Voodoo and African-American political struggle

by @mhayoun February 25, 2015 11:28AM ET

Analysis: Some practitioners are black power movement veterans, but there’s little Voodoo in modern identity politics

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics
Race & Ethnicity
An altar at the New Orleans voodoo shop Voodoo Authentica is dedicated to two spirits: Yemaya, the eternal mother (who represents domestic prosperity, family and children), and Oshun (who represents love, sensuality, beauty, romance, personal prosperity and the mystery of woman).
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

NEW ORLEANS — The Big Easy doesn’t have a #BlackLivesMatter movement like in many other parts of the country, even if Louisiana’s highest incarceration rates in the nation disproportionately affect black males. Why? It’s a tough city to organize, social justice advocates across the city say; attempts to channel a year-round Mardi Gras spirit into festive demonstration seem only to have added liquor to nascent movements. 

What New Orleans does have is Elmer T. Glover, 68, who taught local Black Panthers karate in the 1970s and is now a Bokor, a priest who knows not just the religion of Voodoo but also the light and dark magic of it. In Haitian Vodou, Bokors are charged with sending dark spirits after enemies of the community. Simply put, Glover could send spirits like his Mait-Tete or patron deity Baron Samedi — usually depicted as a corpse in a top hat, who deals in life and death — after the arbiters of what many call systematic legal and socioeconomic inequality for black America. But he’s holding off for now. 

“They aren't ready for nothing like Voodoo,” Glover said, laughing. Not yet. 

He sat on the edge of a tomb at a Masonic cemetery in northern New Orleans. He does much of his work in cemeteries — related not just to death but also to life, love and the totality of human experience. Despite the warmth and lightheartedness of this soft-spoken man, blind in one eye and gifted with what practitioners of African spiritualist faiths from Benin to Haiti to New Orleans have called real sight, Glover doesn't kid. “All my enemies in the karate world are six feet under,” he said coolly. 

Glover’s is the magic that he and his partner, Ina Fandrich, a scholar and priestess of Voodoo originally from Germany, said secured the slaves’ victory over Napoleon’s invincible army in the Haitian Revolution of the 19th century. One of the leaders of the revolt, François Mackandal, was believed to be a Haitian Vodou priest. It’s a magic that Glover and Fandrich said could have saved Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. 

Voodoo practitioner Brandi Kelley ties a gri-gris in her shop, Voodoo Authentica.
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

Local practitioners like Brandi Kelley, a white New Orleanian and a prominent priestess of New Orleans Voodoo, say that at the base of their faith is the ingenuity and subversion of the first black community here, the slaves.

“Rather than lose touch with their spirits, the ingenious African people did many things to stay connected and keep Voodoo alive,” she said. “They drew many parallels between their indigenous faith and the rituals and saints of Catholicism — the religion many of the slaves [in Louisiana] were forced to adopt — and outwardly appeared to embrace Catholicism, while most, in their hearts and minds, stayed devoted to their own spirit forces. The slavemaster would see what appeared to be a Catholic altar in the slave quarters with a saint’s image et cetera upon it and would accept and allow this.”

But Voodoo’s role as a source of power for black America — a subversion of white America’s dominance — has ebbed and flowed.

For generations after the Civil War, Voodoo was used against the black community, Fandrich said. Police arrested and incarcerated practitioners for crimes like practicing medicine without a license. A large part of Voodoo involves natural, holistic remedies.

Kodi Roberts, a professor of African-American history at Louisiana State University, said that during the fight in the mid–20th century for voting rights, Southern newspapers held up Voodoo as a justification for the view that blacks were too barbaric to vote. 

With Voodoo’s history of being used against the black community, some in the United States reclaimed the practice in the 1970s as a religious expression of black empowerment.

“It becomes like joining the Nation of Islam, reaffirming your blackness,” Roberts said. 

Glover proudly calls himself a former “militant” of the black power politics of the 1970s and said “racism is alive and well in America. Nothing ever changed.”

Whether or not Voodoo has any role to play in offering spiritual support to the re-emergent movement for racial justice remains to be seen, although there are few signs of it thus far. Roberts said that older practitioners, rather than see Voodoo as a contemporary progressive counterculture, are more likely to see it as “a looking back to what African-Americans are missing.”