OPINION: Voodoo and the Black Spirituality of Resistance

by Villainus (formerly Bypolar)

Voodoo, also known by many names, such as Vodou or Voudon, which vary depending on the region — is a lost part of our past and present as black folks. It’s been shrouded in mystery and fear mongering for most of our lifetimes. I want to talk about why, and about how Vodou played and still plays a major role in our continued journey to liberation.

Vodou is an African-rooted spirituality finding home in Haiti, the Southern United States and areas in South America. It is a belief system that not only came from West Africa, traveling across the middle passage with us in shackles. It felt our pain and fueled our strength. Most powerful in my mind is how it grew with us, changed as we changed, but at the same time staying connected to our roots. Vodou has been villainized by mainstream white culture, and there are very specific reasons for that.

Vodou played a major role in the resistance to slavery and the continued existence of our identity, which becomes more and more scarce as time goes on. Cécile Fatiman, who most have probably never heard of, was the Haitian Vodou priestess who held a ceremony at Bois Caïman, Haiti, kicking off the Haitian revolution, which led to the nation full of slaves forcibly declaring their independence and killing all who enslaved them. It’s funny knowing this might put every voodoo horror movie in to context and speaks to the true fear that is invoked from horror films: the fear of retribution. From the voodoo dolls to the skeleton key.

During the Haitian revolution, each spirit, called an Iwa, started manifesting other forms of themselves and also took on styles prevalent to their surroundings. (I am not an expert; this is derived by a few months of study. I am not one of the initiated.) For example, Papa Legba and Kalfu are two different manifestation of the same spirit and represent the sun (Papa Legba) and the moon (Kalfu). Kalfu is known as the Petro version, which is said to be an angry, malevolent version of Papa Legba. What I find so interesting is that the spirits become whatever black folks needed.

For those who say, of course, it’s not real, I’d have to say it is very real, in one way or another. If you take away the so-called supernatural elements, you see an expression of our identity, linked to our ancestors. Unlike Eurocentric religions, it does not stagnate, stuck in the past, but at the same time continues to understand its origin. Giving that religion is usually reflective of those who follow it, it tells you a lot of the directions and experiences that are fundamental to our existence. It also it defies the trend of many new age black religions to time travel back to before our bondage. Instead it follows us from our mother lands, through slavery, industrialization, revolt, all the way to our present situation, thus celebrating all our ancestors, showing a level of appreciation for all the lives sacrificed to get us to this point, not just the supposed kings and queens we come from. (Most of us came from farmers, warriors, and wise men and women, not kings and queens, which is a good thing)

I think there’s a lot of reflection that can happen when we go to our belief systems and culture, which has followed us since before day one of our great tribulation. It is a way that we can truly discover who we are in a time where we are bombarded by the social expectation and indoctrination of a nation that never had our best interest at heart. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Which gets to the importance of Vodou: it recognizes our complexity and embraces our realities, not to loll us to sleep but jerk us awake.

My exploration and research of Vodou has led me down another journey over the last few months to find out more about myself and my ancestors — more about my soul. The soul of black folks is not hidden behind the pages of W.E.B. Du Bois (though that’s a good book), but the tradition that have been stripped from us, that we have been taught to fear. Trapped in a form of the sunken place, we run from who we are, hoping to discover something new. Not realizing that the thing we desire truly dwells deep within our DNA, and following those strands is the only way to who we truly are, and to to freedom.

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Featured Image: Haitian Vodou altar created during a festival for the Guede spirits, Boston, Massachusetts. Top right area is offerings to Rada spirits; top left to Petwo spirits; bottom to Gede. (Photo: Calvin Hennick)

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