Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

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Voodoo Special Issue Home

Serving the Spirits: Introduction to the Special Issue
Kim Wells

August 2008

In Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, a book which is one of my all time favorites (and about which I have an article in this issue), Mami Gros-Jeanne, one of the main characters, calls the religion she practices: “Shango or Santeria or Voudun or what, we all doing the same thing.  Serving the spirits” (126). I have spelled the religion Voodoo in various places on the website because it is the most popular way of spelling the religion which is a blending of African folk mythology and religion, New World practices (including Native American and slave religions/spirituality), folklore and folk medicine. It is one of the most misunderstood of religions, I think, with the most common image that of primitive savage priests cutting chicken heads off and mumbling curses and poking pins in voodoo dolls.

veve to ErzulieMy own first experience with the deeply spiritual aspects of this religion, early in college, came in my Intro to Religion class where I did a fabulous presentation on the subject. It was one of the first times I have enjoyed the mixture of dramatics that come naturally to me and academic scholarship. I still grin when I visualize my classmates coming into the classroom where I had candles lit, vévés drawn on posterboard lining the front of the room, and sacrificial offerings to Erzulie and Damballah on the table where our deeply spiritual professor usually sat. They asked, with a little worry in their voice "Ummm, what are we doing today?"

I have been fascinated with the two sides of Voodoo ever since. It is with that eager fascination that I am thrilled to be bringing you this special issue on Voodoo, Conjure, Hoodoo, "Serving the Spirits," Afro-Caribbean, Afro-American religion, as it is practiced by female initiates and/or written about by female writers. While Voodoo itself is not strictly female, there is a strongly matriarchal current within much of it, and we have to remember that Voodoo's female loa (gods) are just as powerful as its males. This alone makes it something for feminist inquiry and interest, but then add its subversive roles as a religion that upsets the "house of the master" at every turn and we see a perfect place to explore.

I had no idea what to expect when I sent out the call for essays on the subject, but it turns out that there are several scholars doing incredible work on the subject and I am very proud of the collection Women Writers has gathered here. We have collected seven amazing scholarly essays, several new and original works of poetry and fiction with Voodoo and/or Afro-Caribbean magic and religion as theme, an interview with writer Jewell Parker Rhodes, and book, film, and popular culture reviews of texts that deal with the subject matter.

Ed Cameron's excellent essay on Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological work on Voodoo (Tell My Horse and Mules and Men) and its connection to psychotherapy and analysis is a revealing look at the double-voiced conflicts one often finds in Hurston's scholarly work-- the bind between being active participant in the ritual and folklore and also trying to "objectively observe" as an anthropologist has often been criticized, even derided. Cameron's discussion of this voice in the light of therapy gives a new even-handed perspective on this issue.

Tatia Jacobson Jordan's insightful reading of Jewell Parker-Rhodes' novel trilogy featuring one of the most famous U.S. practitioners of Voodoo, Marie Laveau, points to the "feminist triumph" of the work and character featured there. Jacobson Jordan's analysis of the real history of the real Laveau plus readings of the fictional one in Parker Rhodes' creative and gripping matriarchal portrayals of the "Maries" illustrates much about why Marie Laveau continues to fascinate us. Particularly important are the way Parker Rhodes works within an awareness the triple-intersections of race, gender, and class within the novels.

There is some evidence within Zora Neale Hurston's work on Voodoo that she could claim a magic lineage several times descended from Marie Laveau-- who is, by the way, the beautiful and enigmatic woman in our masthead artwork by Holly Sarre. That Hurston is best known as a writer of fiction, then, shows a different kind of magic and initiation taking place. Sheila Ellen Pardee writes about Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological work, the conflicts that Hurston was well-aware of during that work, and the multiple shifting "roles" or "voices" that one sees within that work on Voodoo and folklore. Pardee details the way that Hurston's work was part of an attempt to "clean up" Voodoo's image by the government of Haiti, and also gives factual detail of some of the inner-workings of the religion. The way Hurston balanced between Houngan's initiate, scholar, and budding writer of fiction is clearly addressed in Pardee's vigorous reading.

