Decolonizing our Ayitian Heritage: Writing About Vodou in the Academy

Pandan m’ap anrejistre album sa a m’

reyalize ke mwen pa anyen, 

Ke on bann lide ke yo te fe m’ vale san yo

pa t’ menm tande avi mwen, 

Kounya m’ deside tou sa yo te kache se

yo mwen pral manyen!  

Translation:

While recording this album I realized

that I am nothing

But a bunch of ideas they made me

swallow without my consent

Now I’ve decided that all they’ve hidden,

I am to touch!

(K-Lib, L’Apostat, from the album L’Apostat)

Every major stage of my life is set to its own soundtrack. Songs manage to find me at the most opportune moments to carry me through my darkest ones. K. Lamar’s “Alright” shouldered me on my hour-long walk to and from a soul-sucking job (each way) that supported me through my senior year in undergrad. My friend introduced me to Sa-Roc’s “Forever” when I told her I came out to my mother, which I kept on repeat and on blast, while I screamed into traffic, relieving the tension from the non-fights that followed my revelation. 

When I finally started to understand some key things about Ayitian history and society, about my own upbringing and projected trajectory, I encountered K-Lib’s album, L’Apostat (The Apostate). The entire L’Apostat album is an ode to all of us enraged people, fed up with the narratives shoved down our throat, chewed and spit up into our mouths like birds, conditioned to keep singing the same old song of colonized ideas about who we are as Ayitians, who we were, and ought to be.

Each track is an invitation to explore, question, renounce, refuse, and change our understanding of our history and culture, centering it within our own narratives, our own storytelling traditions, our own belief systems, honoring and respecting the wisdom and genius of those who came before us, while recognizing our own and utilizing both to their full potential for present action and future change. 

Becoming an Apostate

I listened to K-Lib’s verses as I read Laennec Hurbon, an ex-priest, now sociologist of religion and writer. It was my first time reading someone, especially an Ayitian, present a lucid and objective view of Vodou from a cross-cutting approach using ethnology, philosophy, sociology and theology.

In Dieu dans le Vaudou Haïtien (God in Ayitian Vodou), Hurbon introduced Vodou as a vision of the world originating from the effort of a people to affirm itself against the dramatic conditions of its history. Today, this is what I would tell someone is common knowledge. But a few years ago, when I first read this book and began my own personal research into Ayitian Vodou, this view of Vodou was groundbreaking. And the fact that it was such a novel thought, to someone who moved away as a whole teenager, is heartbreaking. 

Saying that Vodou was one of the main vehicles through which the Ayitian Revolution was carried, today, is a statement I can argue rhetorically and back up with fact, but back then, it was akin to blasphemy. It was blasphemy. Through all my years on the island, all I knew of Vodou was that it was of the devil. All I understood of myself in relation to it was that I was to stay as far away as possible. There was nothing intriguing, useful, pure, or worth any second look about it.

Vodou was our great big shame that we must never name, the elephant of every Ayitian room. We were taught to reject what had kept us whole, the glue that had brought our ancestors together, the fire that kept them going toward Independence. This brainwashing is similar to the current process of alienating our schoolchildren from the language our ancestors created, in favor of the one used to divide us, to build a “better than” class and further stratify, thus weaken our society, culture, and patrimony. 

Chora: Seeing Signs Everywhere

I took a Contemporary Rhetorical Theory seminar in my last semester concluding my first year in my masters program. The course was about the current theoretical trends within my academic field, Rhetoric. We discussed the theory around “chora”, which can be understood as the place between idea and becoming, when we’re picking up from all the signs around us to make a decision, to create art, to move and be moved from place to place in the world. One can understand it well when you think about the writing process.

Where do your ideas come from? Are they just from you thinking really hard? Or do you get ideas as you pour your morning coffee, idly listening to the TV you put on just for noise, scrolling mindlessly on your feed? Or as you’re in the middle of your youtube yoga practice, using your hair to shoo away flies, with your hands over heart? Do your ideas take form when you stand in front of the mirror, pinching, squeezing, lifting, hoping all the overflow would just disappear? Is there a specific moment for you, or are your writings the fruit of an amalgamation of all the epiphanies, inspirations, distortions, and all the other fuzzy stuff all around you that makes writing magical, from the first lights of an idea to the fireworks of a full complete draft? That’s Chora. 

As I went through the assigned readings, I couldn’t help thinking about how much the idea of signs guiding you towards the correct decision really sounded like an idea that is at the basis of many african ancestral traditions, highlighting the way that a lot of practitioners move about in the world. Whatever is internal, has an outward manifestation. Seeing things as you go about your day, that you meditated upon in the morning, is common. When we met up in class to discuss, I brought up how an approach to Ayitian Vodou helps to illustrate the concept of chora well. I used the example of my decision making process and the creation of my application materials to my masters program. 

