By Danielle Hyams
It’s been a decade since Haiti was devastated by a major earthquake, and American televangelist Pat Robertson infamously stated that Haiti’s founders had made a “pact to the devil,” essentially blaming Vodou for the natural disaster that killed more than 200,000 people. Thanks to views like those, practitioners of Vodou, known as Vodouisants, were attacked and denied medical assistance.
When the country was hit by a cholera epidemic several months later that killed thousands more – the United Nations eventually accepted responsibility for the outbreak – Vodouisants were again blamed, and dozens were lynched.
Vodou has been practiced in Haiti for centuries, and for just as long it has been stigmatized, and those who adhere to it persecuted. Yet, it is recognized as the driving force behind the Haitian Revolution, widely considered to be the most successful slave rebellion in history.
Although Haitian Vodou continues to be misunderstood (and misspelled), it is also experiencing something akin to a revival, both in Haiti and among the Diaspora. The practice has even gained some acceptance among non-Haitians.
“There is a fundamental lack of understanding of what Vodou is,” said Dowoti Desir, a Haitian American Vodou scholar and priestess. Everyone has these perverse ideas that it’s dangerous, it’s scary, it’s devil-worshipping.”
Vodouisants believe in a supreme being, Bondye, and communicate with him through families of spirits known as lwa. Each lwa is responsible for a different aspect of life. For example, Erzulie Freda is the spirit of love, while the Gede spirits embody death and fertility. Practitioners of Vodou serve spirits through offerings and ceremonies with the assistance of houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses).
Haitian Vodou has its roots in the late 1600s when the first slaves were brought by the French from West Africa to the island, then known as Saint-Domingue. Despite attempts by the French to convert the enslaved to Christianity, the mixing different African of cultures resulted in a shared religion and a common language, Kréyol.
These unifying factors led to a Vodou ceremony that took place in the mountains of Bois Caïman in August of 1791, presided over by enslaved priest Dutty Boukman, where a revolt against the French was planned. This gathering is widely thought of as the symbolic start of the Haitian Revolution.
For more than a decade these slaves – many of them African born – rebelled against the French, finally achieving independence in 1804.
“Vodou must be associated with slaves who fought for their dignity as men and women who wanted to live differently,” said Jean-Yves Blot, dean of the faculty of ethnology at the University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince.
Despite the pivotal role it played in achieving independence, Vodou remained marginalized and maligned. It was looked down upon by upper-class, mainly light-skinned Haitians who had an affinity for European culture and considered themselves Christian. Vodouisants were also persecuted by Haiti’s leadership, who were fearful of the religion’s political potential.
While Pat Robertson’s comments and the subsequent attacks on Vodouisants following the 2010 earthquake generated a lot of publicity, violence by Christians “who see themselves as civilized, against Vodouisants who are seen as ‘black savages,’is not a new phenomenon,” said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, a Vodou priest and professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin.
Also deeply rooted are many of the current stigmas associated with Vodou, many of which can be traced back to the United States occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934. During this time the peasant class, most of whom were Vodouisants, formed the bulk of the resistance and bore the brunt of the occupation.
“All powers in the United States conspired to denigrate Haitians and their culture, justifying the U.S. occupation,” Bellegarde-Smith said. In many ways that rhetoric persists today, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s comments that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” and that Haiti is a “shithole country.”
Vodou has been anglicized to Voodoo and has been the subject of many Hollywood horror films in which it was falsely associated with dolls, curses and zombies.
This period had a lasting effect on how Vodou is viewed today, both in Haiti and by the Diaspora.
“We were taught our culture and our sensibilities, our way of seeing the world, our way of establishing community is not valid by people who were our historic oppressors,” Desir said. “And then after a few centuries you begin to internalize that too and it becomes manifest in the rejection of oneself and one’s culture.”
Yet recently that has begun to change, especially with the internet and social media providing open, liberal spaces for those interested in Vodou to communicate and share information with one another.
“Social media literally not just opened these doors but pretty much tour them down,” said Mahalia Stines, a Brooklyn-based mambo and artist. “People that had misconceptions – not there are all different forums, different groups where you can ask questions.”
The internet has also led to an increased awareness of the religion among non-Haitians, and a significant number of white Americans have also started practicing Vodou, while temples, known as peristyles, have become more common in big cities.
Bellegarde-Smith attributes this to the internal coherence of Vodou which makes sense to many people, and a rejection of Christianity in the United States.
Stines says many of these people are drawn to the spiritual side of Vodou. While some people believe this is a form or cultural appropriation, she rejects that notion.
“The thing is, a lot of us Haitians have been rejecting the culture for years,” Stines said. “So now it’s being embraced by others, we shouldn’t be surprised. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
The role of religion in Haitian culture has also shifted. Where it once served as a way for the masses to voice their social, economic and political demands, it is now more folkloric, and often expressed through the arts.
“Most people don’t seem to understand that it’s [Vodou] a discipline, it’s a philosophy, it’s a way of being in the world, it’s an approach to living and understanding life,” Desir said. “I believe if we understood that, people would embrace it openly and fully; it is our legacy as people of African descent. Regardless of what one’s quotidian religious practices are – you could be any kind of Christian, you could be Buddhist, you could be whatever – it doesn’t mean you’re not a Vodouisant.”