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  • Tyler Grillo

Into Darkness: Voodoo and Race

Updated: May 2, 2019

For those of us who are serious, we must go into the darkness and allow it to reveal its true nature to us.

What comes to mind when we think of Voodoo?  Perhaps dolls being poked with needles, graveyard sacrifices, or demons conjured up through magical emblems.  Regardless, in the Dominant American society Voodoo is perceived negatively.  As it is practiced almost exclusively by African Americans, Voodoo is rightfully associated with southern African American (or also Creole) culture.  But what’s problematic is the discriminatory elements of the Dominant perception of Voodoo and the vilifying of the tradition and its blackness.

Vodou (also spelled Voudoun) first developed in Haiti, and can be called shamanic in its use of trance states, magical tools, and communication with realms of spirit.  People from West Africa, kidnapped across the ocean and forced into chattel slavery, continued to practice their own traditions (Yoruba, Odinani, Vodun) in the guise of Catholicism – using images of saints as idols through which they worshipped their own pantheon, the Loa.  Such mixing of pantheons has occurred countless times throughout the world for various reasons, which not only introduces people to new pantheons, but also introduces the deities, spirits, beings of each pantheon to each other.  As such, through the worship and interaction between the two pantheons, new forms – new beings – are created.  In such a way, Vodou was born.

From Haiti, Vodou travelled to Louisiana (specifically New Orleans) in the early 18th century, where it became known as “Voodoo”.  At this point, what is now Louisiana was still a French colony, and under the French rule Voodoo was allowed to thrive – more so, at least, then when the land was brought under the control of the United States.

Over the years, Voodoo has been mocked and degraded in the United States, often by writers or filmmakers who knew little to nothing about actual Voodoo practices.  This occurred in one sense because practices such as Voodoo were perceived to offend Christianity (the fact that they incorporated Christian saints, and even Jesus, made matters worse).  However, more deeply, the smear campaigns against Voodoo occurred because of its roots in black culture.

The Dominant society – that is, built around white, male, Christian identity – has no place for a polytheistic tradition that gives strength to, and gets its power from, a black population.  Indeed, a tradition such as Voodoo that incorporates Christianity into its polytheism is even more threatening:  Monotheism must stand alone, and it most certainly cannot have relations to polytheism.

But there is something else going on in the suppression of Voodoo, something the Dominant society itself is incapable of recognizing – because it requires a shift in perception away from Dominant objectivity and logic, to subjectivity and imagination.  There is a darkness to Voodoo, as there is in other shamanic traditions, a sort of playful arrest on the edge of an abyss.

This darker energy of Voodoo contrasts with the spiritual traditions favored by the Dominant society: Christianity, as it exists in the Dominant society, favors light – think of angels, halos, stained glass, etc.  The light “reveals the Truth,” and those who carry this Truth are “enlightened.”  Even in contemporary, new age spirituality the prevalence of vocabulary and imagery that emphasizes “light” and “brightness” reveals the influence of the Dominant society.  The sects of Eastern religion that have become popular in the West favor the light and jovial, too:  In Buddhism, traditions such as Japanese Zen and teachers such as the Dalai Lama are far more popular than the darker aspects of the religion, such as Tantra.  In the Hindu influence, the light-hearted cults of Krishna have become far more popular than darker cults, like that of Kali.  Across the board of religions in the Dominant society, there is an overwhelming favor towards that which is “light,” not because traditions lack dark aspects, but because the Dominant society favors the light.  This of course has racial connotations: the Dominant pictorials of Jesus show a white man, while Voodoo is ruled by black queens.

“Darkness” is not the ignorant opposite of “enlightenment,” as the Dominant society would have us believe –rather, it is a challenge to this Dominance.  The ego (which is the force behind the Dominant society), thrives in the light:  Everything is illuminated, and as such everything can be accounted for, organized, and rationally understood.   But in the darkness, the ego no longer has its reign:  Its senses become muddled, shadows begin to confuse its categories.  It is no coincidence that many traditions speak of the veil between our world and the spirit world being thinnest at night.  In the darkness, the physical reality – where the ego holds sway – gives way to the subtle realms, where we can discover the many characters of our psyche, those besides the ego.  This is a poly-self, not a mono-self.  It is in the darkness, in the abyss, where we can no longer see where to turn, that we discover the greatest Truths.  There is profound evidence for this in all traditions (including Christianity – St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul,” to name but one).

So to say that Voodoo is dark is not to say that it is evil.  In fact, it is to say that it is a truly spiritual tradition.  The Dominant society has contorted the images of light and dark into good and bad, and it is up to us to free ourselves of this fallacy – imaginatively, spiritually, and racially.  As much as the Dominant ego likes to believe it can compartmentalize, it cannot associate evil with darkness without projecting that evil onto everything dark in color – like it has done to black cats, night, and dark skin.  As the Dominant ego acts through us, it is ours to deal with.  For those of us who are serious, we must go into the darkness and allow it to reveal its true nature to us.

Voodoo is still vastly misunderstood, especially in popular culture – there is evidence that even the “Voodoo doll” is a fiction invented by a non-Voodoo practicing writer, not by an actual Voodoo practitioner. Such continued misinformation and negative perception of Voodoo manifests from the egoic “fear of the dark.”  Let us not be confused and believe that there is anything wrong with lighter energies and practices, as all have their place; it is only problematic when we do not give darkness its proper place as well. If we go into the darkness, we may be astonished at what we find.  Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo, along with many other shamanic traditions, offer gateways into this darkness.  One must be careful going forward (as all spiritual and religious traditions have their dangers and misled practitioners).  But ultimately the insights of darkness reveal what cannot be seen in the light.

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