Media Voodoo

Since Katrina I have searched for traces of media coverage about the practioners and long tradition of New Orleans Voodoo. Surely the famed home of Marie Laveau would inspire journalists to wonder about the fate of this rich tradition? But the pickings have been slim indeed. When Voodoo is mentioned at all it is in a litany of things that made NO unique or damned by Christian fanatics happy for the “divine cleansing”. Where was the Voodoo? Native Americans? Pagans? Hoodoo workers? Unclassifiable syncretists? Wasn’t New Orleans a spot of racial and cultural diversity?

How invisible this religion (and other minority faiths) is to mainstream America was made all the more clear to me when I read a post by the Rev. Scott Wells at his Boy in the Bands blog. In the entry he talks about a religious service held at the Houston Astrodome for the refugees living there. In the picture you see a Catholic Archbishop, an Imam, a Protestant Reverand, and a Rabbi (I always want to type “walk into a bar” after that). The photo made me sad in a way I couldn’t pinpoint. Then I realized that this photo was the way many people picture religious “diversity” in America. Elder, staid, monotheistic men bestowing blessings from afar.

This is a deficiency. Not so much on the part of those elder monotheists and their upright blessings, but of the media who don’t seem to be exploring the diverse human element that was displaced or destroyed by Hurrican Katrina. They seem to be victims with no backstory, alternately demonized, praised, and pityed by the pundits, media, and government spin-meisters.

Commentator Tom Masland seems to grasp this deficiency in his web-only commentary for Newsweek. He writes that:

“New Orleans represents much more culturally than a city that throws a great party at the mouth of the Mississippi and roots for a football team called the Saints. Mardi Gras and voodoo aren’t simply cute tourist attractions. Played to death as it might have been, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ is not Muzak. In fact, Mardi Gras at its root marks All Saints Day, pre-colonial Africa speaking through Christian tradition, a time when people use music, alcohol and dance to call in the gods and the spirits of ancestors.

Anne Rice says we have failed New Orleans. That we want only the parts of the city that have become digestable by mainstream (white) America.

“You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us ‘Sin City,’ and turned your backs. Well, we are a lot more than all that. And though we may seem the most exotic, the most atmospheric and, at times, the most downtrodden part of this land, we are still part of it. We are Americans. We are you.”

In fact the only people who seem to be looking for faith outside the margins are those Christians who always look for an enemy in our midst. Like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club where Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent Gary Lane looks through refuse for incriminating diabolical trinkets.

“A number of possessions left behind suggest the mindset of some of the evacuees. They include this voodoo cup with the saying, ‘May the curse be with you.'”

I have little hope of this picture improving. Even the Religion Newswriters Foundation seem hopelessly muddled on the issue of Voodoo, conflating it with goth and Anne Rice.

“New Orleans is the turf of novelist Anne Rice, and its traditions of voodoo and other exotic religions made the city a tourist destination. Now they have ghoulish overtones. What is voodoo about, and what would the high priestesses of the dark side say about all this grimness?”

But it all comes down to what we are willing to hear and what religion journalists are willing to explore. As Terry Mattingly writes in a recent “Get Religion” post.

“And voodoo. What happens if you let New Orleans be New Orleans?”

I can only hope as this tragedy stretches out into months (and possibly years) we allow New Orleans to be New Orleans and finally look at the full tapestry of belief in the “Big Easy”. In the meantime I’ll keep looking for stories that fall outside the margins of “safe” religion.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Anonymous

    I appreciate Masland’s understanding of New Orleans’ cultural diversity, and I lived there for 25 years.I wonder, though, how really familiar he is with the music.For example, he uses the term Mississippi Delta. Musically, that refers to the flat area of cotton plantations stretching from Vicksburg up to Memphis–200-390 miles north of New Orleans.That’s the area Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson are from, and that’s considered the birthplace of the blues.

  • Inanna

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

  • Chas S. Clifton

    Tom Masland is badly confused about the Christian ritual calendar if he mixes Mardi Gras (spring, preceding Lent) with All Saints’ Day (November).But, yes, voodoo in its many forms is not being mentioned. There has been some Pagan-specific charity stuff going on, though, both in terms of collecting money for secular charities like the Red Cross and on a coven-to-coven level, I hear.