afro-American religiosity redoubled throughout the Americas.

Subsequent centuries have seen the continued villainization of Vodou.  During the twentieth century, Vodou became a regular feature in novels, particular horror novels, and was embraced by the new medium of film.  Vodou has been a feature in literally hundreds of films and television shows.  These films have been made by people of almost every imaginable nationality, in numerous languages.  Yet almost all have been aimed at evoking fear and revulsion.

These films, novels, and television shows have, in essence, invented an entirely imaginary religion which I call “imagined voodoo.”  Imagined voodoo has proven to be so compelling to its audience that many people now believe that it actually exists.  This imagined religion of voodoo frequently appears in the news, and in every imaginable pop culture product, ranging from toys to beers.  It is partly the focus of a many-million dollar tourism campaign for the city of New Orleans.  Beneath its entertaining surface, imagined voodoo serves numerous purposes, of which these are but a few:

  • Imagined voodoo allows people to express racial anxiety–especially about the presence of blacks in America–while appearing to do something else, thus avoiding the charge of racism (perhaps most especially disguising it from themselves).
  • It allows for the continued denigration of Haiti and Haitian culture as barbaric, uncivilized, in the thrall of demonic powers.  This is a way of continuing to punish Haitians for being the only people in the hemisphere to successfully free themselves from slavery.  Through supposed affinity, this denigration often extends, in varying degrees, to all circum-Atlantic black cultures.
  • Imagined voodoo provides an opportunity to continue to present blacks as hypersexualized–as well as whites (race traitors) who are under the spell of imagined voodoo (a.k.a. black culture).  Furthermore, this sexuality is not only heightened but prone to turn violent:  Most of the crimes that are attributed to voodoo–whether in fiction or in real news media–tend to be of a sadomasochistic, psychosexual nature.
  • Stories of imagined voodoo allow racial anxieties to be displaced.  Rather than depicting the reality that blacks have been, and continue to be, horrendously mistreated by whites, imagined voodoo suggests that blacks possess occult power that they are eager to use against whites.  Whites are almost always the victims of imagined voodoo, blacks (or racially ambiguous people) almost always the perpetrators.

For the most part, imagined voodoo remains largely in the domain of fiction.  However, imagined voodoo sometimes crosses over into real life, confounding categories between what is real and what is imagined–and in so doing, arguably fulfilling its destiny.  Here is a recent example.

In Miami on Saturday, May 26, a Haitian-American named Rudy Eugene, likely high on the drug known as “bath salts,” violently attacked a homeless man named Ronald Poppo, gnawing at the victim’s face for nearly 20 minutes before being fatally shot by Miami Police.  When the story first broke, it was briefly pitched by the news as a cautionary tale of drug use, particularly the use of “bath salts,” a synthetic amphetamine known to provoke transient (or sometimes permanent) psychosis, extreme violence, insensitivity to pain, and extraordinary physical strength.

However, in subsequent days, a more sensational angle was picked up, with the story being dubbed “The Miami Zombie.”  Posts began to circulate on the internet claiming the attack as a sign of the so-called zombie apocalypse.  And then, as if by magic, the news story transformed into the plot of a zombie movie.  The anonymous homeless victim became a real person with an improbable story: former brainiac tormented by decades of alcoholism.  Ubiquitous side-by-side mugshots of Eugene and Poppo, found as the header of nearly every news story, emphasized that the victim was white and the perpetrator black.  The nudity of the attacker was accentuated, and the fact that he first stripped the victim before gnawing his flesh, intimating unsavory sexual undertones.  No longer did Eugene simply gnaw at the victim’s face; he was a “cannibal.”  The security footage was released so all of America could watch a real-life zombie snuff film.   Eugene’s Haitianness was played up.  And finally, Eugene’s girlfriend came forward with the dramatic accusation that her boyfriend was suffering from a voodoo curse.  She insists that Eugene was a good Christian who left the house that morning carrying his Bible, and was either drugged or cursed by as-yet-unnamed voodooists.  There is no explanation for why Eugene would have been targeted for a voodoo curse, but in some ways his innocence makes for an even better story of evil preying upon good, if flawed, people.  When (I say when) the story is turned into a Hollywood film, the Tampa Bay Times already wrote the tagline that will appear on the poster:  “She has never believed in voodoo, until now.”

