Vodou in the Haitian Experience

A Black Atlantic Perspective

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Celucien L. Joseph, Nixon S. Cleophat
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The chapters of Vodou in the Haitian Experience make several important contributions, both empirical and theoretical. While the contributors to this volume arrive at this topic via a diverse array of disciplinary backgrounds and methodological paths, the chapters share two general concerns, the first with how people experience Vodou, and the second with some facet of the adaptation/retention debate (i.e., what of “Africa” is retained or altered in its diaspora?). The book is organized into two sections: “Vodou, Anthropology, Art, Performance, and the Black Diaspora,” and “Vodou and African Traditional Religions.”

While Vodou in the Haitian Experience ostensibly sets out to “examine [Vodou’s] connections to African indigenous religions,” themes such as multiplicity, integration, syncretism, créolité, deterritorialization, re-working, roots and routes, and assemblages abound (2). Unlikely connections are drawn beyond Africa to eighteenth century occultist thought, to Arabian religions, and to Islam, among others, productively complicating any straightforward notion of religious arrivals and retentions in the New World.  While the second section focuses more specifically on relations to “African traditional religions,” here too, the various methodologies employed by the authors—whether historical, ethnographic, synthetic, or speculative/interpretive—illustrate the various ways in which connections to Africa are defined, claimed, negotiated, proven, constituted, crafted, and performed.

In both sections the book aims to re-stage the old adaptation/retention debate in terms of specific experiences of Haitian Vodou, especially in its abilities to reference, represent, and perform pasts, as well as in its abilities to create change and to respond to the present, notably in its poetics and aesthetics. These chapters gather increasing argumentative force by stressing the interconnections between roots and routes (to echo multiple authors’ use of Paul Gilroy’s formulation) as articulated in Haitian Vodou, and realized in people’s experience engaging it through ritual, aesthetic, and analytic means. In her essay, Patricia Marie-Emmanuelle Donatien makes this interconnection between pasts and presents explicit in her discussion of Vodou poetics, which “constitutes a gateway to this reality constantly titillated by the past, fantasy and the supernatural, while being firmly rooted in the turpitude of the present…. Thus, Vodou poetics is elaborated on a legacy not only based on imagination or myth, but also on the transgenerational transmission of practices and expertise” (159).The first two contributions by Ann E. Mazzocca and Kantara Souffrant, deserve special attention, as they lay the groundwork for the volume as a whole. Beginning with an account of ceremonies around a sacred mapou tree at Souvnans (the name for both a rite and the place where it is held), Mazzocca examines mizik rasin (“roots music” that developed in the wake of the two Duvalier regimes) and folkloric dance, developed in Haiti, and also performed in New York City. Such embodied practices, rich in their symbolism and history, trace their way back to Africa, while at the same time help to give birth to a “politics of transfiguration” in the present (20). In Mazzocca’s contribution, roots are not a static symbolic-historical entity; if they are to become routes, they must be constantly and variously recreated and embodied.

Following closely in Mazzocca’s trajectory, Souffrant’s contribution examines three performance and studio art installations (including one of her own), which show how Vodou can be an aesthetic resource—especially for women, feminist, and queer Haitian artists—to navigate the complexities and dualities they feel both in the diaspora, and when they return to Haiti. While Souffrant discusses the complexities artists navigate in their work more on the side of diasporic rather than sexual or gender identities, it is not hard to imagine how the main argument—that the way Vodou aesthetics join together action and intention in artistic creation (what Souffrant refers to as “circling the cosmogram”) helps to reconcile the feeling of certain splits and dualities—might apply to how gender and sexual identities are felt as well. This line of inquiry into gender and sexuality might have been pursued further.

Other chapters offer new leads as well. Barbara Brewster Lewis explores the resonances between Haiti, Pittsburgh, and heterotopia in August Wilson’s play, Seven Guitars. Charlotte Hammond discusses cloth and resistance in Haiti’s colonial archive, both as a means of self-styling, as well as a vector of symbolic violence against masters. Patrick Delices offers a synthesis of secondary source literature in order to suggest affinities between Haitian Vodou and ancient Egyptian religion. Bronwyn Mills uses both historical records and ethnographic observation to argue that neither Vodun (as observed in eastern Benin), nor Haitian Vodou, are static traditions, and shows that their resonances, commonalities, and differences must be traced with historical acumen and specificity. Tammie Jenkins revisits Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen and Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse in order to show the different ways the authors discussed the “African roots” of Haitian Vodou, drawing special attention to their contrasting accounts of the Petwo rites.  Mambo Vye Zo Komande La Menfo DaGinen (Patricia D. Scheu) traces the Emersonian notion of an oversoul (as “spiritual wellspring that all beings shared in” [197]) and the idea of an egregore (a kind of spiritual “group mind” [195]) in order to explore how that which is experienced in Haitian Vodou understands and knows the world—especially when things seem out of balance.  Finally, Benjamin Hebblethwaite and Michel Weber explore the “serial founder effects” of religion to show commonalities and alignments between Arabian religion, Islam, and Haitian Vodou.

The chapters that comprise Vodou in the Haitian Experience make for an interesting and eclectic read, especially for how they address the old problem of adaptation and retention in new ways. This task seems most concretely realized in the chapters that explicitly discuss Vodou’s aesthetics, poetics, and performance, as experienced by those who engage the tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard Hoffman Reinhardt is a Ph.D. student in the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan.

Date of Review: 
September 2, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Celucien L. Joseph is assistant professor of English at Indian River State College.

Nixon S. Cleophat is assistant professor of religion at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. 



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