Connecting Chora to Ayitian Vodou: Applying for my Masters

I told the story of how I prepared my applications, working under the principle of Papa Legba. If you’re familiar with Ayitian Vodou, you’re familiar with Papa Legba. And if you’re not, he is the Ayitian Lwa associated with gatekeeping, the crossroads, the number 4, the colors red, white, and black (in some circles, Ayitian Vodou operates on a basis of non-standardization), red cardinals, and keys. He has a couple of forms, but is often associated with the image of an old black man wearing his colors, with a cane, hat, keys, and a dog. Papa Legba opens the gates for other Lwas to access, you must come through him to begin on any path. In practice, he is the first one to be saluted, after Bondye, The All. 

Before beginning on my masters applications, I spoke to my mentor, an older professor I studied under in college. He gave me 4 pieces of priceless advice: 

  1. There’s no need to rush. You have options.
  2. Make a long list of schools and work it down. 
  3. Get it funded. “It’s not worth it if it’s not funded,” he said.
  4. Make all your application materials tell a cohesive story. Connect the dots.

There I was, the only black girl in class, reading how researchers, philosophers, and writers were making new connections, learning to value different ways of creating and learning, not solely based on cognition, and discussing relying on Signs to make decisions. Yet none of the writers were black. Not one brought up the connection to ancient african visions of seeing the world, still well alive in corners where ancestors are still consulted, honored, and respected. 

Following signs had led me to this exact school, this exact classroom, and I couldn’t help seeing that moment as a sign for me to connect the dots myself. I started recounting each action, each intersection that led me to this path. I sent my applications to 4 schools.The central theme of my personal statement was crossroads, the ones where I found myself: in my identities, my study interests, my goals, and my skills. And the crossroads where I wanted to place myself: between the past, present, and future, between Ayiti and white supremacy, between Academia and “the real world”, between the possible and the revolutionary. 

I sent my applications, waiting for a sign. My first and second choices sent their letters of acceptance. My first choice, where I am, sent their funding package first, and the rest is history. When I moved, I realized that signs confirming I made the right choice were all around. Red cardinals, the official State Bird of NC, light the way on my morning nature walks. Raleigh is a city that strikes the perfect balance between woodsy and urban, roundabouts abound, the coolest crossroads. My school spirit colors are red, white, and black, a nightmare on university design style guides, but colors that make me smile, make me feel right at home. Our official mascot is the wolfpack, dogs’ direct ancestors.

Raleigh is covered with beautiful, bushy trees, with pink flowers that created a bright streak of color as I drove through its sinuous streets. Intrigued, I wanted to find out their names. No one around knew, or even understood my strange fascination with the beautiful trees, they’d always been around, almost invisible. Finally, after a half hour down an internet rabbit hole of pink flowers and evergreens, I found out they were called the crepe myrtle. Google my name, Hadassa. My name has multiple Jewish meanings, one of which being a female myrtle tree, a flowering plant native to the Mediterranean. The myrle is known for its leaves which release their fragrance only when they are crushed. 

I felt weird drawing these connections, in a classroom, where blank faces looked up at me, captivated. I feel weird writing them now, as two cardinals sing, perched on a tall bendy tree in the patch of woods behind my balcony. This explanation, connecting Chora to Ayitian Vodou, should sound like a bunch of nonsense, coincidences,  and it may be to some, that’s not what I will attempt to convince anyone of or out of, here. Though it felt weird, and somehow fittingly out-of-place, it’s a perfect representation of the seminar’s topic of study of that week, Chora. So if Chora is worth enough to study as a concept, why suddenly when connected to Ayitian Vodou did it feel weird, silly, woowoo

 A Project of Decolonization

When we reached the section of the class discussing Black Rhetoric, I found answers, and more questions. We discussed the topic of the Griot and Adam Banks’ introduction of the DJ as a Digital Griot in African-American rhetoric. In the past, certain figures from African societies were tasked with the duty of maintaining the memory of the community, the Griots. Adam Banks argued that the DJ, with his deep knowledge of African-American music and oral traditions was a griot in his own right, a Digital Griot. 

