N’auront-ils rien?

“Erzulie Dantor” by Nadine Fortius, 2005: at Indigo Arts Gallery

Les noirs, dont les pères sont en Afrique, n’auront-ils rien?
(The Blacks, whose fathers are in Africa, will they have nothing?)
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

A recent commenter on my blog noted:

I discovered this article and you while looking into Voodoo studies. I was curious after seeing all the books you put out, if you were black, Haitian, Creole, white. I will just say that I find your stance on “whiteness,” for someone who has profited and been enriched by cultures and spiritual practices of the African diaspora, disturbing. This is an older article so hopefully your perspective has evolved.

Why do you assume that being pro-European and studying one’s European roots must inevitably lead to a dislike of non-Whites?  I hate nobody who doesn’t hate me.  I turned away from writing about Vodou not out of contempt but with profound respect. There are Haitian teachers who have forgotten more about Vodou than I will ever know, Houngans and Mambos who grew up in the tradition like their grandparents and great-grandparents before them.  They have been part of this great drama since its beginning: the history of Haiti is  the history of Vodou.

With the lwa at their side, ragtag bands of slaves defeated one of Europe’s mightiest empires and conquered her wealthiest colony. Ridden by Ogou, Dessalines grabbed a French flag and ripped the white out of it.  The ensuing shock waves forced Napoleon to sell  the Louisiana Territory: fearing bloody rebellions on her shores, America forbade further import of African slaves.  The Lwa stomped their feet and the whole world trembled.  They created Haiti and the Haitian people through a revolution no more and no less cruel than the system they overthrew.

alexandre petion
Alexandre Pétion

In 1810 Alexandre Pétion implemented a land policy inspired by the French Revolution. Under his watch soldiers in the War for Haitian Independence were granted small tracts of land: others were able to buy their own plots at cheap prices.  Pétion hoped to create a class of yeoman farmers and small landholders. But most who got their land from the President they called “Papa bon Couer” (Good-hearted father) had other ideas. Setting up as subsistence farmers, they worked to recreate the existence they remembered from Africa. They grew their own food and honored their ancestral spirits as they had done in Gineh. After the horrors of the indigo and sugarcane plantations they wanted nothing more than to recreate the land of their Folk — and who could blame them?

Alas, a lifestyle which worked well on southwestern Africa’s vast tracts of land was less suited to an island nation the size of Maryland. The first owners passed on and divided their land amongst their heirs: their heirs did the same. To make matters worse, irrigating the highland farms led to massive runoff of topsoil.  Within a few generations tracts which could easily support extended clans had been divided into plots that could barely feed a small family.  Many Haitians found themselves forced to leave their land and their shrines and travel to the cities in search of work.

But African traditional religions, like most Polytheistic faiths, are strongly tied to place as well as blood. Those family plots held family boneyards and family shrines. These economic migrants weren’t just ripped away from their homes and communities: they were ripped away from their spirits.  To meet their needs, a number of Haitian Freemasons pooled their resources and their spirits and prepared a reglamen, an order in which the ancestral spirits could be served and a Sevis Gineh (African service) in which devotees from different African groups could honor their family spirits alongside others honoring theirs.

Whereas the original traditions were ancestral (including the sacred rattle, the asson, which was originally reserved for a Dahomean priest-clan), Sevis Gineh sought to bring Haitians together in recognition and celebration of their African roots. This opened the door for non-Haitians to be initiated into this faith community.  A Russian-Jewish dancer named Maya Deren was among the earliest non-Haitian initiates: her Divine Horsemen remains a valuable text even today.  Others soon followed, and, in March 2003 yr. humble author was initiated Houngan Coquille du Mer by Mambo Azan Taye (Edeline St-Amand) and Houngan Si Gan Temps (Hugue Pierre) at Société la Belle Venus #2 in Brooklyn, New York.

Detail from a Bizango altar

Joining a peristyle is easier than entering a secret society like the Sanpwel or Bizango: Port-au-Prince is more accessible than the remote arrondissements where ancestral “kwakwa” traditions are favored over the asson lineages.  As a result, Sevis Gineh has become synonymous with “Vodou” among most non-Haitians. But this has also led to Vodou being treated as a Universalist faith like Christianity when it is no such thing.  Even a comparatively open tradition like Sevis Gineh does not proclaim universal truths for all peoples: instead it gives initiates entry into a mystery tradition and access to secret power and wisdom. And like any secret tradition worthy of the name, Sevis Gineh protects its mysteries from the profane and reveals only that which the initiate is qualified to receive.

For Haitians Vodou is a link to their birthright, culture and heritage. For Black initiates Sevis Gineh allows them to get in touch with the African roots pulled up by the Middle Passage.  Those whose ancestors were last in Africa several ice ages ago can be grafted onto the tree and enter into a relationship with the Haitian spirits.  This can be a deeply personal and gratifying encounter: I have met many White non-Haitian initiates who serve the lwa faithfully and seriously.  But their experience of Vodou — my experience of Vodou — is qualitatively different than Vodou as experienced by a Haitian initiate. The rituals carry a different emotional payload, the double and triple entendres contained in many chante lwa (lwa songs) are lost on us, the stories lack the backstories Haitians grow up hearing.  We can empathize with slaves but we do not carry the lash and the chain in our DNA.

