Black Gods of the Cosmopolis!

orixas-canudo

This is the third in a series of posts on Africana religions and the comics.

Some remarkable images made their way around the astral digital space this week. Aficionados of black religion will immediately recognize these extraordinary renderings of the popular divinities in Brazil that are known as orixas. Worshipped throughout the Americas but especially beloved in Bahia, the orixas (called òrìsàs in Yoruba) first arrived in the western hemisphere during the 16th century, having secreted themselves in the hearts of enslaved black people, hidden but everlasting passengers in the long transatlantic crossing of Africans into the New World. Brilliantly conceived by artist Hugo Canuto, here the orixas are envisioned as fantastic avatars whose extravagant force and primordial energy are represented in images that pay homage to the kinesthetic stylings of legendary comics artist Jack Kirby. elegba-canutoSimilar to the rishis of India, it is said that these beings first appeared to humanity during the eternal time before written history. Distant emissaries of Light, the orisas brought knowledge to gods and kings, descended from heaven and deigned to reside in splendid fluorescent cities. Otherworldly yet eminently cosmopolitan, they took up earthly residence in locations that brought forth the great civilizations of West Africa. Ile-Ife! Oyo! Eligibo! Fluorescent cities indeed. Clothed in matter, these majestic entities dwelled in resplendence, bearing royal emblems and sigils by which they enacted the elemental principles of divine presence on this planet: Creation, Water, Wisdom, Justice, Thunder, War, Fire, Air. There are twelve orixas in Canuto’s dazzling recasting of these cosmic luminaries, but unlike the inhabitants of Kirby’s own Fourth World series of The New Gods, these gods are not new at all. The orisas show themselves right here, right now, through an essential energy called àse, the power-to-make-things-happen. As personifications of the One, the orisas appear continuously in hierophanies and ritual performances, and they are embraced by millions of adherents, even as they efface boundaries between liminal and profane space-time to become some of the most fabulous religious celebrities in contemporary Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, and even the United States. How is it possible? To better understand we look to an ancient technology that scholars have euphemistically termed spirit possession.oxum-canuto The phrase refers to an arcane process of manifestation, mysterious to outsiders, that utilizes sound and color to instill complex vibrational patterns by which these intelligent and benevolent powers activate within physical form. Spirit possession is something of a science that requires the artist’s imagination, the dancer’s stamina, and the individual’s selfless integrity in order to enable an orisa to occupy a human body. And while only committed adepts and priests are deemed worthy of this sublime blessing, it exists primarily for the benefit of the greater community. Look at this video of orixa trance possessions in a Candomble ceremony, in which the deities “mount” human vessels in a magnificent spectacle of drumming and movement. True virtuosi, religious initiates and mediums privilege the act of embodying Spirit as their service to humanity. And as we see throughout the black Atlantic world, whether in Afro-Christian Spiritual Churches or with Haitian Vodouisants, Africana religions elevate their celebration of embodiment to the status of a sacrament. This is to say that the incarnation of Spirit may be considered a kind of sacred magic, an action of profound significance, and not to be trifled with by dilettantes, those who are selfish, or those who are insincere.

In his graphic novel American Gods Neil Gaiman creates the United States as a place where forgotten and abandoned deities subsist in the desolate shadows of a darkened spiritual landscape, hungry for reverence and the satisfaction of human devotion. Not so in African America, where one needs only to look to the resplendent cities at the center of the world where the orisas return time and again to grace the earth and its people. For it is true that every sacred center is transformed into a microcosmic city when divineogun-canuto consciousness organizes physical and temporal space according to its unique vision. Where a pageant of black gods dances into the present – kings, queens, warriors, sages, storytellers, and doctors – each is welcomed with song and salutation appropriate to their purpose. And though it may be a mystery to those who will not enter these realms, for others it is a prerogative of magic and faith. The familiar Christian saga tells how God took on the burden of flesh in order to save humans from their own perishable existence. But what of gods who take form so as to make the human body divine? Such is the inspiration and power of the sacred life, where the deities come to earth to be with us, and to be us, at least for a little while. Inhabiting the body of the devotee, the orisas become as human and as divine as we are, in a brief moment. It is often stated that orisas are “mythological,” and that they only exist in made-up worlds that are not “real.” Still, we see that their real meaning is more than a fairy tale, a fantasy, or a legend; it is an expression of celestial sensibilites in earthly awareness; it is grounding and anchoring a certainty that skepticism and doubt can’t erode; it is the hope and the dream of the slave, and it is the recollection and memory of ancestral Africa. And it is not only through literature and art that we experience narratives of divine visitation, for such great spiritual wealth rewards our understanding through living teachings of morality and healing. May Spirit bring us to the shared pathway to eternity, by the recapitulation of constant creation that joins heaven and earth: Orun Aiye.

I am grateful to the artist for permission to reproduce these images. For more Orixa-inspired comics available for purchase go to HugoCanuto.com 

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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.”

As I am very interested in the representation of black spirituality in popular media these days, this is something that recently caught my eye, a virtual-reality documentary on Haitian Vodou. I honestly don’t know what to make of it, so I could use some help. Is it a commercial? Is it an informed promotion of a dedicated religious community and their widely misunderstood traditions? 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 item 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.

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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 memes and jokes about black folks and their ashy skin.

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Voodoo Brothers: Africana Religions in the Comics, pt. 2

brothervoodoo-problemAs some of you know, my current project is a book-length study of Africana religions and comics, where I consider how graphic formats are utilized for representing the spiritual traditions of black people. I keep getting sidetracked, though, because the sources are so diverse, and there are a million different stories that need to be told. So from time to time I want to post some of the more interesting themes that have emerged out of my research. Today’s topic has to do with my favorite subject, imagining Voodoo in popular discourses, which may or may not have anything to do with actual Africana religions. Recently, I submitted a piece to the serious and sagacious cohort of scholars at the African American Intellectual History Society blog in which I argue that the rise and fall of Voodoo in comics has been contingent upon myriad social and cultural forces that have historically shaped how we see black religious ideas and beliefs. Much like Hollywood Voodoo, Graphic Voodoo possesses a life of its own, with its own world views, plots, and personalities; but as I have suggested elsewhere, the prominence of the black superhero sets this genre apart by its fascinating use of religion as as a source of identity, empowerment, and self-creation, even with the mythical transformations that are typical of divine god figures. papa-midnite-coverSo what is it about these comics characters and Voodoo?