So the story came to highlight many major elements long associated with voodoo: curses, cannibalism, zombies, perverse sex acts, nudity, black-on-white violence, mind control, etc. etc. etc.

Allow me to say that I feel very sad for Eugene’s girlfriend.  No one wants to be the woman on the news insisting that her lover was not a monster.  She is in a horrible situation, and I understand why she feels the need to propose a narrative, however improbable, that explains how the person she knew and the person who ate a man’s face are somehow the same person.  However–and it is a weighty however–if she were pointing the finger at any religion other than Vodou/voodoo, the headlines would be very different.  For example, if the media interviewed a grieving girlfriend of a man who had committed a heinous crime, and she said, “Jews made my boyfriend kill,” public sympathy would quickly turn to dismay and outrage.  The woman’s story would become entirely about latter-day antisemitism, or perhaps mental illness.

But from the media’s perspective, Vodou/voodoo is good for business, especially in Miami, a city that has even more claim to being America’s Vodou/voodoo City than does New Orleans.  Miami has the largest population of Haitians living anywhere outside of Haiti, and also one of the most vibrant Vodou communities in the world.  Of late, this Vodou community has increasingly been the subject of softball “human interest” news stories, which typically take a ambiguous-to-tolerant stance on Vodou.  Let us call the Miami Zombie the counter punch, then.  Lest anyone forget, as far as the popular media is concerned, the real story about Vodou is not communities of immigrant struggling to live prosperous, dignified lives.  It is zombies, it is thrill-kills, it is black-on-white violence, it is curses that turn good to evil as casually and abruptly as the flipping of a coin.  If, in the same story, it is possible to adopt a somewhat mocking tone in relation to Eugene’s girlfriend–that she could believe such a preposterous notion–then so much the better.  They will mock even as they chide, caution, and horrify.

Recalling that the Greek word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” I propose that if there is a zombie apocalypse–that is, a zombie revelation–it is this:  In the supposedly post-racial America of Obama, racist tropes remain more alive than ever, judging by the ease with which a tragic news story can be converted by a few news cycles into the script of a zombie film.  Saying that this story was reformatted to conform to a racist trope is not the same as saying that news agents are racist.  If anything, it is more alarming to consider the opposite:  Namely, racist narratives remain so comfortable and deployable, come so readily to hand, and compel such visceral responses from their audiences that they get told and retold even by people who should know better.  And so imaginary voodoo strikes again, and we are all the victims of its spell.  But those whom it wounds most deeply are those for whom Vodou is a way of life or intimately associated with their culture, for they must live with the curse of being yet again cast as boogiemen.

If you are interested in reading more about my theoretical approach to imagined voodoo–in particular the way it is used in popular American films and novels–please read my essay “Haitian Vodou and voodoo: Imagined religion and popular culture,” either online or forthcoming in the June 2012 issue of Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses.



Filed under imagined religion, pop culture, Vodou, voodoo, zombies

What’s in a name?: Fran Ginen

The term fran Ginen is at the center of what it means to identify oneself as an adherent of Vodou, and yet the term itself is quite difficult to define.  In part, this is because the term Ginen is so expansive and, depending on the context and the speaker, can be understood to mean quite different things.

In an earlier post, I talked about how Ginen is the name of the forested island at the bottom of the cosmic waters where the lwa, the holy spirits of Vodou, reside.  In Vodou liturgical songs, Ginen is often referred to as “they” (yo) because it is not only the place itself, but also all of the spirits who reside there–namely, both the lwa and the blessed dead.  For example, in the following some for Ayizan, Ginen is spoken of as “yo,” making it clear that Ginen is being used to describe a multitude of things–the real continent of Africa and its peoples, for which the singer longs; as well as the spiritual Ginen and the spirits that reside there.

Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan nou p ap mouri malere
Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan nou p ap mouri malere
Pechè yo di pa gen Ginen ankò
Pechè yo di pa gen Ginen ankò
Genyen youn tan n a wè yo

[Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan we won’t die poor
Ayizan Gwetò anye o, Ayizan we won’t die poor
People say they don’t have Ginen anymore
People say they don’t have Ginen anymore
There will come a time when we’ll see them again] 

What is missing from this description so far is that Ginen is also a moral principle.  One of the most common ways to slander the Vodou religion is to assert that it has no moral code (for example, according to Lawrence Harrison here).  On the contrary, Ginen is a robust code of moral principles that are informed by a sense that all things we do here are observed and judged by the spirits–especially our ancestors–in Ginen.  This is espoused in a number of songs in the Priyè Ginen, the series of sung prayers that begins all Vodou services; the Priyè Ginen contains instantiations of all the most important principles of Sèvis Ginen.  Here are two examples where it is sung that Ginen is monitoring our actions.  (These examples are only song fragments, not whole verses.)

In one song for Zoklimo, the congregation sings:

Yo vini gade si m ap fè byen si m ap fè mal pou yo pote m ale

[They come to see if I do good, if I do ill they’ll carry me away]

Later, in one of the last songs in the Priyè Ginen, the congregation sings:

Tout sa n ape fè a nan Ginen konne
Tout sa n ape di a nan Ginen tande

[Everything we do is known in Ginen
Everything we say is heard in Ginen]

These statements are both benedictions and threats, depending on how one behaves.  If one does good–that is, behaves in a way compatible with the ancestral and spiritual values of Ginen–then one knows that one’s prayers will be amplified and one’s actions supported.  On the other hand, if one does evil, it will not escape attention and correction will come swiftly.

At the heart of the moral principle of Ginen is the command that one must obey the complicated rules of intersociality.  In less obscure terms, this could be described as what it means to be part of a culture (or, in Greek, the polis) and a family.  This is not quite the same thing as the so-called Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  However, it is not far removed from that, either.  If Ginen surrounds one in a complicated web of ancestral relationships stretched back to the beginning of time, then accepting one’s place within Ginen means recognizing an equally complicated web of relationships among the living, a web that entwines us all.

Staying with the web metaphor, one’s obligations are foremost to those who are closest to one in the web, namely, one’s family and loved ones.  To these people, one is obliged to give respect and care, assistance with the challenges of daily life, protection if necessary, a share of your resources–and, above all else, loyalty.  To the extent that it is possible and one’s resources allow, one’s obligations do not end with this circle, though.  They extend out, potentially infinitely, with the bare minimum being that one should treat all people with honor and respect–hospitality, if possible.  Naturally, there are contingencies–for example, if someone gravely mistreats you, abuses you, treats you as an enemy.  In other words, if someone breaks the contract of intersociality by not reciprocating, Ginen does not ask one to idly accept such abuses; on the contrary, it empowers one to fight.

We can now attempt a definition of what it means to be fran Ginen.  The Kreyòl word fran is challenging to translate directly into English because its meaning is slightly vague.  However, the word fran always conveys notions of realness, so that fran Ginen would mean something like “real Ginen,” “totally Ginen,” “faithful to Ginen,” “correctly Ginen.”  The closest translation may be the colloquial “straight-up Ginen.”  All of these translations are an attempt to convey the sense that someone who is fran Ginen is someone who obeys the moral precepts of Ginen, who serves the spirits and treats other people with care and dignity.  In their extraordinary book Remembrance: Roots, Rituals, and Reverence in Vodou, Jerry and Yvrose Gilles define fran Ginen as follows:

In Haiti, it is the people and the territory that was inhabited by our Ancestors that are honorably referred to as Ginen.  Occasionally, a Haitian person wishing to be treated with the same respect accorded to the Ancestors would refer to himself or herself as a Fran Ginen.  When used in this way, Ginen refers to a person who is morally upright.  The term implies that moral fortitude is a gift from our foreparents.  Those who are corrupt, unscrupulous, and disruptive to the community are said to be people without ancestry, San Manman [Without Mother] or San Ginen [Without Ginen]. (30)

Later, they add,

The Rada Lwa are often called Lwa Ginen and the people who serve them are proudly called Fran Ginen.  The term implies that one is calm, levelheaded, self-assured, and generous. (82)

The definition in this first excerpt is the definition of fran Ginen embraced by Boukman Eksperyans in their song “Kalfou Danjere.”

The chorus of the song declares the central message of what it means to be fran Ginen.

