Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Thread Ends, Another Begins: Wrapping Up Things with Wade

And Wade said:
Okay, maybe I just wasn't clear what you meant when you wrote "They wanted something more "authentic" than the One-Size-Fits-All reductionist monotheism which uses deities like ethnic decor. But they didn't actually want to deal with brown people to get that authenticity."

What type of authenticity is it that you only get when "dealing with brown people"?

That might be the sticking point we've been hung up on.
I've written a few times on "authenticity" as it relates to the way many European-Americans (let's skip that pesky "white" thing for now) approach African Diaspora religions. They see these traditions as more powerful than their own Neopagan/Hermetic practices. Like Romantics from Rousseau onward, they believe there is a great strength and purity in the ways of the "noble savage." As Norman Mailer said of mid-20th century hipster jazz culture in his essay, "The White Negro:"  

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.
To get in touch with these "existential synapses," they affect the outward trappings of these spooky, exotic outsider magical practices.  It's not enough just to hold a Pagan circle for La Sirene or honor Legba alongside Hermes as an Opener of the Way. They want the Authentic Vodou Experience, the Real Brujeria, the Straight-Up Santeria the way the natives practice it. Like Mailer's hipsters who sought to be "white Negroes," they want to be white Vodou priests and Caucasian curanderos. They want the street cred which comes from working with exotic and spooky magical systems the way the brown people do.

Sorry about bringing in that pesky race and culture thing again, but there's really no way around it.  Because in this case the brownness, blackness, or general "otherness" is part of the appeal: it's what attracts these people to the traditions.  And no, not every outsider drawn to these practices is driven by this - but I've found a pretty fair number who are, and who didn't want to question those motivations and move beyond them.

Speaking further, Wade asked:
"And we would not be particularly sympathetic to those who treated our friends with disrespect and wanted us to create a ceremony which adhered to Haitian protocols but protected their delicate sensibilities from coming in contact with our "scary" or "threatening" Haitian co-congregants. "

What makes you think white people get into African magic-using traditions because they're afraid of black people? That doesn't make any sense.

Doesn't it stand to reason that someone interested in these traditions is going to work with whoever's handy and is willing to work with them? Doesn't it stand to reason that sometimes the most available person might happen to be white? Is it ALWAYS racist?
The question of fear actually makes perfect sense. These traditions are seen as powerful because they are frightening and because the people who practice them are "dangerous."  And for some people their fear of that "danger" outweighs their curiosity about the culture.  (More precisely, they have little or no curiosity about that culture: they just want to get their hands on its magic).  They want to be hip and scary like the brown folks (by which I mean "folks of outsider culture - black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, etc." The term "people of color" is frequently used as shorthand for these groups but I don't want to get back into that semantic discussion about race, culture, etc. again).

As far as "ALWAYS racist," of course not. As I said, there are several solid, legitimate Vodouisants who are white as the driven snow and who can provide an interested person with an introduction to the lwa.  There are lots of people of non-Haitian descent who are sincerely interested in the lwa and come to the religion with an attitude of reverence and respect.  But if you're going to practice Vodou seriously, sooner or later you are going to have to engage with Haitian people; if you are going to practice Lukumi, you're going to have to talk to a Cuban at some point; if you're going to explore the Cults of Santa Muerte or Maximon, you'll inevitably find yourself talking with someone from Mexico or Central America. 

This is due to several factors, not the least of which being that a lot of the information about these practices is not available in books.  Another is because these initiatory traditions require that one be connected to them at the "root."  They believe there is a tangible charge and change in one's energy signature, ethereal body or what have you when the initiation process is completed - and that this can only come from somebody who already has that connection to the root.  This isn't unique to African Diaspora trads, by the way -- in Christianity it's called "apostolic succession," and similar ideas can be found in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism among other practices.

(And as an added bonus: I've seen quite a few people who approached these spirits with no intention of getting drawn into the culture or into serious work with the tradition discover that the spirits had other plans for them.  When you're dealing with real albeit discarnate beings who have their own ideas and agendas, you can often find they throw you a curve ball. I've seen a few people wind up getting initiated into Vodou, Lukumi or Umbanda because the spirits chose them.  In fact, that's a common occurrence within the cultures in which these traditions originate).