First, they are mostly male. Of course, black women do appear in leading roles in Graphic Voodoo narratives. For example, there’s the sexy exotic dancer alien who is inconceivably named “Voodoo” from the 1992 DC WildC.A.T.s comic. Back in the day, there was a Sister Voodoo. There are also numerous female Voodoo-inspired antagonists that seem to be drawn from true religious sources, such as the supernatural Marinette Bwa Chech, or the indomitable Marie LaVeau. Still, the presence of these female characters is subsumed by the more prominent male figures that we tend to think of, such as the famous Brother Voodoo, who would become the ultimate personification of African diaspora religiosity in the comics. Brother Voodoo, who was later transformed into Doctor Voodoo Sorcerer Supreme, enjoyed a brief but extraordinary run in the Marvel comics universe in the 1970s. Other characters such as D.C.’s Papa Midnite (1988), originating out of storylines from Constantine and the Hellblazer series, and Jim Crow (1995) from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, united black masculinity and moral ambiguity into powerful personalities drawn from the liminal realm of New Orleans’ figurations of Voodoo supernaturalism.invisible-jim-crow Rounding out the cast of these Voodoo brothers are villains and anti-heroes like Baron Samedi – not the Haitian loa but an actual nemesis of Captain America, an operative in a corollary organization to the secret criminal group HYDRA. We do not include the assortment of supernatural monsters, entities and Africanized deities that have come to be associated with Voodoo in the comics, beings that are generally constructed along an axis of good and evil, which doesn’t really work for us, since Africana religions tend to conceptualize ethics in pragmatic terms governing individual character rather than as fixed and rigid systems of moral concerns. So, what to do with a discourse that seems intent on replicating categories of stark dualism that also insist upon their effacement? The issue of the left and right hand, right and wrong, is something that plays out in again and again with narrative and visual forms in Africana religious thought. In most cases, graphic Voodoo and its characters are conceived within the category of instrumental magic – not religion – and deployed as a kind of powerful radioactive substance. In the comics realm, Voodoo heroes, whether houngan priests or sorcerers, are dangerous, unstable, and potentially violent.

Still curious, digging deeper into the archives, I continued to search for the earliest Voodoo comics characters that I could find. doctor-voodoo-whiteI was briefly diverted by a confusing jungle hero called Voodah, a brother who starts out as a muscular dark skinned Tarzan figure but who gradually and inexplicably turns colorless, then pink, by the fourth issue of the 1945 Crown Comics series in which he briefly appeared. Then, I came up short again with a somewhat lame white Doctor Voodoo by the name of Hal Carey who popped up in Whiz Comics for several episodes in 1953 as a square jawed missionary physician. But then, I surely struck gold when I located that which I believe to be the first recurring black character in the Graphic Voodoo genre – and where else would he be found, but deep within the African Haitian indeterminate jungle, storming through the bush with magic and fury, none other than Boanga, The Voodoo Man! crazed, loincloth clad, howling “Gamba Shema Lana” and deploying his Voodooism for murder, revenge, and general mayhem. It’s hilarious stuff, except that The Voodoo Man was pretty hardcore for 1940 when he appeared, pre-code, in a title role – a black criminal foil to the bland white leading men, and in the company of other comics luminaries such as Dr. Mortal, Sorceress Zoom, and Bird Man. What’s remarkable here is that even though The Voodoo Man is typed as a black miscreant, his character is exciting enough to merit at least seven more appearances, and in each he terrorizes friends and foes alike with his astonishing tricks of sorcery, whicvoodoo-manh include scheming for international crime rings, jumping through fire, necromancy, more howling, and hypnotizing white women to do stuff for him (but not the stuff that one might expect from a tall bare chested African savage with a fancy plumed headdress). Amazingly, clever Voodoo Man always escapes to live another day, probably due less to his indestructible nature than to his thrill appeal for the readers of Weird comics. I will return to this early black super-criminal at a later date; but I note that he does remind us that from the start, comics Voodoo in America has always been about race and power, with the problem of religion remaining the third rail of representation, as it is in most graphic productions involving black folk. This is why we want to know and understand this history. Africana voodoo-man-title
religions in the comics have historically found their expression in parody, stereotype, and caricature, with spectacular presentations that are perceived as visually arresting, violently racist, or ridiculously comical. As a discursive formation, Voodoo has come to represent an essential Africana spirituality and the locus of individual empowerment, while also imbuing notions of cultural identity with themes of (super)heroism and black agency. There is so much more that I want to say about Africana religions in the comics; but in the meantime, let us celebrate a true original, the notorious Boanga, one of the comics’ first but forgotten Voodoo Brothers. Gamba Shema Lana!

I am exceedingly grateful for the important work of the brilliant Afrofuturist William Jones, whose book, The Ex-Con, Voodoo Priest, Goddess, and the African King (2016), has inspired me to think in more complex ways about the nature of black comic heroism.

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Halloween Special! Black Horror Movie That’s Not Voodoo


This post is a little late, considering that Halloween was last night, but I wanted to be sure to make note of the continuing relevance of Voodoo as a trope in entertainment culture by highlighting the historical significance of Voodoo horror films. Well, I would have done that, but I already covered this topic somewhat in an earlier period with reference to jungle Voodoo, and anyway, I find this sort of material to be kind of dreary. To be honest, I see much of the “Voodoo as evil” theme as tiresome, and uninteresting, and not worthy of my time. So why am I writing about this today?

abby_posterWhile is is rare that a popular film will make explicit connections to Africana religions that are appropriate in any way, I recently found a 1974 title that caught my eye. The film is called Abby, and it is one of the uncommon horror movies that featured an African American actress in a lead role, but what is most interesting is the part that religion plays in this film. And not just Christianity, either! Abby is about a woman who is possessed by a spirit that is apparently associated with Eshu, a deity from the West African Yoruba religion. Only here, this Eshu is a sex demon who is discovered in Nigeria trapped among a trove of relics inside of a phallus-shaped genie bottle that somehow makes its way into the hands of Abby’s father-in-law, a black Christian minister with a Ph.D (the real kind! he’s an archeologist!) and then winds up wreaking havoc in the pious household of which our heroine Abby is a part. There are some remarkable scenes with gospel singing in a black church, along with all of the violence and dirty sexy stuff one expects – the film was a low-budget production in the “blaxploitation” movie era – but there is also some educational value here. Abby’s father in-law, played with incomparable intelligence by the veteran black actor William Marshall (we Star Trek fanatics recall him as the legendary scientist Richard Daystrom), is not only a theologian, but a scholar of African religions. Before throwing down on Abby in the grand finale with a ritual of spirit removal worthy of an adept, he provides a short lecture on the orisa Eshu, the divinity who is most notably associated with sexuality and chaos in the philosophy and metaphysics of Nature in Africana religions.

eshu

Yoruba divinity or material artifact?

