The Myth of “Voodoo”: A Caribbean American Response to Representations of Haiti

At a time when increasing numbers of informed audiences in both scholarly and popular circles have begun to recognize African religious cultures and the rich contributions they have made to African diaspora civilizations, Pat Robertson has made another dubious contribution to America’s fascination with the ‘problem of Haiti.’

As Robertson narrates it, in his latest fiction-disguised-as-revelation, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti,” and that something was Haiti’s vodou heritage. The earthquake, an unfortunate turn of events in Haiti’s unnatural history, presents Robertson, and the Christian cohorts supporting his ministry, yet another platform to characterize Haiti as a reprobate nation destined to suffer one disaster after another under the curse of either the Christian devil or God.

African Religious Legacy

To set the record straight, the varied imperial and stateless civilizations of Africa each had their own established religious beliefs, practices and institutions well before any exposure to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Vodou, a term with endless contemplative meanings and inferences, including “god,” “spirit,” and “deep mystery” is one such religious culture that should not be misconstrued as any devil-dealing clan.

Today, libraries of reliable scholarship confirm Vodou’s credibility as a viable historic and contemporary tradition most prominent in West Africa and Haiti. This religious heritage links Haiti, Benin, Togo, and Ghana through a civilizing legacy where cognate cosmologies, philosophies, languages, medical therapies, diets, rites of passage, codes of conduct, aesthetic norms, artistic conventions, and technologies furnish entire communities with a shared sense of identity and the ritual/theological grammars required to guide their common life and transmission of humanity from one generation to the next.

If God’s Good Nature is Reflected in the Slave Trade, What was the Devil Up To?

American ignorance of Vodou beliefs and practices aside, I am befuddled by Robertson’s lack of reflection on what his tall tale of Haiti’s unpaved road to hell inevitably registers about the nature of the Christian God. Where was the almighty Christian God when Haiti’s founding patriots and defenders of human liberty allegedly “swore a pact to the devil?”

There is something sinister at work when a god who is purportedly all-loving, just and powerful over human history is reconciled effortlessly with the jarringly asymmetrical social and historical arrangements like the transatlantic slave trade and ensuing slave economies in the Caribbean and the Americas. If racial slavery of this sort was an expression of “God’s” good nature, then how should we understand the devil’s nature in this theological schema?

Robertson would say that Haiti’s centuries-long struggle for freedom, sovereignty, and dignity is indeed a demonic project—but it would have been hard for captive Africans in Saint-Domingue to embrace the divine character of their colonizers’ Christian God. What the colonial ruling class understood to be either divine or demonic in the Christian pantheon, the enslaved African laborers had to have understood as one and the same evil force.

Prayers for Protection

While the details concerning how Vodou traditions played a role in fortifying Haiti’s foundational freedom fighters during the revolutionary period are inconclusive, the devil is not in the details of this narrative; and there is no dispute about the fact that Vodou is. Pat Robertson is now reading a page from the same narrative fiction that his White racist Christian predecessors scripted soon after the birth of the Haitian Republic. But the re-naming of Vodou’s divine community with the moniker “devil” only reminds us that twenty-first century North America has no shortage of contemporary counterparts to the slave-breaking masters who claimed the right to re-name the human beings they believed they owned.

Today, white Christian missionaries retain power over representations of African civilizations, often influencing the African and Caribbean sheep among their flocks to condemn ancient African religions and customs. Long after the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean and the United States, Mr. Robertson and others in his camp can’t seem to restrain themselves from trying to beat Haiti’s saltwater heritage into total submission.

Sadly, some Haitians, especially born-again Christians of the Pat Robertson and John Hagee persuasions, have joined their White Christian masters in this seasoning ritual. Though they are determined to interpret Vodou religious services like the legendary Bois Caïman ceremony as conventions with the “devil,” most Haitians need no cues from alien interpreters when it comes to their history and religious heritage: Bois Caïman is one of many Haitian landscapes where the divine Vodou community mercifully answered their founding ancestors’ prayers for guidance and protection during their struggle to liberate the island from slavery and colonial rule.

In all religions, gods are summoned to support their devotees in times of war and peace, tragedy, and celebration. Vodou is no different.

Vodou Priests and Priestesses were First Responders

It is probably futile, and ill-advised, to try and assuage the Western personality’s anxieties about (self-generated) legacies of mythical “voodoos” in the region. Yet many able respondents have followed this course, assuring audiences that Haitians are for the most part tamed and predictable Christians. And yes, most Haitians are self-professed Christians—though we should remain aware of the privileges that accrue to the enslaved and colonized who affiliate with the religions of Empire.

This line of discussion, however, concedes to the fear that behind the portrait of meandering earthquake survivors peacefully singing Christian hymns in the streets of Port-au-Prince is a barbaric “voodoo” ceremony waiting to unfold. It is for this reason that accessible Vodou priests and priestesses who were first responders, providing medical care to wounded victims pouring into their temples in the immediate aftermath of the quake, remain unaccounted for in the US American media’s roll call of international heroes and heroines now at work in Haiti.

Whether strict Vodou practitioners or dually aligned members of Vodou temples and Christian churches, the millions of Haitians whose lives are touched by Vodou in countless ways remain unaccounted for when the primary rejoinder to America’s fear of the “voodoo” it created in the first place is to reassure the world of Haiti’s established Christian identity.

Notwithstanding Haiti’s Christian character, the Haitian personality, if there is one, has been nurtured by a Vodou civilization that any responsible treatment of the subject must disentangle from the Western world’s manufactured “voodoo” culture. To be sure, both traditions exist, but audiences should not confuse one with the other; they are mutually exclusive and distinct.

Given the outrageous mischaracterizations of Haiti’s Vodou heritage that have come to signify the gospel truth for so many over the past few centuries, outsiders desiring reliable information about Haitian Vodou and its West African foundations should consult the ever-growing body of scholarship that gives the topic serious scientific attention.

Body of Christ, Bodies of Slaves

What the “voodoo” of popular America and Pat Robertson actually demonstrates is an index of their very own Christian heritage. More than anything it is a sordid effigy of the Western body of Christ as experienced by commodified African bodies. It is a register of the most pervasive expressions of Western Christian culture encountered by captive Africans and their descendants since the first Christian chapels were erected at Elmina, Cape Coast, Ouida, Gorée, and other commercial slave dungeons along the Atlantic coast of Africa beginning in the fifteenth century.

In the end, I must concur with Mr. Robertson: “Something” did “[happen] a long time ago in Haiti, and people [do not] want to talk about it.” Enslaved Africans asserted their humanity, religious freedom and political sovereignty and, under the influence of sour grapes, Western powers have sent one ‘earthquake’ after another Haiti’s way ever since.

dianne.diakite@emory.edu'

Dianne M. Diakité is associate professor of Religion and African American Studies at Emory University. She is originally from Jamaica and grew up in the Northeastern US. She is the author of Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience.