More thoughts on cultural appropriation, humility and Vodou

I doubt that anyone not born or at least raised in Haiti from a young age can ever understand Vodou in its full depth; the development of Haitian Vodou is so rooted in the history and culture of that country. Those of us adopting the religion can learn as much as we can, but some nuances will be lost on us due to differences in language, concepts and environment. We will never be the ‘experts’ in the way that someone who has always lived in the tradition is.

I am not saying that outsiders cannot be called by the lwa. If I believed that, then this blog would not exist. But I do see the topic of cultural appropriation brought up a lot in the online places where I lurk. This is mostly a good thing, as all of us who are not Haitian need to keep this in mind as we learn. But cultural appropriation is a tricky beast, and can be aided and abetted (and sometimes with good intentions) by the same people who are trying to avoid it.

To some extent, appropriation began the moment Vodou gained some popularity outside of Haiti. Outsiders became initiated, and a handful became Vodou’s mouthpiece for the outside world as more outsiders sought research materials that were easily accessible to them in the form of books and websites in languages other than Kreyol. Vodou is a beautiful faith and way of life; it is not surprising that it would attract outsiders once the stereotypes were pushed aside.

And this is where some of the appropriation occurred, in spite of the best intentions. Non-Haitians became prominent in this movement, not that this was undeserved or that hard work wasn’t involved. The problem is that the Non-Haitians became better known than the Haitians who taught them, with very few exceptions. The non-Haitians often do their best to connect newcomers to the original sources, but this has limited success. This is not dissimilar to what happened when blues music became popular among white musicians in the US and the UK. It morphed into rock and roll, which owes its existence to blues but is not blues in its original form. Nothing necessarily wrong with that except that the rock musicians became far more rich and famous than the blues musicians who inspired them, in spite of bands like the Stones making efforts to promote their blues idols. Popular media seems to have a life of its own sometimes. So I can’t blame those Haitians who express concern about foreigners adopting Vodou.

As outsiders, we should approach Vodou with a humble and respectful attitude; we begin as visitors and guests in this world whether we like it or not. Few things scream “appropriation” as loudly as people who initiate into a spiritual tradition not native to them, and then immediately present themselves as experts on the topic. Granted, they may have a good deal of knowledge about the tradition, but it is not going to be at the same level as someone born into the tradition. So ego needs to be placed aside, as they are akin to the graduate student who, while qualified to teach undergrads, is still not a full professor.

I also seriously have issues with those of European descent who study or initiate into a path and then set themselves up as the Billy Jack/Lt. John Dunbar/Jake Sully of said path (aka great white savior complex, which seems to be a bit more prevalent among males than females from what I have observed). I am not sure why they have a need to do this. In some cases it may be a combination of ego and a sense of entitlement (conscious or unconscious); in other cases it may be overcompensating for being a member of a privileged group (aka white guilt). Or perhaps they are simply the outsider attempting to gain the approval of the insiders by saying/doing what they think the insiders want them to say or do. A few of them seem to delight in publicly humiliating others, usually other non-Haitians whom they believe are more guilty of appropriation than they are, in spite of the white savior posturing, which is a particularly insidious form of appropriation that can sneak up on a person.

What can we do to mitigate appropriation? We need to locate reliable sources of information and follow regleman as accurately as we can. We can learn some Kreyol. We can follow the examples given to us by Haitian clergy when possible, and defer the spotlight to them as much as we can. We need to hear their voices more often.

There are a number of good mambos and houngans out there to learn from. There are also some very good groups and pages on Facebook run by Haitian people (although be forewarned that the crusaders may be there as well). Whatever happens, don’t give up. If you are diligent and meant to be on this path, the lwa will help you find your way.

Some recommended resources:

Sosyete La Deesse De La Mer Vodou Temple Facebook page

Sosyete l’Afrique Ginen Facebook page

Remembrance: Roots, Rituals, and Reverence in Vodou by Jerry M. Gilles and Yvrose S. Gille.

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2 Responses to “More thoughts on cultural appropriation, humility and Vodou”

  1. Reblogged this on Mystical Bewilderment and commented:
    An excellent commentary on cultural appropriation and voodoo.

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