Medium 9781574410815

American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World

By: Rod Davis
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Voudou (an older spelling of voodoo)--a pantheistic belief system developed in West Africa and transported to the Americas during the diaspora of the slave trade--is the generic term for a number of similar African religions which mutated in the Americas, including santeria, candomble, macumbe, obeah, Shango Baptist, etc. Since its violent introduction in the Caribbean islands, it has been the least understood and most feared religion of the New World--suppressed, outlawed or ridiculed from Haiti to Hattiesburg. Yet with the exception of Zora Neale Hurston's accounts more than a half-century ago and a smattering of lurid, often racist paperbacks, studies of this potent West African theology have focused almost exclusively on Haiti, Cuba and the Caribbean basin. American Voudou turns our gaze back to American shores, principally towards the South, the most important and enduring stronghold of the voudou faith in America and site of its historic yet rarely recounted war with Christianity. This chronicle of Davis' determined search for the true legacy of voudou in America reveals a spirit-world from New Orleans to Miami which will shatter long-held stereotypes about the religion and its role in our culture. The real-life dramas of the practitioners, true believers and skeptics of the voudou world also offer a radically different entree into a half-hidden, half-mythical South, and by extension into an alternate soul of America. Readers interested in the dynamic relationships between religion and society, and in the choices made by people caught in the flux of conflict, will be heartened by this unique story of survival and even renaissance of what may have been the most persecuted religion in American history.

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1: Midnight Ritual

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1

MIDNIGHT RITUAL

At 1:00 A.M. the open air market along the Mississippi River edge of the French Quarter was still brightly lit, although the handful of people threading through the vegetable stands, bins of T-shirts, tables of tourist memorabilia and hanging clusters of garlic were mostly either vendors or drunks. My companions were neither. One was a Christian minister and voudou convert and the other was a middle-aged, middle-class woman whose week of initiation into the ancient West African religion was ending that night with her presentation to the marketplace, for prosperity, and to the Catholic Church, for the beneficence of God. They were both black, and I white, but all three of us had traveled a long road. It would be longer still, and before it was over I would taste the blood of sacrifice, feel the strange sluggish plasticity of another consciousness in my body. For my two friends, the way ahead was now one of discovered destiny and alliance with the powers of the universe, for they had accepted unto their lives the exiled African pantheon of spirits. In the ancient kingdom of the Yoruba people, an area roughly equivalent to what is now Nigeria, they are known as the orisha; in neighboring Benin (formerly the slaving kingdom of Dahomey) as the “vo-du,” a word from the language of the Fon people.

 

Part One: The Street

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AT 1:00 A.M. the open air market along the Mississippi River edge of the French Quarter was still brightly lit, although the handful of people threading through the vegetable stands, bins of T-shirts, tables of tourist memorabilia and hanging clusters of garlic were mostly either vendors or drunks. My companions were neither. One was a Christian minister and voudou convert and the other was a middle-aged, middle-class woman whose week of initiation into the ancient West African religion was ending that night with her presentation to the marketplace, for prosperity, and to the Catholic Church, for the beneficence of

God. They were both black, and I white, but all three of us had traveled a long road. It would be longer still, and before it was over I would taste the blood of sacrifice, feel the strange sluggish plasticity of another consciousness in my body. For my two friends, the way ahead was now one of discovered destiny and alliance with the powers of the universe, for they had accepted unto their lives the exiled African pantheon of spirits. In the ancient kingdom of the Yoruba people, an area roughly equivalent to what is now Nigeria, they are known as the orisha; in

 

2: Looking for Lorita

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LOOKING FOR LORITA

It had taken me a few days once I got to New Orleans to track down the Reverend Mitchell and thus be a witness to the ceremonies for Lorraine that had culminated at the French Quarter. I almost hadn’t found her at all. Hard times had come since I’d last seen her, two years earlier. Her old phone had been disconnected and her new number was unlisted. Nothing, either, when I drove over to her tiny ministry, the St. Lazarus Spiritual Church of Christ, a converted $125-a-month shotgun shack among the row houses and junk yards of Metropolitan Street northeast of the Quarter. I could tell by the trash and tall weeds that she wasn’t there. Lorita Mitchell would never let her church fall into disrepair.

