REmembering karen mccarthy brown
Remembering Karen McCarthy Brown, Vodou scholar and anthropologist
Memorial by Peter Savastano
My Dear KOSANBA Board Members,
It is with deep sadness that I inform you of the death of Karen McCarthy Brown on Wednesday night, March 4, 2015. She died peacefully in the extended care nursing facility where she lived for the past five years. As many of you know, Karen suffered from a serious form of dementia which rapidly took away her ability to remember, to speak or to express herself except in very minimal ways.
Karen was my dear friend and mentor, and chaired my dissertation committee. She and I, along with J. Terry Todd and Eugenia Lee Hancock (also deceased), worked very closely together on the Newark Project, located at Drew University from 1994 until 2003, where Karen was Professor of the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion and Director of the Newark Project. Karen was beloved by her students and colleagues. She was an incredible teacher and I will forever be grateful to her for accepting me as her student. Over the years, Karen and I became close friends and collaborators, most especially exploring together the richness of Haitian Vodou in the Diaspora of New Jersey and New York City. There is nothing Karen loved to do more than to dance in honor of the Lwa. I can remember with great fondness dancing with her at many a Vodou ceremony in both New Jersey and New York City, most especially at Mama Lola’s “parties” for the Lwa in Brooklyn and at Manbo Jacqueline’s “spirit parties” in Irvington, New Jersey. Karen especially loved to be in the company of the Gede Lwa, who would always beeline for her or me, whenever those randy trickster sprits would grace us with their presence and healing antics.
This past Fall Semester 2014, I taught “West African Derived Religions in the Americas” and assigned Karen’s most famous and beautiful book, Mama Lola, A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. It had been many years since I read the book yet reading again was like reading it for the first time. I was irresistibly drawn in by its beauty and its sensitivity to the rich healing capacity of Haitian Vodou and to Haitian culture and history, both in Haiti and in the Diaspora. I remain convinced that while Karen surely benefitted from the recognition and fame writing Mama Lola brought her, she also wrote the book out of deep love and great respect and honor for Mama Lola, Maggie, Marsha and all the members of Alourdes’ family, both biological and spiritual.
Karen was the kind of anthropologist who never claimed to have a monopoly on objective truth or to have the last word on Haitian Vodou or Haiti’s complex history and deep and rich culture. Rather, Karen always tried her best in all she wrote to be intellectually rigorous, but also emotionally honest, speaking always from the heart and with deliberately cultivated sensitivity and compassion for all those she encountered, most especially in describing what she experienced firsthand in the world of Haitian Vodou. This was the beauty of her heart-engaged methodology. This is the methodology she taught me and all of her students. I shall forever be grateful to Karen for teaching us the important lesson of the “politics of representation”: What one writes and how it is written has serious consequences for all involved. Another lesson she taught me and all of her students is to always try to find a biographical parallel in one’s own life to the lives of those who grant you permission to study among them; in short, empathy for and identification with the lives of others, most especially for the marginalized and disenfranchised. Karen was in awe of the ability of those Haitians (and others, especially in the LGBTQ community and in communities of women) who have been designated the “other” to nevertheless find ways to spiritually, politically, socially and culturally resist domination and oppression, no matter how difficult their plight.
Karen was a friend to many of you on the KOSANBA board and she was surely a great friend and supporter of KOSANBA’s goals and objectives, the scholarly study of Haitian Vodou. I hope you will all hold her in your prayers and meditations, in whatever way you may engage in such practices.
While it is true that Karen could not speak and her memory was pretty much obliterated due to her long illness, yet whenever I would visit her one way I could reach her was to sing her Vodou songs. As I sang, she would grow silent and still from her agitation. Her eyes would lock on mine and she would start to gently rock in her wheel chair. I believe that on some very deep level, Karen was connecting with Ginen, the place where she is now, I can only hope and pray, dancing a Banda with the Gede Lwa. Let us together hold a candle of light in her honor and be grateful for her friendship, deep knowledge and love for all things Haitian and most especially for the Haitian people in Haiti and wherever in the Diaspora they may be.
