Haitian Americans Reclaim the Traditions of Vodou from Centuries of MisperceptionBreaking News
tags: religion, Afro-Caribbean history, Haitian History, Haitian Americans, Vodou, Voodoo
Though Alain Pierre-Louis grew up in a Haitian family that attended Catholic church services most Sundays, he always felt a spiritual pull toward something else. Vodou, a Haitian religion rooted in ancestral remembrance, nature, healing, and justice, was embedded everywhere in his Boston childhood—in the traditional rasin, or “roots,” music blaring from the living-room speakers, and in the Haitian-folkloric-dance performances he would go to with his relatives. But though the art influenced by Vodou was celebrated, the religion itself was considered taboo and a nonstarter at home. “There was no explanation; it was just, ‘No, you don’t need to learn that,’” Pierre-Louis, a 31-year-old environmental educator, told me. “[My parents] wanted me to embrace my culture except that part, our spirituality.”
The anti-Vodou sentiment Pierre-Louis encountered from his parents is part of a long tradition of misinformation and discomfort about the religion. Tracing back to the 1600s, Vodou was founded as a unifying religion among enslaved Africans who had previously practiced different spiritual systems in their respective ethnic groups on the continent. Yet since its inception, it has been dogged by propaganda that paints it as diabolical sorcery—the perpetrators of chattel slavery led the earliest campaigns to portray Vodou as sinister. In his observations of the Africans living in Saint-Domingue (which would later become Haiti), the Martinican enslaver Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry wrote, “In a word, nothing is more dangerous, according to all the accounts, than this cult of Vaudoux. It is founded on the extravagant idea, which can be made into a terrible weapon, that the ministers of the said being know and can do anything.” That characterization has endured for centuries, with modern-day popular culture depicting the religion’s followers as people who engage in black magic or demon worship. (One of the most common portrayals of Vodou in American film, for instance, is that of evil spells cast by practitioners using needle-poked dolls, a falsified representation of Vodou rituals.)
But a contingent of Vodou devotees in the U.S. is trying to dispel those misconceptions and reclaim the public narrative about the religion. “I have taken some of my friends to ceremonies, and they come to understand Vodou differently … not from the perspective of Hollywood or white people,” Pierre-Louis said. “Vodou is very big on respecting nature, remembering the ancestors, and the rhythm and vibration through dance, song, and the drum. Vodou is energy.” He’s part of a growing group of Haitian Americans who are challenging harmful stereotypes about Vodou and creating communities to learn about this complex system of Black spirituality and cosmology for themselves.
In 1804, Haiti became the first and only Black republic formed by people who had successfully overthrown their enslavers. One of the events credited as a major catalyst for the Haitian Revolution was a Vodou ceremony at Bwa Kayiman, a wooded area on the island. The leaders of the insurrection were Vodou practitioners, and it is believed that on that night they called on all of the Vodou lwa, or “spirits,” to guide and protect them as they took up arms in resistance.
The fallout from that hard-won liberation was swift. In the anthology Vodou in Haitian Memory, the historian Brandon R. Byrd explains, “In a world dominated by slaveholding powers, the prevailing wisdom was that Haitians had all but eliminated their chances for future progress by liberating themselves from bondage and asserting their independence … By the late nineteenth century, journalists, businessmen, politicians, and travel writers from the United States and Western Europe came to identify Vodou as the primary cause and the most damning evidence of Haitian barbarism.” That scaremongering persists today, especially among the American evangelical Christians who establish churches and nonprofits across Haiti. Repeating a popular line of thought, for instance, the televangelist Pat Robertson falsely declared that the country’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake—which decimated its capital and killed hundreds of thousands of people—was caused by the Haitians who “got together and swore a pact to the devil” to attain their freedom. And recently, in videos posted to social media, Pastor Keion Henderson, who heads the Lighthouse Church in Houston, blamed poverty and disease in Haiti on “voodoo.” (Henderson has since apologized.)
Outsiders have held an oversize role in defining Vodou in the public consciousness, which has in turn affected the way many Haitians and Haitian Americans themselves view the religion. Father Jean Fritz Bazin, a Haitian Episcopalian priest in Miami, told me that in his conversations with fellow Haitian priests and parishioners, he’s found that they believe in Vodou, but only within the context of harm. For example, if someone experiences financial hardship, falls ill, or dies suddenly, Vodou is commonly blamed. “The Church becomes a refuge because people fear Vodou. [It] is presented as evil,” Bazin said. Christian churches in Haiti have long used Vodou as a recruitment tool by presenting it as “against God.” And when the religion was slandered as “uncivilized” by Western nations, past Haitian governments sought to allay foreign fears and exert control over practitioners by criminalizing Vodou in the country. Still, cultural remnants of Vodou are present in the everyday lives of many Haitian Christians—whether they admit it or not—according to Bazin. A popular saying on the island goes, “Haiti is 90 percent Catholic, 10 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou.”
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