I think I became convinced of the reality of polytheism walking through an exhibit on Haitian voudou at the Field museum. I already reckoned that I knew a lot about voudou for someone who didn’t practice it (in other words, I knew a lot about it for someone who didn’t know a thing about it), but until I saw the elaborate sparkley flags and the bottles filled with doll parts and the elaborate altars for myself, until I felt that hum of energy coursing through my whole body, I didn’t really get what it meant to really know that the world could, at any minute, both be itself and be something else, the reflection the unseen sees itself in.
Before I really knew anything about voudou, I thought about being a voudou practitioner.
In the end, I decided it wasn’t right for me, because I’m white.
I want to explain that. First, I think we white people have this terrible habit of assuming that we have no race, no culture, no weirdness about us and that, if we want to understand race, culture, religions, etc., we have to go study those other people and their ways. So, we flounder around looking for something different than what we know doesn’t suit us, and when we find something closer, we rush in to adopt it. And a religion and worldview like voudou–one so rich in history and lore and power–is intriguing.
Second, there are lwa who are hostile towards white people. And why not? Surely the gods have long memories. Should they forget what happened to Dutty Boukman just because it was 200 years ago?
I was reading Arthur ‘Rickydoc’ Flowers‘ blog over the weekend and he brought up how Dr. Kionihas been wrestling with this kind of appropriation. Dr. Kioni is talking about the SciFi channel’s show in which they explored voudou:
Anyway, last week I saw the segment on Voodoo and was appalled. The segment filmed in New Orleans featured an ALL CAUCASIAN Voodoo ceremony. The Mambo of the group was a blond white woman who supposedly was mounted by Marie Laveau. I could hardly contain my dismay and had to restrain myself from changing the channel.
Do you mean to tell me that NBC Productions could not find any Black voodoosants in New Orleans; NONE? Again, this is a white washing of the African Diaspora that has been going on for centuries. I find it ironic and hypocritical that white Americans denounce and prohibited our ancestors legitimate claim and practice of the African Diaspora; but the slave captors and their 21st Century heirs have taken the practice of Hoodoo, Voodoo, Palo, etc., and even the Blues as their own. Just how whack is that?
But I think, no, I’m convinced that we’re so cut off from our own indigenous cultures and beliefs and that we’ve been fed the myth of the Magical Negro for so long that we white folks have come to believe that African Americans are just more “woo woo, spooky” than us and that, if we want to be a part of that, the easiest way is just to latch onto a system already in place and lively rather than trying to dig up our own and fight the white supremacists for it.
Flowers mulls this over from the other side (I’m just going to quote a little bit, but you should get over there and read the whole thing):
if you know kioni you know it must have bothered him cause
he a very even tempered man
this question of contemporary hoodoos multiculti nature is a major one
i am in favor of the whole world going hoodoo so i am comfortable with the dynamic
but the question is how do we keep the cultural heart of hoodoo beating strong
that part of hoodoo thats always been guide and guardian of the tribal destiny
and not let hoodoo be turned into a warmed over wicca, cute little folkmagic witchery
and commercial sensationalism
what do we say to all these folk who druid for a couple of years, wicca a couple, so forth
and so on, and then work their way to hoodoo, practice a couple of years then start telling
us what is and what aint allowed
wonder if they call him racist when he raise these questions like they do me
I think a couple of things. One I think that there is a baseline something we might call American Folk Magic and it’s made up of knowledge shared by Pow Wows and Hoodoos and Medicine Men and women whose neighbors called them witches and even good Christian folks. Passed down and around and in the context of other beliefs and out of those contexts, it’s a system we can all share in and add to, because the information being passed around is just fact (if you’re comfortable with calling anything having to do with magic fact). A circle of salt will keep bad things out. Roses for love. Etc.
I might, from the outside, call this hoodoo or rootwork–when the rootworker gave me a bottle of money oil to rub on my hands and feet, it worked, even though I kind of doubted it. I thought this was hoodoo, but I think Flowers is using the word differently. That’s fine. But what I mean is that there is a level of magic open to everyone in the US based on stuff we find here that is open to anyone who wishes to use it, which can be, also, used in conjunction with a religious or philosophical system, but doesn’t have to be.
Whew. Okay, back on track. What I mean is that reading Bridgett’s post today has helped me wrap my head around this whole thing in a way that’s useful to me.