Peter Savastano, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of the Anthropology of Religion, Consciousness, Sexuality & Gender
Seton Hall University
KOSANBA Board Member
A letter to friends and colleagues from Claudine Michel and Gail Pellett
As most of you know, our beloved Karen McCarthy Brown, inspiring scholar of religion, is suffering from a particularly rare form of dementia. Before the disease dominated her life she was working on getting her path-breaking book, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn translated into French. Karen had identified a remarkable translator in Paris and a distinguished French publishing house to take it on. Now that project is stalled for lack of funding. This is an appeal to a broad community of friends and fans to help raise the funding for this endeavor to honor Karen. It also honors Mama Lola. Read the rest of the letter...
kosanba brochure and program
Download the KOSANBA Brochure and 2013 Program
KOSANBA 2015, colloquium XI
CALL FOR PAPERS
Trees Take Us to the Gods: Vodou and the Environment
In conjunction with the 27th Haitian Studies Association Conference
Université de Montréal, Québec, Canada
Wednesday, October 21–Sunday, October 25, 2015
Under the Aegis of Klèmezin, Minis Azaka, and Bway Gede
The Lwa of agriculture and of hard work and of common folks, Klèmezinn and Azaka, the male and female “seed,” make things grow, while Bwa [Brav] Gede announces the death of all, as surely as our sun itself will die someday! So-called nature religions are anchored in scientific phenomena and their manipulations, recognizing that all fragile creatures are one, sharing both DNA and purposeful intent. The mineral, vegetal, and animal kingdoms are the foundations of our lives on a creative and living planet. We create the environment and are created by it, simultaneously, as an indication of our cosmic powers as agents. In Vodou and other indigenous African religions the notion of environment suggests a philosophical, religious, cosmological belief and attitude of embedded continuity tacitly comprehended.
The colloquium seeks to explore the intimate connections between animate and inanimate objects, so perceived, in the natural and the hard sciences, the built environments we inhabit that include the world of dreams, and the frightful powers we possess communally as destroyer. We will also bring to the fore Vodou’s divine knowledge and collective capacity for healing and renewal within nature’s endless cycle of life.
The Congress of Santa Barbara's 11th International Colloquium highlights this mission of return to source and renewal inherent in Haitian Vodou, in other African-derived religious systems in the Americas, and in indigenous African religions. Environment encompasses not just the plants and the trees so dear to Gran Bwa, the agricultural work of Kousin Zaka and Kouzinn, the labor and travay of Klèmezinn Klermeil, the rivers and oceans, but also health and medicine, the built environment, families and gender relations, the sociopolitical environment, and more. On that basis, our use of “environment” implies an all-encompassing surrounding, or even notions of “ecology” which suggest more strongly the continuous reciprocity of human beings embedded in and influencing that surrounding. This is in keeping with the ethos of Vodou in which all are tied, in which each cell, each molecule are copies of the transcendent all—fractals revisited.
In its 11th colloquium, KOSANBA aims to inspire conversations and discussion on nature and environment and divine knowledge across the Atlantic. We wish to underscore how this substantial and significant compendium of traditional knowledge and practices have proven largely effective in sustaining spiritual and corporeal over time, for individuals as well as the collective in Haiti and beyond.
This forum hopes to include the contributions of researchers, scholars, and practitioners in Vodou and other African-derived systems. KOSANBA welcomes papers/presentations on issues such as, though not limited to:
* New and old theoretical lenses and frameworks for discussing sacred knowledge
* Shifting religious practices and ideology
* Worldviews and “world sense” in the context of nature
* Philosophical and cosmological beliefs and attitudes embedded in nature/environment
* Nature's role in restoration and equilibrium
* Environmental concerns and healing practices
* Religious healing in the face of natural disasters
* Water, earth, fire and their roles in Vodou
* Vodou and ecology
* Medicinal plants and their curative function
* Manje Lwa and ritual feeding of the spirit
* Kombit and agricultural contracts
* Arts and other curative practices used for healing and restoring universal balance
* Importance of mortuary rites and burial practices in maintaining cosmic order
* Dynamics of religious communities in new environments, new nations, and peyi blan
* The transformation of lives for new converts and initiates away from the native land
Please submit a whole panel of no more than four presenters (a fifth person may chair or moderate a panel), or an individual paper by May 31, 2015 to the Program Committee. Each presentation should be no more than fifteen minutes (2,000 words or 7–8 pages in length), allowing time for discussion. An abstract of approximately 300–500 words with the title of the paper should be submitted on one page; on a separate cover page, the name(s) of the presenter(s), together with institutional affiliation(s), if applicable, and the title of the presentation(s) should also be included. Full panel submissions should submit one file with all of the applicants’ abstracts and required information. Additionally, applicants must provide current contact information such as mailing address, telephone numbers and e-mail address, also to be submitted by May 31, 2015. All proposals will be peer-reviewed, and you shall be informed of a final decision on participation by June 30, 2015.