Touye nou p ap touye
Jwe nou p ap jwe la
Touye nou p ap touye
Gine pa Bizango

[We don’t kill
This isn’t a game
We don’t kill
Gine is not Bizango] 

The singers define Ginen by way of saying what it is not:  Namely, Ginen is not Bizango.  Bizango is here used as a stand-in for all secret societies and witches (lougawou) who behave antisocially, using all manner of power–occult, social, political, psychological–purely for their own benefit and usually at the cost of others.  The song lists many of the behaviors that fran Ginen don’t do, such as murder, lie, cheat, steal, gossip, and sow discord.  The central image of the song is the crossroads, a nexus of spiritual power that the singers claim in the name of the Kongo spirits and and all fran Ginen.  This “dangerous crossroads” is portrayed as a place through which fran Ginen, accompanied by their lwa, can parade with impunity because they are morally upright.  However, it is in this same dangerous crossroads that those who do evil will have to face justice–in the words of the song, “ou chaje ak pwoblèm nan kafou, kafou nèg Kongo” (“you are in serious trouble in the crossroads, the crossroads of the Kongo people”).  Later, for good measure, the singer adds, “Si w konnen ou pa fran Ginen, pa ret’ nan kafou o” (“If you know you aren’t fran Ginen, don’t stay in the crossroads”).

It is interesting to note that, for Boukman Eksperyans, service to Kongo, spirits of the Petwo rite, is central to their sense of what it means to be fran Ginen.  This is consistent with the first definition of fran Ginen offered by the Gilleses, but not with the second definition, in which fran Ginen is tied to the Rada rite and qualities of coolness prized in that rite.  The slipperiness of this definition can in part be attributed to the way that Vodou often mingles moral and aesthetic categories, so that matters of style–hot v. cool, fire v. water, fast v. slow–are seen as inextricably linked to moral valences–inherited v. made/bought, volunteered v. coerced, ethical v. mercenary.  Trying to tease apart some of these differences, I wrote in the Journal of Haitian Studies,

As in Yorùbá religion, Vodou champions things which are cool, slow, relaxed, calm, light, fresh, gentle, sweet, at ease, stoic, and dignified.  All of these qualities are glossed as “cool” and as “Gine.”  Cool, likened to water, is the ideal resting state.  Rada is cool and watery.  However, Vodou seeks to use and control states that are hot, fast, tense, nervous, obscure, sweaty, hard, salty, over-worked, hyper-responsive, and uncouth.  These qualities are glossed as “hot.”  Hot, likened to fire, is the ideal working state.  Petwo is hot and fiery.  However, Petwo is not the opposite of Gine.  There is no opposite of Gine.  Petwo simply function out of an aesthetic modality which is less Gine.  For that matter, Rada is not Gine—it is more Gine.  Strictly speaking, only Gine is Gine.

Karen Richman makes much of these aesthetic/moral differences between Rada and Petwo, portraying them as a conflict in her book Migration and Vodou.  According to Richman, Petwo spirits (seen as synonymous with Maji [Magic])  are seen as morally dubious because they are bought—that is to say, acquired—instead of inherited through the family line.  Although venerable, Rada (called “Gine” throughout her book) is said to not have much power on its own, and requires the (morally questionable) vitality of Petwo to continue functioning.  Richman summarizes, “‘Authentic Guinea’ [her translation of fran Ginen] exists only insofar as it can eclipse—and exploit—another way-of-being-in-the-world” (Richman 151).  For Richman, the tension between Gine and Maji mirrors the tension between the bourgeoisie and peasantry, an exploitative relationship in which the first, invested with the appearance of power, depends on the alienated labor of the latter in order to survive.

Shelving for now the extent to which Richman’s Marxist characterizations of Rada and Petwo are quite foreign to my experiences of Vodou, what I think this most lacks is a sense of the individual human–the fran Ginen–as the relevant moral agent and base unit of analysis.  The formula found in the Priyè Ginen, for example, does not order us to wait on Ginen to tell us what is right or wrong.  Rather, as kretyèn vivan–people alive in this world–we must decide in each circumstance how best to abide by the moral precepts of the ancestors.  By extension, good or evil will be measured less on the basis of our actions than on their outcomes.  Rada and Petwo–even Ginen, for that matter–are themselves absent of moral valence because the moral principle of fran Ginen is about choices and actions of humans, not spirits.  This flexibility to act according to the principles of Ginen as fits each unique circumstance is at the heart of the moral genius of Sèvis Ginen.  It is notably quite different from the emphasis in other religions on fixed, written moral codes that inevitably fail to account for the complexities of day-to-day life.