In Chapter 1 of Digital Griots: African-American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, Adam Banks discusses the conceptual framework of the Griot, referencing Ishmael Reed’s HooDoo Protagonist Papa Labas in the novel Mumbo Jumbo (inspired by Papa Legba for Ayitians but not an accurate depiction of the Lwa itself), and “his combination of futuristic vision and commitment to grounding that vision in deep, searching knowledge of the past”. Banks saw Papa Labas as the ultimate DJ and Griot in Reed’s depiction, “an archivist, a canon maker, time binder; someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of traditions, a searing and searching awareness of contemporary realities, and the beat-matching, text-blending abilities to synchronize traditions, present realities, and future visions in that future text”.

So there were people focusing on the practices and literacies of black people, of the African diaspora. Some ground work is there, though lost in the metaphorical basement that always buries hyphenated anything in the academy. When it came time for me to complete my own writing in the seminar though, I hesitated to explore the ideas, literacies, and practices contained in Ayitian Vodou, showing that carefully approaching its principles could be useful when illustrated and studied as concepts within the academy. I hesitated for two main reasons: I don’t want to become a “typecasted” academic, and I don’t trust the academy with the topic of Vodou, with my heritage. 

1. I don’t want to become a “typecasted” academic

I’m an INTP.  If this means nothing to you, it’s an indication that while I don’t mind becoming an expert in the field that really interests me, my strengths and passions reside in the cross-cutting cleavages of concepts, fields of study, ideas, and forms of knowledge. It’s all about variety for me. Becoming an academic, to me, is about utilizing, to its fullest potential, my ability to zoom in to the particular and zoom out to see the whole to draw appropriate connections between both. I connect the dots. That’s what I do. Yet, common practice in the academy is to break your bones to fit into whatever specialty box will get you published most. 

I hesitated to write about all the marvelous fruits that could come out of a mature, mutually-beneficial, honorbound and respectful approach to Vodou in the academy because I didn’t want to become the “West Indian academic” or the “Ayitian studies academic”. I wanted to be free to explore and connect whatever is useful, expansive, and revolutionary, without having to worry about whether it fits within whatever arbitrary boundaries have been traced for my work. How do I avoid that AND still represent and build upon my heritage as much as I see fit?

2. I do NOT trust the Academy with my heritage

In my final, nearly 12,000-word paper I submitted a couple of weeks ago that I

definitely will try to get published (which is why I can’t say too much), I argued for renewed attention to the global technological rhetorical practices of black people and digital griots, in my field, not as a separate corner, but through methods employed, sources cited, readings assigned etc.  In my arguments, I discussed three principles of Ayitian Vodou through the lens of a case study of three contemporary Ayitian Digital Griots (Manbo Hathor Akunaten, Professor Bayyinah Bello, and K-Lib). 

I kept my sourced information about Vodou to what’s readily and openly available on the internet, yet I still felt weird. As I weave Vodou teachings, principles, and ideas through different aspects of my writing, though it feels cathartically right, I still feel weird. The academy is NOT known for handling a lot of topics well, especially Ayitian Vodou. Do I want to be the one (or part of the ones) who are responsible for opening up my heritage for the vultures? How do I make sure that my work is not a basis for further pillage, disrespect, and misappropriation of my culture? Do I just trust the institution in which I am placed? 

How do you represent your heritage?

I used to be intrigued about the concept of a lie of omission. My father had an entire sermon about it. Lie of Omission was a sin, holding not any less weight than its brothers White or Bold-faced. If you know something of substance and you don’t say it, you’re culpable of any resulting consequences. I disagreed then. I still do. Yet it’s the most apt description of how I feel about writing about Vodou and Ayitian culture, within the academy or without. 

Regardless of all the other things that I am, I am an Ayitian writer. Ayiti formed me; She gave me my stripes, my shield, and my fire.  As far as I can go back, in some way or another, it has always been a focus of my research and my writing. Being an Ayitian anything never restricts me, being Ayitian offers me a basis for exploration, lenses to connect and heal the ruptures caused by colonization whether between Ayitians, between the people of the Caribbean, between the African Diaspora, and most fundamentally, within ourselves as black people. 

So ultimately, who cares how others want to typecast me? Being an academic may mean that I have to continuously meet a set of objectives, like publishing, however, how I attain that goal remains up to me, as long as it is reached. In the moment of creation, of Chora, between idea and becoming, there is space for following signs all around, but there’s no place for fear and self-censure. Where did my hesitation really originate? Is it out of the potential of falling in the trap of the familiar, of being an achievement junkie instead of throwing myself into the work that makes me feel alive, for fear of rejection or misunderstanding?

