More than Skin Deep: Haitian Vodou, Corporate Social Activism and the Commodification of Healing

“In partnership with Direct Relief, The Vaseline® Healing Project is an aid effort to provide dermatological care, Vaseline® Jelly & medical supplies needed to help heal the skin of people affected by poverty or emergencies around the world.”

What do we think of a religion that helped to bring nearly a half a million enslaved black people into freedom during the Age of Independence when the US was still emerging out of its own colonial rule? Do we demonize it? Do we celebrate? As I am very interested in the representation of black spirituality in popular media these days, this virtual-reality documentary on Haitian Vodou  caught my eye because it is produced by a corporation. I honestly don’t know what to make of it, so I could use some help. Is it a commercial? Is it the promotion of a dedicated religious community and their widely misunderstood tradition? Is it a strategic business initiative designed to address some of the pressing medical and health needs in one of the most impoverished countries in the western hemisphere? One could try to view this video using an historical perspective or through a contemporary critical lens. You could, as I did, scan it warily for signs of product placement. It might be that I am too cynical to see a real public good coming from one of the largest and oldest multinational corporations whose ostensible purpose in this world is to sell more of its fantastically popular petrochemical consumer items and add to its bottom line. Still, I was struck by the sensitivity of this piece, and especially use of the term healing with respect to practitioners of Haitian Vodou in the video, and how ideas of physical care and spiritual care are conjoined in a conversation about Religion, ceremony, and the ethics of community care.


photo by Stephanie Mei-Ling

The notion that ritual practice in Africana religions can be boiled down to the idea of healing was a position most emphatically taken by the late Karen McCarthy Brown in her prize-winning book on Haitian practitioners in New York City. “There is no Vodou ritual, small or large, individual or communal,” she argued, “which is not a healing rite.” So it is a hopeful sign to me when academic analysis is affirmed in popular discourse, whether by a non-academic authority or a large advertising company. On the other hand, the video may be little more than a glossy example of the commodification of religion for different purposes that goes on in our culture, or simply a good-will public relations gesture that endorses the progressive agenda of corporate social responsibility and sustainable practices. It may also be that the lovely and sincere Mambo featured above has done more in this brief and sympathetic video to humanize the religious traditions of serving the spirits in Haiti than any of our many written sources and academic textbooks on the subject could ever do. So, if you please, watch the film and decide. One thing that is certain, I don’t know if we will ever see something comparable to this for Africana religions in the United States, particularly with the ritual traditions of the Black church. I think African American Christians tend to resist being exoticized when it comes to their practices, especially by outsiders. It can be dangerously offensive, and also has the potential for too many awful memes and jokes about black folks and ashy skin.

Published by Y. Chireau

Africana Religions Magic Spirituality

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