She belongs to everyone, now.
I knew that it was time to write this post after all of the students in the class I was teaching had seen the third season of the FX series American Horror Story, starring Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau, except me. Most of my students had never heard of Mme Marie before the show, mind you, so it was a perfect opportunity to use television to learn something about a fascinating figure in Africana traditions who is both a cultural icon and an historical personality. Those who know her understand that her impact intersects broadly with New World and African religions and magic in the past and present, and extends into Hoodoo Studies and American religion. I still haven’t watched the show, but I am entranced by the sheer variety of guises under which the character of Marie Laveau appears in visual and performed representations. Nonetheless it is pretty clear that little is known about the actual person, her thoughts, her words, and her experiences in New Orleans some 150 years ago. True to form, she remains a mystery. Some say that there were two Marie Laveaux, with her daughter and namesake adopting her physical identity and practice after her death, bequeathing to the historical character a kind of earthly immortality. Today, many consider her to be a witch, a Voodoo queen, a ghost, or a local saint modeled in the style of other unofficial Catholic goddesses. There are numerous tales, stories, and oral accounts that claim to tell us who she really was; and yet I find it remarkable that the visual images have portrayed her in such dramatically different ways over the years. She most certainly embodies the trope of the Conjure woman, the quintessential black folk heroine who elides neatly drawn divisions between morality and (supernatural) power, particularly in her role as an occult agent, first as a slave, then later, as an American subaltern. The Conjure woman inhabits literary and visual figurations of the actual vocations of African American women in history from slavery to the present, including Hoodoo and root workers, spiritualists, herbalists, seer/diviners, healers, and priestesses. The Conjure woman is, of course, the subject of much racialized, gendered, and religious meaning and discussion, and her fluid morphology fully allows for this. Still, the freedom with which illustrators have interpreted the form of Marie Laveau offers a compelling testimony to her resilience as an inspiring social actor. Here, below right, she melds her role as a successful purveyor of love spells for wealthy white patrons with that of a Haitian Mambo, as portrayed by the contemporary artist Ulrich Jean Pierre. Again, depictions of magically adept African American women as accomplices of white female clients is a theme that one finds in peripheral arenas of American art, such as the largely unexamined series of black female fortunetellers, spiritual readers, and other Conjuring women by the genre painter Harry Herman Roseland in the early twentieth century. At the same time, one might consider Mme. Marie’s resurgence in visual media to be somewhat paradoxical. This is because even though she is extremely well-known to denizens and travelers of the mystic roads, celebrated as a powerful representative of Africana spiritualities, the embodiment of Marie Laveau as the Conjure woman is still viewed with some ambivalence by those in the larger culture. Is she dangerous? Is she evil? Does she work with both hands? Can she be trusted? Does she practice the “good” Voodoo? Certainly, some representations exploit the sense of danger by emphasizing the sinister elements, as with the American Horror Story theme of Marie as the ruthless boss of a rival gang of witches, or with the Marie Laveau of the graphic novel, a badass and occasional scary nemesis of Brother Voodoo, Doctor Strange, and Blade Vampire Hunter in the Marvel Comics Universe.
Although there are a few good books about Marie Laveau, and much scholarship dedicated to debunking non-historical and non-verifiable claims about her, I find that most academic studies have done little to illuminate the person behind the legend. This is probably as it should be, since Marie Laveau properly belongs in the realm of religion and mythology, where she continues to live as a being who can, presumably, speak for herself. And this she does. To be sure, the measure of honor, reverence, and respect that is normally accorded the dead in African-derived ceremonial practices has elevated Marie Laveau. For some New Orleanians, she has even acquired the status of deified ancestor and is now a loa. And while the transformation of extraordinary humans after death into powerful beings who inhabit a realm beyond our own occurs as a matter of course within many religions, it is quite another thing to observe and chart the process in real-time. I am most interested in these apotheoses as they occur in contemporary visual and narrative formats, and especially in popular media. The form could take any number of manifestations – right now I am buried knee deep in representations of Mme Marie (as one of many other Africana religion figures) in comics and graphic novels – but one could also easily chart the evolution of the Marie Laveau character in other cultural artifacts, in films, and in sensational literary renderings, as with this sad pulpy collection of “legends lore and unvarnished truth” about the Voodoo Queen by the amateur historian and publisher Raymond J. Martinez. (Contrast this book cover with the hot, stylized version of Marie Laveau envisioned by New Orleans-born publisher and Hoodoo authority Denise Alvarado, below left, and this vintage, smutty reprint of the famous novel by Robert Tallant, Jr.).
When trying to make sense of the current promotion of Mme Marie it helps to know that the historical Marie Laveau was said to be something of a business woman herself – the stories tell us that although she purportedly made her living as a hair-dresser, she was mainly sought after for her magical charms, healings, spells, and other services that she offered to an exclusive following of well-heeled clients. Still, like many other part-time Hoodoo providers, she was responsibly pious, and her entrepreneurial aspirations were matched by her dedication to nineteenth-century New Orleans’ diverse community of Voodoo worshippers. Buoyed by religious convictions and the strength of Mme Marie’s charismatic leadership, a rough assortment of African slaves, free blacks, gens de couleur, whites, and creoles would organize into participatory gatherings with other servitors, initiates, performers, musicians, and onlookers for the seasonal fets for the Spirits that she sponsored down by the banks of Lake Pontchartrain and at the urban crossroads of Place Congo. In much the same way, today it is believed that she presides over important festivals and rites for followers of contemporary Voodoo traditions in New Orleans.
It seems to me that everyone feels free to adopt a piece of Marie Laveau for themselves, picking off some part of her to identify with, so that the myth re-forms itself again and again around what one thinks she is. In the meantime I wonder if anyone actually knows her? Certainly not the Catholic Church, nor any religion, nor a television show can lay full claim to her essential being. Still, by taking even a little bit of Mme Marie to do what we will, we contribute to her renown or her notoriety, and in the end we are left only with our creations and impressions, which may or may not bring us face-to-face with something real. Mythologies are never a matter of Truth anyway, but myths can be empowered so as to make them more real and thereby more true to us. And so, what do you think of – or even better, who do you see – as the real Marie Laveau?