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Misconceptions of Haitian Vodou

Written by Vanessa Griffiths, Leah Hancharuk, Spencer Hill  (B.A. Students)
Nominated by Professor A. Diptee

Since its emergence in the Caribbean during the era of the slave trade, the Haitian religion Vodou has been the subject of great controversy.  As a result, Vodou has been suppressed, misinterpreted and misrepresented over many centuries, and the practitioners of Vodou have long been subjected to religious persecution because of this.  Not surprisingly, mainstream media also portrays Vodou in manner that is problematic and lacks historical context. Fortunately, the recent exhibit Vodou at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (November 2012 – February 2014) does much to dispel some of the myths in circulation.

Historians have long recognized that Vodou played an important ideological role during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).  Yet, as incredulous as it may seem, there are those even today who argue that the ceremony at Bois Caiman, which sparked the Haitian Revolution, should be understood as a “deal made with Satan.”  The most notable of these was the very influential religious leader Pat Robertson who made this claim in 2010 during one of his televised fundraisers.  It is interesting to note, however, that the Haitian Catholic church has accepted Vodou for over thirty years (Germain 2011).  Yet for many non-Haitians, the religion is something to be feared and is also to be seen as an explanation for all that has gone wrong in Haiti.  While the views of Pat Robertson and other religious leaders such as Tom Barrett have been widely criticized, and their views can be easily dismissed by those who have studied the Haitian Revolution, their strong following guarantees that they have the power to influence perceptions about Vodou, Haiti, and Haitians.

Popular conceptions about Vodou have also been informed by the film industry.  For decades, many Hollywood productions have capitalized on stereotypes about Vodou. While it is clear to any historian that these films and television episodes are highly inaccurate, for many, the distinction between historical fact and sensationalized Hollywood fabrications and exaggerations is not all that clear. For example, movies such as Live and Let Die (1973) from the James Bond series, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), and Child’s Play (1988), all present Vodou in a negative light, emphasizing zombies, possession and Vodou dolls, which in reality have very little to do with the religion.  More recently, television shows such as True Blood and Bones have had Vodou featured prominently in their respective series.  In such representations, Vodou is not represented as a spiritual practice but is instead depicted as an evil cult.  Nor do such media productions emphasize the many similarities that Vodou shares with Christianity or its roots in Catholicism (Germain 2011).

Fortunately, there are efforts to educate and inform the public about the spiritual practice of Vodou.  A more accurate depiction of Vodou can be seen at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The exhibit Vodou at this national museum works to dispel the many misconceptions that the general public has about Vodou.  The exhibit begins by informing visitors of the religion’s African roots, discusses its links to Catholicism, emphasizes its ideological role in the Haitian Revolution, and by way of several short video clips provides insights into Vodou as it is practised today.

This exhibit is very informative for those with very little to know about Vodou, but can also be very eye-opening for those who think that they have a grasp of Vodou’s history and practices. Created in association with the Foundation for the Preservation, Enhancement and the Production of Haitian Cultural Works, the exhibit tells the story of Vodou from the perspective of Vodouists.  It uses a first person narrative which creates a much more intimate connection, making it easier for the audience to relate with practitioners of Vodou.  The museum exhibit directly addresses Hollywood fabrications such as the use of zombies, dolls and the dramatization of possession practices. Those Vodouists who were recorded for the exhibit claim that Americans “never stopped denigrating Vodou”, and that they “caricatured and portrayed [them] as evil” in an attempt to marginalize Vodou and its practitioners.  One important feature in the exhibit is the video demonstration of a Vodou ceremony.  This piece is meant to dismiss the negative associations which suggest Vodou practices are evil.

The exhibit Vodou offers a more accurate portrayal of Vodou and gives visitors an opportunity to hear the perspective of Vodouists.  That said, it is difficult to say with certainty if such an exhibit can effectively combat the powerful and pervasive myths that have shaped popular ideas about this spiritual practice.  At least this effort is a step in the right direction.

References

Barrett, Tom. Haiti: Government of the Devil, By the Devil and for the Devil. March 11, 2004. http://www.truthforsaints.com (accessed January 23, 2013).

Geggus, David. “The Bois Caiman Ceremony,” Journal of Caribbean History, Vol. 25 (1 & 2), 1991, 41-57.

Germain, Felix. “The Earthquake, the Missionaries and the Future of Vodou .” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 42 (2), 2011, 247-263.

Exhibit “Vodou.” Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa , 2013.

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