A religion disparaged by empire

Vodou at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

The Museum of Civilization’s exhibit Vodou purports to demystify the spiritual tradition of Vodou. Photo: “Two Bizango fighter lwa.” Credit: MEG, Johnathan Watts.

The lwa sits in the corner on a wooden chair, holding a crutch in his hand. A respected general, Jal Bizango needs the crutch because his right leg has been amputated, a casualty of the battles that he has fought. In the circle in which he sits other lwa, or spirits, are similarly mutilated and maimed. They grimace, bare their teeth, and seem to be ready to do combat. As the accompanying guidebook declares, these lwa “are in the image of the fighters of the past and present, whose quest for freedom could not be deterred by any amount of suffering”. They are Vodou spirits, encapsulating Haiti’s history of colonization, slavery, and revolt, and they are on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

Billed as “Haitian Vodou, as you’ve never seen it before,” the Museum of Civilization’s exhibit Vodou purports to demystify the spiritual tradition of Vodou. Sure enough, the zombies and pin-stuck dolls that usually depict Haitian Vodou are nowhere to be found. Instead, more than 300 stunning artifacts from the internationally recognized Marianne Lehmann Collection are on display to show the true complexity and richness of the religion. Now deconsecrated by a Manbo or Oungan, a Vodou priestess or priest, many of the spiritual objects show a religion shaped by continual resistance to imperialism and oppression, challenging visitors to reject the stereotypes that Hollywood and other forms of popular western culture have perpetuated. The museum, however, missed an opportunity to delve into the history of those stereotypes and explore the imperial origins of our popular ideas about Vodou.

As the exhibit notes, the very mention of the word Vodou can conjure up images of zombies, dolls stuck with pins, sorcerers, and curse powders; all things that seem better suited for movies than for reality. In American popular culture voodoo, as it is more pejoratively spelled, is presented as being the practice of black magic, snake worship, or even a satanic rite. When the tragic earthquake of January 2010 struck Haiti the latter misrepresentation was renewed by televangelist Pat Robertson, who blamed the earthquake on a pact supposedly made to the devil during a Vodou ceremony more than two hundred years earlier. Speaking about the ceremony at Bois-Caïman in 1791 that launched the Haitian Revolution, Robertson told his 700 Club television show that:

“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor”.

The Museum of Civilization chose not to highlight depictions such as these, effectively if not intentionally heeding Haitian anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse’s call for new narratives about Haiti. After all, as curator Mauro Peressini and manbo Rachel Beauvoir-Dominque write, such representations “stand in the way of a deeper understanding of the spirituality and practices of Vodou.” Instead, spread across three rooms, the Vodou exhibit highlights the history, worldview, and rituals of the religion.

Upon entering the first hall, visitors to the exhibit are greeted by big, bold letters scrawled across the wall. Written in first person, much like the placards that accompany the rest of the display, the words declare:

“WITH THE FIRST PEOPLES IN MIND AND MEMORIES OF OUR ANCESTORS, WE VODOUISTS HAVE NEVER STOPPED RESISTING AND FIGHTING THE CONSTANTLY RENEWED DOMINATION AND PERSISTENT INJUSTICE EVEN WHEN WE’VE HAD TO GO ELSEWHERE.”

Born under colonialism, from the beginning Vodou was a religion of resistance. Refusing to abandon their religious beliefs even under threat of punishment, slaves in the French colony of St Domingue grafted Christian spiritual elements onto their own West African spiritual traditions. These influences, along with the knowledge of the land, flora, and fauna that the slaves received from the mostly-genocided indigenous Taino peoples, combined to form Vodou. Forbidden by the French from gathering for worship, out of necessity Vodouists assembled in secret. From there the practitioners were also free to plot against the French planters, whose property they supposedly were. Indeed, it was at the same Vodou ceremony that Pat Robertson describes that the Haitian Revolution was launched, which after thirteen years of fighting became the first, and only, successful slave revolt. An independent Black Republic didn’t mean that Vodou could be openly worshipped though, nor did it spell an end to Haiti’s problems.

