Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Race, Tribe, Family, Clan: the Difference between Skin and Blood

In a recent Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters discussed white nationalism in the Heathen community.  This has long been a bugbear among American followers of the Nordic and Germanic gods.  Many of their faith's holy symbols were co-opted a few decades back by a certain Austrian failed artist, and have not yet lost that nasty tinge. (I am sure the Tibetans sympathize).  As is often the case on Wild Hunt, the comments proved illuminating, if only in illuminating the serious issues Americans have with the whole concept of race.

If it's any consolation, the Heathens aren't the only ones who suffer from this.  I have seen quite a few "Afrocentric" black Americans arrive on forums dedicated to Vodou, Lukumi and other African Diaspora/African Traditional religions and declare that no white person has a right to serve African spirits.   They are often non-plussed when their message of Black Solidarity gets a chilly reception from the Haitians and Cubans on the board.  This becomes especially galling to them when the house defends its white members despite their objections, or gives them a not so gentle tap with the Banhammer.  But I've also seen many white neophytes declare blithely that spirit has no color and that every spirit can be served by everyone: those who say otherwise are just being elitist, or maybe even "reverse racists."

The truth, as truth is wont to be, is a bit more complicated.  I can't speak to Heathen views on the subject (but I'm hoping that some of my more qualified friends will step up to the plate on that).  But I can talk about some of the ways in which this question plays out in Vodou.

Within the Vodou community, there are definitely houngans and mambos who will not initiate anyone who is not natif natal Haitian.  They feel that Vodou is a Haitian practice and should be reserved to those with verifiable Haitian ancestry.  But this has nothing to do with our modern conception of "race."  These houses are equal opportunity: they bar their doors against black and white non-Haitians alike.  (Keep in mind that in Kreyol Haitians are negs - black - while all non-Haitians, regardless of skin color or ethnic background, are blans, or white).

There are also spirits one has en sang, or "in the blood."  These are spirits served by your ancestors, passed down through familial lineage.  If you don't have these spirits in your blood, they are not interested in hearing from you.  At best they will ignore you:  at worst, they will see you as a tasty snack.  This isn't about race or even nationality: every servant of this spirit may be a black Haitian, but not every black person, or even every Haitian, can serve this spirit.

This is troubling to those who want to believe the spirit world is an egalitarian and democratic place.  Alas, it is neither.  The misté  (mysteries) work with whom they will and turn away from others.  Their decisions sometimes appear capricious, and are certainly not overly influenced by human concerns about moral or ethical behavior.   The lwa helped Papa Doc Duvalier maintain his hold on power for decades despite abundant human rights concerns: many of the country's most powerful houngans and mambos were also numbered among the most sadistic Tonton Macoutes.  We don't know how or why the spirits make their choices to accept or reject prospective servitors.   But we do know that they make those choices, and that sometimes they choose to say "no."