The above definitions of fran Ginen prioritize moral and aesthetic dimensions, but there is another view of fran Ginen that sees it as defined by genetic and cultural inheritence.  For many Haitians, fran Ginen has the much more straightforward meaning of someone who is literally descended from Ginen, from ancestral Africa.  While this definition is not separate, per se, from the moral component of fran Ginen, it does significantly limit who might be called a fran Ginen.  While it is possible to think quite expansively about what it means to be descended from Ginen (arguably all human beings are), this particular way of defining Ginen tends to accompany a larger nationalist view of fran Ginen that sees Sèvis Ginen as a cultural heritage intended specifically for Haitians, and which only Haitians can claim as an identity.

Since the focus of some of my scholarship is on non-Haitian practitioners of Vodou–and being one myself–I find this to be an especially provocative topic for consideration.  While I could consider myself fran Ginen in the moral and aesthetic senses outlined above, it is obvious that I cannot be fran Ginen in the nationalist sense.  However, it seems there is a great deal of gray area that exists where these various definitions of fran Ginen do not overlap perfectly.  Legal and spiritual adoption, for example, blur the boundaries of the genetic and cultural definition.  One could likewise claim that Bizango is a legitimate, inherited Ginen heritage, in the sense that Bizango practices derive from the secret societies of the Bissango region of west Africa, and yet from a moral perspective, Bizango is explicitly not fran Ginen.  As described above, some see Petwo as not really quite fran Ginen, whereas many others do–especially since Petwo/Kongo is an important ancestral heritage that must be honored as part of one’s obligation to Ginen–that is to say, in partial fulfillment of what it means to be fran Ginen.

For the same reasons that these ambiguities have been known to generate heated disagreements over who gets to be called what, it is unlikely that their meanings could ever be clarified to everyone’s satisfaction.  Discussions over their meanings, however, reveals something about the processes by which Vodou works on itself to generate theological depth, while at the same time helping individual lineages to clarify their own thinking on the matter.


Filed under Vodou

Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann: A few words on Haitian Kreyòl in the study of Haitian Vodou

Adapted from a lecture presented at the 3rd African Languages in the Disciplines Conference, Harvard University, April 19, 2012

In Haitian Kreyòl, a popular expression is, “Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann.”  Literally meaning, “Kreyòl speaks, Kreyòl understands,” it more broadly declares that the speaker intends her or his words for those who understand—and for those who don’t, no translation will help, nor be offered.  The broader implications of this are reminiscent of the fragment of Vodou ritual speech, or langaj, that Karen Brown recorded, “Sim salalam, sa salawu.  Pa salam, pa salawu,” which her informant, the Vodou priestess Mama Lola, understood to mean, “You in, you in.  You out, you stay out.”  In my own work with Haitian Vodou, I have frequently found that it is only through knowledge of Kreyòl that one can truly grasp the intimacies of the religion—but that, equally, only through knowledge of Vodou is one really able to understand Kreyòl.

Notably, in Vodou, Kreyòl functions not only as the lingua franca but also as a liturgical language.  In fact, Haitian Vodou and Haitian Kreyòl developed side-by-side, and I think that one could make an argument that they cannot be disentangled.  To the extent that Haitian Vodou relies on the symbolic and semantic density of deep Kreyòl to express its most sacred concepts, Kreyòl is likewise full of terms and concepts that derive from Vodou cosmology.  The rarified, poetic language of liturgical Kreyòl—used for Vodou songs and prayers, and spoken by the spirits in possession—is highly metaphorical, self-referential, and indirect, often rendering a literal translation into another language unhelpful or even misleading.  While this has often been described in terms of the use of pwèn—a simultaneous form of indirect code speak and unit of occult power—this is rarely connected explicitly with what I see as an aesthetic preference and delight-taking in the metaphorical, palimpsest, and paradoxical.  In this way, Kreyòl possesses initiatory layers of fluency that are tied to categories of outsider and insider belonging.