A crucifix stood amid the detritus like a sentry, but the vestibule door was locked tight. No notes, no signs, no forwarding information. Nobody around to ask. I tried to see inside the boarded windows but couldn’t. Two years ago, inside that room, I’d been to an astounding service, my first encounter with the Spiritual Church, a mix of Catholicism and charismatic Protestantism—and voudou, I would argue. The Spiritual Churches are considered to have been founded in 1925 in Chicago, though some say that New Orleans was the starting point circa 1920. Certainly today, the denomination, which consists of numerous associations around the country, is most prevalent in the South. In the course of a four-hour ceremony, I had watched Reverend Mitchell swirl in her white robes while preaching Jesus and dancing her flock into possessive trances to drum-led call and response hymns. I had seen her prophesy destinies and beseech the healing powers of Christ using a bead-wrapped palo mayombe staff.

 

Part Two: The Road

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IN HER CLASSIC 1953 study of Haitian vodun, The Divine

Horsemen, Maya Deren wrote that what she had really witnessed was that which we see in every culture-the operation of a unifying myth. A myth, to Deren, was "the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter."! I sought both the fiction and the matter of the American voudou legacy: spirit condensed into time and place, into persons, into something I could approach.

My task was somewhat more complicated than Deren's.

Haitian vodun is more or less openly practiced, and once Deren gained the confidence of the priests, she could be relatively certain that she was studying what she saw. The seeker of American voudou has no such security of observation. Rarely is anything that which it appears to be. I had certainly encountered that phenomenon in New Orleans, but that was but one city, one mutation. In the centuries of its repression in America, voudou had taken as many guises as necessary to survive. I would have little choice but to investigate all these paths: hoodoo, root medicine, spiritual healing, ju-ju, black magic, and dozens of other euphemisms and forms.

 

Part Three: The Way

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IT WOULD BE easy to miss Oyotunji-and although I'd been

there before, three years ago-I almost did. The 1-95 exit halfway up from Savannah to Charleston dumps directly onto South

Carolina 21, a two-lane blacktop with the traffic load of a New

York thoroughfare. Day and night, cars and trucks connecting

Beaufort, Parris Island, the Gullah Islands or the tourist resorts of the South Carolina coast to the rest of the state thunder along as though in transit from the earth to the moon. It's dangerous, distracting, and sometimes deadly to drive-that much worse if you're looking for a faded, hand-lettered wooden sign, halfobscured by brush, proclaiming, "African Village-As Seen on

TV."

I zoomed past it the first time, doubled back, and barely picked it out on my second pass, braking down hard for a sudden right turn into the red-dirt entry road reaching out from the high weeds. Too hard, too fast, for the eighteen-wheeler barreling up my rear bumper at least twice my velocity. Figuring I had maybe two seconds to get off the highway and live, I steered sharply to the shoulder. Loose gravel and slick mud carried me into an

 

3: The Gods and Their Ways

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THE GODS AND THEIR WAYS

One sultry morning a couple of weeks after the initiation at Lorita’s home, I drove down to the lower end of the Quarter to meet Ava Kay Jones at the Old U.S. Mint, a refurbished brick office building now used as a museum, library and public meeting place. I had met Ava about the time I met Lorita, when Ava was working as lead dancer for her Voodoo Macumba Dance Troupe. Since then, she had not only taken further steps towards becoming an orisha voudou priestess—steps that would lead me in a circle back to her many months down the road—but had also opened a botanica, Jambalaya. Until it closed, another victim of the New Orleans economy, it was the only voudou establishment in the Quarter with any claim to authenticity. Lorita’s Lazarus Spiritual Church Supply, and the other authentic ones, were all elsewhere in the city.

A small, voluptuous, articulate purveyor of both her faith and her talent, Ava became the center of attention whenever she walked through the Quarter in her white dress, big earrings and white kerchief, as striking a picture of a m’ambo, a Haitian priestess, as even the long-time residents were likely to encounter. Some people didn’t know what to make of her—she didn’t fit known stereotypes. Others treated her almost like a celebrity. More than once, whether we were snacking on coffee and croissants or splitting po’boys at an oyster bar, I watched black wait staff scrutinize her minutely, as though something inside, half-forgotten, were registering. Ava sensed it, too. It was one of the reasons she had made her choice, to give up a career as an attorney to devote her life to the orisha.

