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Catholicism’s black sister

NCR Staff
New York

In Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, yuppies collect religious iconography, fueling a kind of Voodoo kitsch. Caribbean rhythms pound out in the urban jazz scene, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a neo-swing group, packs concert and dance halls. A Voodoo2 chip produces eye-dazzling effects in computer games.

In the late 1980s another reporter and I, possibly sensing that Voodoo was on its way to becoming hip and to shedding its ill-founded reputation as a form of black magic, ventured out between sessions of a Southern Baptist convention in New Orleans in the late 1980s to check out a Voodoo museum. I was reporting on the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

We happened upon a priest and priestess who offered to do a Voodoo ceremony for our benefit that afternoon. At the appointed time, feeling mildly skittish, we climbed the stairs to their second story apartment. The ritual began with drumming and chanting. We were encouraged to drape a large snake around our necks and dance in turn. My intrepid companion obliged. I declined, but was pulled in anyway when the priest unexpectedly tossed the snake into my lap.

Afterward, the priestess tied up a little gris-gris bag for me, a heavily perfumed red fabric container for a small medal bearing the image of St. Michael.

I never wrote about this experience, though I often talked about it. My companion, Kim Sue Lia Perkes, then of The Arizona Republic, managed a descriptive piece on New Orleans Voodoo. I read a couple of books but in the end was unable to get comfortable enough with the subject to write the explanatory piece I had in mind.

Suspecting that the “tourist special” in the upper room and a little reading had given me just enough knowledge to be really dangerous -- who knows, maybe to provoke the gods -- I let the topic die.

Fast forward 10 years to its resurrection. Another afternoon’s diversion, this time in New York in mid-November, took me to the Museum of Natural History, where an exhibition, “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou,” will end its two-year tour on Jan. 3. A 443-page catalog, published by the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, for the exhibition and presumably available long after it closes, recounts the history of this vibrant Caribbean religion, its relationship to Catholicism and to Haiti’s turbulent political history. For Haitians at certain points in history, Voodoo (spelled Vodou in Haiti and pronounced voe-DOO) has functioned as a sort of liberation theology, lending its energy to revolutionary movements.

One of those movements made Haiti the first black republic in 1804, another brought an end to the Duvalier family’s 30-year grip on the country in 1986 and boosted into temporary power the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then a Catholic priest, in 1990.

Parallel universes

Donald J. Cosentino, cocurator of the exhibition that was 10 years in the making and editor of its catalog, said in an NCR telephone interview that he thinks of Vodou and Catholicism as “parallel universes -- parallel universes with bridges,” that allow Haitians to easily move from one to the other.

Cosentino believes that Americans need to know more about Haitian arts and culture. American Catholics, he said, need to know “more about how Catholicism relates to Caribbean culture and history and to black people generally.”

The exhibition, which strongly favors the aesthetic over the sensational, fosters strong appreciation for Haitian arts. Although snakes are often associated with Vodou worship and are well-represented throughout the natural history museum, no live snake appears in the exhibition.

Haiti looms large in the American consciousness, inversely proportionate to the island’s small size, Cosentino said, because the tiny nation “has come to epitomize what every white culture has found both alluring and frightening in black cultures.”

One of the most important bridges between Catholicism, historically the religion of Haiti’s elite, and Vodou, the religion of its lower classes, is baptism. Although church officials have often tried to suppress practice of Vodou in Haiti, its practitioners are ironically, almost by definition, baptized Catholics, he said.

Cosentino is professor of African and Caribbean folklore and chair of the folklore and mythology program at UCLA. His interest in African cultures grew out of a stint in Nigeria with the Peace Corps in the 1960s. That interest took him to Haiti in 1986. His goal was to find out what happened to African cultures after they were transported to Haiti by slave dealers. Once he arrived there, an affinity for Haitian culture developed and “took on a life of its own,” he said.

The other curator was Marilyn Houlberg, professor of art and anthropology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Defiantly syncretistic, extravagantly eclectic, Vodou’s universe is saturated with color. Its artifacts and sacramentals include beaded rum bottles, shimmering sequined flags that serve as icons of Vodou spirits, known as lwas (pronounced el-wahs). Gifts to deities laid upon elaborately adorned altars range from herbs to small bottles of hotel shampoo, plaster statues and crucifixes, drums and dolls, food and drink. Altars, like the religion itself, are accumulations, layer upon layer of holy and secular objects both representative of and pleasing to lwas, who function as a powerful extended family. Today an lwa may be supportive and helpful in practical matters; tomorrow irritable, weepy, demanding, and, at the best of times, at least in Vodou, deliriously possessive.