When it comes to the question of whether or not to trust the academy with my heritage, I thought about how inutile such a consideration was, when put up as an answer to whether or not I should write about Ayitian Vodou. Though, it certainly holds much of the weight as an answer to the question of how to approach Ayitian Vodou. I say it’s pointless to hesitate on that basis because whether or not I want to approach Ayitian Vodou within the academy, it will be done, often by people who look nothing like me and certainly do not hold my perspectives. The threatening, uneasy question persisted through my vacillations, “if not you, who?” 

Further, the separations between Ayitians and African-Americans as well as the rest of the African diaspora, partly stem out of the colonialist terror campaigns that utilized lies about Vodou to inspire fear about us. Doing this work is also about repairing those connections, playing its part in unifying black people everywhere and decolonizing our stories and alliances. 

Menm jan ak on labouyi cho fok ou pran

l’ sou kote

Pou w’ konprann Ayiti fok ou ta pase sou

Kote

Fok ou ta konprann moun sa yo yo mete

sou kote

Translation:

Like hot porridge you have to scoop on

the side

To understand Ayiti, you’d have to pass

on the side

You’d have to understand those they’ve

set on the side 

(Sou Kote by the rapper K-Lib, from the album L’Apostat)

What makes me Ayitian?

In L’Apostat, K-Lib has a track titled “Sou Kote” (on the side). He argues, “just like hot porridge you have to scoop on the side, to understand Ayiti, you’d have to pass on the side,  you’d have to understand those people they’ve set on the side. As you get deeper in Ayitian history, you learn about the violent “anti-superstitious” campaigns launched against Vodouizan by the Catholic church and the Ayitian government. You get to read with your own eyes the catechism books knocked upside the heads of our ancestors. You get to understand the dynamics on the plantations and the central role Vodou played in getting people together. Not for just one ceremony as often reported, but regularly, in secret, to serve and dance and practice and plot for revolution. 

Being Ayitian means to not reject parts of ourselves, cutting off our limbs for a potential embrace from others who don’t bother to truly understand us. Being Ayitian means to honor and respect the sacrifices of those who came before us. It means studying our history in order to understand, protect, and build upon it for a possible future. Being Ayitian is not merely a question of origin, or location. Being Ayitian is a process of becoming, decolonizing, exploring, harmonizing, and liberating ourselves, for ourselves. 

We love to call ourselves the first free black republic, but how free are we? How free are we if we feel weird to bring up the ways of our ancestors in class? How free are we if we hesitate to rectify and improve our image in places where it’s long been misunderstood and demeaned? How free are we if we look down upon and try to separate ourselves from one of the very instruments which we used to earn this freedom we’re so proud of,  just because they said we shouldn’t and have made us believe lies about ourselves? Why do we uphold our own oppression?

Being an Ayitian academic means that I get a chance to stand and fight for my freedom, to liberate my mind and illuminate others, using the measures and institutions within my reach, imperfect as they may be, to attempt to redress some of the wrongs done to my culture, some of the inaccuracies maliciously planted in my stories. Being an Ayitian academic also includes being able to evaluate, improve, and create new tools, technologies, concepts, ideas, and frameworks that can be both affirming to scholars and students of color, and mutually beneficial to the communities from which they originate as well as the academy. 

I firmly believe that the mass exodus of Ayitians throughout the world, and the black excellence that often results from it happen for real reasons, that may not be revealed to us yet. Wherever we are, within whichever field of creation, there’s so much work that could be done. In our conversations about change, we often decry just how much is there to do to make anything happen in our homeland. Well, we all have different expertise, interests, skills, and goals.  Once you start knowing who you are, you’ll know what you can do, and you’ll know WHY. You Have to find your Why. No hesitations, no fears, and no worries have their place when it comes to maintaining, protecting, and building our heritage and leaving something worth celebrating for future generations. 

The Ayitian Revolution was not only against France or the powers of that time, it was against White Supremacy. Do you think the work is done?

Happy Ayitian Heritage Month from 99% Anomaly Podcast!

On the podcast, we dove right into our best memories about growing up in Ayiti, for a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It’s Haitian Heritage Month, and there are so many parts of our rich inheritance that are getting lost every day. This episode is an ode to them. In a free-flowing conversation, we reminisce about our childhood in Haiti, the games we played, the foods we ate and cooked, our friendships and families, everything that made growing up on that beautiful island supremely blissful.

Listen to learn about the mafia-like homework operation Cass and her friends used to run, Nessa reveals she doesn’t swallow (don’t ask me how that came up 🤦🏿‍♀️), and Dassa is being cyberstalked by her childhood crush but she’s not mad at it because that glo-up is reaaal.

3 thoughts on “Decolonizing our Ayitian Heritage: Writing About Vodou in the Academy

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