The Black Religion That’s Been Maligned for Centuries
Vodou has been condemned for much of its history. But some Haitian Americans are reclaiming the narrative through their own journeys with spirituality.
Though Alain Pierre-Louis grew up in a Haitian family that attended Catholic church services most Sundays, he always felt a spiritual pull toward something else. Vodou, a Haitian religion rooted in ancestral remembrance, nature, healing, and justice, was embedded everywhere in his Boston childhood—in the traditional rasin, or “roots,” music blaring from the living-room speakers, and in the Haitian-folkloric-dance performances he would go to with his relatives. But though the art influenced by Vodou was celebrated, the religion itself was considered taboo and a nonstarter at home. “There was no explanation; it was just, ‘No, you don’t need to learn that,’” Pierre-Louis, a 31-year-old environmental educator, told me. “[My parents] wanted me to embrace my culture except that part, our spirituality.”
The anti-Vodou sentiment Pierre-Louis encountered from his parents is part of a long tradition of misinformation and discomfort about the religion. Tracing back to the 1600s, Vodou was founded as a unifying religion among enslaved Africans who had previously practiced different spiritual systems in their respective ethnic groups on the continent. Yet since its inception, it has been dogged by propaganda that paints it as diabolical sorcery—the perpetrators of chattel slavery led the earliest campaigns to portray Vodou as sinister. In his observations of the Africans living in Saint-Domingue (which would later become Haiti), the Martinican enslaver Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry wrote, “In a word, nothing is more dangerous, according to all the accounts, than this cult of Vaudoux. It is founded on the extravagant idea, which can be made into a terrible weapon, that the ministers of the said being know and can do anything.” That characterization has endured for centuries, with modern-day popular culture depicting the religion’s followers as people who engage in black magic or demon worship. (One of the most common portrayals of Vodou in American film, for instance, is that of evil spells cast by practitioners using needle-poked dolls, a falsified representation of Vodou rituals.)
But a contingent of Vodou devotees in the U.S. is trying to dispel those misconceptions and reclaim the public narrative about the religion. “I have taken some of my friends to ceremonies, and they come to understand Vodou differently … not from the perspective of Hollywood or white people,” Pierre-Louis said. “Vodou is very big on respecting nature, remembering the ancestors, and the rhythm and vibration through dance, song, and the drum. Vodou is energy.” He’s part of a growing group of Haitian Americans who are challenging harmful stereotypes about Vodou and creating communities to learn about this complex system of Black spirituality and cosmology for themselves.
In 1804, Haiti became the first and only Black republic formed by people who had successfully overthrown their enslavers. One of the events credited as a major catalyst for the Haitian Revolution was a Vodou ceremony at Bwa Kayiman, a wooded area on the island. The leaders of the insurrection were Vodou practitioners, and it is believed that on that night they called on all of the Vodou lwa, or “spirits,” to guide and protect them as they took up arms in resistance.
The fallout from that hard-won liberation was swift. In the anthology Vodou in Haitian Memory, the historian Brandon R. Byrd explains, “In a world dominated by slaveholding powers, the prevailing wisdom was that Haitians had all but eliminated their chances for future progress by liberating themselves from bondage and asserting their independence … By the late nineteenth century, journalists, businessmen, politicians, and travel writers from the United States and Western Europe came to identify Vodou as the primary cause and the most damning evidence of Haitian barbarism.” That scaremongering persists today, especially among the American evangelical Christians who establish churches and nonprofits across Haiti. Repeating a popular line of thought, for instance, the televangelist Pat Robertson falsely declared that the country’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake—which decimated its capital and killed hundreds of thousands of people—was caused by the Haitians who “got together and swore a pact to the devil” to attain their freedom. And recently, in videos posted to social media, Pastor Keion Henderson, who heads the Lighthouse Church in Houston, blamed poverty and disease in Haiti on “voodoo.” (Henderson has since apologized.)
Outsiders have held an oversize role in defining Vodou in the public consciousness, which has in turn affected the way many Haitians and Haitian Americans themselves view the religion. Father Jean Fritz Bazin, a Haitian Episcopalian priest in Miami, told me that in his conversations with fellow Haitian priests and parishioners, he’s found that they believe in Vodou, but only within the context of harm. For example, if someone experiences financial hardship, falls ill, or dies suddenly, Vodou is commonly blamed. “The Church becomes a refuge because people fear Vodou. [It] is presented as evil,” Bazin said. Christian churches in Haiti have long used Vodou as a recruitment tool by presenting it as “against God.” And when the religion was slandered as “uncivilized” by Western nations, past Haitian governments sought to allay foreign fears and exert control over practitioners by criminalizing Vodou in the country. Still, cultural remnants of Vodou are present in the everyday lives of many Haitian Christians—whether they admit it or not—according to Bazin. A popular saying on the island goes, “Haiti is 90 percent Catholic, 10 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou.”
