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1 Vodou in New York City Camille Chambers, University of Florida Vodou is a significant part of Haitian folk and national culture and the Haitian d iaspora. The study of any diaspora involves the study of t he survival or adaption of the diasporic culture in the geographic and cultural space of the adopted land. Vodou is alr eady a religion of the African s lave diaspora in Haiti. However it under went a second migration with the travel of Haitians to other countries. Hebblethwaite (2012: 9 10) defin es Vodou a s a religion that is non apo stolic and is not prescriptive. This means that Vodou will probably have a similar although unique form outside of Haiti. This paper will address the presence, form, and status of Vodou in the Haitian d iaspora located in New York City The ethnographic book by Karen Brown (1991) Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, discusses the large r Haitian community of Brooklyn, New York, the presence and nature of Vodou, and the response to it by members of both the Haitian and nonHaitian communities in th e area. Mama Lolas status is important in main taining the survival of Haitian Vodou. As a man bo ( Vodou priestess), Mama Lola serves the lwa and is the leader of a group of Vodouists in the area. Her gatherings are small and intimate; there are around 30 people that attend her ceremonies and rituals and most of these people are family members or close friends ( 1991: 4) Her alt ar room and ritual space is in her basement which is a contrast to the mostly outdoor space where Vodou is practi ced in the Haitian countryside. Additionally, Mama Lolas work predominately deals with consulting with clients and serving them as a healer rather than as a priestess. To highlight the differences of V odou practiced within the state of New York, Brown also discusses the different temples of othe r New York Vodou practitioners. Even though there are some who rent out large spaces to conduct ceremonies, most of the Vodou practitioners practice within their homes and have rather conservative ceremonies ( 1991: 4). Drums are a significant part of a Vodou ceremony, but in Brooklyn, drums are expensive and draw attention which Mama Lola tries to avoid because of the negative images of Vodou held by many in the Uni ted States ( 1991: 4). This illustrates how the negative perceptions of Vodou complicate Haitians ability to fully follow and practice their religion in the United States The image of Vodou in New York City is an important issue because it affects the way that Haitians can practice the ir re ligion. Bettina Schmidt (2003) addresses the presence of Vodou in New York and how it has adapted to the area Haitian Vodou has a similar history of migr ation and creolization to that of the people who practice it. Schmidt (2003) writes that the regime o f Francois Duvalier and his son caused many Haitians to flee Haiti for political asylum in the United States. However be cause of a complicated history wit h the United States, many Americans viewed Haitians in a suspicious and negative light ( Schmidt 2003). Vodou seems to have survived the acculturation into American culture. Schmidt mentions that Haitians of first, second, and third migrant generati on prac tice Vodou in New York meaning that even those who are American born still serve the lwa As mentioned before, Vodou is a not a prescriptive religion a nd as Schmidt also mentions, it is a religion that is fluid in adapting to its new surroundings. An example of this is Mama Lola She practices out of her basement without the drums traditionally used in ceremonies Within the Haitian community, Vodou seems to be a significant part of their lives in New York. Outside of the Haitian community, it is viewed as a curiosity negative or positive S ometimes it is a serious curiosity which attracts out siders who are in need of help, s uch as African Americans who have taken to Ifa healing practices for

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2 mental health problems (Ashby 2011). Ifa is of Yoruba origin and is associated with divination and healing within Vodou, where it is known as Fa (Hebblethwaite, 2012: 235). Despite the positive aspects of Vodou, such as healing, Vodou is still seen as a malevolent religion in the Ameri can cultural mindset (Schmidt 2003) Kate Ramsey gives us a possible origin of this negative view point that stems from the book Voodoo Fire in Haiti by Richard Loederer and was distributed in Europe and North America ( 2002: 11). Literature like this and other sources of media have constantly depicted Vodou as being a religion of fetish dolls, zombies, and diabolic practices as described by Schmidt (2003) However, Schmidt believes that this image is slowly changing as evidenced by the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou exhibition in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibition was a success It educated the audience about what Vodou truly is; challenging the often exotic ideas that many speculators had (Schmidt 2003) Howe ver Schmidt critiques the exhibition claiming that even though it did a lot of good, it still had its faults in its presentation. The presentation mostly ignored the fact that there are many Vo dou practitioners in New York and chose to import a priest fro m Haiti rather than having one from Brooklyn. The marg in alization of Haitians and Vodou within New York is highlighted. However, there may be other reasons for this oversight, such as communication issues between the museum and the Haitian community Even though Vodou is still widely practiced within the Haitian d iaspora in New York and there have been efforts to educate people about the true nature and form of Vodou, it is still viewed with xenophobia in America.