 

4: Countertop Voudou

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COUNTERTOP VOUDOU

Lorita lived such a cash-and-carry life it was difficult for me to see how she’d managed to lease two-thirds of a brick triplex at the corner of Iberville and Dorgenois, just off Canal Street about a mile from the Quarter, as the new home for her church and the first home for her own botanica. But she’d been in business there about a year, St. Lazarus Church Supply facing one street, St. Lazarus Spiritual Church the other, her own private spiritual reading room squeezed in a narrow interior office space exactly in between.1 The surrounding neighborhood was better than the one on Metropolitan Street, but also no stranger to gunshots, sirens, and mayhem. Still, it was lively like a Covarrubias painting, and with a fish market next door, a down-home waffle shop up the block, and a Cuban clothing boutique across the intersection, Lorita’s alternative to the high-priced F&F Botanica that had weaned her seemed for all the world like a corner grocery store.

 

Appendix I: Voudou in the Media

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APPENDIX I

VOUDOU IN THE MEDIA

A REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLE ofvoudou accounts in the nineteenth-century New Orleans press easily shows the establishment, repetition and reinforcement of the negative cultural stereotype that has stuck with the religion. The stories usually appeared about the time of St. John's Feast Oune 24), a Catholic holiday also often said to have been used for voudou gatherings.

In general the accounts involved a clandestine celebration in some swamp or backwood, about midnight, with wanton revelry, blood sacrifices, mumbo-jumbo singing and dancing, and were presided over by an eerie mammy or old man. The reporters were invariably white. Sensationalist and racist phrasings were commonplace, as was the creation of an atmosphere of murkiness and horror. It was as if the more bizarre and phantom-like the stories, the more likely was the audience-white, literate Orleanians-to believe them. I present here many of the accounts at length, not because of the sparkling nature of the reporting, but because each is a treasure chest of detail in the creation of what today we might call the "negative spin" on voudou mythology.

 

Appendix II: The Revolution Denied

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APPENDIX II

THE REVOLUTION DENIED

FROM ALMOST THE inception of the slave trade, kings, constitutions and legislatures codified the incubating negative ideologies about Africans into edicts and ordinances, creating a legal and rationalist framework. As early as 1493, only a year after Columbus made landfall in the West Indies, Pope Alexander

II ordered Spanish explorers to convert pagans (Indians and, later, slaves) in the New World territories. In 1685, as the French moved into the Caribbean plunder zone, Louis XVI issued the infamous Code N oir (Black Code) requiring, among other things,

Catholic baptism for all slaves (as well as expulsion of Jews).

One of the most important applications of the Code Noir, however, was its adaptation by Louisiana's territorial governors, who implemented their own Code N oir in 1724, which yielded to the Black Code of the Louisiana Territories of 1806, sustained until the Civil War. The other Southern colonies (and then states) enacted Black Codes of their own to regulate ownership, maintenance and punishment of slaves, free blacks, creoles and mulattoes.

 

5: Preacher to Priestess

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PREACHER TO PRIESTESS

Consistently, effortlessly, she strode the line between voudou and Christianity—a path so strange and precipitous I could only watch in amazement. In the end, I could barely distinguish the two modes of Lorita’s spirituality, for they were as close to each other as the two sides of a zipper.

From childhood, she studied the Bible every Sunday, modeling herself on neighborhood preachers like the late Mother Fannie Bee Jorden (JUR-den) who ran the Holy Family Spiritual Church out of her own home, and took Lorita under wing, maybe saving her life. Even now Lorita refers to her own home back in the Ninth Ward as “Amityville”: a stepfather who beat her, a mother who called her crazy. Brothers killed. A nephew murdered. One of her sisters killed her man for beating her and cheating on her with her own daughter.

The church gave Lorita the family she needed. Before the santeria, before the palo, before all the movement into that strange terrain that would mark her as an avatar of that which had been lost from Africa—before all that came the Spiritual Church.

 

Glossary of Voudou Terms

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AMERICAN VOUDOU

Babalu Aye-or Babaluaye, or Babaluaiye; the orisha associated with illnesses and terrible diseases. Also known as Shokpona or

Sonponna. Syncretized with St. Lazarus and planet Saturn.

Bimbe-or bembe; ceremonial party.

