Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

Vodou in the “Tenth Department”

New York’s Haitian community

Karen McCarthy Brown

The wave of Haitian migration to North America began in the late 1950s, when François Duvalier became President of Haiti, and by 1990 had carried 1 million persons to New York, Miami, Boston, Chicago, and Montreal. There are approximately 8 million Haitians and 500,000 of them live in greater New York, as well as the New York and New Jersey communities that participate in the life of the city. This is the largest Haitian diaspora community in the United States. The majority of Haitians serve the Vodou spirits. “Serving the spirits” is the more common expression among Haitians for what journalists and academics, as well as increasing numbers of Haitians themselves, call Vodou. 1

Vodou communities in New York are family-like networks connecting Haitians with one another and, at times, with members of other ethnic groups. These fictive kinship structures mimic the system of rights and obligations definitive of extended families in rural Haiti, where 80 per cent of Haitians still live. In New York, as in Haiti, Vodou priests and priestesses are known as “papa” and “manman”; their initiates are called “children of the house. ” The Vodou temple, often the leader’s home, functions as a social welfare center. It is a place to gather news about Haiti, process information about New York’s dangers and possibilities, and get moral support, perhaps even a small loan, when in trouble. Vodou families in New York City are key to the survival strategies of Haitians. Their function is related to that of Vodou families in Port-au-Prince, where traditional religious ties tend to compensate urban dwellers for the loss of contact with the land and with the built-in security of the extended family.

As a whole, the immigrant community in New York functions as an outpost of Haiti in North America. There are nine administrative districts, or “departments, ” in Haiti. Haitians in the United States like to call themselves the Tenth Department, and President Aristide appointed to his cabinet a minister for the Tenth Department. Thus Haitians living and practicing their religion in the United States are not so much immigrants, in the traditional sense of that term, as they are transnationals: 2 people with emotional, social, political, economic, and spiritual involvement in two places, and with the ability to move back and forth between these two places in order to make use of each to compensate for what the other lacks.

While Haitians in New York may suffer the melancholy that comes from being away from home, they do not suffer the trauma of cosmic proportions that their African ancestors did when they realized home was irrevocably lost. What makes the difference is that Haitians in New York City can go back home. Even the sizeable number who are undocumented aliens, and therefore cannot travel at the present time, live with the hope that this will not always be their condition.

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