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Driving Vodou Underground
Driving Vodou Underground
lF one were to survey African Americans, most would say, "I don't believe in it, but I wouldn't mess with it either." Zora Neale Hurston talked about it in her book Tell My Horse. African empires were built on its intricate belief system.
So what happened? How did a religion so complex and sacred become reduced to magical mumbo jumbo centered on pins stuck into dolls and heads bitten off of chickens? According to some experts, the answer lies in the processes of slavery and colonization.
The erasure in America of Voudou, a traditional religion of West African origin, was part of the master plan, said Rod Davis, journalist and author of American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World (University of North Texas Press, 2006). "If ever the nation harbored a cover-up, it did with Voudou," Davis said. To Davis, the suppression of Voudou went hand and hand with the oppression of slaves.
Voudou is the generic term used to refer to almost any of the New World theologies emanating from the Yoruba religion and kingdoms. There are several different spellings: Vodou, Voudoun, Vaudoux, Vaudou, Vodun, Vo-Du, and the clich�ed and somewhat racist "voodoo." Davis chose "Voudou" because it is the Creole-based version common to 18th and 19th century Louisiana.
Many of the slaves that came from West Africa were influenced by Voudou. In those cultures, especially around what is now Nigeria, theocracies were the governing system; the priests and kings were the same person. Since so many African Americans are at least partly descended from areas where Voudou was practiced, the US should be teeming with Voudou culture, Davis said.
However, if one wanted to control a group of people, he'd take away their leadership, Davis said. He'd outlaw the system of culture and beliefs, the religion, and he'd do away with the priests. He'd then replace it with a foreign religion. In the case of slavery and colonialism, the replacement was Christianity, Davis said.
"In doing so, you seriously dislocate not just social culture but the political and military also. It's all connected," Davis said. "You look at the revolt in Haiti, there was apparently a lot of Voudou leadership there. In the US, you had almost a complete wipeout of Voudou. And you wonder why were people so disorganized." Although most of Voudou's cultural legacy was erased in the US, there are still some remnants: Davis pointed out that even now the majority of African American leaders are preachers.
In American Voudou, Davis hypothesizes that the suppression of African religions in the US decreased the revolutionary potential of slaves. Without it, they had no reference to their past and this heightened the sensation of feeling kidnapped, he said. In the Caribbean and Brazil there were vast plantations. Slaves were more or less left to do what they wanted when they weren't working. They had more mental freedom and thus African traditional religions remain a strong influence in these places.
"In the US, slaves were more monitored," Davis said. "You had �black codes' that regulated slave behavior both before and after the Civil War. Drumming and dancing were outlawed." Slave masters imposed Christianity on slaves, incorporating the idea that African religions were evil, pegging their practices as satanic. In some places, practicing African religions was even against the law. "In New Orleans, however, there were places like Congo Square where blacks were allowed to dance and drum," Davis said. It was through such loopholes that the Middle Passage didn't completely wash away all of Voudou "I wanted to find out where Voudou stands in this country," Davis said of his objective in American Voudou. His curiosity led him on a one-year journey across the American South, specifically Alabama, Georgia, Miami, Mississippi, and, of course, New Orleans. Written in flowing first person narrative and heavy with historical facts, American Voudou takes the reader directly into the world of Voudou. And from what Davis found, Voudou is very much alive in North America.
He found Africa in America when he located a hidden village in South Carolina called Oyotunji. Everything in the village, constructed by hand, was built with Nigeria as its model. One resident, Ava Kay Jones, left her career as an attorney to devote her life to the orisha (the Yoruba word for "spirit" or "god"). Davis also came across churches where the powerful deity Elegba was also worshipped as St. Michael.
"It's a real theology. People are initiated into it. There's a belief system, a number of deities, lesser deities, as in the Hindu religion, Greek mythology, or Catholicism. There are a number of rules," Davis said. "To be initiated into it, one must study and learn it. There's an ancient complex divination system called Ifa, which involves throwing palm nuts [and interpreting the pattern in which they fall]."
There are 256 combinations that the palm nuts can fall in. Priests of Ifa must learn all of them. They also must memorize 256 parables, containing the meaning of each way of comparison, the I Ching, the "Book of Changes," an ancient Chinese system of divination, has 64 different combinations. A Voudou priest is called a houngan and a priestess is called a mambo. Each has equal power and authority.
A Voudou temple is called a hounfour.Davis also said that remnants of Voudou are all around us, in black arts, in the thousands of black churches where African influences are powerful, and in the general culture."It's like a parallel universe," Davis writes.
During the tragedy of slavery, many researchers believe that Voudou was driven further underground by a widely read book written by S. St. John in 1884, Haiti or the Black Republic. Many of the "details" in the book were allegedly extracted from Vodun priests through torture. Hollywood made great use of the book's inaccurate portrayal of the religion, popularizing its association with zombies, voodoo dolls, cannibalism and bloody sacrifices, when in fact, the "voodoo" doll used in "Hoodoo," an offshoot of Voudou relying on hexes and potions, can actually be traced to European witchcraft, according to Davis. Horror movies began in the 30s and continue even today to misrepresent Voudou. It is only since the late 1950s that more accurate studies by anthropologists have been published.
In the US, over time Voudou has been influenced by Native American and European beliefs. Also, due to the enforced practice of Christianity among slaves, some forms of Voudou openly incorporate Christianity. In different places Voudou takes different forms. "In Haiti, the religion metamorphosed into Vodun or Vaudoux; in Cuba, Santer�a; In Brazil, Candombl�; in Trinidad, Shango Baptist; in Mexico, Curanderismo; in Jamaica, Obeah," Davis writes.
And in the US, although one may have to look closely to notice it, American Voudou is alive and growing.
"There is a whole renaissance of interest in Voudou�by African Americans determined to reclaim that heritage," Davis said.
With American Voudou, Davis has created a valuable resource for black Americans interested in learning about Voudou and its suppression in America, shedding light on an important aspect of black history.
As he writes on the last page of his book, "It should never again be possible not to see the destruction of Voudou as the lynchpin of African subjugation in the United States."
Author Nnedi Okorafor is a freelance writer living in Chicago.
"African champions must break the chain that links African ideas to European ones and listen to the voice of the ancestors without European interpreters."
-Jacob Carruthers, "Mdw Ntr"
Ma ku Mbôngi, ka matômbulawanga za ko.
"The community's political institution does not borrow foreign dialects to discuss its' political matters or to educate its' members"
- Kikongo proverb
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