For his part, Pierre-Louis was determined to explore Vodou for himself and delve more deeply into the religion that had always existed in his periphery. In college, he educated himself through academic texts, and he continued his learning under the tutelage of Haitian elders in Miami, where he now lives, and in Haiti, where he frequently visits. He became a houngan, a Vodou priest, and last year, he co-founded Lakou Ti Ayiti, a Haitian cultural organization that hosts online and in-person gatherings to teach Vodou philosophy, rituals, and art. A lakou, the Haitian Creole word for “family compound,” is a physical communal space where traditions and historical knowledge are shared and preserved. But Lakou Ti Ayiti’s digital component has expanded that reach exponentially. It “has springboarded how we educate and touch people worldwide,” said Pierre-Louis. “I have people from Brazil who’ve reached out to me, after seeing us hold on to our culture in the United States.”
The same calling that gripped Pierre-Louis also came to Portsha Jefferson, a 50-year-old professional dancer and choreographer living in Oakland, California. At least once a month, Jefferson convenes performances, dance-movement sessions, or virtual lectures about Vodou. I attended one of her Zoom talks, which drew about 50 participants from across the U.S. and featured a discussion on Ezili Danto—the Vodou lwa who embodies motherhood and love for her children. The guest speaker, Charlene Désir, a manbo, or Vodou priestess, and professor of education, gave an impassioned address about how Danto was one of the lwa called on by Haitians ahead of the revolution that culminated in 1804, underscoring the importance of women in both the religion and Black liberation.
A few days later, I spoke with Jefferson by phone about holding a public space to discuss and learn about Vodou, a religion that historically has been practiced in secret in this country, partly because of the stigma. “As Vodouisants we have a duty to uphold and preserve this tradition because there is so much misinformation,” she said, using the Haitian Creole term for a Vodou devotee. “We have to talk about the goodness of it, the healing in it. And so I created a digital lakou for us to come together, learn, study, and to be together.” Vodou scholars, healers, and practitioners are invited to lead discussions and workshops in Jefferson’s lakou; each of her gatherings tends to attract dozens of people from various backgrounds.
Jefferson’s entry into Vodou was through dance—she took a Haitian-folklore-dance class in college, where she learned about the deeper spiritual meanings connected to the movements. Her extensive research (and her mother’s revelation that Jefferson’s great-grandmother was from Haiti) then led Jefferson to take a trip to the country in 2003. After later attending a series of Vodou ceremonies in New York and Boston, Jefferson said that she felt called to become an initiate. In the book Nan Dòmi: An Initiate’s Journey to Vodou, the Haitian singer and anthropologist Mimerose Beaubrun writes that there are many openings and invitations into Vodou: “Dance is a passport that permits you to take long journeys into the unknown.” As such, Jefferson also runs Rara Tou Limen, a Haitian dance company, in her neighborhood. “Dance, for me, is Vodou and it’s a way of life,” she said. It’s “how you move, how you breathe.” Sharing her spiritual journey through dance and hosting her online lakou are how Jefferson says she can make a true image of Vodou accessible to a wide group of people.
For Riva Nyri Précil, a 32-year-old visual artist and singer, working against hundreds of years of indoctrination to demystify this Haiti-born spirituality is no small feat. “There’s been so much work done against Vodou, so it’s a bold choice to do this in the open,” Précil, who was born in New York and raised in Haiti before moving back to the States as a teenager, told me. “I believe in practicing Vodou as my birthright as a Haitian. Vodou is our lifestyle. We practice it through the food we eat, the language we speak, and through our music.”
Weeks ago, Précil hosted a celebration on a Brooklyn rooftop to honor Kouzen Zaka, the Haitian spirit of agriculture and farmers, for whom the month of May is feted. To her more than 99,000 Instagram followers, she extended an invitation encouraging them to bring offerings for Zaka—tobacco pipes, corn, and fruit—for a community-built altar. About 150 people showed up, some wearing Zaka’s signature denim clothes and straw hat. At one point in the evening, attendees formed a cluster dancing and singing to the rhythms of live drums. “It’s very fulfilling for me to do this work, because it’s necessary,” she said. “I’m inspired every day to learn more, create more, teach more, and to help others regain our identity proudly.” In asserting themselves as the ones who get to rightfully tell the Vodou story and correct decades of distortion, Haitian Americans like Précil are employing the same liberation ethos upon which the religion was born.