Botanica-strictly speaking, a store selling herbs, but in practice a store which sells a variety of religious supplies and implements, including those for voudou or santeria.

Cowries-small seashells at one time used as monetary units in

West Africa. Sixteen are used in a form of Ifa divination. Known as the caracoles in santeria, where the sixteen-shell method is called the dilogun.

Creole-originally, New World born; subsequently has been widely used to mean of mixed African and European race.

Dambada-Wedo-or Damballa-Hwedo, Damballah-Wedo; serpent god entwining the earth. Mate of Aida-Wedo.

Ebo-sacrifice.

Egun-spirits of the dead ancestors.

Egungun"'-costumed figure representing the egun; also the name of the festival for the ancestors.

Elegba-also Esu, Eshu; powerful orisha considered the guardian of the crossroads of the Yoruba spirit world. Syncretized with st. Michael, st. Peter or St. Martin de Porres, and with the planet

 

6: Jesus Out of Africa

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JESUS OUT OF AFRICA

By now it was late spring in New Orleans. Evenings had become thick and sluggish, precursors to the long, hot summer of Southern fame. Sticky shirts and frizzy hair were the couture of circumstance. The city was a huge, inescapable greenhouse. And I was ready to move on. At the weekend I would tell my friends goodbye, take down my altar, pack my things, load up my car. I would drive off into a world without directions, without maps, without guides, and perhaps without welcome. It seemed like a good idea to go to church.

St. Lazarus offered traditional services on Sunday, but the best sessions were on Friday nights. By 7:30 P.M. I was sitting in a middle pew with a Gideon’s Bible in my lap feeling like I’d wasted time in the shower. The triplex sanctuary was air-conditioned, but the Iberville-side door had to be propped open against the sweltering night because Gary had lit too much incense and the room was choking with smoke. The cool drifted out with the sweet, thick vapors.

 

7: On the Hoodoo Trail

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ON THE HOODOO TRAIL

In her classic 1953 study of Haitian vodun, The Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren wrote that what she had really witnessed was that which we see in every culture—the operation of a unifying myth. A myth, to Deren, was “the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.”1 I sought both the fiction and the matter of the American voudou legacy: spirit condensed into time and place, into persons, into something I could approach.

My task was somewhat more complicated than Deren’s. Haitian vodun is more or less openly practiced, and once Deren gained the confidence of the priests, she could be relatively certain that she was studying what she saw. The seeker of American voudou has no such security of observation. Rarely is anything that which it appears to be. I had certainly encountered that phenomenon in New Orleans, but that was but one city, one mutation. In the centuries of its repression in America, voudou had taken as many guises as necessary to survive. I would have little choice but to investigate all these paths: hoodoo, root medicine, spiritual healing, ju-ju, black magic, and dozens of other euphemisms and forms.

 

8: Spirit Wars

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SPIRIT WARS

At a small corner grocery in Natchez the owner’s wife listened to me with bemusement while her teenage rapmaster son looked on like I was an escapee from some honky nuthouse. I wasn’t connecting, but was honing my approach. When asking around, I would only mention voudou if someone else did. If not, I would rely on a preamble about researching traditional Southern medicines and healings, and say I was seeking anyone in the area, probably an older person, who might have such knowledge or know someone who did.

People generally got the drift, but I had to be aware of another possible impediment—they might think I was a cop. There wasn’t much I could do about that one, except rely on my looks. I was white and all, but I think people know how cops look—and I don’t look like one. It wasn’t so much that a cop would be investigating voudou, but that he might be looking for drugs, or trying to bust some preacher/hustler on a minor vice rap. Who knew with what imagined social ills America’s police busied themselves?

 

9: Two-Headed Men and Ghosts

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TWO-HEADED MEN AND GHOSTS

The two-headed man, the Reverend Allen Buckley, was a prophet from down near the Quarters, the old slave section. He was a hoodoo man by reputation, but also, like Lorita Mitchell, a charismatic minister. Buckley’s New Freedom Faith Center, part of a bootstrap alliance called the Interdenominational Affiliated Ministries, was one of hundreds, or even thousands of independent Protestant churches which seemed to fall around the big trees of God like acorns on hard red clay. I don’t know if Buckley had found root or not. His ministry was a plywood annex to his own unpainted clapboard house on an unpaved street in an unwanted part of town. I’d heard his name in the course of looking for Mother Butler, and thought his “Divine Healing,” which he described as “a cross between hoodoo, spiritism, and mediums” might be exactly the thing Sarah Albritton, who didn’t know him, would’ve said the Bible condemned.

