Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Voodoo in New York City

by Salman Hameed

Last Sunday's NYT had an interesting article about Haitians who follow voodoo in New York city. The point was that voodoo had historically played an important role for Haitians and today it serves as an identity marker as well:
 Long misunderstood and maligned in Western popular culture, voodoo has become a spiritual anchor in New York City’s vast Haitian community and in Haitian enclaves across the country as practitioners look for comfort after the devastating earthquake in the impoverished Caribbean nation last year.
In New York, where there are roughly 300,000 people who were born in Haiti or are of Haitian descent — the largest concentration in the United States — richly painted basement voodoo temples are sprinkled around Harlem and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Mambos, or voodoo priestesses, say they can barely keep up with “demann,” or prayer requests; spiritual love recipes to lure recalcitrant lovers are the most popular. Voodoo prayer circles in which practitioners meet to commiserate have also proliferated, with a notable intensity in the months since the earthquake.
And no, voodoo, is not something sinister or otherwise. But its reputation can be a problem. While reading this article I was thinking about Scientology. I know some aspects of Scientology have serious issues, but in most cases, it has a hard time escaping its sinister reputation (more on Scientology later this week). But back to the voodoo in NYC:
 In voodoo, a healing-based religion that was brought to Haiti by slaves from Western and Central Africa, followers commune with one God — Gran Met — by worshiping potent and sometimes temperamental lwas, or spirits, believed to hold sway over love, morality, reproduction and death.
According to scholars, up to half of all Haitians practice some form of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism, which intermingled with the belief systems of enslaved West Africans when Haiti was a French colony.
Yet because the religion is often practiced furtively in basement temples, and because of its emphasis on spirits, spells and animal sacrifices, it has been stigmatized as primitive.
But scholars stress that voodoo has played a central role in Haitian history, sustaining people who have endured oppressive governments, grinding poverty and natural calamities.
Ms. Desir, a former professor in the Africana studies department at Brooklyn College, says voodoo has been vilified by Western culture going back to 1791, when a voodoo ceremony helped inspire slaves to rebel against their French colonial oppressors, sparking the Haitian Revolution.
But here is my favorite quote from the article - and it perfectly illustrates how easy it is to mix in NYC:
“I would never use voodoo to do harm or to kill a merger-and-acquisition deal,”
Ah...ancient rituals meet Wall Street. But for many, it is about cultural identity, and in this it is very different from Scientology:
For many practitioners, voodoo is a matter of cultural identity. Ms. Desir, 50, recalled that her Catholic mother had been aghast when, as a rebellious young adult living in Queens and studying anthropology at Barnard College, she also decided to study to become a mambo. “I personally don’t hide the fact that I am a voodoo priestess; it is a crown that I wear proudly,” Ms. Desir said. “My role is not to create love potions but to help reconnect with African culture.”
For Mr. Laroche, who came to New York when he was 5, voodoo is a tie to his family’s home in Port-au-Prince. He sees no contradiction between wielding an iPhone and marrying a voodoo bride. During the marriage ceremony, Mr. Laroche said he planned to celebrate his nuptials with his girlfriend, who he said had little reason to be jealous. She had already married Ogou, a virile, cigar-smoking spirit who is said to provide strength and protection.
It seems that there are some fascinatingly interesting spirits out there! But I'm curious how do they view these spirits in the natural world. Do they think of them as physical or more as a metaphoric reality - or more likely, something in the middle? And if their conception of spirit the same or different from the usual conceptions back in Haiti? A few years ago I read Tracy Kidder's Mountains beyond Mountains, and it had some fascinating stories of people combining both voodoo and modern medicine for their health purposes.

In any case, read the full article here.      


Unknown said...

I recommend Karen McCarthy Brown's "Mama Lola: A vodou priestess in Brooklyn."

As for Scientology, I think the big difference between it and other religions is the insane amount of money they charge: to join, to advance, to leave, to atone for mistakes.


Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Amina.

And yes, you are absolutely right in pointing out the entrance fee to join Scientology! May be I should have used the example of Raelians - but then they don't have a sinister reputation despite their claims of human cloning in 2002.

Unknown said...

Of course, the religion that has the most sinister reputation in the US right now is Islam. I also suspect that there is a shared racial component to the fear of vodou and the fear of Muslims.

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