Papers should be submitted online to the Program Committee at KosanbaConference@gmail.com.
One must be a member of KOSANBA to present a paper at the conference. Registration is also required for all presenters. Registration fees are required for nonmembers to attend the conference. All those who are scholars and/or practitioners are invited to submit an application in order to join the association.
Registration information will be posted at http://www.research.ucsb.edu/cbs/projects/haiti/kosanba/.
Questions? Please email KosanbaConference@gmail.com or phone 805-893-3914.
KOSANBA 2013, colloquium X
When Earth Meets Sky: Healing Rites & Sacred Knowledge in Haiti & Beyond
Harvard University, Friday, October 18th – Sunday, October 20th, 2013
Opening Remarks, Professor Jacob K. Olupona, Harvard University
Keynote, Professor Donald J. Cosentino, University of California, Los Angeles
Closing Event, Professors Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique and Didier Dominique, Université d'Etat d'Haiti
On January 12th, 2010, the Haitian earthquake known as "Goudougoudou" claimed 300,000 souls, and left at least ten million people mourning in Haiti as well as beyond its national borders. Though this catastrophe would deeply scar the island of Hispaniola, it also brought to the fore the country's collective capacity for healing and renewal in the invocation of its vibrant Neo-African religious traditions. This type of holistic healing revealed once again the importance of divine knowledge that is skillfully guarded by priests and adept healers.
In Vodou, as in other African derived religions, intuitive knowledge coupled with wisdom from the ancestors—what we call konesans—is regarded as sacred and worthy of much protection. Metaphysical eyes so-to-speak allow participants in these traditions to become more alert, and to recognize the presence of the divine in the everyday as well as in otherworldly planes they might enter. When humans attempt to make contact with the divine realm, when spirits and ancestors arrive to meet the requests of living souls, we recognize this as the moment when spiritual integration takes place, when healing—individual and collective—happens. These occurrences suggest a humble moment when mortals witness divinity and a flash of the spirit, an instance when earth meets sky.
The Congress of Santa Barbara's 10th International Colloquium highlights the healing mission inherent in Haitian Vodou and in other African-derived religious systems in the Americas, in indigenous African religions, and within the scope of recent studies in alternative and complementary medicine in the West. These religious and secular communities have continued their healing practices refined over centuries of experience. We wish to underscore how this substantial and significant compendium of traditional methods and recent innovations have proven largely effective in spiritual and corporeal healing over time, for individuals as well as the collective.
In its 10th colloquium, KOSANBA aims to inspire conversations and discussion on healing practices and divine knowledge across the Atlantic. This forum hopes to include the contributions of researchers, scholars, and practitioners in Vodou and other African-derived systems, as well as secular modes of healing. We meet this year in Boston, a center for religious, philosophical, and anthropological scholarly studies. KOSANBA welcomes papers/presentations on issues such as, though not limited to:
* Worldviews and "world sense" in the context of healing
* Shifting religious practices and ideology over time
* New and old literary/theoretical lenses and frameworks for discussing sacred knowledge
* "Spirit injury," mental illness and similar "invisible" ailments
* Arts and other curative practices used for healing and restoring universal balance
* Environmental concerns and secular healing practices
* Religious healing in the face of natural disasters (i.e. Haitian Vodou post- earthquake and New Orleans Vodou post-Katrina)
* Importance of mortuary rites and burial practices in maintaining cosmic order
* Dynamics of religious communities in new nations and peyi blan, the transformation of lives for new converts and initiates
Please submit a whole panel of no more than four presenters (a fifth person may chair or moderate a panel), or an individual paper by 31 May 2013 to the Program Committee. Each presentation should be no more than fifteen minutes (2,000 words or 7-8 pages in length), allowing time for discussion. An abstract of approximately 300-500 words with the title of the paper should be submitted on one page; on a separate cover page, the name(s) of the presenter(s), together with institutional affiliation(s) if applicable and the title of the presentation(s) should also be included. Full panel submissions should submit one file with all of the applicants' abstracts and required information. Additionally, applicants must provide current contact information such as mailing address, telephone numbers and e-mail address, also to be submitted by 31 May 2013. Completed papers are due by September 1, 2013 to allow panel members time to read those papers before the conference. All proposals will be peer-reviewed, and you shall be informed of a final decision on participation by 30 June, 2013.
