by Anusha Rainey
Voodoo has, for years, been depicted with scary dolls, zombies, and black magic rituals. If a traveler comes to New Orleans, it becomes a fun gimmick for tourists. But really, voodoo isn’t satanic and isn’t a tourist attraction. The religion that is voodoo derives from a number of spiritual beliefs from a number of ethnic african people, mainly coming from Benin. Traditionally spelled Vodou, this religion came to Haiti from west Africa, primarily Benin, but also parts of the Congo and Yoruba land.
It can be argued that Voodoo is a huge part of New Orleans culture. However, that claim is perhaps questionable. Bozanfe Bon Oungan, a Voodoo practitioner and shop keeper of the ‘Dark Lady’ on Magazine St. argues that New Orleans Voodoo is not the same as Haitian Voodoo. He begins by pointing out that when people were fleeing the Haitian revolution, Louisiana, which was under Spanish rule at the start of the revolution, would have turned away the ships carrying Haitian immigrants. The article, Haitian Immigration : Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries backs this claim by stating that the revolution was from 1791 to 1804, whereas Louisiana was governed by Spain, France, then the U.S., and that all of those governments would have turned away Haitian refugees because the fear of slave-revolts was very high.
However, the article also mentions that despite these governments prohibiting Haitian refugees, especially free men of color, the immigrants still came and bolstered the population of Louisiana.
Bozanfe Bon Ougan mentions, “Based on what had happened in Haiti, [1915-1934] the newspapers here throw around the “V” word at an actual African cultural survival that had nothing to do with us.” Meaning that most of the spiritual practices in New Orleans at that time did not self-identify as Voodoo. Obviously there would have been similarities, especially since Haiti and Louisiana were both French colonies and would have had enslaved people from around the same area. However, “It’s not Haitian at all. It never was at all, but the newspaper says the V word, the V word sticks ….” (Bozanfe Bon Ougan). The African religions were not very well understood and suppressed, especially during the Jim Crow years. Bozanfe Bon Ougan says that a good source to use to understand what was happening in New Orleans during that time is the writings of Zora Neale Hurston.
So, after many years of suppression and mis-information, Voodoo starts to become something people sell. In many cases, people read a book about Voodoo and claim that they can do spiritual work for people. That is just not how Voodoo works. One must have the rituals done and the training learned to be qualified as legitimate. “I think that the majority of the people that are practicing under the V word in New Orleans have no connection to african spirituality other than they think that they can read a book which lets them light a candle and they can charge someone money for that.” says Bozanfe Bon Ougan. Another point he makes is that religion is communal, and most people in New Orleans don’t have gatherings or parties for their spirits. No, Voodoo Fest does not count.
So why is it that so many Americans don’t realize Voodoo is a legitimate religion? Our shop keeper also has an answer. During 1915 to 1934, the U.S marines took out the Haitian government to have control of the area for U.S shipping routes. This was pre Civil Rights, so to justify these actions, a ton of propaganda was made. This included two books, Voodoo Fier in Haiti and The Magic Island. These books ouzzed racist propaganda. One problem, it became entertaining. It became HollyWood movies. Therefore, the word ‘voodoo’ became to mean so many negative things, like when Ragen used it as ‘Voodoo economics’.
And so Voodoo is looked upon as evil or simply not real. It can also be abused by people who do not understand the complex rituals, communities or history of the religion. Voodoo, such as the religion Santo, or even Christain religions, needs community to be religion. People should not pick and choose information from different terminologies and call themselves a religion that they are not. Voodoo deserves the respect and understanding that other religious organizations have.