In his article, “Myths Obscure Voodoo, Source of Comfort in Haiti,” Samuel G. Freedman (The New York Times, 19 February 2010) underlines that, as cruel as Reverend Pat Robertson’s words were when he spoke of Haiti’s history, theology, and destiny—“they have been cursed by one thing or another”— he deserves “a perverse kind of credit” for recognizing the centrality of Vodou in Haiti. He rightly points out the lack of unbiased information about Vodou in the media, although there are notable exceptions, such as David Gutnick’s “The life force that is Haiti’s voodoo” [from Canada’s CBC News; see RI post The life force that is Haiti’s voodoo and original article at http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/02/11/f-haiti-voodoo.html#ixzz0fO8nAaY3].
Freedman presents three distinct groups: public figures that insert the word “voodoo” in American political rhetoric to connote frightening and sinister situations (for example, “George H.W. Bush’s description of supply-side economics. Would any public figure dare use ‘Baptist’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hasidic’ in the same way?”); articles, broadcasts, and blogs that, albeit at a relatively “more informed level” depict vodou “as the source of Haiti’s poverty and political instability;” and scholars and writers that have expressed indignation about “the tawdry history of misrepresentation in American journalism and popular culture” (he cites Diane Winston, Leslie G. Desmangles, and Amy Wilentz).
The article offers examples of the distortion of Vodou through pop culture and the political use of these misrepresentations, beginning with the Roman Catholic Church’s antisuperstition campaigns starting in the 1860s, the occupation of Haiti by U.S. military forces from 1915 until 1934, and all the cartoonish versions of “voodoo” depicted in works from W. B. Seabrook’s 1929 Magic Island, B-movies like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, the Hollywood horror movie interpretation of Wade Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, to the recent Disney animated film The Frog and the Princess, which featured a voodoo magician as its villain.
Freedman attempts to give a fuller view of religion in Haiti by explaining, “Catholicism in Haiti, as too few journalists seemed to realize, is not more or less like Catholicism in a Polish parish in Chicago or an Irish one in Boston. It is a Catholicism in symbiosis with voodoo, a Catholicism in which saints are conflated with African deities and dead ancestors serve as interlocutors between God and humanity.”
In terms of understanding the role of “voodoo,” he quotes Amy Wilentz (The Rainy Season): “I’d tell reporters to go into the shanties and find the local voodoo priest. Voodoo is very close to the ground. It’s a neighborhood to neighborhood, courtyard kind of religion. And one where you support each other in time of need.”
For full article, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/world/americas/20religion.html?emc=eta1
Image: “Vodou Ceremony” by Jean René Jules, from http://www.timache.org/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=129