Haiti & Vodou

 

Religion is a portable case of stories. Vodou is a religion, nothing more, nothing less. It bundles Haitian history through the expression of her values, fears and aspirations. And as such, Haitian storytelling and imagination are inseparable from Vodou culture. The Haitian understanding of dreams, myths, mysteries and ancestors fueled its refusal of slavery and European colonial paradigms. In the Haitian imagination there is no division between dreams and realities. Sleep does not diminish consciousness, rather it expands hidden realms. Death is not the end. Spirits merely enter the endless infinity of the mysteries. That is Haiti. A belief in an entire world of spiritual unknowns.

21st century Vodou practitioners serve their respective lwas (spirit gods) to obtain blessings and protections. This belief system wherein lwas are summoned to offset the pain and suffering of life is a cornerstone of Haitian culture. Additionally, loved ones receive a special level of veneration when they transition beyond death. Adherence to a never-ending communion with deceased loved ones even extends to Haitians who do not serve the lwas. Haiti’s historic corruption only strengthens a widespread belief that deceased loved ones offer more hope for justice than police officers, judges and politicians combined. The extreme poverty in Haiti reinforces Vodou culture in ways that foreigners who rely on the social safety nets of reliable roads, emergency ambulances, fire departments and water treatment agencies will never quite understand.   

 

Haiti, its people and its Vodou are denigrated because they ferociously embody an imaginative expression of Africa’s complex animist tradition. Haiti, the world’s first black republic, had the capacity to envision revolution because it was connected to its own religion and maintained an alternative conception of the world. The gods of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome are perennially prodded for insight on their respective societies and the universality of the human condition. Whereas the gods of Haiti are denigrated as witchcraft deserving of no academic reflection.

 

To make matters worse, mainstream representations of Vodou in American cinema and television regurgitate stale Vodou imagery and evil black magic tropes. White conjurations of Haitian images are unimaginative at best, and racist at their worst.

 

Evangelicalism, a blatant incarnation of American hypocrisy, uses Haitian Vodou history to help sell racist Christian propaganda. Its destructive narrative blames Vodou for Haiti’s misery i.e. hurricanes, earthquakes, political instability and poverty.  As the reductive story goes, enslaved Africans on Saint-Domingue used Vodou to sign a pact with the devil to kill their white slave owners, gain independence and have been cursed ever since. Religious rhetoric fails to mention that France, England and the United States refused to acknowledge Haitian sovereignty in 1804 and crippled the island into economic submission through trade boycotts. Freedom is one thing, having the ability to feed oneself is another.

Vodou did not cause Haitian poverty; paying reparations to its former French enslavers created the current economic imbalance. Instead of using its erstwhile colonial wealth to build a new nation, Haiti was forced to indemnify France and its slave owning gentry the contemporary equivalent of 40 billion euros (Thomas Piketty, Capital et idéologie, 2019) for its independence. Saddled with debt, the new republic was, and remains economically beholden to North American and European economic stakeholders.

 

Alas, history forges no memory for a new generation of Haitians who line the coffers of corrupt pastors in an attempt to buy their salvation from the original sin of being born of African blood. My heart’s desire is that Haiti will become an economically sovereign secular state where its anthropological, social, cultural and religious histories are studied alongside the ancient gods of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. And that Vodou would not be dismissed as a blight of poverty, superstition and despair. Folklore and storytelling are how people create new narratives--- and envision their future. Here’s to an imaginative Haitian future.

 

Jenna Chrisphonte

New York

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