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3 Works Cited Ashby, Jeffery S., McCray, Kenja, Meyers, Joel, Ojelade, Ifetayo I. Fall 2011. Use of Ifa as a Means of Addressing Mental Health Concerns Among African American Clients. Journal of Counseling and Development Vol 89, Issue 4. pp. 406 Brown, Karen.1991. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestes s in Brooklyn. Berkley: University of California Press. Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. 2012. Vodou Songs In Haitian Creole and English. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Ramsey, Kate. Fall 2002. Without One Ritual Note: Folklore Performance and the Hait ian State, 19351946. Schmidt, Bettina E. 2003. The Presence of Vodou in New York City: The Impact of Caribbean Religion on the Creolization of a Metropolis. [Electronic Version] Article in Matau, Vol 27/28, pp.213234


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Title: Vodou in New York City, Camille Chambers
Series Title: HAI3930, ANT3930, LAS3930, REL3938
Physical Description: Course Material
Creator: Raitano, Megan
Publisher: Hebblethwaite, Benjamin
Raitano, Megan
Felima, Crystal
Place of Publication: University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
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Subjects / Keywords: Caribbean Area   ( lcsh )
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Acquisition: Collected for University of Florida's Institutional Repository by the UFIR Self-Submittal tool. Submitted by Megan Raitano.
Publication Status: Unpublished
General Note: This is a collection of student essays from the Haitian Vodou class offered at the Universtiy of Florida. These essays are the results of a combination of in class material and independent research on individually chosen topics. The writing styles, citation styles, and views expressed in the essays are established by the students and do not necessarily reflect those of the professor or the Archive.
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Vodou in New York City
Camille Chambers, University of Florida

Vodou is a significant part of Haitian folk and national culture and the Haitian diaspora.
The study of any diaspora involves the study of the survival or adaption of the diasporic culture
in the geographic and cultural space of the adopted land. Vodou is already a religion of the
African slave diaspora in Haiti. However, it underwent a second migration with the travel of
Haitians to other countries. Hebblethwaite (2012: 9-10) defines Vodou as a religion that is non-
apostolic and is not prescriptive. This means that Vodou will probably have a similar, although
unique, form outside of Haiti. This paper will address the presence, form, and status of Vodou in
the Haitian diaspora located in New York City.

The ethnographic book by Karen Brown (1991), Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in
Brooklyn, discusses the larger Haitian community of Brooklyn, New York, the presence and
nature of Vodou, and the response to it by members of both the Haitian and non-Haitian
communities in the area. Mama Lola's status is important in maintaining the survival of Haitian
Vodou. As a manbo (Vodou priestess), Mama Lola serves the hwa and is the leader of a group of
Vodouists in the area. Her gatherings are small and intimate; there are around 30 people that
attend her ceremonies and rituals and most of these people are family members or close friends
(1991: 4). Her altar room and ritual space is in her basement, which is a contrast to the mostly
outdoor space where Vodou is practiced in the Haitian countryside. Additionally, Mama Lola's
work predominately deals with consulting with clients and serving them as a healer rather than as
a priestess. To highlight the differences of Vodou practiced within the state of New York, Brown
also discusses the different temples of other New York Vodou practitioners. Even though there
are some who rent out large spaces to conduct ceremonies, most of the Vodou practitioners
practice within their homes and have rather conservative ceremonies (1991: 4). Drums are a
significant part of a Vodou ceremony, but in Brooklyn, drums are expensive and draw attention
- which Mama Lola tries to avoid because of the negative images of Vodou held by many in the
United States (1991: 4). This illustrates how the negative perceptions of Vodou complicate
Haitians' ability to fully follow and practice their religion in the United States.

