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#1516: The Globalization of Yoruba Religious Culture: by Elizabeth McAlister.
Elizabeth was worried about posting this to the group, but I asked her
to please do so for those who'd enjoy reading here recent paper. (bob)
From: Elizabeth McAlister <email@example.com>
The Globalization of Yoruba Religious Culture
December 9-12, Florida International University
"Cellulose Spirits and White Racism:
White Fear and Black Gods in Film"
This paper calls our attention to the very unfortunate history of the
demonization in the White media of African-based religions and the people
who practice them. It is a history that continues and runs parallel to the
increased presence of Afro-Creole and African-based religions in the United
States. Film, television shows and television commercials as well as
internet ads and websites routinely serve up negative representations of
African-based religions. The images are produced by people who are
outsiders--non-practitioners, not of African descent. The representations
tend to be in either comedy, police- action or horror genres, and they are
almost always racist, that is, they portray people of African descent
engaging in "traditional African religion" to signify values of negativity
in plots or symbolically in settings.
The history of these films begins with works like King Vidor's Hallalujia
and the 1932 film White Zombie, and continues with blockbusters like Live
and Let Die, Angel Heart, The Believers, the Chuckie series, The Serpent
and the Rainbow, and countless b-rate movies and television episodes from
Miami Vice all the way to Cosby. The religions are used slightly
differently in each depiction, and each is a variation on the theme--the
strength of stereotypes, after all, resides in their flexibility.
In these films and shows, African-based religions are a vehicle through
which attacks people of color and immigrants become legitimate, compelling,
and pleasurable. The films employ a discourse that continues and expands
white supremacist and colonialist images of Africans as non-rational,
incapable of self-rule, feminized and most of all, inherently evil. In
these images African religion is racialized as black, and blackness is
demonized as evil. Often, aspects of the diverse diasporic religions are
mixed and matched, interspersed with accurate details and sprinkled
liberally with fantastic nonsense. While The Believers and some TV shows
draw from bits of Yoruba religions, the overarching themes usually come
straight from images of Haitian Vodou, complete with its particular
mythology of zonbis, zombi powder, graveyard work and 'black magic.' The
religions are almost always linked with crime, usually drug trafficking.
At this nexus of religion, race and film we can find common White
assumptions about peoples of African descent played to their logical
extremes. We can locate not only White ways of talking about peoples of
African descent but also White fear of difference, and White technologies
that serve to police the cultural imagination.
Perhaps the newest portrayal of traditional African religion is a very
recent advertisement for computer software by McAfee.com, a software
company that specializes in virus protection. While a white man sits
hunched over his computer, a dancing group of Black people in fake-African
tribal costumes and face paint, dance around a dark space with fire in the
background. A male dancer lifts a chicken to his mouth, and the film
editing conveys a sense of unrestrained and chaotic activity amidst, of
course, hand drumming. The fake African blows a white powder onto an older
white man, (clearly a reference to the zonbi powder of the Serpent and the
Rainbow), The camera pans to the white man, who delivers the humorous
punch-line, "Will this really help me with my computer?" It is a racist
image that is cynical and sophisticated, even as it mixes, matches and
fabricates African traditions. My 13-year old daughter, who is from Haiti,
saw the point immediately, more or less. "They are really African but they
are supposed to be Haitian," she said. Here, a representation of an
African religious ritual is parodied and held up as irrationality, as empty
effect, a kind of "voodoo technology."
show tv ad for McAfee.com
It is no accident that the fake Africans' fake voodoo ceremony is held up
against software that includes combatting computer viruses. European
science understands African religions as being anti-scientific and
irrational (and Karen Brown's paper tomorrow on Abner Louima contains a
more lengthy analysis of this). And then there is the invoking of the
virus. In this age of AIDS and Ebola, Africans and especially Haitians are
linked clearly with contamination in White discourses. Barbara Browning's
book, Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African
Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1998) shows how Western accounts of African
diasporic culture rely on the figure of disease and contagion. Her book is
a study of the recent associations between the AIDS pandemic and African
diasporic cultural practices. The primary figure for African contagion,
she argues, is the idea of "infectious rhythm." So it should not surprise
us that the computer virus advertisers would construct an image that
conflates Africans, rhythmic dancing, fire, chicken sacrifice and viruses
and posits them quickly--within seconds in this quick ad---against
technology, science, maleness, whiteness and reason.
This ad plays into a larger narrative about a vulnerable United States,
which is being penetrated and infected by a diseased foreign population.
(Browning 1998, p. 9) It is a narrative in which immigrants, and
especially immigrants of color and most particularly, of African descent,
are viewed as contagious carriers of AIDS, Voodoo as evil, poverty, filth,
dangerous sexuality and other dangerous cultural practices. T.D. Allman,
the journalist (who incidentally wrote the book on Miami titled Miami,)
writes a piece in 1989 for Vanity Fair. After describing Haiti as a
"zombie republic" and going to see a charleton who claims to cure AIDS,
Allman cites these words of a development official: "No one will go to
Africa. . . as Haiti does, they will go to America." Allman concludes, "I
would soon encounter a reality for which Haiti left me totally unprepared.