Papers should be submitted online to the Program Committee Co-Chairs Gina Athena Ulysse and Roberto Strongman at email@example.com
One must be a member of KOSANBA to present a paper at the conference. Registration is also required for all presenters. Registration fees are required for non-members to attend the conference. All those who are scholars and/or practitioners are invited to submit an application in order to join the association.
Membership Fees are as follows: General membership $60.00 US, Students $35.00 US Conference Registration: $75.00 US, Students $25.00 US (Before August 1, 2013) On-site Conference Registration (after 8/1/13) $100.00 US, Students $45.00 US
KOSANBA—A Scholarly Association for the Study of Haitian Vodou, is headquartered at the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
All Fees should be made payable to UC Regents. In the Memo Section write: KOSANBA Membership and/or Registration. Mail to:
KOSANBA c/o Center for Black Studies Research University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Please refer any questions to or transmit all relevant documents to the Program Committee Co-Chairs, Gina Athena Ulysse (Wesleyan University) and Roberto Strongman (University of California Santa Barbara) at firstname.lastname@example.org
NEWS FLASH: VODOU not VOODOO
The Congress of Santa Barbara (KOSANBA), the Scholarly Association for the Study of Haitian Vodou, housed at the Center for Black Studies Research, University of California, Santa Barbara, was informed by Professor Kate Ramsey from the University of Miami, who just received the news, that the Library of Congress has officially changed its nomenclature from "voodooism" to Vodou. This is a great victory. Dr. Ramsey spearheaded the effort, petitioning the Library of Congress, together with a large number of Haitian and non-Haitian scholars and practitioners. KOSANBA joined this effort and we rejoice in the Library of Congress's decision.Read more... (click to expand/collapse)
One notes that this welcomed change away from "voodooism" — a term which had been pejorative since the 1920s — to "Vodou" occurs at the very moment that the religion is under attack in Haiti, with the abrogation of Article 297 of the Constitution of 1987. Article 297 had lifted the unwarranted penalties established in 1935 for so-called "superstitious behaviors." Removing that article from the Haitian Constitution is an attack on the freedom of religions of all Haitians. KOSANBA has already denounced this action by the government of Haiti in a strongly worded statement that is presented on this website (below).
The Library of Congress has taken the unusual step to follow its decision by issuing a statement. In an e-mail to Dr. Ramsey, dated October 24th, 2012, the Library representative Janis L. Young, from the Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress, wrote: "PSD was petitioned by a group of scholars and practitioners of vodou to change the spelling of the heading Voodooism. They successfully argued that vodou is the more accurate spelling, and that the spelling 'voodoo' has become pejorative. The base heading was revised to Vodou on this list, and all other uses of the word 'voodoo' in references and scope notes have also been revised."
KOSANBA, as a scholarly organization, more than ever pledges to pursue its work for the defense and illustration of Vodou, Haiti's national religion, which continues to play a major role in the socio-economic, political, and cultural arenas in the country. KOSANBA reaffirms its position that Vodou is a rich cultural expression of a people with a powerful historical legacy, a history of successful resistance, and ancestral traditions which continue to sustain its people despite trying political and environmental circumstances.
