Last Friday marked the 9th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the natural disaster that killed almost 2,000 people and displaced 400,000 people, most of them low-income African-Americans and people of color. This tragedy left a hole in the city of New Orleans and exposed the legacy of our country’s at times sickening racism, hurting diverse and rich communities that we rarely hear about in mainstream media.
One of those was the Voodoo or Vodou community. Before Hurricane Katrina hit, there were about 2,500 practitioners in New Orleans. Today, there are closer to 350.
In Newsweek, Stacey Anderson writes about the history of the smaller — but thriving — community of Voodoo practitioners today.
“Despite its reputation for vengeful hexes and black magic, Haitian voodoo is a peaceful and generally optimistic religion. It encourages strong family and community bonds and regular offerings to the thousands of spirits who aid all aspects of life, from business deals to romances.
Both [Haitian and New Orleans] voodoo are monotheistic (the highest god is Bondyè, the “good lord”), are mostly oral- instead of text-based and celebrate thousands of cosmic and natural spirits (akin to Catholicism’s saints). Participants are, and historically have been, mostly lower-income. Creoles and local slaves in the 18th century followed aspects of voodoo; so did slaves in pre-Civil War New Orleans during their Sunday dances at Congo Square. Voodoo influence grew stronger during the Haitian Revolution of 1791, when thousands of Africans and Haitians immigrated to the city. The earliest roots of voodoo date back approximately 6,000 years to Benin, West Africa, and an estimated 60 million people practice it worldwide.”
Anderson goes on to detail that the disaster has forced the two strains of Voodoo — Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo — to support each other through the rebuilding process. Now, there are more inter-community gatherings, even as old rivalries and debates continue.
We can only hope that this resilient community manages to rebuild itself in the face of environmental racism, income inequality, and a legacy of colonization. Voodoo — and other Afro-descendent religions throughout the Americas — has dealt with more than its fair share of racism, stigma, and violence. I find this particularly sad, not just because religions like Voodoo, Santería, Candomblé and Umbanda are living examples of resistance against colonialism and white supremacy, but also because they are well known for being particularly inclusive of women. Afro-Latinx religions generally value women as priestesses alongside men (or even above men), and many see sexuality as a human trait to be celebrated.
Not only that, but Afro-Latinx religious deities (known as Orishas or Loa in Haitian Vodou) include a host of powerful and complex female figures. Meet Oshun, the Orisha of love and the river, to whom the most recent Feministing Jamz video was dedicated. Or Yemanjá, the Orisha of the ocean and motherhood, who got a quiet shout-out in Beyoncé’s song “Blue.”
For many women around the world, Voodoo or Candomblé or Santería provide communities where their skin color is considered beautiful and ancient, and where their gender is empowering, not limiting. It’s an opportunity to transcend the oppressions that still affect so many, and connect with a force more powerful than bigotry and greed.
*Spelling of the Orixás’/Orishas’ names varies between country and language.
Juliana just moved her Orixá dolls from a box back onto her desk. Happy to have Iemanjá keeping her company while she works.