David Hume claimed that to be black was to be “like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” And Immanuel Kant maintained that to be “black from head to foot” was “clear proof” that what any black person says is stupid. In his “Notes on Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote: “In imagination they [Negroes] are dull, tasteless and anomalous,” and inferior. In the first American Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1798), the term “Negro” was defined as someone who is cruel, impudent, revengeful, treacherous, nasty, idle, dishonest, a liar and given to stealing.
My point here is to say that the white gaze is global and historically mobile. And its origins, while from Europe, are deeply seated in the making of America.
Black bodies in America continue to be reduced to their surfaces and to stereotypes that are constricting and false, that often force those black bodies to move through social spaces in ways that put white people at ease. We fear that our black bodies incite an accusation. We move in ways that help us to survive the procrustean gazes of white people. We dread that those who see us might feel the irrational fear to stand their ground rather than “finding common ground,” a reference that was made by Bernice King as she spoke about the legacy of her father at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The white gaze is also hegemonic, historically grounded in material relations of white power: it was deemed disrespectful for a black person to violate the white gaze by looking directly into the eyes of someone white. The white gaze is also ethically solipsistic: within it only whites have the capacity of making valid moral judgments.
In America, though many of the traditional ritual and ceremonial practices of “Voodoo” were lost, most of its healing, divinatory, and spirit manifestational elements , were later forced to merge into the magico-botanical practices of what came to be known derisively as “Hoodoo.”It is vitally important for the African-Diaspora to understand that absence of the public expression of a religion does not negate ones ancestral lineage nor birth-right. The “Voodoo” is still present in the blood of those whose ancestors are born from it. Thousands are still being born today carrying the Spiritual lineages of the ancestors. Many have lost the knowledge of what to look for.
Although derisively mocked as “superstition, witchcraft, and sorcery,” there remains a historical testament to some of the esoteric and magical lore of many African-American priestesses and priests who descend from the various known and obscure African religions that at one time doted the American landscape during their enslavement and post-Reconstruction era. More than five volumes of this powerful oral tradition exemplifies their spiritual mastery and God-given gifts, leaving a powerful legacy to their descendants. A legacy not borne from Haiti, nor any other region, but the United States of America.
In 2013, at a time when nearly every aspect of Black life and culture can be bought, repackaged, gentrified and re-sold to the highest bidder, it is still both shocking and appalling to see a makeshift Vodou altar adorning the window of a Manhattan American Apparel location. Recently, my friend Rosella Molina, a Yoruba initiate, saw just that: a larger than life vevé for Papa Legba, a spirit respected as the Keeper of the Crossroads and found throughout the Americas, and three mannequins dressed in a hodgepodge of apparel designed by social media icon/artist Kesh, mixed together with an assortment of pieces from traditional attire that may be found in a Vodou ceremony.
Once Rosella’s mobile photo was posted on Facebook, dozens of enraged people representing various African spiritual traditions, began calling the store to demand that display be taken down immediately. When one African spiritual practitioner asked what was the meaning behind the new display, an American Apparel employee told that it was in celebration of “Halloween”
As filmmaker/artist/Santeria priestess Tiona McClodden stated in reaction to the display, “Our global faith is one of immense beauty in aesthetic. From the elekes down to our self realized altars. The very things folks try and give us a hard time about are the same things that are magnified and exploited when a buck is to be made.”
Since a child, I’ve felt a close proximity to the multi-faces of God. As a former French-turned-Spanish-turned French colony, Louisiana has historically, been a Catholic state. Even the Black people in Louisiana are Catholic. So as a devout Catholic,growing up in New Orleans, I was grounded in a religion where heaven maintained a co-existence of the blessed Trinity and the acknowledgement of a host of saints. While deeply engrained in saying Hail Marys, and making the sign of the cross three times every time I passed a cemetery, I was always aware of, in tune with, another sacred religious tradition in New Orleans: Vodou.
Vodou, which has come to be known as “Voodoo,” has been bastardized in popular culture and subsequently demonized within Black communities throughout the African Diaspora. If you visit New Orleans, every other tourist shop in the French Quarter is fully stocked with so-called “authentic” Voodoos dolls meant to seek revenge on one’s enemies. This commercialized Voodoo is one of many grossly inaccurate faces of one of Africa’s most ancient traditions thanks to ridiculous stereotypes created first by French planters who escaped alive from the revolutionary uprising that took place on Saint Domingue in the late 18th century and later, sensationalized accounts of travelers to Haiti in the 20th century.
What many do not know about the Haitian Revolution—which inspired enslaved Africans everywhere from South Carolina to Curacao—was that the earliest revolts were led by Vodou priests.
In a contemporary context, it is indeed in territories once ruled by the French, Spanish and Portuguese—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Brasil—where you see the largest adherents of practitioners of African religions. Complex religions that were brought over in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by millions who were from different nations – the Bambara, Fon, Bakongo, Fulani, Yoruba, Ashanti, Ewe, Dongon—and adapted to the needs of Black people in the New World.
The bastardization of Vodou as a formal religion makes its entré into popular culture with the appearance of W.B. Seabrook’s 1929 The Magic Island, an autobiographical account based on loose reports of an American journalist who traveled to Haiti and recorded his limited experiences with Voodoo and a sect of necromantic practitioners. Hollywood soon made the practice of Vodou, an actual sacred African spiritual system associated with good health and well-being and this unorthodox tampering with the dead, synonymous. Some of Hollywood’s earliest horror films, as early as 1932’s White Zombie, glorified haunting tales of murderous zombies and blood-thirsty, power hungry evil “Voodoo” priests. Most recently, Disney’s Princess and the Frog misrepresented certain aspects of Vodou.
The same bastardization that occurred to the characterization of Haiti’s spiritual systems also occurred in those parallel systems in Louisiana. Thanks to various folklore surrounding the mysterious Mambo Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ legendary Vodou queen—who was one of the most powerful women in the U.S. in her heyday—Vodou was once again misinterpreted and slandered.
While some people of African descent maintained their traditions, even to the point of masking their beliefs behind the observance of Catholic Saints, many people of African descent in the Americas, began to distance themselves from the traditions of their ancestors to adopt the religion of their former enslavers.
Now this isn’t the first time that American Apparel has engaged in problematic practices concerning the treatment of other people’s cultures. Nor are they the only company to profit off of misappropriated cultural dress during Halloween. It baffles me as to why a store would make the decision to mis-appropriate a sacred spiritual system that is old as time in Africa itself. Alas, we know that even hipsters—for all their self-congratulatory “progressive” ways—can be just as bigoted and racist as any one else.
Slowly, but surely more Vodou and similar traditions are being brought to the light, where they have always belonged. I just hope that people take the time to learn something from this—particularly, why playing with our traditions is so offensive.