"Good Lord ... He Looked to Her like a Soukougnan": The Warring Aspects of Vodou and Christianity in Maryse Conde's Windward Heights

By Barr, Jason | Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

"Good Lord ... He Looked to Her like a Soukougnan": The Warring Aspects of Vodou and Christianity in Maryse Conde's Windward Heights


Barr, Jason, Journal of Caribbean Literatures


Maryse Conde's Windward Heights is filled with opposing forces. Set in the tropical melting pot of the Caribbean, Conde creates a region which is embroiled in constant dichotomies--white versus black, rich versus poor, and perhaps most fundamental to our understanding of the novel, Christianity versus Vodou. For readers unfamiliar with the Vodou religion, the intense battle between Christianity and Vodou loses its overwhelming significance. Certainly, many of the references to Vodou are often indirect, a single word or phrase inserted in the text never to be mentioned again. To understand the complexity of religion in Windward Heights, the reader must play an active role in the text and examine three distinct influences on the novel. First, the reader must draw from the usual method of examining historical and religious sources. A greater understanding of contemporary Caribbean literature is also required, including earlier works by Conde as well as the works of Derek Walcott, Michelle Cliff, Jean Rhys, and Toni Morrison. Finally, the reader must consider the role Windward Heights plays in literature by examining the inspiration and source for the novel, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Windward Heights simply cannot be fully understood without a suitable grounding in the historical, social, and literary contexts surrounding the battle between Vodou and Christianity in the Caribbean.

Vodou is a complex religion born from the collected suffering of African slaves in the Caribbean. The etymology of the word Vodou has been the source of a sometimes rancorous debate, although the majority of scholars place the point of origin in Nigeria, where it was known as "vodu," meaning "spirit" or "deity" (Guiley 348). The practice of Vodou (1) among the African slaves living in the Caribbean "derived its rationale from two strands of African belief and practice; that which was related to witchcraft, and that which was connected to magic" (Bisnauth 90). Many slaves in the Caribbean began practicing Vodou as an attempt to connect with their African homeland and, at least temporarily, to ease their suffering. The slaves were often so devout that white Christian plantation owners would forbid the practice of Vodou on their property, only to find later that the slaves had secretly congregated at night to practice Vodou against, and perhaps in spite of, their orders (Guiley 348).

Even though Christianity is currently one of the most popular religions in the Caribbean, its history is inextricably linked with the oppressive tactics of the white slave owners. As a result, Vodou practitioners loathe many aspects of the Christian religion. As Tituba, herself a Vodou practitioner, forcefully states in Conde's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, "I do not belong to the civilization of the Bible and Bigotry" (176). This sentiment is echoed by many believers in Vodou who view Christianity as a white man's religion because of its usage by white colonizers in the Caribbean to "educate," and therefore subjugate, the native population. Derek Walcott's Omeros also reflects this sentiment:

   by forgetting his parents, his tribe, and his own spirit
   for an albino god, and how that warrior was scarred
   for innumerable moons so badly that he would disinherit
   himself.... (139-40)

Many white colonizers with the "albino god" shared the same view as Richard Ligon, who upon his arrival in Barbados in 1647, declared "that the Africans did not 'know' any religion," somehow missing the African religious practices occurring around him at all times. This viewpoint was shared by many other whites arriving in the Caribbean who held "the general view ... that the African slaves did not hold to a system of beliefs that could be described as a religion ... their beliefs amounted to nothing more than heathenish superstition" (Bisnauth 82). As time passed, slavery became an art form for the European settlers, who began to attempt new and more efficient ways to keep a people subjugated. …

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