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12325: Boston Globe Article: Practitioners of vodou battle stereotypes (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 6/15/2002.

Practitioners of vodou battle stereotypes
By Rich Barlow, Globe Staff, 6/15/2002


Hollywood often stereotypes religion, of course, but when it comes to
Haitian vodou (often Americanized as ''voodoo,'' which actually is an
African-American offshoot), even everyday language can be
dismissive. ''Voodoo economics,'' was not a tribute to Ronald Reagan's
math skills.

To Erol Josue, an ''oungan'' (vodou priest), this popular perception
is unfair.

''Magic exists in vodou,'' he says in French translated by his friend
Anna Wexler, a Brookline writer and student of vodou. But the 15,000
people he estimates practice vodou in the Boston area don't run around
choking dolls, Josue says.

Quite the opposite: In her new book ''Rara! Vodou, Power, and
Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora,'' Wesleyan scholar Elizabeth
McAlister says vodou historically has been a force for good in Haiti,
intimately woven with the struggle for civil rights and against

Yet the one-two punch of popular misperceptions and a relatively small
Haitian community in Boston means vodou in this area is practiced in
the privacy of homes and basements, unlike in New York or Miami, which
have larger vodou populations and occasional public festivals.

''Most Americans ... think it's black magic,'' says McAlister. ''It's
probably particularly secret, or let's say particularly protected, in
Boston, but everywhere in the United States, practitioners are
conscious the religion is demonized by the media.''

Wexler attributes local prejudice to the influence of some Protestant
churches, which ''have brought a lot of Haitians, gotten them out of
Haiti and gotten them visas,'' she says. ''The Protestant churches
very often judge vodou very negatively.''

Many people probably aren't aware that vodou is a cousin of
Catholicism, formed by the marriage of African traditions brought by
slaves to Haiti and the faith of Rome forced on them by their French
Catholic masters.

To be initiated into vodou, a person must first be baptized in a
Catholic church, says McAlister.

Vodouists believe in a God who works through numerous spirits. In
Lynn, where Josue lives in the home of his cousin, a health aide who
is a ''manbo'' (priestess), his cousin stores a small altar in a
cramped room in her basement. Josue says more than 100 people have
squeezed into the basement for ceremonies before the altar, which was
recently arrayed for a cermony to the spirit Ezili Danto.

Covered in a red cloth, the altar bore a solitary burning candle
surrounded by bottles of alcohol and fronted by two cups of
coffee. (Ezili Danto is an earthy spirit, partial to strong liquor and
bitter coffee.) A plate of cookies stood for the children for whom
this motherly spirit watches out. A bouquet of roses - thanks from a
congregant for help received from the spirit - added a touch of
nature. (Oungans and manbos counsel their congregants. They also use
medicines made from plants to treat certain illneses, particularly
diabetes, says Wexler.)

Color paintings of Catholic saints hung on the walls - Patrick
expelling the snakes from Ireland among them - in silent witness to
how Catholicism became ''a living part of the religion,'' says
Wexler. Some vodouists attend Catholic churches, including Josue's
cousin, who keeps a cross and figurine of Joseph holding the baby
Jesus on an adjacent altar.

The calling to the priesthood comes when a ''lwa'' (spirit) chooses a
person, says Josue. Preparation for priesthood includes a week or more
of seclusion, during which the budding priest or priestess learns
rituals and contemplates his or her spiritual identity. Priests and
priestesses have equal power to lead ceremonies.

The ancestral aspect of vodou is as critical as the religious
one. Josue visits Haiti at least once a year, to divest himself of the
material trappings of the West and surround himself with the
environment of his ancestors. The pilgrimage has not always been
possible. During the temporary overthrow of President Jean-Bertand
Aristide, Josue lived in exile because he could not speak freely
against the military dictatorship that replaced Aristide's

There's another part of Haitian heritage to which vodou speaks:
slavery, which existed until Haitians revolted and liberated
themselves from the French in 1804. ''There's a lot of elements that
remind us of the history of slavery in vodou,'' says Wexler, a
descendant of New England clipper shipbuilders who benefitted from the
slave trade.

Translating for Josue, she adds, ''It's also a religion of resistance,
unlike how Karl Marx describes religion, as the opium of the
people. People want their paradise here on earth; it's not a
resignation to a better life after you die. ... It really infuses
Haitians' ability to survive.''