For the Executive Committee:
Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith
Dr. LeGrace Benson
Dr. Claudine Michel
LE VODOU, PATRIMOINE CULTUREL DE LA REPUBLIQUE D'HAITI VODOU, POTOMITAN PEYI DAYITI
La liberté de religion est un droit sacré reconnu dans toutes les sociétés ouvertes et éclairées. Nous du groupe du Congrès de Santa Barbara (KOSANBA), une organisation basée aux Etats-Unis avec une branche en Haïti, et dont la mission porte sur les travaux de recherche sur le Vodou Haïtien, déplorons l'abrogation de l'Article 297 de la Constitution de 1987 en vigueur. Nous interprétons cet acte comme une attaque importante contre le Vodou, religion nationale qui fait partie intégrante de notre héritage culturel. Nous considérons cet assaut comme une violation des droits humains de ceux qui révèrent les esprits ancestraux tout en adorant le Grand Maître, créateur et soutien de vie dans le Vodou, une religion Afro-Haïtienne qui est source de support et d'identité pour notre people.Read more... (click to expand/collapse)
Libète nan domenn larelijyon se yon dwa total kapital pou tout sitwayen/sitwayènn nan sosyete ki respekte dwa moun. Nou menm ki fè pati gwoup Kongrè Santa Barbara (KOSANBA), yon òganizasyon akademik ki okipe zafè rechèch sou kesyon Vodou Ayisen nan peyi Etazini avèk lakay nou tou, nou leve kanpe pou nou di non ke nou pa dakò ak zak retire Atik 297 nan Konstitisyon 1987 la ki se yon blòk fondasyon pou peyi Dayiti. Nou wè aksyon sa a kom yon kokennchen atak sou Vodou an ki si tèlman enpòtan nan eritaj kiltirel nou an. Pou nou menn nan KOSANBA atak sa a se yon gwo vyolans kont dwa moun avèk kont moun yo tou ki kwè nan lespri zansèt yo ansanm avek nan Gran Mèt la ki te kreye kretyen vivan e ki bay yo lavi nan relijyon Vodou a, yon relijyon ki gen sous li an Afrik Ginen e ki ede pep la pran kouraj pou lit toulèjou l an menm tan nap toujou kenbe tèt nou wo ak anpil fyète.
Le Vodou est une source d'accumulation d'expériences, de savoir et de sagesse qui a sauvegardé nos ancêtres Africains durant la traversée transatlantique, en face de la brutalité de l'esclavage, et tout au cours de la lutte pour la dignité humaine et la libération contre les puissances coloniales. Le Vodou a servi de force constante pour qu'Haïti continue à être une nation indépendante, libre et souveraine. C'est ce même Vodou qui a gardé vivant l'héritage du passé et du présent, résistant aux forces qui tentaient de l'annihiler, se développant et s'adaptant continuellement tout au cours de notre histoire en réponse aux circonstances politiques, économiques et environnementales.
Vodou a se yon gwo manman papa system ki pèmèt nou konprann tou sa k ap pase nan lavi nou. Li ban nou fòs, li ban nou konesans ak sajès. Se menm sajès ak fòs sa a ki te pèmèt zansèt nou yo pa mouri pandan yo te sou bato ap sòt an Afrik. Se menm fòs sa a, mwèl sa a, nannan sa a ki te pèmet zanset yo kanpe pou dechouke lesklavaj, pou kontinye lit ki pou ta fè yo vin respekte Ayisyen. Se menm Vodou sila a ki choute gwo peyi kolon yo, ki di yo mete yo deyò nan teritwa nou an. Relijyon nasyonal nou an se li menm ki pèmèt nou pwoteje eritaj gran moun nou yo te kite pou nou depi tan lontan jis rivè jounen jodi a. Vodou a di li pap bese tèt, li pap kite lòt moun obyen lot peyi peze kou l. Li di lap ede nou vanse. Li di lap kanpe pi rèd pou ede pèp la sipote tout vye bagay ki pase nan istwa peyi a. Vodou a li kanpe djanm anfas tout kalite pwoblèm politik, pwoblèm lajan ansanm avek katastwòf natirèl n ap pran san rete.
Bien imbu de la portée de ces attaques contre le Vodou et contre les croyants embrassant cette religion nationale, fort de l'impact de cette intolérance religieuse et des vastes conséquences que cet état de fait peut avoir sur notre société, le Congrès de Santa Barbara (KOSANBA) réitère sa désapprobation vis à vis de l'abrogation de l'Article 297 et regrette ces téméraires changements constitutionnels.
KOSANBA s'engage à continuer à travailler pour la défense et l'illustration du Vodou Haïtien, en tant que potomitan, point central du patrimoine national, faisant partie intégrante de notre avenir comme nation fière et peuple prospère.
KOSANBA konnnen devan dèyè, anwo anba, ki jan atak sa yo kont Vodou se move bagay. KOSANBA konnen atak sa yo kont kretyen vivan ki fè pati fanmi Vodouizan, se yon move koze pou peyi Dayiti. Se yon endikasyon ki kom vle di peyi a pa respekte relijyon tout moun. Se yon zak ki kapab pote anpil dezagreman pou sosyete a. Ankò, nou menm chèchè nan group KOSANBA a, nou repete alawonbadè ke nou pa dakò ak pawol retire Atik 297 la. Nou di tout moun tanpri silvouplè nan non zansèt yo pa manyen Konstitisyon si li pa fèt jan pou l fèt la.
