Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why I am Not a Professional White Vodouisant

Once again, my friend and colleague Galina Krasskova has written an excellent and thought-provoking blog post, this one on Cultural (Mis)appropriation.  And once again her work has inspired me to write about things going on in my life.

Now that Inner Traditions has accepted Talking with the Spirits I am back at work on a new project. More precisely, I'm back at work on several new projects.  People always worry about writers stealing ideas. Just about every writer I know has too many ideas, yrs. truly included.  My problem isn't coming up with things to write about, it's deciding which manuscript most needs my attention at any given moment.

The project which is claiming most of my time at present is Melancholia. This is a study of depression and the ways it has been viewed throughout history. (Yesterday I began writing the chapter on Sylvia Plath: I realized later that it was the 49th anniversary of her suicide. I'd say that was appropriate, but given that the chapter in question deals with how a brilliant poet has been reduced to an icon of trendy sadness, I'm not so sure it was...). Melancholia is a workbook which contains exercises for those of us living with depression: among those covered are Marcus Aurelius, Emily Dickinson and Omar Khayyam. I've posted some excerpts from this draft and hope to provide more in the future.

After that I hope to return to Lilith's Children: A History of Abortion. As per the title, this book examines abortion and birth control from ancient times to the present day.  This one touches upon historical forms of family planning (including charming customs like exposing unwanted infants or sacrificing them to various gods) and our contemporary war on/for abortion rights. I suspect my take on the subject will piss off just about everyone who has strong feelings on the issue.

Following up on Power of the Poppy, I have in the works a manuscript with the working title Speed: 4,000 Years of Life in the Fast Lane. This one covers everything from tea to "bath salts," from ephedra to Ritalin. It touches upon things like the influence of amphetamines on the Beat poets, the way that cocaine fueled the swinging 70s, and the ways in which Big Pharma used "ADHD" as a marketing opportunity. I thought about getting a large quantity of some stimulant du jour and writing the whole thing in a ten-day all-nighter ala Robert Louis Stevenson's cocaine-addled production of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But alas, family responsibilities and self-preservation mean I will be sticking to my usual routine of coffee by the liter.

You may note that none of these books deal with Vodou.  That is not coincidental: I've made a conscious choice to refrain from writing about Vodou for a bit. This doesn't mean that I've given up on Vodou. Haitian Vodou remains the poteau mitan around which my religious life revolves.  Sevis lwa is an integral part of my private spirituality.  But as time has passed I've grown less comfortable with taking a public role as a Vodou leader and educator.

Since I wrote The Haitian Vodou HandbookMambo Chita Tann and Mambo Vye Zo Kommande la Menfo have also written excellent guidebooks for aspiring Vodouisants. We have all made it clear that while it is possible to honor the lwa and ancestors on your own, you will not be able to get to the heart of Vodou practice without actually joining a société and becoming an initiate (or, at the very least, a regular attendee at fets and public ceremonies for the lwa).

I have introduced people to my société and other houses on several occasions. On several occasions I have been asked "are we going to be the only white people there?" I've had to calm these poor souls down and reassure them that nobody was going to beat them up, steal their iPods or hit them up for spare change.  (To date I've been able to resist saying "You should be safe because they ate two Mormons last week. But if you see anyone bringing out a big cauldron and some stewing vegetables run as fast as you can..."). Many white people who are fascinated by African and Afro-Caribbean spirituality are also terrified of black folks. And, sadly, cottage industries have grown up which cater both to their interest and their fear.  Consider this post from Kathy "Mambo Racine Sans Bout" Grey:
My Haitian membership likewise treats the internationals well. Unlike many Haitian peristyles, they don't mock, or deride, or steal from, or disrespect, the international participants, instead they have always received the internationals wholeheartedly, taking them into the djevo as sisters and brothers... I have always made sure that things run right, that there is no stealing or other bad behavior, that ceremonies are correct, that the Haitian initaites are on their best behavior, that the drinking water supply is maintained, that each and every detail is correctly discharged so as to provide the international (and Haitian!) members with a safe, positive experience. 
(Grey has elsewhere claimed "Most Haitian men who have American girlfriends or spouses have women in Haiti too, and it is the Haitian family that counts. Not that they treat Haitian women any better! Beating, cheating, rape, it's all on the agenda" and said of the Puerto Rican students at the school where she teaches "Not only do they not aspire to college, they categorically reject it because "schools are for fools" and they plan to make their money dealing dope and prostituting.")

I've seen a similar phenomenon with the recent rise of interest in Rootwork.  Catherine Yronwode has done a fantastic job of preserving and distributing hoodoo knowledge and making supplies available: she encourages students and customers alike to become involved with African-American communities in their area and to learn from black practitioners. Yet there are many white "rootworkers" who buy all their supplies online, cater to a white clientele and never engage with the community from whence rootwork and hoodoo actually developed. I'm reminded of Harlan Ellison's comment about the executive who suggested "We should remake The Wiz ... white!" I'm also reminded of the New Agers I saw in Tulsa who strolled out of their favorite crystal store carrying armfuls of dreamcatchers, smudge sticks and guides to "Native American Spirituality" as they stepped over the drunk Cherokee sleeping in the parking lot.

There are several Vodou houses in the United States and Canada which are run by Haitians and Haitian-Americans and who welcome non-Haitians as guests and initiates.  Off the top of my head I can think of Mambo Edeline St.-Amand in Brooklyn, Mambo Marie Carmel in Long Island, Société La Deese de la Mer in Montréal, and Mambo Maude Evans in Boston - and there are many others. At this point there is literature available which will provide you with a basic grounding in sevis lwa.  If you want to learn more about Haitian Vodou, here's a novel idea - find a Haitian teacher. If you can't do that for geographical reasons there are books out there, including mine, which will teach you as much as you can learn on your own and provide you with an introduction to the culture and the spirits. If, on the other hand, you'd rather study with me because it spares you the anxiety of dealing with scary brown people, then I'm really not interested. Find someone else to sell you a ticket to the Disneyland version of It's a Small Djevo After All.

Does this mean I'll never write another book on Vodou? "Never" is an awfully long time. I may return to the subject if and when I feel something needs to be said and I need to be the person who says it.  But for now I feel like I've taken my audience as far as they can go through books.  I have no regrets about the Vodou books I've written to date. I feel they accomplished what I set out to do when I started writing about sevis lwa. In fact, I consider myself very fortunate: they did the job so well that my services are no longer required.


nutty professor said...

Good for you! As a writer myself I would also add that it is difficult to fully balance this career when there are children around to be raised. I do appreciate your commentary, however. I myself am interested in the apparent cultural anxieties - dare I say, tensions - between white and black hoodoos and vodouisaints in the United States. I am going to write about this some day, when I truly think "something needs to be said and I need to be the person who says it." Thanks.

De heer Balthazar said...

Very, very well said Kenaz. A big amen to that.

The Food Fairie said...

Well said indeed.

I am a Santera (actually, a iyawo), and a member of a traditional Santeria House in the Bay Area. As a white (Jewish) woman in a mostly Latino house, I do try and stay mindful of the interplay between culture, race, tradition, and history in how I conduct myself in my House. It is similar by us too - I have limited patience for white folks who want the juiciness and beauty of Oricha worship but don't want to have to deal with being even temporarily without the familiar comfort of white privilege. I am glad to read you calling it as it is. I respect that you've chosen to take a mindful and conscious step back from writing about this particular subject, and I get what a complex decision that must be for you.

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