So in this flick Eshu is presented not only as a legitimate spiritual entity and divine being, but we get a little academic background in a film that depicts both Africana Christianity and Yoruba religion with a degree of respect. No matter that the Christian side wins, yay! Abby makes a good run of it, and she displays remarkable physical range performing a pious gospel singer and a sexually powerful transgressive woman embodying a male spirit (with the distorted croaking voice that is such a common effect in these films). By the way, Abby was sued by Warner Brothers for copyright infringement as a ripoff of their hit The Exorcist, but in the end they lost, so there. You can look for this film on dvd today, but more significantly, there is an excellent upcoming documentary on the significant role of black women in the American horror film industry, called My Final Girl, if scary movies are your thing. We support the study of Africana cultures. Me, I just like the religion.

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She-roes and She-gods? Africana Religions and the Comics, pt. 1

Are you a comics fan? nubia-wonderwoman-6My latest project deals with religion in comic books and graphic novels from the Golden Age to the present, where I look for comics characters who possess what might be seen as god-like powers, supernatural abilities, and fantastic technologies. Perhaps we might think of them as modern-day deities. Being obsessed with religion I wonder if there is a way to fit these characters into a comparative religious studies framework. It’s new to me, but here’s the thing. I want to look at Africana religions and black female super-heroes (and maybe, just maybe, squeeze a little Voodoo out of it). Why not? There are comics and graphic novel characters for every religion you could possibly thimarthawashingtonnk of. And yes, some are practitioners of Africana religions, and others are spiritual beings of African or African-American origin. Unfortunately for some of us, women tend to be created as decorative add-ons and uninspiring sidekicks in this world, for comics have been traditionally dominated by males and male interests. Nevertheless, black female characters fare slightly better than their white female counterparts, perhaps because they occupy discursive space as women and they play supporting roles to black males who also navigate the perilous mazes of gender and race in the comics universe. This is not to say that black female characters only stand by (or behind) their men. At best, they emerge as autonomous beings with their own stories. At worst they languish at the margins, neglected and waiting to develop into full buxom physically idealized figures instead of flat, non distinct ones. It is all too easy to find black female characters who lack depth, nuance, and agency. Believe it or not, even Africana goddesses can be conventional. They are beautiful, black, and female – but that’s about it. Although they have super powers their unique characteristics are scripted according to phenotype, just a stone’s throw away from stereotype. But there are some notable exceptionsCaptain_Marvel_special_1See for example, Frank Miller’s graphic series featuring Martha Washington, a brilliant one-woman freedom-fighting machine who rocks a futuristic version of Atlas Shrugged, the libertarian manifesto. There’s also Monica Rambeau, a rare black superheroine who crosses universes, picks up the mantle of Captain Marvel, becomes a leader of the Avengers, and cycles through multiple identities as Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum. Unusual for a woman, Rambeau survives extended transmutations of her character yet remains as multilayered and complex a figure as any. Finally, there is Storm, probably the best known of the current black female action figures, of X-Men fame and African American queen of the nation of Wakanda, whose mutant powers remind us of the orisha Oya, deity of fierce winds and tornadoes from the Yoruba religious traditions. So while black leading ladies in the comics are relatively scarce, they certainly aren’t absent. Storm1Happily, one can find an array of African and African-American women superheroes that push against – and beyond – the boundaries of what it means to be black, female, and even human. But why should there be black female super-heroines? Allow me to suggest that if superheroes are simply beings whose powers enable them to challenge the most formidable of opponents while surpassing the limitations of ordinary humanness – then black women are more than able to stand shoulder to shoulder with legends like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther. (In fact they do.) But what becomes a hero and a god? The idea of superheroes as deities is not something new; it is actually a theme that is currently discussed in numerous venues of academic writing. Some have argued that comic books are a unique literature that brings the reader into direct contact with images of living beings from the vast fields of the imagination. Much like spirits, these timeless astral personages are able to enter the planes of physical existence. vixen3Put another way: we theorize that comic book characters are envisioned and created thought-forms that one may literally draw into reality with the power of the will. We might also consider these beings as archetypes from the unconscious mind that are clothed with our attention, the psychic force that brings them to life. However one thinks about this, when we engage comics as virtuous possibilities they become grounded in our reality – and they inspire us. Fans and readers may experience this as a kind of stirring devotion to their favorite themes and characters. Others may lose themselves in an intensely moving and powerful story arc. More often, the imagined beings come to life on film, and now and again we allow them to possess our bodies in cos-playsrpgsfatality and scripted simulations. It behooves us to consider these characters as inhabiting a collective mythology, for myth is a special kind of story that compels the reader out of his/her mundane time and place. And like myths, comics offer us entertaining tales and deeds of extraordinary persons and provide historical substance to these eternally resilient beings. And of course everyone loves an idol, a rock star who shines ever so brightly, a hero who moves through the world in a different way. It makes sense that comics become the guidebooks for dreamers and adventurers who long to tap into those vivid, otherworldly realms where the action is. Where one can meet superheroes and gods. How else do you start a religion? In any event, we still wonder how black women and religion will fit into this conversation. Religion usually shows up in the comics as flair, as an identity marker, as a way of adding cultural or ethnic flavor to a character – or better yet, as a story device that registers anxieties around difference and power. For my part, I see a fabulous cross-section of race, gender, and religion themes on display when I read the comics. So it’s the same thing. Usually attention to religious topics in the comics goes hand in hand with preachy, heavy handed and predictable stories that enact “faith crises” of some sort or another, that are stuck within conventional theological frameworks. But when I turn to black female characters, I find Africana spiritualities presented in ways that belie the conventional wisdom that most black folk are good church-going Baptists, or, at the other extreme, insurgent/angry/crazy/fanatical in their rejection of any form of Christian piety. In many cases, religion provides the essential framework for understanding a (super)hero’s source of empowerment, be it through an African-styled ancestral orientation (e.g. Vixen, Empress), or the onset of extraordinary abilities delivered by a curse, supernatural forces, or through some ritual process of ordeal or initiation (Nubia, Dominique Laveau, Priscilla Kitaen). In my next post, I will examine the representations of Voodoo and Vodou in the comics, two of my favorite subjects, and see how our black heroes and heroines fare. Hint: It’s not just the characters that are dark and mysterious.

