Haiti and the distortion of its Vodou religion
I vividly remember walking out of a Boston movie theater at the age of 14 feeling that my Haitianness, my blackness, and my faith had been assaulted.
I laughed uncomfortably as we re-enacted scenes from “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” Wes Craven’s 1988 horror film set in Haiti, which reached cult status within the genre.
“I want to hear you scream,” hollered my friend in a fake Haitian accent. “Don’t let them bury me, I’m not dead” was my response, mimicking the macabre gestures of a zombie.
After sitting for 90 minutes enthralled yet embarrassed, confused but entertained, there I was, a young Haitian-American, who, as the intellectual Frantz Fanon once articulated, felt the “weight of his melanin.”
“The Serpent and the Rainbow” was the first time I saw Haiti and Vodou on the big screen. The film premiered as thousands of Haitians arrived on Florida’s shores fleeing economic and political turmoil, amid sweeping pseudo-science judgments of Haitians as agents of death as carriers of AIDS.
Surrounded by a group of my multicultural friends, ill at ease with my body and sense of self, I continued to playfully walk like a “zombie” and misrepresent a religion I actually knew little to nothing about.
It turns out there are reasons for both the unfair stereotypes about Vodou and the histories that produced them.
It boils down to the twin forces of colonialism and racism.
A faith born from slavery
Vodou is the creation of the descendants of African slaves who were brought to Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) and converted by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Vodou shares much with Christianity, and Vodou initiates must be Roman Catholic. The Christian God is understood as the creator of the world, who created spirits to help govern humanity and the natural world.
But Vodou departs from Christianity in how it views the cosmos.
There is no heaven or hell in Vodou.
We humans are simply spirits who inhabit the visible world in a physical body. Other spiritual forces populate the unseen world. The ancestors are also part of that spirit world, and can guide their children through dreams and signs. All these spirits dwell in a mythic land called Ginen, a cosmic Africa.
Historically, Vodou has been an emancipatory faith that enslaved people turned to when they were brutalized.
For that reason, French slave owners considered Vodou a threat and that is why it has been grossly misrepresented by white colonists and Haitian political and spiritual leaders alike.
Indeed, Vodou spirits inspired the revolution against Haiti’s French colonizers more than 200 years ago that established Haiti as the second independent nation in the Americas after the United States — and the first to abolish slavery.
It was during a religious and political gathering that enslaved Africans and Creoles mounted an insurrection against plantation owners in August 1791. This famous nighttime meeting — known as the ceremony at Bois Caïman — was a tremendous feat of strategic organizing, since it unified Africans assembled from different plantations and diverse ethnic groups.
At this clandestine ceremony, a leader named Dutty Boukman led an oath to fight for freedom. A priestess named Cecile Fatiman consecrated the vow when she asked the African ancestral spirits for protection during the upcoming battle.
Under a tree, she slaughtered a black pig as an offering.
Two weeks later, the rebels set plantations ablaze and poisoned drinking wells, kicking off the revolution.
Panicked slave owners throughout the Americas reacted by clamping down with extra force on all African-based religious practices.
They circulated stories that linked the religion with blood and violence, images that endure to this day.
The demonization of Vodou
Negative and exotic images about Vodou resurfaced when the United States expanded its influence in the Caribbean during the 20th century. The United States occupied Haiti and seven other Caribbean countries between 1898 and 1934. Americans targeted Haiti for industrial and technological development, and as a site of exploitable labor.
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