In Voodoo’s survival, a tale of black resilience

by @mhayoun February 25, 2015 3:55PM ET

African religions fused with Christianity to create Voodoo, but today many open practitioners of the faith are white

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics
Race & Ethnicity
Brandi Kelley prepares a gris-gris bag at Voodoo Authentica, a cultural center and retail shop in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

NEW ORLEANS — Not looking like a stock version of a Haitian Vodou priestess, or mambo, has its challenges for Mache Cheche Lavi. One customer at Voodoo Authentica, where she sells handmade Voodoo dolls and copyrighted gris-gris sachets that draw good energy, didn’t realize the 26-year-old white woman — who today wears a Wu-Tang Clan thermal and skinny jeans — was a leader of the faith and began lecturing her about Vodou spirits. 

“I don't usually play the ‘I’m a mambo’ card, but I did,” she says, smiling — explaining that the visitor was essentially preaching to the pastor. Lavi is her Vodou name, and she prefers to use it to avoid being recognized by pious Protestant relatives in her native Detroit.

Voodoo first arrived in New Orleans with slaves who continued their African spirituality in a Christian land by aligning each Yoruba deity with an alternate identity as a Catholic saint — a practice known as syncretism and echoed throughout the New World in the form of Santeria, Candomble, Umbanda and other faiths. Some see the practice as having disguised traditional African beliefs; others, like local Voodoo priest Elmer Glover, say the slaves embraced Catholicism as a faith with “a lot of magic in it,” coupling it with their African traditions to create what they saw as a more potent practice.

The second wave was taken to Louisiana by refugees from the turbulence of the Haitian slave revolt at the turn of the 19th century.

Passing itself as folkloric Catholicism, Voodoo involved drumming, dance and possession rituals and making offerings to the Yoruba demigods to seek their intercession in matters temporal. The practice also involves the African animist traditions of veneration of and communication with ancestors.

The survival of those African religious traditions is testament to the resilience and spiritual ingenuity of those who survived the Middle Passage, but today they are practiced by many who had no roots in slavery. Lavi is one of many white Americans active in the visible New Orleans’ Voodoo establishment. Another, Sallie Ann Glassman, originally from Maine and of Ukrainian Jewish heritage, is hailed by many in New Orleans as the most popular mambo du jour. Voodoo Authentica owner Brandi Kelley, a white woman from New Orleans, is another renowned priestess who holds an annual street festival to show a different face of Voodoo after what she calls years of maligning by Hollywood.

An altar at Voodoo Authentica dedicated to the spirits Elegua, with origins in West Africa, and Papa Legba, a Haitian figure. They are different spirits but represent similar things — communication, correct choice, opening doors.
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America
Raw ingredients for sale at Voodoo Authentica.
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

While Voodoo may be a unique expression of African identity that survived the ravages of slavery, it faces strong opposition in New Orleans’ largely Catholic and Baptist black community. Gregg, an African-American tour guide and driver whose family has lived here for generations and who asked to withhold his last name, echoed sentiments widely shared by many in his community who declined to speak on the record.

“If it was up to me, every Voodoo shop in the world would be closed down,” said Gregg, a devout Catholic, “for the simple fact that no one should think they should have that much power over anybody’s life.”

African-American history professor Kodi Roberts, a native New Orleanian writing a book on Voodoo and power, began studying the religion “as a way to understand the evolution of black identity in the U.S.”

But he found it wasn’t so simple. “Funnily enough, the more research I did, the less black and African Voodoo started to look,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘When was this black?’”

Some say that after centuries of vilification by the Catholic Church, literal demonization by Hollywood and being virtually outlawed in the South under codes that, for example, prohibited the unlicensed practice of medicine, Voodoo may have become a lot more attractive to white spiritual seekers than to their black counterparts.

“If you’re black and you’ve fought so hard not to be identified with barbarism, why would you say, ‘Yes, [I practice Voodoo]’?” said Ina Fandrich, a German immigrant, a prominent scholar and the author of “The Mysterious Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveaux.” Fandrich spoke to Al Jazeera from the Masonic Cemetery with her partner, Glover, an African-American native of Baton Rouge who practices much of his Voodoo in cemeteries.

‘Undercover Voodoo’

Ina Fandrich, left, and Elmer T. Glover.
Massoud Hayoun

“Voodoo has been vilified,” said Glover, 68, adding that he was disowned by his staunchly Catholic mother when he started practicing. But, he insists, “she was undercover Voodoo, for sure.” When Glover was a child, a tornado passed his Baton Rouge home, and the family took shelter in their bathroom while his mother said a rosary. Every house nearby was completely destroyed, in Glover’s telling of the event, except his childhood home.

“It’s the power of prayer,” Fandrich said, explaining that prayer as a magical tool is a core element of Voodoo. Glover’s “spiritual calling comes from the line of his mother. There’s not a single mother in his family [who wasn’t powerful]. They may have been good Catholics, but when people needed help …” She trailed off and smiled suggestively.

Many practitioners of Voodoo — like believers in Santeria and other unions of African spiritualism and Christianity in the New World — put God and Jesus above the pantheon of African demigods.