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Circus Freaks, White Voodoo Women, and the Amazing Afro

In between working on serious stuff that takes up my time, I look at images. Ubangi SavagesSome of these images may seem as though they are not related – but they actually are – like these African circus “freak” posters from the early twentieth century and their counterparts from contemporary body mod subcultures in the United States. So who is the savage? I like colorful illustrations and advertisements of shows, performances, and other attractions that people pay good money to see. In a society that thrives on viewing images for entertainment and education, we have reached a point of no return with the commodification of visual things. But you don’t always have to pay.

koringa3

Today’s post has something vaguely to do with race and religion, as I muse about the ways that the meanings of images are transformed as other images come into play. It is a variation on how the viewer constitutes the subject. We followed this process in an earlier article on the transformation of a legendary European circus performer into one of today’s most revered African goddesses. How did it happen? Look, it’s all in the seeing. Consider the case of an international stage magician from the 1930s with the fabulous name of KoringaI enjoy the defiant certainty with which the poster screams that Koringa is the only woman-fakir of the world! because even though the real Koringa begins her career as an unknown French actress/dancer named Renee, her professional identity maps easily onto other sensational visions of race and gender, in particular, parodies of Africana spiritualities. One of these is what I call the “white Voodoo princess.” koringa1Never mind that Koringa is promoted as a yogini or adept of the ancient Indian arts of hypnosis and mind-over-body practices. Watch as her visual presentation conjoins with versions of the female Tarzan and jungle girl memes that were popular in American cinema in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These were films that featured grown white women in leopard-print swimwear, throbbing tom-toms, hairy deciduous vines, and dangerous set locations in the darkest regions of Africa. The Voodoo component was deployed as a mystical essence that endowed the white maiden with athletic prowess and a telepathic affinity with ferocious animals. With broken English she speaks. She is a crocodile whisperer. But how did she become such a prodigy? Jungle princess Voodoo is not an innate ability, nor is it a religion. It is acquired collaboratively from multiple sources.vooda The white woman attains her powers pursuant to an encounter with a spooky fetish or juju charm, or after being schooled by indigenous masters – for she is always an orphan, an island castaway, raised by witch doctors, gorillas etc. And yet, we are suspicious. We perceive this Voodoo as inauthentic, and somehow deracinated. Watch as genuine blackface Voodoo is presented as the real alternative, a terrible and duplicitous power that even threatens to overwhelm the white female protagonist, as in this clumsy and hapless sequel to the Sheena Queen of the Jungle film:

Did you catch the dreadful secret of Voodoo at the end, especially the part about the image which seems as though it was written for this blog? I will give you a clue: there is great power in the image. And with forty-odd films of this genre, it is clear that the American film industry found great power in the white Voodoo woman theme as well. Her curious display of whiteness, sexuality, and strange African mysticism designates her as an anomaly, a “freak,” as much as any circus spectacle. Let’s look at Koringa again.koringa2 What’s most surprising about her visual transition from Hindu snake charmer to Jungle princess is how seamlessly her physical characteristics transmute into distinct racial elements. Take her amazing bushy cloud of hair. This style was popularized by P.T. Barnum in the 1800s as part of his exhibition series of freak performers and human oddities known as circassian women. Barnum’s professional staging of what was considered to be the epitome of female beauty may strike us as bizarre for its miscegenated aspects, but make no mistake, mythic ideals of white womanhood charged the popular imagination in this period. Barnum’s contrived displays would hold great promise for the future staging of race and gender themes in American theatre, photography, and film. We understand these images to be evocations of Orientalism, reflecting the West’s preoccupation with fantasies of the exotic, the barbaric, the sexual, and the mystical aspects of the Other, all rolled into one ethnocentric vision against which white identity was measured. How else could white people appropriate desirable physical features from the non-white darker races of the world except by embodying them in performance, thus recreating their “essence” in transfigured and consumable visual forms? circassianThe virtuoso who assumed an Indian identity as a Hindu “fakir” or adopted an Afro hairstyle befitting a Voodoo princess took part in the age-old performance of cultural masquerade, played for amusement and profit.  And although subsequent jungle queens rejected the Afro style in favor of the long, smooth locks associated with “white” hair, a sartorial transition had occurred that bears noting. As in other contexts we must acknowledge that a brazen plundering of the cultural resources of black and brown people has taken place, and whether it is with hairstyles, music, or spiritual practices, there is great value in those stolen borrowed forms. And so, one hundred years later the popular circassian hair style would become detached from white femininity, and black women of the Soul consciousness era of the 1960s would claim it for a different kind of identity, and for their own purposes.
Here the natural hair was also linked to performance. With this display, ethnic pride and racial heritage were visibly marked by her hair as the domain of the “authentic” black woman.afrosheen (This period was also associated with creative appropriations of Africana spiritualities as well – and not just specious and fake “Voodoo.”) It is interesting to see that as with the circassian beauties and the jungle princesses, “black” hair was adopted by women as a signifier for a kind of primitive beauty. The Afro became a gendered, racialized style that celebrated and displayed black women’s taming, if I may, of what had been uncivilized – sort of like the wild beasts that accompanied the Voodoo princess on her daring adventures. Does Koringa, in all of her guises, perform the part of the black white Indian woman who ably wields spiritual/supernatural power to civilize and tame the Other, or that which is wild? Why not? she is, herself, a liminal creature.