Kelli Randall reads Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and reveals the ways that race influenced the Salem Witch trials, with Tituba in its center, as well as Condé’s postmodern, imaginative reclaiming of the image of Tituba from that negative connotation as the "evil witch who started all the fuss." She argues that the novel is "critical of the hypocrisy, racism and religious bigotry of Puritan New England of the 17th century."

Kameelah Martin Samuel's essay illuminates the history and development of the Conjure woman archetype-- a magical woman practitioner of Voodoo (or other folk religions). We learn that Conjure women (and men) appear within American literary narratives as far back as the founding of the country and have evolved into a unique genre of its own. She then reviews several contemporary texts (including the film Eve's Bayou) for the way that Conjure is changed, rewritten, and reappropriated within those texts, predicting a "second-coming" for the Conjure woman.

Brenda R. Smith reveals for us the way in which Zora Neale Hurston combines her knowledge of Voodoo's rites and mysteries in her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Smith details the imagery of Janie as the goddess Erzulie, a subversion and challenge of Voodoo's "primitive" side within Hurston's portrayal. Smith shows us the way Hurston integrated her work into a seamless magic of mythic literature, deepening our understanding of the nature of the story as much more than the "just" a romantic female Bildungsroman, a genre into which the novel is often cast.

Tara Tuttle's essay on Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon discusses prominent uses of conjure in African American literature before examining the ways in which conjure is key to the empowerment of women in Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. She argues, among other things, that Conjure as a metaphor for female creativity has everything to do with the role of language in religion and society. 

My own essay on Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring details the way Hopkinson blends science fiction dystopia with Afro-Caribbean folk magic and creates an empowered Third Wave feminist heroine. The essay close-reads the novel's use of magic and especially the element of possession as a way of empowering a new genre of literature: the Magical Feminist story.

Add to the scholarly mix above four incredible short stories, three poetry collections specifically dealing with Voodoo as a theme and three other poetry collections that center on all sorts of magic, several book reviews (some of books I myself had not discovered yet and am on the way to buy now). A review of a Voodoo Tarot deck, Disney's upcoming foray into Voodoo and the first African American Disney princess, mystery, magic, and nonfiction.

Then, don't even get me started on how excited I am that author Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes agreed to do an interview and featured author piece on the site. The interview is incredible-- far more than I ever expected of insight into Rhodes's work on Marie Laveau. Kameelah & Rhodes range from family histories to dream memories to-- well. Go read it yourself and see.

***

I once bought a dress for a special occasion (my PhD graduation, to be exact). I was looking for something comfortable, yet cool enough to wear under those formidable layers of "Doctorial Robes" and yet look cute later at the celebratory dinner. I found a white, cotton summer sundress. By the time I got it home and tried it on, I realized it looked just like the white dresses Voodoo initiates often wear to their ceremonies. I toyed with the idea of wearing it anyway-- I mean, the commencement into academia is as much a ceremonial initiation into a "sister(or brother)hood" as any. But I felt wrong to wear it to something that wasn't actually part of a true religious ceremony. It felt like appropriation to wear it any other way than to TRULY wear it. It still hangs in my closet. I have no idea if I'll ever wear it, really. It felt a little towards the "kooky" side to admit that I feel superstitious about the dress, but perhaps, one day, I will find a true use for it.

Like Kameelah, and Jewell Parker Rhodes, magic women run in my own family. My great-grandmother was the midwife of her small Illinois farming community, and I remember being a small girl, with my mother and sister in a car, all of us casting a spell of justice upon the former employer of my mother's boyfriend. It was no more, really, than a prayer for "what comes around" to land where it ought to. But I sometimes wonder, in retrospect, whether the years of struggle for my family might not have been a bit of threefold justice hitting us for that moment of not-so-nice magic. I also once cast a spell of attachment on a boy I wanted as my boyfriend-- and it worked, all too well, and it took a lot of pain and tears to break that sometimes inexplicable attachment. I can't say that I'm a true believer, but I personally view magic carefully, as a cautious and tentative not-a-skeptic, as something not to be played with, as something only to be explored carefully. This we do here: explore the idea of Voodoo within literary, film, and popular culture texts. Some of the works we explore were written by people who are initiates, some are just works of very creative people fascinated with the same ideas of something greater than humanity moving in the world.

