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.”