I pulled in next to his old pickup and shook hands with him in the driveway. A handsome man in his mid-thirties, he wore a white shirt and dark trousers, giving him the appearance of a modestly appointed Baptist preacher. He led me around a grassless yard full of car parts, toys and cast-off bits of machinery to show me the sanctuary in which worshipers were “slain in the spirit,” spoke in tongues and washed each other’s feet. The white walls were virtually unadorned: other decor limited to a lectern, floor fans and a couple dozen unmatched chairs from yard sales.

 

10: Elvis and Dr. King

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ELVIS AND DR. KING

Out of Jackson I took Highway 3 north to Yazoo City. The moon alongside the Yazoo River was only a sliver, and a thick lowland fog made the countryside seem like a Yorkshire moor. Off to my left lay the Delta National Forest and Panther National Wildlife Refuge but all I could see were clumps of roadside mailboxes and the occasional porch light. I pulled to the side a couple of times to check my map. I got on a long stretch of blacktop as the mist cleared, and in the dim moonlight the moor had become an enchanted forest, a verdant kaleidoscope, the kind of place in which apparitions might beckon at the end of a silver spoon hanging from a red string. What appeared for me was the back of an old green Ford pickup traveling without any lights and not much speed. I braked hard, swerving into the passing lane to miss it.

Soon I began to see a glow of yellow light to the west, and then I could smell what I’d been watching for miles grow out of the horizon: a big chemical plant along the river, smokestacks coughing out flames like hell’s own dragons. Texas to Florida, the rural South has become home to giant backwoods industrial plants, refining chemicals or sugar or petroleum, turning timber to pulp to paper, making defense parts and plastics. It was the New Plantation Economy. It doesn’t buy slaves these days; it pays wages. It substitutes bank loans for chains and it admits whites. Prefers them. Part of the illusion. Black or white, though, everybody drinks the water; everybody breathes the air. Everybody gets the cancers.

 

11: Kindred Spirits, Lingering Foes

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KINDRED SPIRITS, LINGERING FOES

I set up a temporary base in Meridian. Instead of constant driving, I thought I’d try a hub and spoke strategy. The small towns and rural roads of southeastern Mississippi teemed with spirits. As usual, I relied on hunches—the look of houses, the feel of the streets, the tone of the woods. The new strategy had its moments, but also, and far more often, frustrating clots of plodding tedium.

Walking up to total strangers with questions about voudou can be hell on your self-esteem. I’m glad my eyes weren’t cameras so I can forget some of the expressions. At one apartment complex I yelled up to two young women in tank tops and shorts on an upstairs balcony at dusk. I couldn’t tell if they thought I was flirting or just crazy. They didn’t know anything about hoodoo—surprise—but suggested I ask those two guys in muscle shirts just leaving in a late model Buick; they had an auntie who did. But the guys didn’t know anything either. What they had was pressing business that didn’t involve strangers.

 

12: Crossing the Line

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CROSSING THE LINE

The relentless rain that had dogged me had been no stranger to Atlanta, either. A curtain of gray steam, punctuated here and there by torrential cloudbursts, almost obscured the downtown skyline as I came in from Montgomery. The Georgia capital felt much better to me than had the one in Alabama. Here, blacks had moved into positions of real power, politically and socially. Legions of unsolved problems remained, as they do in every American city, but on the whole, Atlanta was known as a progressive town, a magnet for ambitious young people, black and white. The colonial and antebellum gentility of the older parts of the city often segued into the upscale shopping villages and refurbished homes of the city’s yuppie contingents in the north and east. Along with Dallas, Atlanta was the hot place to be in the New Plantation Economy.

I had come to find two voudou priests. Not hoodoo men or root doctors. The real thing. I longed to be back among the true believers. I missed my conversations with Ava Kay Jones, priestess of Oya. I missed my visits with Lorita Mitchell, priestess of Oshun. It was time to accelerate my movement into the true world of the orisha. I wanted to know more of the complex Ifa divination system, its name derived from the god who bestowed it, of the ritual of voudou life and practice, of the intricacies of the theology. I missed the gods.

 

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