Embedded within these images are fascinating discourses of race, gender, and sexuality, all warped by the contradictions and the failed logic of colonialism, which pitted the savage Other against the forces of civilization. With the Voodoo element as the mystical link between savagery and civilization, the virtuoso performs a capable mimesis of the black or brown body, but it is one that we recognize as false, confusing, and ultimately inadequate to that which only the “real” primitive can deliver. The self-presentation of Koringa and other circus performers as racial Others reinforced long-established ideas of white supremacy, but also tantalized audiences with hints of the transgressive pleasures of racial imitation. Blacaman1Oh and what a spectacular presentation of hair, and not just for women, either! We delight in this image of a Hindu gator-hypnotist in the 1920s who went by the supremely ironic name of Blacaman. And although the poster claims that it is his first time in America, the joke is on us, as he turns out to be one Pietro “Black Man” Blacaman of Calabria, Italy, of African descent, and not an Indian fakir at all. So everyone is happy so long as he gets to play the role of a hairy Voodoo prince, a captivating performance with its mystical delights and goofy jungle drama. I am interested in the Voodoo trope as it is replayed in various presentations of blackness, whiteness, and gender in American culture. Next time we will turn to the dark and lovely maidens of our recent and most venerated form of popular literature – the comic book. I will be posting more images, so please stay tuned. The seeing is free.

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Apotheosis of Marie Laveau, Hoodoo-Voodoo-Vodou Icon

I knew that it was time to write this post after everyone in my classroom had seen the third season of the FX series American Horror Storystarring Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau, except me. Most of my students had never heard of Mme Marie before, 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. marielaveaubassettSome 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. basset in redShe 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. laveau invokingAgain, 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.blade marie

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 acquiretumblr_mufjbqa8X81qgnzhao1_1280d 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. martinezThe 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.).The Voodoo Queen
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 seralvaradovices 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?

Posted in Africana Religions, Hoodoo, Magic, Religious Studies | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beautiful women with Cigars

Cuban woman smoking cigar

basiajago

As you might guess, this post is about pictures. But it might not be what you expect. I wasn’t exactly sure what I could say about this remarkable collection by the photographers at Flickr that would speak any more eloquently than they do by themselves. But I am going to try. I want to ask some questions about what one sees when viewing these images, and the kinds of responses that they evoke. It might be that in the seeing, they become more than just pictures. Let me explain.

Although the images here are not especially complicated, there is something about them that warrants further observation. Seeming relaxed and natural, these women exhibit themselves with the kind of attitude that declares, why yes, here I am, this is me. It is at best a study in self-representation that achieves an aesthetic ideal. And it strikes me that there is something about these portraits that is suggestive of Africana spiritualities. It’s not just that some of the women are wearing the traditional colors of the orisha, the ethereal beings of Lucumi culture in Cuba. It is more that they seem to summon forth an affirming aspect that speaks indelibly to the forms that Spirit might take when inhabiting physical bodies. Here we have a mix of mundane and divine presence; and I believe that there is something important in this.

two women cigar

klawd

As a student of black religions, I cannot help but to bring my academic indoctrination to this place, and my focus shifts to the resplendent beadwork that adorns these women’s outfits. They are indicative of the elekes, derived from the Yoruba sacred arts, here embellishing the traditional Cuban woman’s costume. There’s an amber-gold and coral necklace reminiscent of Oshun, the orisha that rules sweetness and all things of rich feeling and worth; there are the blue and crystalline patterns of Yemaya, the ever-generous Mother and queen of the sea; and there are the pristine white beads associated with the camino of Obatala whose effulgence proclaims the grace of Our Lady of Mercy. These colors reveal the nature and character of the great avatars of the Afro-Cuban religions, even as they inscribe fulsome models of womanhood upon the social text. The gender attributes of the orisha also express the range of possibilities that can exist between culturally normative qualities of femaleness and that which is exemplified by divine beings in physical form. For those who can read the material signs that bear witness to this spiritual vocabulary, it is instructive.

Friendly Smile

ashour rehana

How often, when we think of God, do we imagine a being who takes human form? And if we do, what are the representations that are most appealing to us? Which pictures and images offer the truest likeness for our expectations? I began to think about the religious art of the world and I wondered, is there a space in that domain for women of color? If so, is it too much of a stretch for us to see these women as models for the Divine feminine, as archetypal manifestations of the Goddess? Or is an image just an image, just as a cigar is only a cigar, something to enjoy, but nothing more, without greater meaning or significance?

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ana tennis

Of course, in most of the esteemed religious traditions of the world, there is recognition of the power that is constituted by the woman’s form. Artistic images of the embodied female are auspicious, even holy. When the image of the woman is believed to offer sacred meaning, as with so many religiously-inspired sculptures and paintings, it might convey an intangible quality, evoking a kind of feeling within ourselves. There is an engagement. Whether we are witness to the serene piety of Mother Mary, or the mystical, generative power of the cosmic Shakti, we are deeply affected by visual apprehensions of the Divine feminine, and we bring that reflection back to ourselves. But I wonder how many of us also affirm the darker forms of the Goddess – She who possesses a brown body or a creole visage  – the black woman, apotheosized, beatified, and idealized in a sacred effigy?

kelly

kelly lynn

God as a Black woman? She does exist, although unknown to many, but it is not for lack of visual resources that we do not see Her more often. That which becomes sacred is always present, and for some, Spirit materializes in the physical realm as a mirror of the self. She might be conceived as an elemental force of nature, or admired as Sophia, the feminine aspect of God, or simply respected as a universalized principle, as with the Egyptian Auset (Isis). This is perhaps why images and representations of the Divine are deemed to be non-controversial within most African and African-derived religions: it is understood in these traditions that the vitality of a form that is considered sacred is ascertained primarily in reference to the culture and values of the group for whom it functions. And in Africana religions, there is added value given to the feminine.