To practitioners of Vodou -- the word means spirit, or deity -- spirit possession is a highly desirable state. A practitioner invaded by an lwa -- actually mounted like a horse -- becomes that spirit, whose archetypal personality takes over his or her own. Films shown on video screens scattered throughout the exhibition show practitioners strutting about ounfòs, Vodou temples, in states of possession.

If the practice of Vodou is exuberant, its history is considerably more sober.

Haiti’s story, and by association that of Vodou, its social glue, is told through a series of narrative paintings by Haitian artists at the beginning of the exhibition.

“Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” Derek Walcott wrote in The Antilles, Fragments of Epic Memory (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992). That assertion, cited in the exhibition catalog, describes the reconstructive nature of Antillean experience and art.

Assimilate or die

Vodou is that sort of reconstruction. Its basic ingredients are fragments of the West African experience, later enriched by encounters with French Catholicism and theater, Jesuits and Freemasons, Hinduism, occultism, 20th-century capitalism and Hollywood. If nothing else, Haitian Vodou is a religion of accretion. “Since Africa, it has been bombarded with sounds and images it could neither control or turn off,” Cosentino wrote. “It had to assimilate them or die.”

The religion has its roots in the religion of Africans who were brought as slaves from various regions of West Africa, starting within a few years after Columbus set foot on Haiti Dec. 6, 1492. Scholars say Vodou survives, and thrives, historically as a form of resistance to forced conversions to European Catholicism and as a form of ethnic pride today.

Columbus named the island Hispaniola, “little Spain.” European settlers, mostly Spanish and French, soon killed off the native Indians with cruelty and new diseases. Spain ceded the western part of the island to France in 1697, a transfer that ultimately resulted in the island’s division today into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The Europeans began importing African slaves in the 16th century to work on small plantations, then later to support a developing economy of large plantations and mass export of such products as sugar and coffee. Slave trade increased dramatically in the 18th century, and by 1791, whites were greatly outnumbered by blacks. The slaves pieced together a strong social fabric from remnants of the various African cultures and religions, incorporating elements of Catholicism. Catholic officials, wary of syncretism, forcibly imposed Catholicism on slaves, who adopted it nominally. Baptism was compulsory. Vodou ceremonies were illegal.

Slave rebellions, fueled by secretive vodou practice and democratizing principles of the French Revolution, erupted into war against Napoleon’s depleted army late in the 18th century. In 1804, revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the colony’s independence, making it the first black republic. He called it Haiti, meaning “mountainous area.”

The painting from the exhibition displayed at the beginning of this section shows Dessalines ceremoniously cutting the white out of the French flag, giving Haiti its red and blue banner.

Europeans fled, including priests, leaving behind Catholic churches stocked with aesthetic and liturgical materials for Vodou practitioners to appropriate. “So for nearly three generations, until the Concordat re-established the Roman Catholic hierarchy in 1860, Vodouists were left free to recycle the abandoned art and transform memories of high Masses and low commedia into the ceremonies of Vodou,” Cosentino wrote. “During these centuries, Le Mélange became the style of celebration especially evident in the ounfòs of today.”

Cosentino attributes some of Vodou’s more theatrical expressions to Parisian commedia, a theater form popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and transported to the colonies.

Political unrest in Haiti brought an American occupation from 1915 to 1934 and a greatly expanded Catholic presence, partly in the form of hospitals and schools. Periodically, in 1896, 1913 and 1941, the church has burned ounfòs and Vodou artifacts in its so-called “anti-superstitious campaigns.”

Suppressed by Duvalier

Vodou was again suppressed by the Duvalier regime, which controlled Haiti from 1957 to 1986. During the same period, foreign Catholic priests were replaced by Haitian clerics -- a move that ultimately served to strengthen both religions in Haiti.

According to Leslie G. Desmangles, author of The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), both Vodou and Catholicism contributed to the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as “Baby Doc” in 1986 and to the ascendancy of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the nation’s first democratic election in 1990. Aristide’s government was toppled by a military coup just nine months later.