Pou fèmen koze a, nou tout nan KOSANBA depi peyi Etazini kote nap travay la, ansanm avek kamarad KOSANBA nou yo ki kanpe djanm avèk nou an Ayiti, nou fè tout moun konnen nap kontinye kenbe drapo a fèm pou nou defann relijyon nasyonal nou an, pou nou edike moun kit lòt bò kit lakay sou valè Vodou a ki se yon kokenchen fòs pou peyi a, ki se yon gwo potomitan anba tonèl lakay. Vodou a se li ki pou soutni nou paske se li menm zansèt yo te kite pou nou. Se li menn ki nannan eritaj Lafrik Ginen nou. KOSANBA pa panse developman nan peyi a ka fèt tout bon san Vodou pa ladan. Se li ki pou kenbe nou. Se li ki pou ede nou vanse paske se li ki sous nou. Pa gen manti nan pawòl sa a!
Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith
Dr. LeGrace Benson
Dr. Claudine Michel
Au nom du Comité Exécutif de l'Association KOSANBA.
KOSANBA Calls for Maintaining Religious Freedom in Haiti
Freedom of religion is a sacred right recognized by all enlightened societies and nation states. The abrogation of Article 297 of the Constitution of 1987 en vigueur, is deplored and construed as an attack against Vodou and Haiti's cultural heritage. It is a violation of the human rights of those who revere their ancestral spirits and worship Gran Met, creator and sustainer of life in the Afro-Haitian religion of Vodou.
Read more... (click to expand/collapse)
Vodou is a repository of accumulated experience, knowledge and wisdom that upheld our African ancestors through the Middle Passage, the brutality of slavery, and the struggle for human dignity and liberation from colonial bondage. It has been a constant force in the continuation of Haiti as an independent nation. It has kept alive the heritage of the past and the present—growing, creating, and evolving in response to political, economic, and environmental circumstances.
Well aware of the meaning and implications of these attacks against Vodou and against the faithful through the abrogation of Article 297, the Congress of Santa Barbara (KOSANBA), the scholarly association for the study of Haitian Vodou, headquartered at the University of California, Santa Barbara, deplores these unwise constitutional changes. KOSANBA pledges to continue to work for the defense and illustration of Vodou, as it is a central feature of the national patrimony and an integral part of our future as a proud and prosperous people.
On behalf of the KOSANBA Board of Directors, for the Executive Committee,
INTRODUCTION TO HAITIAN VODOU
KOSANBA, the Congress of Santa Barbara, is a scholarly association for the study of Haitian Vodou based at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The recent tragedy in Haiti has generated new interest in Haiti and Haitian culture, including Vodou. Several years ago, the Center for Black Studies Research developed an online introduction to Haitian Vodou, featuring portraits of the Lwa (spirits) created by Haitian artist Hërsza Barjon. We encourage you to visit Divine Haiti for an introduction to this critical aspect of Haitian culture. Barjon's paintings are accompanied by texts explaining the role of each Lwa (by Kyrah M. Daniels) as well as a brief overview of Haitian Vodou (originally published by Dr. Claudine Michel in Ancestral Rays):
In an attempt to stop the practice of the Vodou religion, slaves were forbidden to organize public gatherings of any sort and, thus forced to hide their allegiance to their ancestral religion and to secretly worship their African deities. The imposition of European values and Catholicism by force and repression took many forms, from baptism to harsh corporal punishments and the systematic killing of Vodou priests and priestesses. These interdictions and repressive measures, which continued throughout Haiti’s history, and the clandestine nature of Vodou ceremonies which thus resulted, led to the revalorization of the very African cultural values that both Westerners and the Haitian elite had tried to suppress. The reality is that these various forms of systematic attempts of assimilation and acculturation of the Haitian people did not destroy our national religion which remains omnipresent, pervasive, strong and continues to perform important functions in all aspects of Haiti’s social life.
