Tag Archives: immigration

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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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 04

I recently had a discussion with my wife regarding the founding of the United States. We came to the conclusion that, although many Americans like to think the country was founded upon the principles of freedom, it was actually commerce and enslavement that were the driving forces that led to the founding of America. With that still fresh in my mind, I came upon an interesting passage while reading this installment of Gaiman’s “American Gods” series.

The important thing to remember about American history is that it is fictional. It is a fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking the freedom to believe as they wished. In truth, the American colonies were as much as dumping ground as an escape. In the days when you could be hanged in London for the theft of twelve pennies, the Americas became a symbol of clemency, of a second chance. Transportation, it was called: for five years, for ten years, for life. You were sold to a captain and shipped to the colonies to be sold into indentured servitude–but at least you were free to make the most of your new world.

Another part of this comic really interested me was the three sisters. Gaiman based his three characters on the Slavic myth of the two sisters who watched the stars for a sign that the universe was about to end.

In Slavic mythology, the Zorja (alternately, Zora, Zarja, Zory, Zore = “dawn”; Zorza in Polish, Zara-Zaranica (Belarusian: Зара-Зараніца), Zvezda, Zwezda, Danica = “star”) are the two guardian goddesses, known as the Auroras. They guard and watch over the winged doomsday hound, Simargl, who is chained to the star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor, the “little bear”. If the chain ever breaks, the hound will devour the constellation and the universe will end. The Zorja represent the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

The Zorja serve the sun god Dažbog, who in some myths is described as their father. Zorja Utrennjaja, the Morning Star, opens the gates to his palace every morning for the sun-chariot’s departure. At dusk, Zorja Vechernjaja—the Evening Star—closes the palace gates once more after his return.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Gaiman’s retelling of the myth, he adds a third sister. It seems that Gaiman did this to also tie in the mythologies of the triple goddess, the three fates (Moirai), and possibly the three witches from Macbeth.

You wanted to know what I was looking at. The Big Dipper. Odin’s Wain, they call it. The Great Bear. Where we come from, we believe that it is a thing, not a god, but a bad thing, chained up in those stars. If it escapes, it will eat the whole of everything. And there are three sisters who must watch the sky, all the day, all the night. If he escapes, the thing in the stars, the world is over.

So far, I really love this series. Even though the artwork is a little weak, the quality of the writing makes up for it, and then some. I think I will have to reread the original text of American Gods at some point when this graphic series is finished.

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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 03

As I finished reading this third installment in the arc, I concluded that while the artwork is kind of flat, the quality of Gaiman’s writing certainly compensates for that shortcoming. He is able to create wonderfully evocative text that conjures rich imagery in tight, neat snippets. A great example is the description of what it is like to arrive in Chicago by car.

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine. First, they were driving through countryside, then, imperceptibly, the occasional town became a low suburban sprawl, and the sprawl became a city.

The focus of this issue is the exploration of forgotten gods, gods who were once important and then faded from memory. When we forget our gods and do not feed them through our consciousness, they die and disappear from existence.

These are the gods who have been forgotten, and now might as well be dead. They are gone. All gone.

These are the gods who have passed out of memory. Even their names have been forgotten. Gods die and when they die, they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed in the end.

Since America is a country founded on immigrants, the people who came to America brought with them their old gods. These gods remained for a while, but eventually they were replaced by a new set of gods, or ideas, that arose along with the new country.

No, we are all relatives. We come over here together. Long time ago. First, we come to New York. All our countrymen go to New York. Then, we come out here, to Chicago. Everything got very bad. In the old country, they had nearly forgotten me. Here, I am a bad memory no one wants to remember.

As I observe what is happening in the world around us, I cannot help but sense that these recent gods we created in our modern world are about to collapse. There appears to be a paradigm shift beginning, one that will reshape our dominant ideas. I think this is why there is such a heightened sense of fear and urgency in our global society. I do not know how it will all play out, but it is definitely a fascinating time to be alive.

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“Gypsies on the Road” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

The dark-eyed ancient tribe that never rests
Took up the age-old journey yesterday,
The young on the women’s backs, and—should they cry—
Treasure awaits them at the hanging breasts.

On foot, the men, whose shouldered weapons gleam,
Trudge by the waggons where their families lie,
Their gaze is heavy as the scan the sky
With nameless shadows of a distant dream.

The cricket, watching from its sandy bower,
Greets their approach with loudest eloquence;
Cybele makes earth greener for their sake;

The rock becomes a spring, the deserts flower
Before these wanderers, as they march to take
The constant empire of the unknown hence.

(Translation by Naomi Lewis)

I really enjoyed this poem and find it to be very relevant to events currently unfolding within our world. Basically, Baudelaire is establishing a correlation between the gypsies of his time and the archetype of the Wandering Jew, roaming the desert in search of the Promised Land. But I cannot help but see the plights of Syrian refugees or Mexican immigrants reflected in this sonnet. These people pack up their families and what few possessions they can carry, and set out in search of a better life. I try to imagine the desperation that brings people to this point, and it is difficult for me to grasp. Thankfully, I have not had to experience that level of despair in my life.

I really don’t have anything else to say about this poem. It seems pretty clear and unambiguous to me, but if you see something that I missed, feel free to comment in the section below.

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The War on Intelligence

I read a very thought-provoking article this morning in Wired magazine entitled “Cultivating Genius” (click here to read the article online). In the article, the author (Jonah Lehrer) examines the periods of dramatic intellectual and artistic advancement, such as Athens around 400 BC and Florence during the Renaissance, and points out the cultural similarities between these periods. Two that stand out for me are that these periods were open to cross-cultural sharing of ideas fostered by open immigration policies and that there was the focus on education. Unfortunately, it seems that our current social paradigm is the antithesis of this formula.

There is no question about the current feeling toward immigration in this country. In a country that was built by immigrants, that saw its rise during a time when immigration was encouraged, it baffles me that we have become so fearful and hostile towards people wanting to come to this country, to bring their ideas and motivation. When I lived in Miami I worked with many Haitian immigrants, and they were all hard-working, motivated people. Why would we not want these people to join our society? Is it because they are black or because they are politically active?

As far as education goes, it’s downright depressing. Not only is financial support for public education routinely cut, but there is now this bizarre hatred focused on the educated, or the “elite” as they are now called with disdain. It almost seems that the smarter you are, the less people trust you. I don’t get it. How did it happen that people started looking up to individuals who seem less educated?

While I tend toward the cynical, I do have a shred of optimism. I know from experience that the social pendulum always swings back, and it is only a matter of time before people open their eyes and again realize the importance of education and the arts.

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