The image of Vodou in New York City is an important issue because it affects the way
that Haitians can practice their religion. Bettina Schmidt (2003) addresses the presence of Vodou
in New York and how it has adapted to the area. Haitian Vodou has a similar history of
migration and creolization to that of the people who practice it. Schmidt (2003) writes that the
regime of Francois Duvalier and his son caused many Haitians to flee Haiti for political asylum
in the United States. However because of a complicated history with the United States, many
Americans viewed Haitians in a suspicious and negative light (Schmidt 2003). Vodou seems to
have survived the acculturation into American culture. Schmidt mentions that Haitians of "first,
second, and third migrant generation practice Vodou in New York..." meaning that even those
who are American-born still serve the Iwa. As mentioned before, Vodou is a not a prescriptive
religion and as Schmidt also mentions, it is a religion that is fluid in adapting to its new
surroundings. An example of this is Mama Lola. She practices out of her basement without the
drums traditionally used in ceremonies. Within the Haitian community, Vodou seems to be a
significant part of their lives in New York. Outside of the Haitian community, it is viewed as a
curiosity, negative or positive. Sometimes it is a serious curiosity which attracts outsiders who
are in need of help, such as African-Americans who have taken to Ifa healing practices for









mental health problems (Ashby 2011). Ifa is of Yoruba origin and is associated with divination
and healing within Vodou, where it is known as Fa (Hebblethwaite, 2012: 235). Despite the
positive aspects of Vodou, such as healing, Vodou is still seen as a malevolent religion in the
American cultural mindset (Schmidt 2003).

Kate Ramsey gives us a possible origin of this negative view point that stems from the
book Voodoo Fire in Haiti by Richard Loederer and was distributed in Europe and North
America (2002: 11). Literature like this and other sources of media have constantly depicted
Vodou as being a religion of "fetish dolls, zombies, and diabolic practices" as described by
Schmidt (2003).

However, Schmidt believes that this image is slowly changing as evidenced by the
"Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" exhibition in the American Museum of Natural History in New
York. The exhibition was a success. It educated the audience about what Vodou truly is;
challenging the often "exotic" ideas that many speculators had (Schmidt 2003). However,
Schmidt critiques the exhibition claiming that even though it did a lot of good, it still had its
faults in its presentation. The presentation mostly ignored the fact that there are many Vodou
practitioners in New York and chose to import a priest from Haiti rather than having one from
Brooklyn. The marginalization of Haitians and Vodou within New York is highlighted. However,
there may be other reasons for this oversight, such as communication issues between the
museum and the Haitian community. Even though Vodou is still widely practiced within the
Haitian diaspora in New York and there have been efforts to educate people about the true nature
and form of Vodou, it is still viewed with xenophobia in America.









Works Cited

Ashby, Jeffery S., McCray, Kenja, Meyers, Joel, Ojelade, Ifetayo I. Fall 2011. Use of Ifa as a

Means of Addressing Mental Health Concerns Among African-American Clients.
Journal of Counseling and Development. Vol 89, Issue 4. pp. 406

Brown, Karen. 1991. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkley: University of

California Press.

Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. 2012. Vodou Songs In Haitian Creole and English. Philadelphia:

Temple University Press.

Ramsey, Kate. Fall 2002. Without One Ritual Note: Folklore Performance and the Haitian State,

1935-1946.

Schmidt, Bettina E. 2003. The Presence of Vodou in New York City: The Impact of Caribbean
Religion on the Creolization of a Metropolis. [Electronic Version] Article in Matau, Vol

27/28, pp.213-234