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Authors: Rod Davis

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American Voudou: Journey Into a Hidden World

BOOK: American Voudou: Journey Into a Hidden World



American Voudou : Journey Into a Hidden World
Davis, Rod.
University of North Texas Press
isbn10 | asin
print isbn13
ebook isbn13
Voodooism--United States, Hoodoo (Cult)
publication date
BL2490.D37 1998eb
Voodooism--United States, Hoodoo (Cult)
Page iii
American Voudou
Journey into a Hidden World
Rod Davis


Page iv
1999, Rod Davis
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
First paperback edition
5 4 3 2 1
The paper in this book meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, Z39.48.1984.
University of North Texas Press
PO Box 311336
Denton TX 76203-1336
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Davis, Rod, 1946
American voudou : journey into a hidden world / by Rod Davis.
p.    cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-57441-081-4 (alk. paper)
1. VoodooismUnited States. 2. Hoodoo (Cult)  I. Title.
BL2490.D37                                                    1998
299'675'0973dc21                                       98-21264
Design by Accent Design and Communications
Photographs by Rod Davis


Page v
For Jennifer and Moriah, and the future


Page vii
Part One: The Street
1: Midnight Ritual
2: Looking for Lorita
3: The Gods and Their Ways
4: Countertop Voudou
5: Preacher to Priestess
6: Jesus Out of Africa
Part Two: The Road
7: On the Hoodoo Trail
8: Spirit Wars
9: Two-Headed Men and Ghosts
10: Elvis and Dr. King
11: Kindred Spirits, Lingering Foes
12: Crossing the Line
Part Three: The Way
13: Africa in America
14: The Day of the Living Dead
15: The King and His Court
16: Advice and Consent
17: Sacrifice
18: Exiles and Apostles
19: Santeria
20: Urban Herbs and Little Haiti
21: Orisha Anew
22: Amen
Appendix I: Voudou in the Media
Appendix II: The Revolution Denied
Glossary of Voudou Terms



Page ix
For most of my life all I knew about voudou
was what I saw in the movies: dancing zombies, chicken heads, and pins in dolls. It had something to do with the Caribbean or New Orleans. It was black. Sometimes you'd hear about it in the blues. I didn't go so far as to equate voudou with satanism, though many others did. To me, "voodoo" was mostly a weird name. It wasn't even real and certainly was nothing to take seriously.
How I subsequently came to be standing before an Elegba altar in a South Carolina forest tasting the blood of three roosters sacrificed to my spirit is therefore a tale not just about voudou, but about its effect on one who ventured into what in many ways is one of America's least-traveled frontiers.
For nearly five years before undertaking the odyssey described in this book, I had flirted with the vo-du, the spirits of West Africa (from which voudou, in all its Anglicized variations, derives), but never engaged them fully. A journalistic assignment in New Orleans in 1985 had given me my first real exposure, other than the common bits of voudouesque vocabulary"mojo" (a charm); "hoodoo" (an alteration of voudou common


Page x
in the South), etc.I'd picked up while living in Baton Rouge in the late sixties, a graduate student at LSU. That was about it until a stormy romance fifteen years later with a young woman from a traditional Catholic family from the well-heeled section of New Orleans around Tulane called Uptown.
A lifelong rebel, Pam was drawn to voudou for the same reason a lot of people in the Big Easy were, because it was outside the mainstream and likely to stay that way. Voudou was to the young, artistic bohemia of New Orleans as common a cultural crossroads as a bookshelf full of Anne Rice's vampires or John Kennedy Toole's neurotics. Many, like Pam, had picked up voudou charms at back-street shops, or smiled knowingly at mention of the word in conversation, possibly had experienced readings or been to Marie Laveau's grave; but few actually knew anything about the religion itself. Or probably cared. What was of interest to the disaffected of the city was neither the spirituality nor the theology, but the marginality. Voudou was not white and it was not of the ruling class, and if you wanted to try to distance yourself from all that suffocation and decay and slow, steady corruption, you would attach to the new perspective of your black-clad, white-lipsticked, alienated freedom anything that could identify you as not being of Them. And so without knowing it, the white exiles of New Orleans, the ones who try to make the bridge between the white and black souls of the city, and all too often fall off that bridge, partook of the political content of the African religion. They validated that content by seeking its alliance, slight and oblique though it was.
For Pam, there were also strong artistic motivations. We once bought a pheasant bone earring from a traveling hoodoo merchant so she could use it in a painting, the first of many she would use to explore vivid voudou techniques, at once expressionist and formal. Yet she knew very little more about the religion than did her peers, or at that time did I, and for good reason:


Page xi
voudou had been driven so far underground you couldn't find much about it even if you wanted to expend the energy. Only the most esoteric of African Studies scholars had written about it seriously. In the popular culture virtually nothing was available, and what was, was wrong. Most books purporting to be about American voudou were either luridly racist, such as Robert Tallant's
Voodoo in New Orleans,
a ubiquitous and unfortunate presence in French Quarter bookstores, or poorly researched compendia of alleged hexes and rites.
In the absence of the printed word, I turned to real life. Occasional trips to New Orleans and to South Carolina, and another assignment, this time for the late, great magazine,
, enabled me to make the acquaintance of numerous present-day believers whose oral accounts and daily practices ushered me into a richness of experience I couldn't have gained from a library full of material. As my circle of contacts and friends grew, so did my knowledge of the theology of voudou, the history of its importation in the holocaust of slavery, its well-proven revolutionary content and consequent near-extermination, and the rise of the negative image which now flourishes. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I really knewhow little, in fact, anyone outside the voudou world really knew, especially in the United States. If at the start of my engagement with the religion I was asking, "What is voudou?" it became increasingly obvious there was a more encompassing question:
What happened to it
If ever the nation harbored a cover-up, it did with voudou. So effective was the suppression that virtually nothing of the authentic African form, with the notable exception of Caribbean-shaped santeria, remains on North American soil. Successive generations of African Americans have left a widespread network of root doctors, hoodoos, healers and prophets, particularly in the South, but not even they can tell you the names of
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