But I hope, and I think, that this issue shares with you a bit of our own reverence for such a study. I thank everyone who participated, and especially Kameelah, who submitted an essay for consideration and responded positively when I pounced on her and thrust the burdens of editorship upon her. Anyway. Go read and enjoy thinking about the issues the essays raise. Maybe you'll find your own connection to the loa someday, maybe not. But if you read carefully, at least you'll recognize them when and if you see them.  


 By: Kameelah Martin Samuel   August 2008

I am beaming with anticipation as we prepare to launch this special issue of Women Writers.  This issue reflects the shifting connotation voodoo and other African-based spiritual traditions are invoking in the modern age. Voodoo is everywhere!!! Academia is chock-full of books, journal articles, and other scholarship that centers on New World religions and those who practice it.  From Karen McCarthy Brown, to Albert Raboteau, to Yvonne Chireau… intellectuals are certainly engaged in “the work.”  Authors, poets, and the like have been infusing the loa into their creative material for some time, now. Hip Hop artist Common gives praises to the orisha in his lyrics and who can forget the sultry spoken word performance of Lorenz Tate in Love Jones (1997) when he addresses his muse: “Is your name Yemanya?…Oh, Hell no. It’s got to be Oshún!”  Even Tia Dalma, from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (2005), is a nod to the prevalence of voodoo, conjure, obeah, lucumí, hoodoo, macumba, rootwork, espiritismo, condomblé, and ifa across the Atlantic world. Instead of discussions of black magic, cannibalism, and denigrating titles like “Hags and Their Ways,” Serving the Spirits: Women and Voodoo in Literature and Popular Culture brings together agents of this transitioning mood. To be sure… America is not what you would call a Voodoo Nation, but there is something very telling about its long standing fascination—for better or worse—with voodoo. Our special issue engages that fascination in multiple ways. 

For me, however, studying the phenomena that is voodoo is more than scholarly inquiry.  Having been attracted to and connected with the otherworldly from a wee babe, discovering the history of African-based spirituality in college (by an English professor and Ifa priestess!) offered a framework with which to finally comprehend the extra-spiritual activities of my youth.  Unlike Jewell Parker Rhodes, my grandmother offered no lessons in dream interpretation or numerology, though she always has some home remedy she is anxious to share. I had to decipher her coded, Catholic-influenced language.  I would later discover, much like Ntozake Shange’s character Indigo, that “[voodoo is] my blood. I’ve got earth blood, filled up with the [voodooiennes] long gone, and the sea” (3). My maternal line stretches back eight generations to the very same nineteenth century neighborhood as Madame Laveau.  My great-great-grandmother is entombed in famed St. Louis Cemetery #1. Apparently, ….err… “gifts” are shared among the women in my family.  At times, I ponder whether or not I came by my research interests of my own accord!  The completion of this issue is as much a reflection of my professional endeavors as it is an expression and acknowledgement of my very tangible ancestral past.

Shange also warns, “Where there is woman there is magic.” This special issue embodies just that--a powerful clashing of spirit and the feminine.  Author Jewell Parker Rhodes gives an intimate portrait of how women and voodoo have influenced her life and writing.  She was gracious and very forthcoming about her work and even hints at her current work-in-progress, Hurricane Levee Blues.  I thank Kim for inviting me to work so closely on this very important volume.  The scholarly essays and creative submissions continue to showcase the innovative ways voodoo has seeped into history, literature, and American culture (I am so mesmerized by the Holly Sarré painting that I simply have to own it!!). Seeing this issue realized has been one of the highlights of my budding academic career.  It is my hope that our reading audience will challenge themselves and others to re-think preconceived notions about women of color and African ways of knowing; to progressively move toward a better understanding of how voodoo and its New World counterparts function and why such religions continue to exist in a post-slavery society… And if a few are embraced by the Spirit imbibed in the works collected here and become suddenly aware of an ecstatic tickle at the nape of the neck….“So be it”! 

Peace and Blessings... Kameelah

 

 

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