Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yep, You Guessed It: More Conversations with Wade

In response to my earlier post, Wade said:
"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)"

No, let's not skip the "pesky white thing". That was the entire premise of this line of conversation - that white people can't practice African magic-using traditions unless they have a brown person to make it "authentic".
No, Wade, that's been the premise of the conversation you have been having. The one most of the other readers have been reading and commenting on - has discussed a number of issues relating to race, culture, initiation, religion . You're the one who seems to be stuck on brown people and skin color.  But just to humor you, let's try a definition everyone can get behind:

Someone practicing a cultural tradition does so "authentically" insofar as they practice that tradition using the tools and techniques of that culture.  

In other words, a person who claims to be practicing "authentic" Shinto should be doing so using the techniques and tools which a Japanese practitioner of Shinto would use. A person who claims to be practicing "authentic" Judaism should be using the tools and techniques which members of the Jewish community would use.  (I realize there are several different forms of Judaism, just as there are several different forms of Shinto: a person who claims to be practicing "authentic" Judaism should be able to point to other "authentic" Jews who do things the way sie does).  And a person who claims to be practicing Haitian Vodou should be able to point to other Haitian Vodou practitioners who do things the way sie does them using the tools sie uses.

If you don't think that it is important to do things in an authentic fashion, this question is meaningless. You can buy a skeleton from a Halloween supply store, drape her in a white shroud, call her "Santa Muerte" and feed her a steady supply of tequila and 7-11 bean burritos.  And that practice might prove useful to you and put you in touch with a powerful magical current. Or it might be a colossal waste of your time and make you look exceedingly silly.  I'd be inclined to bet on Door #2 but having never performed this experiment I'm open to being surprised.

If you are interested in practicing these traditions as they are practiced in their culture of origin - if you feel those tools and those techniques may have power in and of themselves rather than being mere accidents which can be taken up or put aside as convenient - then learning from representatives of that culture would seem to be a sensible thing to do.  It's not an absolute requirement, but given i.e. the extreme paucity of non-Haitian practitioners of Haitian Vodou it would make your life a whole lot easier.
"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."

Maybe to some, but it's disingenuous to say all white people are afraid of African magic because black people are dangerous. First of all, not all white people are AFRAID of blacks. Furthermore, even the ones who are don't necessarily deal with that by getting into African magic.

So far, your excuse seems to be hinging on a lot of racial stereotypes, but let's continue.
Dunno about all white people, but I see one white guy who has spent several weeks and many comments trying desperately to prove that he can do African magic without actually having to engage with any African people.  If you don't have some kind of emotional investment in this question, I'd hate to see how you responded to an issue that was near and dear to your heart.

I didn't say that idea was universal, just that I had run into many European-American middle-class Pagan types who found African magic intriguing, powerful and "edgy" but who didn't actually want to deal with representatives of that culture.  Other people seem to have reported my findings as well.  Not sure why I would lie about it: hell, given that I've written a few books on the topic if I were going to lie it would be far more profitable for me to downplay the problem.

"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."

And how do they make their magic "authentic"?
They make their magic (more precisely, their religion) authentic by doing it the way they were taught.  Because this is Haitian Vodou, that means doing it in the ways that originated in Haiti, using the tools and techniques which originated in Haiti or the modifications which have been put in place for logistical reasons (i.e. certain materials available in Haiti cannot be found in the United States or France) by the Haitian community.
And this brings us all the way back around to the question I asked originally, all the way back in the beginning.

"But if you're going to practice Vodou seriously, sooner or later you are going to have to engage with Haitian people"


Never mind that you changed the premise of your argument again, from the requirement to have a brown person to sign off on you, to specifying someone who's Haitian in particular. What if the Haitian is white though?

"if you are going to practice Lukumi, you're going to have to talk to a Cuban at some point"

Even a white Cuban?

"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."

Even a white Mexican?

"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."

Even if that somebody is white?
I can explain it to you but I can't understand it for you.  That being said, here goes nothing.

Right now there is a small community of non-Haitians practicing Haitian Vodou: if there are 100 white non-Haitians who have the knowledge and experience to put on a traditional Haitian fet lwa I'd be very surprised.  A century from now there could well be a thriving community of non-Haitian Vodouisants practicing Haitian Vodou and one will be able to throw together a fet lwa without calling on a single Haitian.  In the here and now doing that would require buying a lot of airplane tickets and searching frantically for people who knew what they were doing enough to actually fulfill the required roles.  Or I could just talk to the Haitian people who initiated me and go to the party they're holding.  Dunno about you, but I'm lazy and cheap: I'd rather do things the easy way than spend a lot of time and money on a theoretical exercise.

The non-Cuban Lukumi community has been around a bit longer and is considerably larger.  There are also a good number of white (or at least light-skinned) Cubans who practice Lukumi and Ifa. So if you wanted to be spared the indignity of working with Cubans - or at least with dark-skinned Cubans - you might be able to do so in the Lukumi community.  That being said, if you regularly attend bembes and public ceremonies for the Orishas you're going to, inevitably, run into Cubans light and swarthy.  In fact, you're going to run into situations where you're one of the only Anglophone people in the room and where most of the conversations are being held in Spanish.  You can avoid this by staying in your non-Cuban house and only learning from non-Cuban people and attending their parties -- although I'd caution you that a good number of those non-Cubans are Hispanic, so you're still likely to have to deal with Spanish-speaking people and maybe even learn a fair bit of another language.  It will be easier to honor the Orishas exclusively with and among white folks than to serve the lwa, but it will by no means be easy.

As far as Santa Muerte or Maximon go, I don't know anyone who is not from Central America working with these spirits - seriously or otherwise.  If you want to learn about them, you're going to have to go to the source.  Or, in a few years, you're going to have to buy a book from some white people who went to the source.  Maybe in a few decades or a couple of centuries there will be lots of non-Mexicans or non-Central Americans working with these spirits.  Here and now you're going to have to find a representative of the culture -- and most likely a non-white representative of the culture, being as how these are folk traditions which are largely practiced among people with indigenous roots.