My extended family is huge by US standards (though my Ghanaian friends and I have plenty in common) and I was reared to see myself in that social context. You knew who you were by looking at the younger kids. You knew who you might become by looking to the older ones — cautionary tales, a system of metaphoric references were in place. You knew what it meant to “lean to the Frazier New Ground,” because the Fraziers were a family my grandparents used to sharecrop for and the New Ground was uphill both ways. You knew what it meant when someone said that an angry woman went “crazy like Sally.” No need to tell anyone what the cause was for her anger — we all knew that the person in question had caught her husband with another woman and beat the hell out of him. Families are language systems, our mother-tongue. [Emphasis mine]
Now, I think, we’re at the heart of things. What it comes down to is that so many pre-Christian belief systems are about ancestor veneration and about the belief that the Gods are our ancestors in some fundamental sense, maybe like how our great grandparents are the ancestors of our bodies, the gods could be understood as the ancestors of our souls. But the point is that our belief systems are also a kind of familial language system, with a system of metaphoric references in place.
I also believe that the gods will call who they call for whatever purposes they have. So, yes, a white person can practice voudou, but it ought to be something that her fellow practitioners recognize as sharing a sincere system of metaphoric references. Let me put it this way, if you came up to me and said, “B., you’re B.? I was your cousin J.’s best friend in high school. Shoot, I was at his house so much, I was practically an honorary member of the family.” I would expect you to know how my grandma kept her pop in the garage. I would expect you to be able to talk like you’d seen my grandpa’s pool table. And so on. In other words, I would expect to have many of the same points of reference. And damn straight I’d be resentful if you were suddenly like “Well, I am a member of B.’s family after all. I’m sure I speak for them…”
I think this is similar to what the African Diaspora folks are going through–folks who are welcome by the gods are welcome by the followers of the gods here. But how do you tell who’s welcome and who ought to be encouraged but encouraged to find their own Folks, ones who already share a vocabulary with them?
Let’s change topics again, slightly:
Betsy–means “God is my oath.”
Betty–means “You and your daughter will have your credit forever entangled.” No, “God is my oath.”
Doris–“Bounty of the Sea.” A Greek nymph married to Nereus and mother to the fifty Nereids.
Teckla–from St. Thecla, whose mother was Theoclia, whose name roughly translates “God fame” or “Famous God.”
Hulda–“the hidden one,” if from the northern European. The Huldra are forest women who have animal tails and lure men into the woods to have sex with them. If the men are pleasing, they are rewarded. If they suck, the huldra will kill them. No pressure, though, boys. If after the Biblical prophet Huldah, it means “weasel.”
Anna–“Grace, charm, mercy.” Jesus’s grandmother. A prophet mentioned in the New Testament. Or a Roman goddess.
Inga–“Protected by Yngvi.” Yngvi is Freyr’s older name.
I’ve barely stretched 200 years back into my matrilineal line… Sweden has been ostensibly Christian since the 1100s and seven hundred years later, the Swedish women in my family still have a mixture of Christian and Pagan names–Inga, Hulda, Anna, Teckla.
That vocabulary, that way of calling ourselves and our children, that way of understanding our relationship to the world and our place in it, is still so familiar to us that seven hundred years of Christianity hasn’t been able to undo it.
I don’t think that’s unusual.
So, shoot, I guess I didn’t actually get anywhere in this post. I still believe that the gods will reach out to whoever the hell they want and it’s not our place to make hard rules about who can do what with whom.
On the other hand, when you’re talking about systems of ancestor veneration, it seems reasonable that, if you claim to venerate someone’s ancestors, they recognize the ancestors in your descriptions of them.
It’s wrong for white supremacists to claim a racial link to my gods, though, in fairness, I think it’s just sloppy, ill-thought-out theology on their part (which, clearly, considering their other opinions, is not a surprise). It’s not one’s race that links one to the gods, but one’s family.
Families are large, sprawling messes. Folks get adopted in. They get fostered out. Papa Legba might befriend your great grandfather for reasons that make sense only to the two of them. And then he might check in on you just for shits and giggles. Same thing with Freyr.
So, then, I have no conclusion. Have we gotten anywhere?
Ha, that’s why I both am compelled to talk about this stuff and loathe it, because I feel like I’m talking in metaphors I barely understand.
But it’s interesting to me, still.