The Haitian ancestral religion represents a key element of Haitian consciousness and provides moral coherence through common cosmological understandings. The principles outlined here constitute some of the core moral values emphasized in the Haitian worldview. Vodou offers a particular ethical orientation grounded in both an African ontological conception of life and the Haitian realities—ecological, linguistic, economic, social and political. These religious and moral values pervade all dimensions of the Haitians’ quest for their African past and continue to assure the survival of these cultural and spiritual elements in the New World. Though the essence of these beliefs and principles originate from a worldview deeply rooted in the traditional African value system, they also remain authentically Haitian in their Creolized form.
Holistic Conception of Life All knowledge presupposes a fundamental holism grounded in the idea of oneness and unity of all forces of nature, in the idea of interdependence and interconnectedness of these forces, and in the premise of supremacy of totality over individuality. The universe is a seamless cosmos where every force of nature has meaning, and a connection with other entities. Creating dissonance in nature’s polyrhythms, disturbing the harmonious flow of energy, bringing about division in the community, are all acts which represent moral transgression in the Vodou world. Due to the web of interconnectedness, a person’s moral violations, distract, disturb, perturb the outer world which ought to seek restoration of its harmonious state and rhythm. Morality for those who serve the spirits is a constant effort to maintain social cohesion, harmony, and balance. What is right in the Vodou world is not a function of abstract reasoning, but is relative to what will achieve unity in the community.
Humanism Human beings occupy a central cosmic position in Haitian spirituality which is anthropocentric as well as humanist. Though people are not the rulers of creation, they are at the center of it, which explains why Vodou’s paramount goal is to improve living conditions on earth. The veneration of deities is purposeful and serves humans through blessings extending from good health and well-being, to marriage and love, to work and finances, to rain and plentiful harvest, and children who grow up to be respectful of people and traditions. Human connection is the assumption in the Haitian worldview: there is suppression of unique life history in favor of a collective personhood from which energy is derived. Individuals becomes real persons and true members of society only through their interactions with others; they define themselves and mature by being attentive and responsible in their relationships with family and community.
Centrality of Communality John Mbiti’s paradigm “we are, therefore I am” expresses well the “societary” essence of the Haitian community. It shows the ties that link members of the same community as part of the human web. We are not only accountable for our individual acts, but we are also responsible for people around us in that each of our actions and deeds influences the balance of the outer world. There are major communal expectations in the Vodou world, and the extended family—a highly valued institution which prepares the individual for integration into the larger community—is the first unit where this communal sense manifests itself. Ignoring family responsibilities, jeopardizing communal interests, and neglecting the Lwa are serious moral offenses which trigger the disapproval of the group and may endanger the care and protection of the spirits. Morality in the absolute sense can never be placed above the welfare of the collectivity.
Honor and Respect for Elders Customs and implicit rules regulate obligations and responsibilities towards the collectivity and the entities which compose it. Allegiance, love, prayers, faithfulness, respect, material support, as determined by seniority, status, and financial means, are due to all members of the group under all circumstances. However, extreme respect and honor are particularly accorded to the elders, the bearers of knowledge and wisdom, the repository of experience. Respecting them, honoring them, serving them is inherent in the very essence of the religion. To be virtuous is to provide for the elderly, to give them care, food, money, clothing, but also to show them love, respect, deference and appreciation. Failure to give absolute respect to elders may attract imbalance in the life of the person who erred and becomes morally destructive for the entire community.
Other virtues valued for their potential to help develop knowledge and wisdom among adepts of the Haitian religion include: beneficence, benevolence, generosity, hospitality, forbearance, forgiveness, sense of justice, magnanimity, and love, all qualities aiming at supporting the ultimate aim—the well-being and preservation of the community.
Vodou in Haiti is a means of resistance and organization; it has been employed to re-suture social identity, cultural integration and moral authority in the face of social and historical forces which tended towards annihilation for the slaves, and, in modern times, the exploitation of the Haitian masses. Clearly, Vodou, in its affirmation of our traditional moral values and its efforts to sustain a high sense of humanism and communality among the people of Haiti, has been a central thread in the very fabric of the Haitian experience. As such, it is a true measure and expression of national consciousness and of African continuity in the Americas. Vodou, with its powerful pedagogical methods, its strong democratic tradition, its history of revalorization of Haitian traditions and its contribution to the struggle for national identity and racial pride, might well be the link needed to help re-stitch the loose seams of Haitian culture and history.
Text by Dr. Claudine Michel, Professor Department of Black Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara and Editor, Journal of Haitian Studies