Marie Laveau, hailed by many in New Orleans as a Voodoo queen and believed to have been a free woman of color in 19th century New Orleans, is said to have been a devout Catholic who brought comfort to a beleaguered black community with her Voodoo. Her presumed tombs — there are three throughout the city — and other sites associated with her life continue to draw tourists and practitioners, but some say the Catholic Church hasn’t reciprocated Laveau’s respect for the Holy See. In December of 2013, a vandal covered one tomb in pink latex paint. Then the Archdiocese of New Orleans pressure-washed the structure, chipping away the original plaster and brick in the process. That came after decades of people kicking and drawing on the structure for luck, which caused the tomb to slowly deteriorate. 

“What the Catholic Church did was really passive aggressive,” said Voodoo Authentica’s Lavi. “It seems kind of underhanded.” New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond told Al Jazeera in October that all tombs “should be respected” but that the church “does not endorse Voodoo.”

The church maintains that the ancestor worship common in African tradition is a form of necromancy and strictly against Catholic doctrine. But in the New World, Fandrich says, the church often turned a blind eye as long as Catholics accepted the basic tenets of the faith.

A visitor at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 stops to organize offerings at one of several graves alleged to contain the remains of Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.”
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

‘No Voodoo community’

A close-up of the tomb above.
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

Regardless of the local church’s intentions toward African spiritualism, New Orleans black Voodoo society is in a state of decline, Fandrich said.

Under Jim Crow, “Voodoo was a crime. If you practiced Voodoo, you ended up in jail,” she said. “I have tons of records where Voodoo priests were accused and jailed for years for practicing medicine without a license.”

Roberts has also tracked the criminalization of African spirituality in his research. 

“You have Voodoo practitioners arrested but never charged for anything related to their religion. The police charge them with nebulous crimes — disturbing the peace, charged with being a suspicious and dangerous character,” he said. Those running businesses involving Voodoo were “charged with the kinds of crimes you charge a con artist with — obtaining money under false pretenses.”

And until the 1940s, when many in black communities in the South started moving north and rejecting traditions in pursuit of urban modernity, newspaper articles covered Voodoo gatherings to illustrate that “blacks are uncivilized. Left to their own devices, this is what they do, Voodoo,” Roberts said.

The result is a persistent idea in the black community that “if you’re Voodoo, it means you are criminal, immoral, uncultured,” Fandrich said. “The stigma is so potent that if you do believe, [people wonder,] ‘Why would you sell yourself out?’”

There was a short-lived resurgence of Voodoo in the black community in the 1970s amid movements to embrace an African cultural identity as a means of empowerment, analysts say. But it didn’t take off broadly in black American communities where social justice movements were fueled by ideologies rooted in Christianity, Islam and socialism.

These days, there are no known initiations of priests in New Orleans Voodoo. Instead, priests and priestesses typically have initiations from Vooodoo centers abroad such as Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and even as far away as the West African city of Porto-Novo, Benin, where Glover was initiated.

Voodoo dolls for sale at Voodoo Authentica.
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

Voodoo revival?

A neon sign at Voodoo Authentica.
William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

Black Catholic and Baptist residents of New Orleans usually answered no when asked whether Voodoo had been practiced in their families. But upon reflection, a number said they observed practices that they conceded could be rooted in Voodoo. A medical student said his mother had told him that to keep a man, a woman should bury a pair of his underwear in the backyard. Akeia Bernard, a Rhode Island native and anthropology teacher at Boston’s Wheelock College visiting New Orleans with her students says that although she “grew up super-Catholic,” as an adult she realized her grandmother “did things super-African.”

“When we would brush our hair or clip our nails, we’d have to burn it,” she explained. “My grandmother would say it’s a sanitary way to get rid of bodily stuff. But my mother said later that she was afraid someone would take those things and do bad things to you” using Voodoo-related magic.

One of Bernard’s students, Mia Richardson, 22, offered a different take, seeing Voodoo as “a way of hope” in an America rife with racism. “It gave the slaves hope,” she said. “I think with all the recent events [in the black community], people are starting to lose hope. I would practice Voodoo. I’m interested in it. I feel it would give me hope.”

It may be easier to find outsiders embracing Voodoo than it is to find locals willing to admit to doing so, but there are some. Sitting at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, a predominantly black Catholic congregation near Congo Square, where Laveau is said to have practiced, Lacide Johnson, 53, is one New Orleans native who proudly professes belief in both Christianity and Voodoo.

“Voodoo is inspirational,” he said, adding that because of its emphasis on contacting ancestors and getting back to African roots, “it helps you to learn who you are.”

After an accident the night before, Johnson went with a severe back injury first to the church to get charitable help to pay for his expensive prescriptions, then to the Voodoo temple of Priestess Miriam Chamani, just a few blocks away on North Rampart Street.

At the temple, Chamani said she saw hope for black America in Voodoo. “I have things from Africa I never knew I’d have. They came freely. I didn’t have to pay no $3,000 to go there to get it,” she said, meaning that although her gifts come from a faraway continent, they are within her. She said her mother worked for slave labor wages in a Mississippi cotton field.

“The individuals who hid in a tree to keep from being eaten by an animal, they put their intention into surviving another day,” she said. “The archetypes of humanity help us to become more reflective.” For Chamani, like most anthropologists, everyone’s roots are in Africa, regardless of color.