To provide one example, here is a clip of the Vodou priest and musician Erol Josué performing his version of a traditional Haitian Vodou chante pwèn—a song one sings to communicate an encoded message to the audience.

Depi m soti lan Gine, moun y ape sonde mwen
Se mwen-menm rasin o
Depi m soti lan Gine, moun y ape sonde mwen
Se mwen-menm gwo wòch o
M soti anba dlo, mwen voye dan lezè
Kou yo kwè yo pran mwen, m tounen lafimen o
Jou yo konnen sa m sèvi, latè va tranble
Jou yo konne non vanyan mwen, loray va gwonde
O se mwen-menm rasin o
Depi m soti lan Gine, moun y ape sonde mwen
Se mwen-menm rasin o
M soti anba dlo, mwen vole dan lezè
Kou yo kwè yo pran mwen, m tounen lafimen o
Jou yo konnen non vanyan m, latè va tranble
Jou yo konnen sa m sèvi, loray va gwonde
Se mwen-menm rasin o
Se mwen-menm gwo woch o

(Since I left Ginen, people have been sounding me,
It is me, the root
Since I left Ginen, people have been sounding me,
It is me, the big rock
I come out from under the water, I fly into the air
When they believe they have taken me, I turn into smoke
The day they know whom I serve, the earth will tremble
The day they know my valient name, the thunder will thunder
It is me, the root
Since I left Ginen, people have been sounding me,
It is me, the root
I come out from under the water, I fly into the air
When they believe they have taken me, I turn into smoke
The day they know my valient name, the earth will tremble
The day they know whom I serve, the thunder will thunder
It is me, the root
It is me, the big rock)

Without knowing the ways that Kreyòl in a liturgical setting uses coded language to communicate mystical messages, the literal translation of this song provides few clues to its meaning and it remains largely opaque.  Allow me to provide a few clues to the song’s deeper meaning.  The song begins with the singer noting that he comes from the underwater land of the spirits, referred to as Gine (for more on Gine, refer to my earlier post).  Since he left there, people have been trying to sonde li, literally, sound him—the way that one sounds the depths of a body of water.  Metaphorically, to sound someone in Vodou is to test the mystical force and knowledge of a priest or priestess (konesans).  This alerts us to the fact that the song is being sung by a priest who is boasting of his ability to succeed at all such challenges because he possesses konesans, mystical force, in abundance.  Such a process of testing often involves announcing one’s initiatory name, called one’s valient name, a mystical nom du guerre.  Then, without ever naming any particular spirits (lwa), the singer alludes in coded language to some of the powerful ancestral Vodou lwa, those rasin or roots, that protect and guide him—what he means when he speaks of “those he serves.”  For example, Gwo Wòch—big rock—brings to mind those spirits for whom this is a praisename, notably Simbi.  References to thunder allude to the spirits Badè, Sobo, and Agawou, all of whom are connected with thunder (loray) and storms.  Agawou is also associated with shaking the earth when he is Agawou Lefan, Agawou the Elephant, whose passing causes shaking.  Agawou also gives the powers of flight and invisibility, which are mentioned in the song.  These few examples allow one to begin to appreciate the elaborate forms of code speak and correspondence that exist in Kreyòl Vodou liturgy.

I raise these complex issues to drive home two central points.  First, to appreciate the subtleties of Haitian Vodou liturgy, one must know Kreyòl.  Second, to study Haitian Kreyòl does not stop with learning how to speak, read, and understand.  To really learn Kreyòl is to uncover insights into the entire constellation of what is said and thought in Kreyòl—in some cases, even what can only be said or thought in Kreyòl.  Whether one intends or no, the implications of such work are inherently political for, as creole linguist Michel DeGraff has shown, creole languages, and by extension creole speakers, have and continue to be denigrated and lumped together as an exceptional class said to share a lack of linguistic and semantic complexity.  Therefore, to make an argument for the uniqueness and sophistication of one of these languages is also to make an argument for the uniqueness and sophistication of its speakers.


Filed under Haitian Kreyòl, Vodou

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.


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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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