It takes just three hours and eleven minutes to get from Port-au-Prince to
New York." The Vanity Fair piece clearly linked military rule, zombies,
Voodoo, AIDS and corruption, and presented an image of millions of Black
Haitians penetrating the body of the United States as a new threat. With
Allman himself as hero, his piece becomes an allegory for white male
anxiety over issues of colonial domination and the fear of Black
penetration and revolution. Haitian immigration to the US was seen as such
a threat that its prevention formed the backbone of Clinton's decision to
"invade" Haiti in 1995.
African religion is often held up against state politics in Continental
Africa, Haiti, Cuba and Brazil as a reason why people of African descent
are not capable of self-rule and numerous writings point to the
"superstitions" of their citizens as evidence. (The clearest articulation
of this, lately, is Lawrence Harrison's 1993 Atlantic Monthly article,
which blames Vodou culture for Haiti's corruption and political
crisis--Harrison is a long-time foreign service man who mounts a serious
argument that I can only assume was taken seriously by the policy makers.)
Harrison's thinking can be seen as an example of what Tony Morrison calls
American Africanism: "the denotative and connotative blackness that
African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views,
assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning
about these people. As a trope, little restraint as been attached to its
Judging by the uses that Hollywood typically makes of black peoples,
restraint goes out the window in film. Since film is visual and since race
consists first of visual difference, film is the arena where white
representations of Black peoples are most exaggerated and most demonized.
How does media, especially film, use the religions to mount negative
representations of people of African descent, of African-based religion and
culture, and of new immigrants? What are the targets, now, of white
anxiety, and how are they rendered in the cultural imagination? What do
these images tell us about White filmakers' use of White characters and
Whiteness? My hope is that to call attention to the patterns in media
representations and their precise nature, will help us in our anti-racist
work as scholars, teachers or practitioners.
The last big film to engage with the religions was probably Eve's Bayou.
This was a somewhat sensitive treatment of New Orleans Vodou, in that,
first of all, it was neither comedy nor police action horror nor an action
film but rather a complex drama about a family and its own contradictions.
It had, refreshingly, an all-Black cast. In Eve's Bayou, a young girl's
aunt has a gift of "seeing" and "reading" and she works "roots" in a way
that is relatively unsenationalist.
[Show clip of Eve's aunt receiving client]
The aunt's dramatic Vodou moments are relatively benign, calm and ordinary.
But then again, there is the story, which has her under an old family curse
that causes her husbands to die. Then there is the more
sensationalistically rendered "Vodoo Witch" character, to whom the
protagonist, little girl Eve, runs for spiritual help. This old woman
operates alone in a shack, surrounded by Hollywood bullshit. Her face is
painted white, her hair is unkempt. As you watch this clip, you can note
the relatively accurate fake Paket Kongo and and the mixtures of bones in
[Show clip of Eve's aunt visiting "voodoo lady" in market]
So while Eve's Bayou presents a more nuanced and complex portrayal of
Vodou than the films I'll get to in a minute, it nevertheless associates
Vodou almost exclusively with sex and death.
At Wesleyan, I have my students write on Hollywood representations of Black
Religions, so they can learn to challenge the way they receive the scripts
that are given to them. They begin with two strong articles on
representations of Black religions: Joseph Murphy's "Black Religion and
Black Magic: Prejudice and Projection in Images of African-Derived
Religions" in the journal Religion, in 1990, and Laennec Hurbon wrote
"American Fantasy and Haitian Vodou" in the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou
catalog (both of whom, I see, are speakers here). Both articles offer
readings of media stereotypes of African-based religions in terms of the
dominant cultural anxietites which produce them. Each in its way points
out that efforts to represent African-based religious cultures may in fact
reveal the anxieties coming from a dominant culture about the status of its
I also have my students read the study Michael Rogin makes of political
demonology. Using the terms of political science, he focuses on the
constructions of what he calls "the countersubversive," who battles
so-called subversive monsters to give shape to his anxieties, which permits
him to indulge his forbidden desires. Rogin argues that a continuing
feature of American politics is the creation of monsters by the inflation,
stigmatization, and dehumanization of political foes. Demonization allows
the countersubversive, in the name of battling the subversive, to imitate
his enemy. Indeed, a common pattern in these films is to reverse
historical reality, so that instead of depicting the violence by European
regimes unto the Africas, Black people do violence to White people, usually
through magic and usually in association with criminal activity. The
African priest is often a cocaine trafficker--which of course reverses the
reality that people of African descent are much more likely to be targets
of drug distribution, than they are international drug traffickers.
Once the Black villain is shown to be involved in both "dark religion" and
crime, the White protagonist is justified in conquering what is established
as Black Evil.
