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6926: Anthropology and Vodou (fwd)

From: qret6394 <pharris@ou.edu>

I have been reading with gret interest recent posts about sexuality,
homosexuality their relationshp to Vodou, stigmatization and  what
anthropology ought do in terms of research to atone for the sins of its
past where Vdoud is concerned.Now I will jump into the fray and try to
rationally debunk a few free floating illusions that have been
circulating around for sometime.
Let us begin with the notion that anthropoligists are somehow
resposnsible for the stigmitization of Vodou. American scholarshp in
anthropolgy where Vodou is concerned began with two individuals in the
1930's. One was Melville Herskovits who published "Life in A Haitian
Valley", that was part of a larger project that culminated in "Myth of
the Negro Past". His purpose was to demonstrate the continuity of
African cultural traits in the New World and to respond to racist myths
that African traits could not have survived the middle passgae and
bondage, because people of African decent were viewed as childlike and
malleable, happy to be slaves, and therefore adapted to New World
cultural forms while "forgetting" their own, that only the more ignorant
Africans were enslaved and therefore could not have transmissed cultural
traits. And so on, you get the picture. Melville Herskovits, a man not
of color, an anthropologist, established the first university program in
African Studies in the US. The second person was not actually an
anthropologist but an assistant of Herkovits's...that would be Zora
Neale Hurston who travelled to Haiti in the 1930's and published "Tell
My Horse".
There were other books published by non-anthropologists like Maya
Deren's " Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti" that is considered
and ultra-classic that is on every lit. review of any anthropologist
woth their salt researching Vodou. Next was Alfred Metraux's classic
"Voodoo in Haiti" (his spelling)..he was ananthropologist but not
American, Swiss actually.His book is purely descriptive and non
theoretical but an excellent source of information. Other American
anthropologists like Karen McCarthy- Brown whose dissertation on veve,
her book "Mama Lola" and articles published in edited volumes have done
much to lift the veil on misunderstandings about Vodou. Then there is
the "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" ,the exhibition (and book, and CD)
that toured in and outside the US that celebrated the art forms
associated with Vodou and brought the religion into the mainstream
public eye. There were anthropologists who worked on that effort...in
fact the book contains an article entitled "The Social History of Haitin
Vodou" written by anthropologist Sydney Mintz ( along with Michel-Rolph
Trouillot) that I think does an excellent job of tracing the history and
problems associated with tracing the developmental history of Haitian
Vodou. For those asking for research on its history check out that
article. The only American (or otherwise) anthropoligists that in my own
estimation have published anything that has detracted from Vodou is Wade
Davis..and not so much what he published as that he sold movie rights to
the likes of Wes Craven..a producer of horror films (like the Freddy
Kruger stuff). Most of the bad press relating ot Vodou in this country
grew out of early travel reports (during the colonial period), and the
Marine occupation 1915-1934 in which folks like Faustin Wirkus, Seabrook
and others wrote sensational accounts of Vodou. Many of these
publications were sold to RKO Keith for the production of Saturday
matinee "B" flicks.
I myself am an anthropologist, or at least one in training, and I can
assure you that there is a lot of self flagellation that goes on in the
discipline about the sins of this discipline and its early association
as the "handmaiden of colonialism". I travel to Haiti and I research
Vodou. I also teach classes.... out here on the prairie of
Oklahoma...yes right here in this Republican, conservative Bible belt
state... on Vodou. I teach its historical emergence, its connections to
the slave revolt and Independence, its metaphysics, the social
structures of its societies, its symbolisms...and then the students
build a Vodou temple right in the middle of campus and do narratives of
certain Loa in costumes they have created after extensive research on
the domains, personalities, and characteristics of each. All of this
from the efforts of just ONR anthropologist...and I know I am not alone
in this effort. In addition OU students went to Haiti under my
"instructorship" to experience this religion up close and personal
....as opposed to books and my lectures.(see my posts ont he trip) I
don't know any academic  worth a hoot, or Vodouisant (except for perhaps
the most egotistical and ignorant and also perhaps CHARLATAN) that
claims to know "everything" about Vodou.....that would be an
impossibility for anyone....anthropologist or not, Haitian or not,
American or otherwise, that is because it is a living and constantly
manifesting religion that deals with the "mysteries" (!). That brings up
another point...and of course this is just my opinion. Vodou is a
religion but indeed it is SO much more. To say "religion" almost
objectifies it and makes it seem less or smaller than what it is.  I
prefer to think of Vodou not as a noun but as a verb...to "introspect"
into the mysteries, a way of being in the world that sees material,
social, and individual domains of human life as imbued with a
transcendent or spiritual order of meaning. Thus Vodou is all of life.
Patti K. Harris
University of Oklahoma