cubawam1Although contemporary standards of race and gender complicate representations of womanhood, appearing as they do in popular media, advertising, and other visual domains, Africana spiritualities have forged a distinctive consciousness by which female beauty and power are articulated in inventive ways both within and outside of the religious system. Historically, the cultures of resistance that forged African-based theologies also brought forth an “oppositional gaze” whereby the objectification and dehumanization of women so prevalent in the larger social environment was thwarted and reoriented toward alternative practices of looking at and seeing the female. In a number of these religions – and here I include Africana religions of the Caribbean such as Lucumi (Santeria), Shango, and Vodou, as well as New World religions such as Candomble – idealized representations of the gendered and raced body challenge and critique the norms of the dominant order, its notions of womanhood, beauty, and its understandings of divinity. Aesthetic perspectives, in many cases, are drawn from the productive ritual sites and spaces in which spirituality is enacted. In this regard Africana religions have addressed issues of human subjectivity time and time again, and with dynamic immediacy, in the sacramental traditions of trance possession – the extraordinary transformation that occurs when invisible spiritual beings incarnate within (visible) human bodies. This is where the image of God comes into form, as it were. Spirit possession is, of course, the ritual activity par excellent in many African-derived religions.

unnamed

erik anderson

Spirit embodiment is an exquisitely creative kind of manifestation, a style of liturgy and personal devotion which holds, as its basic organizing principle, the fact that a divine being can enter physical time and space and move into visual existence by way of mythopoetic invocation, projecting the life energy known as ashe through voice, rhythm, and movement, into a human body. Call it a theophanic mediation of the ancestral world and the realm of the human family and its earthly communities, but it is through this spectacular performance that physicalness is instantiated in divine-human encounters that model ways of living and being. In these actions, the force of spiritual presence is truly experienced, truly felt, and paradoxically, truly revealed via the instrumental consciousness of a human being, who becomes truly transparent. When “feminine” beings possess sex-specific female bodies, the ordinary woman becomes the agent by the Divine is contained in the most mundane of vehicles, as the distance between the limited embodied self and the infinite immateriality of spirit is resolved, albeit in ways that are strange, mysterious, and occulted.

svendreesbach

sven dreesbach

Throughout the Atlantic diaspora, religious imagery and the depictions of the female divine in Africana religions are known for their subversive reformulations of the gender stereotype of females as weak, subordinate, and passive. The creative interpretations of womanhood in these traditions become culturally significant for their rejection of conventional definitions of what “woman” is, does, and stands for, in favor of more complex, multilayered models. Under slavery, where gender roles and meanings were informed by African ideas and aesthetics, but ascribed by the social institutions and arrangements of New World colonial regimes, notions of femaleness were often conjoined with maternal expressions. According to these conventions, female deities could be associated with traditional spheres of domestic authority, such as mothering, herbal arts, and healing. On the other hand, also in these contexts, resistance to slavery affirmed models of militancy and martial power, also recast in feminine forms. In Haiti, for example, divine motherhood was epitomized in representations of the loa Ezili Danto, the stalwart patroness of the land, whose embodiment of gender valorized the trope of the powerful warrior-woman who stands in fierce devotion to and protection of her child. This particular orientation to womanhood is reformulated elsewhere in the New World where Spirit manifests as the hard edged, independent female, re-imagined as the tough single mother who overcomes adversity and exploitation by strength of will, for instance, with the biblical slave woman Hagar, who is embraced by Christian womanists in the United States. Finally, one should not overlook the illustrious cohort of black and brown Madonnas in the pantheon that includes the so-called folk goddesses of Western Christianity, from Sara la Kali to Nuestra Senora de Guadeloupe, who reflect, as brilliant icons, the rich, diverse elements of New World womanhood that articulate multiple feminine displays of Spirit. Their images are the conduit and the bridge between transcendent ideals and the immanent form, a real convergence of body and soul.

CigarLady 1

michael vincent miller

…I did not want to wander too far away from these images. In looking at them I wondered how they would be looked at, and whether they would be evaluated according to current practices of representation, and whether the seeing of these beautiful women would be impacted by the processes of judgment that corrupt the gaze, thus making the pleasure of spectatorship adulterated and impure. There is, of course, a longstanding correlation between the oppression of women and their visual representations in cultural production. The valences of oppression vary according to the specific ideological configurations of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality in any given society. Certainly, images of black and brown female bodies in contemporary media are used to perpetuate division, in the ways that gender and racial discrimination are used adjudicate human worth, according to the binaries of superior/inferior, better than/less than, good/bad, moral/immoral, etc. The associations between racism, sexism, and womanhood are utilized most frequently to service the production and consumption of images as by-products of the virulent excesses of late-stage capitalism. It is difficult to separate these strands when looking at images of women, and especially women of color, as there is no end to the spectacle of the woman’s body and its violent objectification and hyper sexualization in art, film, literature, and other areas of culture. So, our judgments of these black and brown women will be inevitably shaped by things like skin color, body type, and so forth – this is the stuff by which aesthetic evaluations are made. But how does the visual meaning shift when the object spills into the sacred area, away from the profane realm? In this business we pay attention to the occurrence of spirituality in the vernacular, in the everyday experiences where religion might be embedded in minute displays of a life’s story, whether in a moment, or in a picture. Without the benefit of full context, it might be difficult to interpret, let alone appreciate, these photos. We should aware of the conditions under which the images were created and adopted.

peterkeller

peter keller

So I wondered about the subjects of these pictures. Who are these women? What kind of lives do they live? Are the delighted smiles coaxed to their mouths solely by the insistence of the camera’s lens, or by the taste of a fat fresh Cohiba? They go nameless, their anonymity negotiated at the behest or discretion of the photographers, mainly mostly American and European travelers, denizens of the tightly regulated tourist industry in Cuba. While some of these ladies appear to be just sitting, content, watching the curious passersby watch them, others are busy at work, selling table wares along with other street merchants, some offering divination services as fortune-tellers and card readers. All of the images are probably vended; we know that these are still hard times in Havana, and no doubt in exchange for a nicely styled, photogenic posture, a modest gratuity was expected and paid according to the manner in which baksheesh is negotiated according to local traditions. So all is well, and here they are.

I do think that these pictures speak boldly about self-representation by women of color, and about gender, and religion, and about beauty. But what I like most about them is that they simply reflect back what is there. Look closely, and you might detect something there, too: a harbinger of the Spirit, a different form of divinity, a feminine image of God in a woman’s body.

