Tag Archives: stereotype

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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Filed under Non-fiction, Spiritual

“Titus Andronicus” by William Shakespeare: An Orgy of Violence with a Dose of Racism

TitusAndronicus

Because I am such a glutton for punishment, not only did I finish reading Titus Andronicus yesterday (considered Shakespeare’s worst play), but I also went to see it performed by a local theater company that same evening. I was familiar with the tragedy, having suffered through the visually disturbing film version starring Anthony Hopkins; but still, reading and seeing it back-to-back was a bit much even for me.

I totally understand why people hate this play. Really, there is not much to like about it. It is nothing but gratuitous violence taken about as far as you can go: rape, dismemberment, cannibalism, and murder (murder almost sounds trivial at this point). If Marilyn Manson was to ever record a rock opera, this would be the perfect choice. In addition, the play contains some very racist passages which are even more offensive considering the current issues that society is dealing with regarding race relations.

Arguably the most disturbing scene is the rape and dismemberment of Lavinia. She is raped by Chiron and Demetrius, who then cut out her tongue and lop off both her hands. They then proceed to mock her mangled and abused body.

Demetrius: So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ‘twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee.

Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.

Demetrius: See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.

Chiron: Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.

Demetrius: She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.

(Act II, scene iv)

Scene from the film Titus

Scene from the film Titus

Although there is no shortage of villains in this play, Aaron, the Moor (or black person), is by far depicted as the worst of the lot. His skin color is presented as a display of his unrepentant lust for evil. Right up to the very end, he revels in the misery he causes. His only regret is that he will not live longer to cause more suffering. It is truly an offensive representation of a black person and certainly must have fed the stereotypes and prejudices of the time.

First Goth: What, canst thou say all this, and never blush?

Aaron: Ay, like a black dog, as the saying is.

Lucius: Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?

Aaron:  Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

(Act V, scene i)

As I made my way home after the performance, the images and words still vivid in my mind, I could not help but think of all the hatred, violence, and racism that still plague us. If this play has any redeeming value, it’s that it forces us to look at the world around us and recognize the horror of violence. I sincerely hope that one day we can look at this play as a relic depicting the dark past from which a loving, compassionate, and tolerant humanity emerged.

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Filed under Literature