PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The story of how Max G. Beauvoir came to practice the religion of his ancestors has been repeated widely since the report of his death earlier this week. Having returned to his native Haiti to apply his skills as a biochemist and to learn about the healing herbs used in that country, Beauvoir was called out by his dying grandfather as the one who would carry on the family tradition as a houngan. While Beauvoir was reportedly confused by the pronouncement, he took the directive quite seriously, using his polished manner to become an ambassador of Vodou to people both inside Haiti’s borders and beyond.
Haitian Vodou initiate and blogger Lilith Dorsey never met Beauvoir, but was quite familiar with his work. The fact that he wasn’t particularly interested in the religion growing up didn’t come as a surprise to her. “In his generation, they were told that it was bad, and in order to be progressive, to get ahead, you had to put away the old backwoods ways,” Dorsey said.
Vodou was not recognized as a religion in that country until 2003, and Beauvoir’s advocacy had a lot to do with that. Dorsey described the Temple of Yehwe, which Beauvoir established in Washington, D.C., as “one of the few open and authentic temples in the U.S. You can call them up, go there, walk in.”
Beauvoir attended college in France and the United States, and his scientific background made it easier for him to put a “nicey-nice face” on Vodou, Dorsey believes, because his Western education gave him credibility many practitioners do not have in mostly white societies. His establishment of a Vodou temple in the United States capital, however, was more an act of survival than ambassadorship. In 1986, Beauvoir fled Haiti after the ousting of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Duvalier’s father had recruited houngans for his secret police, called Tontons Macoutes. When the family fell from power, there was backlash against the priests.
At the time, Beauvoir told the Orlando-Sentinel that more than 1,500 Vodou practitioners were killed. However, other sources put that number as low as one hundred. That period of unrest eventually eased, and Beauvoir returned to a home, which he then converted into a temple. He provided rituals for paying tourists, which was seen as controversial in some quarters, and made him the subject of a critical book by journalist Amy Wilentz.With his training in biochemistry, Beauvoir worked toward a scientific understanding of the various herbs and plants used by houngans in their practice. He argued that the priests, who vastly outnumber western-trained doctors in Haiti, should be formally relied upon as part of the country’s health-care system. He also consulted with ethnographer Wade Davis, who wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow as a result of research into the process of making zombies in the Vodou tradition. Unfortunately, that nonfiction account was turned into a movie in 1988 by director Wes Craven, and is credited with reigniting the zombie craze in America. That may have been good for fans of flesh-eating undead, but it did nothing to improve how Vodou is portrayed in Hollywood.
Beauvoir was an outspoken critic of those kinds of misperceptions about Vodou, and his open practices were intended to shed light on a religion that is so often represented as a primitive combination of zombie-creation, animal sacrifice, and sticking pins into dolls. Even the spelling of the religion can be contentious: acceptable are “Vodoun” and “Vodou,” while “voodoo” is generally viewed as derogatory. An obituary of Beauvoir at NBC places “voodoo” in quotes. The media outlet did this to call attention to the fact that this better-known spelling is incorrect, and then it used “Vodou” for the remainder of the piece. Clearly, someone was listening to what Beauvoir had to say.
Nevertheless, his legacy is mixed. While he worked to be an ambassador, Dorsey added, “It’s hard not to associate him as someone who sold out.” His links to the Duvaliers and support of their multi-generational regime also taint his work in the eyes of some Haitians, such as Michel Nau, who wrote this comment on the Huffington Post obituary:
It’s not true when Beauvoir said: “Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people and nothing can be done without that cultural basis.” I am from Haiti, and I don’t consider Voodoo as my soul, and part of my culture, and I have been doing a lot without it. Another voodoo propaganda when he said: “In 1987, many Voodoo practitioners who were killed by the Christians in the chaos that broke out after Dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier fled Haiti.” This has nothing to do with Christianity, or being Christians. These voodooists who were killed were Tonton Macoutes and henchmen of the Duvalier regime.
”Just as a carnival band went by the house, grandfather, a voodoo priest turned to me and said, ‘You will carry on the tradition,'” It was not the sort of thing you could refuse. Beauvoir told. Just like his father and grandfather served Papa Doc Duvalier, after returning home in the 1970s, Beauvoir became adviser to the Baby Doc Duvalier.
Even with those criticisms, it seems clear that Beauvoir was a consistent champion for his religion. Dorsey points to a letter he wrote to Senator Jesse Helms in 1999, after the firebrand politician dismissed aid programs to Haiti as “amounting to witchcraft.” Vodou remains a minority religion that can be referred to in a derogatory fashion, such as in the phrase “voodoo economics,” and it was that mindset that Beauvoir fought against.
When the largely independent houngans of Haiti decided to create a central structure in 2008, they selected Beauvoir as its Ati, or supreme leader. This was perhaps more thanks to his ability to counter such bias than his skill as a priest himself. By embracing two societies, Beauvoir was more able to counter bias toward a religion often dismissed as primitive.“It’s ghetto and dirty otherwise,” said Dorsey. “He had a voice that was easily understandable,” and he didn’t “sound like a Haitian.” This ability, for example, allowed Beauvoir to be heard when he was countering allegations that the 2010 cholera outbreak was caused by black magic; the disease was later determined to have been introduced by United Nations relief workers from Nepal. And, his unique voice allowed him to be heard when speaking out against the widespread belief in the 1980s that all Haitians had AIDS.
Not everything Beauvoir did was seen in a positive light, but his legacy is largely one of lifting up his religion and his country in a world that mostly dismisses both.