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Thoughts on “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen McCarthy Brown

This book has been on my shelf for a few years. I purchased it along with Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen (click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my review of Deren’s book). I bought these books because they were recommended to me by a close friend who was initiated into the Vodou tradition in Haiti, and I was interested in learning more about the religion. I would later learn that Mama Lola was the manbo who initiated him.

The book is an excellent academic work. Ms. Brown is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, so not only does she explore the mystical practices of the Vodou religion, but she also presents a moving look at the challenges that face Haitian immigrants in the US who struggle with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Having known many Haitians from my years living in Miami, I was able to relate to a fair amount of the personal stories presented in the book, having seen friends deal with the same types of struggles. Professor Brown does a great job explaining how popular culture, institutionalized racism, and organized religion all contribute to the negative stereotypes associated with Vodou.

American popular culture dwells on images of Vodou’s malevolence, an attitude as nonsensical as equating Catholicism to Satanism. The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films, and television, where images of sorcerers, zonbi, snakes, blood, and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil. If it were not so clear that racism underlies these distortions, it would be hard to understand why this kind of stereotyping is tolerated for an African-based religion when it would not be tolerated for other religions.

The negative portrayal of Vodou in the press, in novels, and in travelers’ accounts began in earnest shortly after the Haitian slaves won their freedom, a period in which slavery was still practiced in the United States and in many European colonies. The argument was often explicitly made that the barbarism of their religion clearly demonstrated that Haitians were incapable of governing themselves—an argument used by the United States and several countries in Europe to justify their refusal to recognize the fledgling black republic. Racism is more covert and convoluted these days, but the stereotypes of Vodou still serve their purposes. One of the central ways such propaganda works is by characterizing Vodou as in every way the opposite of “true” religion, that is, of Christianity. This description is ironic, for people who serve the Vodou spirits consider themselves good Christians.

(pp. 110 – 111)

It is important to remember that Vodou is a rich spiritual tradition, and like any spiritual tradition or religion, when practiced in earnest, will instill the practitioner with spiritual values and promote individual growth. I love the way Maggie, who is Mama Lola’s daughter, explains this, emphasizing how having Vodou in her life helps her live in the world, and elevates her above mundane and meaningless human existence.

“You know, maybe if I wasn’t part of Vodou, I would not know so much about people. Maybe if I did not grow up in it, I would be just, you know, just like ordinary people . . . walking . . . like everybody else walking on the streets, up and down . . . and don’t know right from wrong.”

(pp. 298 – 299)

There is profound wisdom here, and something we can all learn from. So many of us are guilty of “walking,” and being lost in our self-importance while cut off from reality through the constant stream of digital noise. We have forgotten that we are spiritual beings having a worldly experience. I can still picture my old Haitian friends, and I remember distinctly how deeply spiritual they were, how caring and charitable. I think the world could learn from the Haitian people, about the importance of community, family, tradition, and spirituality.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this post inspired you.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 9

Raphael's "School of Athens" (detail)

Raphael’s “School of Athens” (detail)

This episode corresponds with Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus has to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. It symbolizes being stuck between two powerful forces, both of which are destructive. The episode takes place in the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus is presenting his theory on Hamlet, asserting that Hamlet’s father in the play is representative of Shakespeare the individual. He tries to navigate between the two extreme views, one that posits that knowing the history of an artist’s life is important in understanding that artist’s works, and the other that art should be appreciated for art’s sake, without focus on the artist’s life. The argument incorporates the conflicting views of Aristotle and Plato on the value of art, whether it is an imitation of life or whether art is an ideal to which humans should strive.

Reading this episode, I felt like I was personally navigating between the two extremes. At times it felt very difficult to stay centered in the flow of the text and not get sucked into the whirlpool or chewed up by the multi-headed beast. I suspect that this was intentional on Joyce’s part and that he made this section difficult in order to instill the feeling of being torn and trying desperately to remain on course.

For this episode, rather than attempting to summarize everything that is addressed in this very dense text, I decided to pick a single paragraph and analyze it closely.

—All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracle out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions on the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.

(p. 185)

In this passage, George Russell (A.E.) expresses the Platonic ideal that art should be an expression of the ineffable ideal which is formless and cannot be fully grasped by the conscious mind. He criticizes Stephen, who leans toward the Aristotelian. Stephen bases his theory on analysis and criticism and tries to avoid getting pulled into the formless whirlpool of ideals that is the basis of Plato’s philosophy. But I can’t help feeling that Stephen has a little bit of the Platonic in him. He is, after all, a poet, and though he strives to be an academic, he still has an artistic side.

When Joyce writes that A.E. speaks from “his shadow,” he is alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic. Art, according to A.E., is what allows people to view the flame of divine consciousness as opposed to the mere shadows cast upon the cave wall.

The last sentence of A.E.’s quote appears to be a direct jab at Stephen. Stephen is young, essentially a student in Russell’s eyes, just as Aristotle was a student of Plato’s and therefore not as qualified, in A.E.’s opinion. Stephen is also teaching schoolboys. Essentially, he is saying that Stephen is just not experienced enough to fully comprehend the true nature of art, the purpose of which is to communicate directly with the psyche and provide a glimpse of the part of us which cannot be grasped by our normal state of awareness.

While I concede the value of analytical thought, I am a romantic at heart and tend to lean toward the Platonic ideal. Still, I relate to Stephen, trying to navigate between these two opposing ideologies. I suppose that personally, I run the risk of being drawn into the whirlpool and losing myself in the mystic, which is why it’s important to try to stay grounded.

Next week, I’ll cover Episode 10 which ends on page 255 with the phrase “…sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section9.rhtml

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/530331/Scylla-and-Charybdis

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