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