Our Vodou Fear

While many pre-Christian religions are looked upon with various degrees of tolerance in our modern world, some are still deemed unacceptable by the powers that help shape public opinion. Vodou/Voodoo is a faith often misunderstood and used as a tool of fear. Newspapers love to grate on about blood sacrifice and odd rituals with tones that seem to border on barely suppressed racism.

The ongoing media blackout of the African-diasporic faiths in New Orleans after Katrina/Rita is just one example. A couple of new stories have popped up to help illustrate the point.

In critiquing “Unfinished Country”, Jane Regan’s documentary about Haiti, Shirley Pate, writing for Dissident Voice, illuminates the failure of liberals to accept the history of colonial powers in Haiti as well as the role of the United States role in Haitian politics. She touches on how Vodou was used to smear Aristide:

“Perhaps the most ridiculous lie spread about Aristide, in an obvious attempt by the State Department to capitalize on white fear of a black Haiti and its vodou religion, was a portrait of Aristide as a devotee of ritual sacrifice involving babies. His young, largely poor followers were labeled as chimeres (the original meaning is “mythical, fire-breathing monsters,” but when applied to Aristide supporters its meaning is closer to “thugs”) a word first introduced by an American journalist who was, no doubt, in close contact with the State Department.”

Leaving aside Pate’s political analysis, she raises an important point: Vodou is often ignored when considering Haiti’s politics, and, when not ignored, is used as indication of backward-thinking superstition and savagery.

This fear and misunderstanding is also evident in our local news. A story of a mentally disturbed woman who neglected her disabled teenaged daughter until she died takes on a lurid quality when “voodoo” is added to the report.

“Kiwanuka was taken to a mental hospital Oct. 5 for walking around her job at a Wal-Mart store in a daze and scaring customers with her hand gestures, believed to be voodoo, The Dallas Morning News reported.”

We also learn that her supposed “voodoo” will be a part of the investigation into the teen’s death.

“Voodoo may factor into the investigation in the death of a 17-year-old girl found inside a condominium near downtown…Kiwanuka would not talk, had a blank stare and made witchcraft gestures with her hands. She did not respond when police tried to talk to her.”

How the police or the employees of Wal-Mart knew that they were “witchcraft gestures” is beyond me. Maybe they read all those books on Wicca that Wal-Mart sells now? No doubt the “cult” angle is why the story is getting picked up beyond the local papers.

If modern Paganism is to mature, then we must think beyond Starhawk and Salem and start learning about, embracing, and defending the Paganisms of the world. In truth, the various religions of the African diaspora are in some ways the oldest American “neoPaganisms.” But even within many modern Pagan circles, religions like Vodou are seen with distrust (while some water it down for easy consumption). How these faiths are treated should matter to us, even as the more Eurocentric forms of modern Paganism struggle for acceptance and inclusion.

Jason Pitzl-Waters