Although the country’s political life remains turbulent, Haitian clergy, since 1986, have been forced to acknowledge Vodou “as a vital force in Haitian political and social life,” Desmangles wrote, and its priests and priestesses -- oungans and mambos -- “as powerful and influential figures.” Catholicism also remains strong, offering both social services and a conduit for lower classes to the country’s mainstream.

Cosentino cautions against facile assumptions. “There are a lot of traps in talking about the relationship between Vodou and Catholicism,” he said. “One is to imagine Vodou as some kind of folk Catholicism” -- something akin to the Catholicism of Mexico -- “which it really isn’t.”

Another is to assume that Catholic iconography means the same thing to Vodouists as it does to Catholics. For example, he said, the cross is a favorite Vodou symbol but is often used to convey its pre-Christian symbolism of the crossroads.

Cosentino describes Catholicism as “almost a sister religion” for Haitians who practice Vodou. “In the racist colonial world in which Vodou developed, Vodou is the black sister, Catholicism is the white sister,” he said. “They are truly sisters, but the white sister won’t acknowledge the black sister. The black sister truly KNOWS her white sister and LIKES that other world, but she also knows her place.”

Vodou has no creeds, no prescribed liturgies, no formal organization or theology, no membership rolls. Its priests do not control access to the divine. Vodou is an ancestral religion and “a religion of healing,” Cosentino said, “an aid to balancing life, to coping, to keeping things under control.”

Practitioners acknowledge a godhead, Bondye, distant creator of the universe whose name is a creolization of the French bon dieu. A plethora of lesser deities are immanent, ever-present realities, whose power pervades the everyday. Cosentino compares this universe to belief in a communion of saints among Catholics.

One area of the exhibition is devoted to Vodou’s 11 principal deities, an assortment of benign and fiery spirits, maternal and paternal figures and tricksters. Among the religion’s many paradoxes is Ezili, goddess of love, depicted as a wealthy mulatto woman of flamboyant tastes even as she is associated with the Virgin Mary.

“When Ezili comes to a Vodou ceremony in the body of a possessed devotee (male or female) she ... expects to be treated generously,” Desmangles wrote. “She awaits the finest gifts that her devotees can afford, including expensive jewelry, French perfume, lace-bordered kerchiefs, silk underwear and imported liqueurs. A festive meal that includes some of the finest dishes is also part of the ritual in Ezili’s honor.”

This deity can take the form of Ezili Freda, noted for her gentleness, or if her demands are unmet, she can appear as the vindictive Ezili Danto.

“Vodou achieves the hard heaven that Catholics only imagine,” Cosentino wrote. By that, he said, he means that in spirit possession the deities “are manifest,” manifest in such a way “that the people can actually touch them, talk to them.”

‘Purely Catholic apostolic’

André Pierre, Haitian artist, poet and philosopher, makes a comparison between Vodou and Catholicism, illustrating both the tension and the interplay.

“The Vodou religion is purely Catholic apostolic, but not Roman,” he told Cosentino in a recorded conversation. “It is not directed by men. It is directed uniquely by God. Since all people are liars, no one is a Catholic. Only God and his spirit are Catholic. The spirits of Vodou are the limbs of God. God is the body and the spirits are the limbs.”

He also told Cosentino, “Vodou allows you to walk with your head held high. ... With Vodou you can fight any war.”

“Vodou is really an extraordinary religion,” Cosentino said. Recalling the various forms of possession that transform practitioners into spirits, he said, “It’s an amazing thing to be at a ceremony. You really have contact with the divine in a tangible way. The tangibility of the spirituality just knocked me out.”

Cosentino said he is fascinated by drummers’ methods, sometimes changing rhythms to bring about the “psychic disturbance” that “allows for the development of multiple personalities.”

In Haiti today, the Catholic clergy is generally tolerant of Vodou. It is no longer practiced in secret. In this tolerant environment, some nativists propose stripping the religion of its Catholic accretions and taking it back to its African roots.

“Some would say let’s get rid of these trappings of Christianity,” Cosentino said. “I understand and sympathize with those who take a purist approach, but I don’t think it’s possible. It would deny the Creole experience. An enormous part of that was the Africans’ encounter with Catholicism.”

  • “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” presented by the Fowler Museum of Cultural History

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998