The United States of Hoodoo

The United States of Hoodoo is an upcoming documentary film by Oliver Hardt and Darius James. Originally picked this up from Aker Futuristically Ancient’s blog and was just going to reblog, but wanted to add my few thoughts. The blurb on the documentary’s official website describes it as an exploration “about how African based spirituality has informed America’s popular culture” that “shakes up traditional and stereotypical ways of thinking about race, religion, rationality.” The West and Central African syncretic religions that traveled to the New World via the trans Atlantic slave trade have indeed informed much of American popular speculative culture, but unfortunately in not so commendable ways.

As a kid, I can’t even count the amount of negative references to “voodoo” I’d taken in through popular media. From old 1960s syndication shows like Jonny Quest to Gilligan’s Island, there seemed to be a required episode involving a voodoo “witch doctor,” some dread spell and (of course) the ubiquitous voodoo doll. As I grew older, things got little better–in fact, they got worse. If voodoo in these older sitcoms and cartoons was at the most comical or a primitive nuisance, Hollywood made it a thing of outright horror. In Angel Heart (1987) voodoo is connected with hyper-sexuality, cannibalism and the devil. In Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) it propped up Haitian dictators, could make white women eat glass and (of course) create that staple of voodoo stories, the dreaded zombie! Voodoo reared its head to terrify white city folk in The Believers (1987), this time in the form of spiders-out-of-pores inducing Santeria. And, somehow, Hollywood managed to stick it in the beginning of The Devil’s Advocate (1997), through Delroy Lindon’s portrayal of a tongue-nailing voodoo sorcerer. In American popular culture, it seemed as if voodoo couldn’t catch a break.

So what is voodoo? The word is likely a derivation of Vodun, meaning “spirit” in the Fon and Ewe languages, and relates to a popular spiritual practice found throughout West Africa. Yet it’s also more than that, as diaspora voodoo is one of the many forms of African religious syncretisms that crossed the Atlantic via the slave trade, emerging out of the intermixing of varied belief systems from West and Central Africa (Vodun, Yoruba Ifa, Akan, Angolan, Congolese, etc). Added to this were Christian, Amerindian and other spiritual philosophies, creating such diverse ritualistic traditions as Santeria, Candomble, Shango Baptists and more throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. Add in those in Africa who still practice forms of the faith, and there are at least 100 million adherents of some form of Vodun. All share similar practices, including the belief in a Supreme being, a prime importance placed on lesser deity spirits who govern aspects of nature, a reverence for familial ancestors, the use of rituals, dance, offerings and trance possession.

Unfortunately, persecution is the other trait they all share, as they have been often singled out for condemnation by the larger Christian or state societies within which they exist. For this reason, many have had to at times practice in secret or at least through subterfuge–as the famed case of slaves masking their loas or orishas behind Catholic Saints throughout the Americas. This persecution was picked up by popular culture and speculative fiction, where either mockery or depictions of fearful exoticism (with all the racial connotations they carry) has been the norm.

Yet there have been some notable exceptions and improvements. In Brazil, with its late 20th century black renaissance and postcolonial Cinema Novo, the local form of Vodun (Candomble) took on a special significance. Movies like Carlos Diegues Quilombo (1986) portrayed Candomble beliefs in a positive light, using it as a symbol (along with the 17th century maroon camp of Palmares) against the then Brazilian dictatorship. Even before that, the 1959 film Black Orpheus dared to show Candomble at the very heart of Brazil’s most cherished cultural rituals, Samba and Carnival. As late as 2009, Brazilian films continue this trend with the capeoria-fighter martial arts flick Besouro, who is guided by African spirits. In American television, the closest we’ve come to this was probably the Twilight Zone-esque, Hudlin brothers produced Cosmic Slop (1994). In the first (and only) pilot episode, a short called “The First Commandment” tells the tale of a priest who is forced to choose between the orisha Oshun and her Catholic counterpart, thus pitting him against his own Puerto Rican community and Afro-cultural heritage.

In literary speculative fiction, author Nalo Hopkinson has done a great deal to portray Vodun, placing it in an even futuristic light in her works Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber. The same can be said of Nnedi Okorafor’s YA Akata Witch, which incorporates African beliefs at the heart of her magic system, portraying them as fantastic, dynamic and even dangerous when misused. Both authors realitsically portray African spirituality like any other belief system–capable of being used for good or ill. Cherie Priest’s steampunk work Ganymede also invokes diaspora Vodun alongside her tale of zombies and machines, but manages, deftly, to not fall back on the popular stereotypes–instead depicting the religion as important to the cultural life of her counterfactual 19th century New Orleans. And in the broadway biopic Fela!, Vodun as a personal faith resonates powerfully in the life of the “Black President,” especially during his journey through the spirit world in search of his mother.

So we’ve seen steps towards a better portrayal of African spiritual systems, and “voodoo” in particular, within popular culture and speculative fiction. Hopefully documentaries like this one will further this along–so we move past dolls and stick pins.

A blurb from the film’s website states:

The United States of Hoodoo is a film about how African based spirituality has informed America´s popular culture. The old African gods have taken on new forms since their arrival on North America’s shores. Their spirit now manifests itself in turn-table wizardry, improvisational skills and mind-blowing collages, rituals and performances. The film shakes up traditional and stereotypical ways of thinking about race, religion, rationality. It makes palpable the vital richness that ‘culture blending’ can bring to a globalized world. Through meetings with musicians, writers and artists, miracle healers, gumbo cooks and Mississippi Blues men, this documentary draws a picture of a culture which has always drawn on a unique mix of different ethnic influences to produce its cultural diversity, allure, and vitality.

Let’s hope so.

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