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Household God

Have you heard of the orisha Elegba? image of eshu via cae2k.comChances are you know someone who has, for he is one of the most popular avatars in the African diaspora today. Perhaps you have glimpsed him while walking through a doorway, by the threshold, or near a corner. Or you might have seen him in action, directing the illuminating flow of light into divination spaces. His energy is compounded in works of magic, since he coordinates access to ashe, the essential ingredient and subtle impetus that makes things happen. He is called the opener of roads, the guardian of gates, the master of crossroads. And while there are many, many, stories about the personifications of Elegba in this world, it seems that he operates both within and outside of the realms of time and space, for he attains status as a force, a principle, a concept – even though he looks just like a bodyless head.

image of eshu with beads

Eshu, as he is also known by practitioners in the traditions of Santeria, Regla de Ocha, Ifa, and other Lucumi styles in the United States, is a compelling image. Unadorned, he is aniconic, but we have imagined him in multiple designs over the ages, most recently rendered as a dense, concrete mound, with a cone shaped face and cowrie shells for eyes and mouth. While his basic physical form is abstract, his representations reflect a prism of varied characteristics and attributes. As Eshu Laroye, he governs messages and communication. As Eshu Alabwana, he is a lonely hermit and guide of souls. As Eshu Beleke, he is the divine but sometimes naughty child. And so it goes. For Eshu, there are as many aspects to his personality as there are paths to the energy he embodies, all reconciled in this spare, material habitus. Archeologists have discovered laterite versions of Elegba dating back some 400 years, and legends of his replication into two hundred parts of himself circulated widely in nineteenth century Cuba, where he was venerated by enslaved Yoruba and creole devotees. I have been collecting internet images of Eshu for a much shorter time period. I like the solidness of these compact, wonderful beings, the way they exhibit a kind of endogenous artistry that gives expression to vast meanings and metaphysical qualities, depending on whether and how they are brought to life. making eshuIn ceremonial contexts Eshu is often the first to be saluted, and in religious rituals he is a powerful and essential spirit ally. But Eshu is not sectarian, by any means. Easygoing and gregarious, he can be found mingling with Christian saints, hanging out with New Age icons, slumming with Pagan deities. In the home, he holds a place of honor on family altars, and always near openings and passages, because as the saying goes, he makes the way. It is remarkable to see how fluidly Eshu travels across the margins of ethnicity, faith, and spiritual orientation. And why not? He rules all boundaries, so it is well within his purview to cast himself as a border dweller. We have seen him displayed as a valuable work of art on auction websites, for sale at online botanicas, and exhibited with museum pieces in places like Oslo, Norway. Eleggua2005He might be the odd fellow amidst other religious idols, but I believe that his stone faced itutu, or coolness, perfectly complements the serene asceticism of the Buddharupa or the wheeling kinesthetics of Shiva Nataraja. Today, Eshu is something of a household god in all domains of necessity, be they cultural, educational, medical, judicial, or magical, for he is unassuming, as content on a living room altar as he is in the grandest of shrines. Ibarago Moyuba, Eshu.

I am grateful for the awesome scholarship of Patrick Polk and heartily endorse his book on material religion, Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels (2005)

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Voodoo Tropes: Bizarre Hollywood Religion

Call me hopelessly naive, but wouldn’t you jump to see a blockbuster film starring Bela Legosi and John Carradine called VOODOO MAN? I mean, how bad could it be? Maybe we might learn something about Africana religions. Or maybe we can see what this Voodoo thing is that’s so fascinating. What could go wrong?

Well, plenty, and if you watched the movie trailer, you are probably thinking, what the hell was that? That clip seems as unfathomable as this one here:

Warning: I cannot explain what this movie is about

Now let’s try to deconstruct this. It’s pretty awful, even though it comes about twenty years after the first film, and the production values are superior. Sure, you want to laugh, but maybe you don’t know whether you should be laughing or not. But it’s no joke – this is not a comedy.  So what are they trying to say? The ominous jungle music, white women being violated, tough men with guns, dolls full of pins, king crab legs falling from the trees, and danger! slimy human-eating cobra plants and Boris Karloff. This must have something to do with Voodoo, right?

white zombieWhen I looked into the history of Voodoo-themed films in the United States I was surprised to find that scholarship had generally overlooked these contributions to American cinema. It could be that Voodoo is not perceived as a viable religion, and some find it ridiculous to associate such nonsense with sacred things. Despite the fact that black films and filmmakers willingly dabbled in the genre, and at least one early Voodoo film was written by an African American, Religion scholars focus on Christianity and the churches when analyzing film. imgresOn the other hand, many prefer the antipathetic stand-in for embodied African spirituality, the zombie (from the Kikongo nzambi, which translates as “god” or “spirit-being.”) In fact, Zombie Studies is offered as a legitimate field of research by some academics, to the disgust of conservatives and evangelicals everywhere. So it is noteworthy that the earliest Hollywood movie to embrace the mythologies of Voodoo was Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, released by United Artists in 1932. And why was White Zombie such a big deal? For one thing, it was the first film to explicitly reference African-derived religions in the West, albeit in a stupid and contrived manner. But most significantly, the film introduced theater audiences to “Voodoo” as a very real, proximate, religious entity, thereby tapping into the visceral anxieties of American citizens at the time. And what could be better for the culture industry than a meme that provided stimulus to the emerging horror-story form, complete with a repertoire of elements from an imaginary religion upon which American fears and fantasies could be projected? Am I ruining the fun? Let me explain.

To understand the significance of the early film representations of  Voodoo we must shift our gaze to the broader historical context in which these ideas developed. Between the years 1932 and 1962, some twenty-four Hollywood movies were released with the word “Voodoo” or “Zombie” in their titles. Assuming that these projects would result in box office gold, film creators merged “Voodoo” with arbitrary subjects, resulting in oddly juxtaposed titles like Voodoo Village, Voodoo Drums, Voodoo Tiger, Voodoo Puppies, and others (Okay I made that last one up).