For many non-Haitian Vodouisants, Ancestral work consists of lighting candles before pictures of deceased relatives.  But Ancestral work also involves a commitment to the descendants of your ancestors, your family and your greater family.  The Ancestors of Haitian Vodou  trace their heritage back to Africa: my Ancestral roots are in European soil. And so, as the founders of Sevis Gineh sought to preserve African faith and culture in their homeland, I am concentrating on preserving European traditions in Europe and the European Diaspora.  Ancestral veneration is at the heart of all Polytheistic traditions: the temple has always been the center toward which the Folk turned and the pillar on which they crafted their identity as a people.

This has nothing to do with hating non-Europeans: neither does it preclude honest acknowledgement of the sins of our forefathers.  But if we are to condemn our Ancestors for their horrible deeds, let us also acknowledge their glorious acts.  And let us also note that Europeans have shown a remarkable facility for self-criticism.  Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea over memorials to the Korean “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery.  Turkey has yet to acknowledge its role in the Armenian Genocide.  Israel continues to brand those who point out its ongoing excesses in the Palestinian Territories as “anti-Semites.” Whether or not Europeans have done enough to atone for our sins is a matter of debate: that we are exceptional in acknowledging those sins is not.

6 thoughts on “N’auront-ils rien?

  1. This is a wonderful, thoughtful reply to a knee-jerk comment by someone who sees the evils of whiteness everywhere. I’ve noticed in reading left-leaning websites that only white people can commit the sin of cultural appropriation and only white people are racists; I have also recently learned that all mass killers are white, too. No ancestor who was involved in slavery or conquest of one kind or other? Not to worry, you’re still guilty of white privilege. It gets exhausting.

    I read somewhere or other that the Asatru Folk Assembly has a rather minimal percent of northern European ancestry required for membership. The same folks who yell about white people’s interest in their native religions are probably screaming that the AFA is racist for wanting the members of its obviously European group to be, well, European. You can’t win against the onslaught of idiocy, but thank you for trying.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Reblogged this on Gangleri's Grove and commented:
    I’m probably going to get shit for posting this, but it’s a very, very good and thoughtful article, even if you don’t agree. Ancestor work isn’t just about pouring out offerings. It changes everything in one’s life and one’s relationship with one’s world. It requires commitment to one’s community, to one’s ancestral lands, to all those places where the bones of our people have been laid to rest. It’s another reminder that modern “values” and polytheism make poor bedfellows.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I read about your Vodou experience and your books too. I could not understand why a white guy would be into that. I would not consider getting initiated into Vodou. It is an African religion.

    Our capacity for self criticism just leads to endless doubt and apologies to people that do not deserve it. It is exploited by those that hate us. It needs to stop, and I would not encourage other peoples to imitate this. Not that anyone else seems to pick it up. Those promoting self hating ideologies are subversives.

    The Mongols worship Genghis Khan to this day. Didn’t anyone tell them that imperialism is bad? I once had a Turk make some snide remark to me about stolen land that I live on. I told him to ride his pony back to the steppe and stop occupying Anatolia. He responded with “We Turks won this land by conquest” without a hint of irony. I have yet to hear from a Tatar, Berber, Arab, or Turk a hint of regret for their enslavement of Europeans.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with your first part, but the second is not the correct conclusion to draw. Responsibility is vastly different from self-hate; when we criticize imperialism (or colonialism), we ought to do so uniformly, hating rather the idea than those who are unfortunately misled by it. You are correct to infer that many people in the world are deceived by the seeming glory of imperialism and conquest, but a commonly held conception does not make a right conception, especially for someone educated in history, society and religion who seeks a greater lesson for the good of the world. It is quite rare for me to hold any universal beliefs, but reflection and study have taught me that it is absolutely worthwhile, reasonable and just to condemn all imperialism as a universal principle. Actually, if there was ever a “devil” in polytheism, I’d venture to call it just that—imperialism. P.S. The “Turk” you met was probably from Anatolia and misinformed (like most of the rest) about his real ethnic people (i.e. Hittite, Greek, Armenian, etc).


  4. The AFA is embracing the modern idea of whiteness/a white race. They should only allow people with significant Germanic ancestry. Anything else is cultural appropriation. You aren’t really honouring your ancestors if you don’t follow their religion. This is what lead me to leave Hellenic polytheism and practice Gaulish polytheism since I as a French Canadian have no ancestral connection to the Gods of Hellas other than that they were an Indo-Euro culture of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said. Whiteness is a term that makes little sense. There are even problems with defining national identities, such as what exactly “Greekness” is. To my thinking, we should always reduce the confusion rather than increase it. I am disappointed that AFA has changed its policy about membership. If they are looking for quantity rather than quality, it can only reminds me of the Christian expansionism. If they are implying that all Europeans by right should follow the Germanic Gods, it reminds me of the Nazis, who held the Germanic race to be the rightful leader of the Indo-Europeans. Hail to the brave Gauls!

      Liked by 1 person

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