After the revolution Haiti was isolated by a world that still relied on slavery. It was only after the country paid an 150 million franc indemnity in 1825 to reimburse slave owners for the loss of their “property” that France recognized the Black Republic. It took the civil war and the abolition of slavery before the United States, one of Haiti’s closest neighbours, recognized the country in 1862. Still, Haitians sought to assert their humanity in a world that refused to recognize it. For Haitian leaders though, this meant ascribing to the “civilized” European standards. Vodou was repressed because, in a world defined by white racism, it was seen as being barbaric and primitive. To have access to the world markets Haiti had to play by the rules of those who dominated them, and Haiti needed access to those markets. Haiti had closed most of the country’s schools and medical clinics and had redirected most of the government coffers to pay the 1825 indemnity, an amount that is estimated to be equivalent to $21 billion in today’s dollars. Though the Vodou exhibit discusses how the religion remained banned in Haiti until President Jean-Bertrand Aristide officially recognized it in 2003, the material conditions that enforced a denial of such an important cultural dynamic within Haiti itself are completely ignored.

The repression was supported by powers from outside Haiti, particularly the Catholic Church. The clergy had largely fled Haiti after the revolution but a Concordat with the Vatican brought the church back in 1860. Under European leadership until 1966, the Church regularly preached against Vodou and supported “anti-superstition campaigns” that sought to destroy the Haitian spiritual practice. After 1934 these campaigns were backed by the Haitian military and police, forces which had been “professionalized” and re-oriented by the Americans during their nineteen-year occupation of the country. As the twice-deposed Haitian President Aristide put it, “[The USA] set up the Haitian Army, they trained it to work against the people”. With the aid of the army the anti-superstition campaigns became increasingly violent, and during the 1941 campaign Vodouists were arrested, beaten, and killed. With the blessing of the church numerous ounfò (temples) and ritual objects were destroyed as well.

That the US-backed army would play such a major role in the repression of Vodou is unsurprising, given that most of the current myths and stereotypes about the religion emerged during the American occupation. From 1915-1934 the US Marines occupied Haiti, partially at the behest of the National City Bank. During this time numerous Americans, whether Marines like Faustin Wirkus or travel writers like William Seabrook, wrote about their experiences in Haiti, sensationalizing Vodou to sell their books. Seabrook, perhaps more than any other author, contributed to Vodou’s myths by describing highly fictionalized scenes of Vodou ceremonies where the black Haitians became sex-craved after being possessed (though the museum tells us that the actual practice is being “mounted” by the spirits). He wrote of priestesses using magic to place curses on their neighbours, and spoke of “the living dead” as well. Zombies entered into the American popular imagination during this time through films like White Zombies (1932) that were set in Haiti and based upon the same fictional ideas. The image of the Voodoo Doll originates from the occupation, too (as the exhibit notes, although dolls are sometimes used in Haitian Vodou, there is no practice that entails sticking them with pins to cause harm to enemies).

In the wake of the earthquake these depictions of Vodou have been joined by other, more contemporary myths. The religious aspect is still there: Evangelical Christians, led mostly by missionaries who go to Haiti to do charity and proselytize, have blamed Vodou for both the earthquake and the deadly outbreak of cholera. But Vodou has also been disparaged in a more secular way. Writing in the New York Times two days after the tremor, David Brooks provides an example. Trying to explain why the earthquake caused so much damage in Haiti, Brooks decried the “voodoo religion” as being a “progress-resistant cultural influence.” The solution he promoted was an “intrusive paternalism,” similar to what his government had offered in 1915. He didn’t need to outright advocate for a new occupation though as UN troops, acting as proxy for the USA and Canada, were already occupying the country. Though Brooks could have focussed on how foreign meddling almost always made things worse for Haiti - the introduction of cholera into Haiti by those same UN troops later that year being an excellent example - he instead simply blamed the country’s problems on Vodou.

As the Canadian Museum of Civilizations excellently shows, Vodou is a complex religion that can only be properly understood by examining Haiti’s history. It is too bad that the exhibit does not also examine the history of Vodou’s misrepresentation. The myths that exist are products of racism and imperialism, and Vodou’s image cannot be resurrected without challenging those. Perhaps this is too much to expect from a museum that sits across the river from the Canadian Parliament, the place where many decisions to send Canadian troops into Haiti have been made, but it is a necessary task.

Vodou remains open until February 23, 2014, and is included in the price of regular admission to the Museum of Civilization.

Matthew Davidson is a History M.A. student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. His research focuses on American imperialism in Haiti.

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