The next clip is from the Serpent and the Rainbow. Here the white man hero
is of course modeled on the real ethnobotanist, Wade Davis. I assume we
all know this complex but very simple story of Davis selling his screen
rights to Wes Carven. Please notice who is doing what kind of violence to
Show Serpent in Rainbow Clip of Oungan torturing "Davis"
This clip is a good example of this reversal of historical reality in which
a Haitian tonton makout tortures the blan. This is particularly obscene
and offensive because in reality it has always Black Haitian women and men
who have been abducted, tortured and usually dumped, dead, back into the
streets. When I lived in Haiti doing fieldwork during the coup, the
military would typically abduct someone from one neighborhood, torture them
in a second, and dump them in a third, so that three residential areas were
terrorized in the process. White foreigners have always been shielded
behind the privilege of whiteness and were never violated in this way, even
by the makouts.
In the following clip please notice the mixing and matching of fact and
fantasy, fiction and non-fiction. We see the Davis character stumbling
down the streets, zonbified, while Jean Claude Duvalier leaves the country.
In this clip, notice the juxtaposition of real news footage with the
Show Serpent clip of Duvalier leaving for Airport
These films almost all play on very traditional hero mythology, and they
typically depict a white male hero vanquishing scores of black villains.
Films must demonstrate the virtues of whiteness that would justify
continued domination. This is a problem as whiteness is also invisible.
Whiteness in these films, as in general in the U.S., appears as nothing in
particular. It is revealed in emptiness, minimalism, coldness. Richard
Dyer, in his work on whiteness and film, argues that whites are portrayed
as taut, tight, rigid, upright, straight (as in, not curved), on the beat
(not syncopated), controlled and controlling, yet also ordinary,
unexceptional, passing itself off as normal and nothing in particular.
In this clip the unextraordinary powers of the fake Wade Davis are yet more
than enough to beat the fake houngan makout at his own game (and the white
man beats the African at his own game at least once in each of these
films). In this clip the anthropologist fights the evil magic of the
makout and releases zonbified souls from the fake govis in which they are
held. The fire here is very unfortunate since so many actual makout
oungans were murdered after Duvalier left.
Show Davis beating Houngan Makout in climax of Serpent
So there is nothing unusual about Davis as white; his whiteness passes
itself off as normal and nothing in particular. Dyer's article on film and
whiteness notes that Blacks in film often appear to have more "life."
Blacks are closer to nature, more alive, more likely to dance, sing, fight,
have sex, be emotional. Whites, meanwhile, are cerebral, rational and
logical, cold and calculating, less full of emotion, and less full of life.
I'm not sure whether I totally agree with Dyer here, but I find intreguing
his idea that the tension between demonstrating the superiority of
whiteness while also upholding whiteness as the normal, is a fundamental
project of white film.
The last clip is from Live and Let Die, where James Bond--very white, cold,
rational, calculating and also very much 'nothing in particular'--battles a
very stereotyped Vodoo drug trafficking operation on a fake Caribbean
island. Notice the values associated with bond are timing, control and
technology and protection of white womanhood from black sexuality. (Bond
is is simultaneously blowing up the opium fields and saving the white woman
from ritual murder) Also in this clip, notice the overdetermined
association of the black actors with evil--the satanic horned goat, the
snake from the garden of eden, the graveyard setting, the fire.
Show Bond in fake Voodoo end scene
Also notice that we have come full circle, in a sense because this fake
Baron Samdi spirit was clearly the inspiration for the fake African voodoo
dancer in the very new McAfee.com ad.
Tony Morrison reminds us that these examples of American Africanism have
become "both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class,
sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and
meditations on ethics and accountability." What are entertainments for
United States consumers are also forms of "cultural terrorism" for groups
whose religions are demonized. These films have real political
consequences for the people whose religions they represent. They serve as
"deep background" that justifies white supremacy, in its many forms, to
white groups. The fear of contamination motivates serious discrimination
and racism against immigrants and African Americans in the U.S. And, the
representation of demonized African spirituality obscures the actual role
of the military and US policy in the poverty and violence in the rest of
I honestly believe that many filmakers are not conscious of the patterns we
here can discern. For them, African religion is Hollywood Voodoo, it is
part of the general mythologies of leprechauns, witches and vampires
available to them in American culture. I don't know what can be done to
change the image-making, either. I have some hope for the generations we
are teaching now. Mama Lola is a book almost nobody leaves Wesleyan
without reading--like the Autobiography of Malcom X a generation ago they
are providing new understandings and new ways to bridge difference.
Organized political action against racist religious images in Hollywood?
I'd love to be part of it. Let's discuss it.
Allman, T.D. "After Baby Doc." Vanity Fair, January 1989.
Barbara Browning, Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread
of African Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1998)
Richard Dyer, White. (New York: Routledge, 1997)
Richard Dyer, "White" in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations,
(London: Routledge 1993), 141-163)
Lawrence E. Harrison. "Voodo Politics" Atlantic Monthly June, 1993, pp.
Laennec Hurbon, "American Fantasy and Haitian Vodou" in Donald Cosentino,
ed., Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. LA: Fowler Museum of Cultural History,
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary
Imagination. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard press, 1992)
Joseph Murphy, "Black Religion and Black Magic: Prejudice and Projection
in Images of African-Derived Religions" Religion 20, 1990.
Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagon, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political
Demonology. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.)
* * * * * * * * *
Department of Religion
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