Voodoo_Tiger_poster The point is that “Voodoo” as a trope entered the cinematic lexicon at a particular moment in history – perhaps 1930 or 1931 – and thereafter took off as a self-perpetuating idea. Why? Well, the Motion Picture Code was put in place during these years, and horror film makers faced new restrictive guidelines for their unwholesome entertainment products. 1931 was also an inauspicious time in domestic and foreign matters, for the United States was facing a prolonged economic crisis, Hoovervilles had become fixtures in many major cities, and the military was embroiled in its 19th foreign intervention since the turn of the century – in Haiti of all places. And here is where we can pinpoint the origins of Voodoo as a discursive category. As all good students of history know, every military adventure, whether a nasty and brutish invasion for regime change, or an out-and-out shock-and-awe event for rapid dominance, requires the veneer of public support. In this case the military apparatus evoked the specter of menace with a brilliant strategy: they identified the threat of a malevolent, supernatural, black-faced enemy. And just to be sure that Americans were properly informed about the dangerous situation on the ground in one of the Caribbean’s most troubled political economies, a New York Times correspondent by the name of William Buehler Seabrook was dispatched to report on the “culture of the natives,” which he published in a book called The Magic Island (1929). Much has been written about Seabrook’s literary folly that I won’t repeat here. Suffice to say that this ugly little tome, many believe, was singlehandedly responsible for the hardening of negative social attitudes towards African diaspora religions, crudely lumped together under the rubric of “Voodoo.” Seabrook’s graphic descriptions of Vodou ceremonialism bore little resemblance to the actual ancestral religious practices of Afro-Haitians. But since The Magic Island was considered such an important eyewitness account, it is not surprising that the very first Hollywood venture to dramatize “Voodoo” would draw upon its ethnographic commentary as a primary source, and assimilate the text directly into the narrative structure of the horror format, with all of its fantastic and nightmarish imaginaries.

voodoo village posterThe transformation of Haitian Vodou into Hollywood Voodoo was a process that involved the complicity of culture producers, the media, the occupying regime, the American government, the military, the church, and foreign corporate stakeholders. It was the inevitable outcome of relentless hostility and demonization of African spirituality that had begun centuries earlier, at the onset of a successful slave revolution in Haiti and subsequent national independence. No one, however, could have predicted the enormous commercial potential of the sensational fictions of Voodoo. How else, except at the movies, could one vicariously consume – without risk – in such an exciting mixture of magic, violence, animated brown bodies, and the hazards of physical survival in jungle environments? And where else could such a complete persecution of an indigenous African spirituality be so artfully re-imagined and repackaged as a new brand, exported as a commodity, and offered to the world as a virtual religion? My guess is that no one had actually seen anything like this in Haiti at the time, a struggling, traumatized nation in resistance to Marine occupation and the vise grip of foreign control, unless you stumbled into a Vodou ceremony stone drunk, bereft and paranoid, which is precisely how William Seabrook, lost generation journalist, drug addict, proud cannibal, and (eventual) psychotic, found himself, an authority on African religions in the western hemisphere.

curse of the voodooAlthough I struggle to find something intellectually defensible to say about these movies, I am glad for the insights they provide for the critical consumer of film into the uses of “Voodoo” as cultural propaganda. And while we haven’t discussed the later decades of the twentieth century, when Voodoo-themed films reached their nadir with gems like Black Voodoo Exorcist and Voodoo Heartbeat, leave it to James Bond to redeem the genre with film number eight of the Bond franchise, the racially subversive blaxploitation hybrid Live and Let Die (1973). In this movie, once and for all, the Voodoo trope is immortalized by casting the civilizing presence of the gentleman assassin Bond against the deadly powers of Voodoo and its villainous henchmen. And because we understand how this thing works, we recognize sorcery and superstition as the true oppressors of the island natives, and not poverty, economic exploitation, and organized crime (mediated with coolness by Yaphet Kotto, as a smooth af code-switching drug lord). However, unlike the invasion of Haiti in 1915, this Marine does not stay to occupy, but instead bombs the shit out of the island, presumably in revenge for the threatened rape of his white woman’s pristine land by a gyrating witch doctor who wields a long, dark, writhing penis serpent while in trance (in a fine signifying performance). In the end, Voodoo is vanquished, or is it?Live-and-Let-Die-Polo-Neck…hard to tell, as in the final frames we see the crazy black psychopomp aboard a speeding train, propped up on the engine’s helm and laughing wildly, probably on his way to another date with death.

The cultural history of Africana religions in the New World (including Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, and American Hoodoo) and their representation in popular culture and film can be a rich and illuminating field of study. However, in the realms of contemporary virtual media, performed “reality,” and digital simulation, it can be challenging to determine what is authentic and what is not. And while some of us may find most depictions of African-derived religions on film to be utterly offensive to our sensibilities owing to their racist, xenophobic, and misogynist bent, they are a valuable index for gauging the production of culture as well as the concomitant anxieties and interests that accompany cultural products in real-time. But there is a another issue at stake. Representations of religion on film have become the perennial means by which the imperial American regime articulates its missionary rationale in the world, by pitting the forces of civilization and morality against the barbaric, non-Christian Other.BGDAD1 What makes “Voodoo” distinct is its formation in an historical moment when the military agents of the organized persecution of a religion elided their own presence and actions by identifying themselves as the putative victims of the Voodoo horror, its depraved insurgents, and their wartime atrocities. And although these specific associations between Africana religions like Vodou and the virtual religion of Hollywood Voodoo are less immediate now, similar themes will be revisited by generations far removed from its sources, long past the expiration dates of its provenance in Haiti during the occupation. Looking ahead towards the final decades of the twentieth century, we see the cycle complete itself, and begin again. Look, quick! For Hollywood has found itself another bizarre religion! Consider, if you will, the film treatment of contemporary Muslim subjects. While not yet approaching the extremes of cinematic horror, one can imagine the fertile possibilities, perhaps in the insidious coding of the phony gods ‘n false prophets theme or the religion-of-superstitious-fanatics genre, or perhaps re-spun more creatively into a “jinn-possessed blood lusting jihadi zombie” meme. That might be interesting. So look closely, and you might even find the sodden remnants of the Hollywood Voodoo trope draped over movie depictions of Islam like a filthy blanket – rank, despicable, but strangely familiar.

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