January 09, 2014

Krista's Journal: Spirits Live Beyond Death — and Before Birth

February 4, 2010

The immediate association most of us have with Vodou, it seems, was invented in the West. It was most indelibly planted in American imaginations by Bela Lugosi's portrayal of an evil, doll-wielding Haitian "voodoo" priest in a 1932 Hollywood film, White Zombie — at a time when the U.S. was in the final throes of a 19-year occupation of Haiti.

Disassociating my idea of Vodou from the notion of sticking pins into dolls was simply the first of the many perceptions my original conversation with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith dismantled. It helped me see beyond the tag line that always comes with the mention of Haiti in the news and is there again now: "the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere." I gained a sense of the heroic and tumultuous in the history, culture, and inner life of the Haitian people. This is all encompassed in the complex fact, as Patrick Bellegarde-Smith reminds us, that they are "60% Catholic, 40% Protestant, but 100% Vodou."

As Patrick Bellegarde-Smith tells it, ancient spiritual riches lie beneath the surface of terrible poverty in Haiti, not defeating it but meeting and transcending it in daily, private lives. Haitian elites like him are navigating a 21st-century paradox — of finding tools for modernity and imagining a better post-colonial future by reclaiming the ancient roots and resources they have in Vodou.

He is navigating that with a new intensity now as he considers Haiti's future. And he is finding an immediate solace in Vodou as he grieves in the present. He writes:

"I … come from a well-connected family whose story parallels Haitian history over the last two centuries. Every corpse is mine; every body is mine. Their spirit fuses with mine and that of all Haitians. Spirits live beyond death — and before birth. The dead are not dead, but alive in new dimensions. I gain solace from that ancestral thought."

Recommended Reading

Image of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Updated and Expanded Edition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society)
Author: Karen McCarthy Brown
Publisher: University of California Press (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 440 pages

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has authored several scholarly anthologies about Haitian Vodou, including Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality and Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers. Karen McCarthy Brown's fascinating, classic work Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn is a tremendous introduction to Haitian Vodou for Western readers.

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is a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and author of many books about Vodou.