Catholicism's `Black Sister'

By Schaeffer, Pamela | National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

Catholicism's `Black Sister'


Schaeffer, Pamela, National Catholic Reporter


In Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, yuppies collect religious iconography, fueling a kind of Voodoo kitsch. Caribbean rhythms pound out in the urban jazz scene, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a neo-swing group, packs concert and dance halls. A Voodoo2 chip produces eye-dazzling effects in computer games.

In the late 1980s another reporter and I, possibly sensing that Voodoo was on its way to becoming hip and to shedding its ill-founded reputation as a form of black magic, ventured out between sessions of a Southern Baptist convention in New Orleans in the late 1980s to check out a Voodoo museum. I was reporting on the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

We happened upon a priest and priestess who offered to do a Voodoo ceremony for our benefit that afternoon. At the appointed time, feeling mildly skittish, we climbed the stairs to their second story apartment. The ritual began with drumming and chanting. We were encouraged to drape a large snake around our necks and dance in turn. My intrepid companion obliged. I declined, but was pulled in anyway when the priest unexpectedly tossed the snake into my lap.

Afterward, the priestess tied UP a little gris-gris bag for me, a heavily perfumed red fabric Container for a small medal bearing the image of St. Michael.

I never wrote about this experience, though I often talked about it. My companion, Kim Sue Lia Perkes, then of The Arizona Republic, managed a descriptive piece on New Orleans Voodoo. I read a couple of books but in the end was unable to get comfortable enough with the subject to write the explanatory piece I had in mind.

Suspecting that the "tourist special" in the upper room and a little reading had given me just enough knowledge to be really dangerous -- who knows, maybe to provoke the gods -- I let the topic die.

Fast forward 10 years to its resurrection. Another afternoon's diversion, this time in New York in mid-November, took me to the Museum of Natural History, where an exhibition, "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," will end its two-year tour on Jan. 3.

A 443-page catalog, published by the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, for the exhibition and presumably available long after it closes, recounts the history of this vibrant Caribbean religion, its relationship to Catholicism and to Haiti's turbulent political history. For Haitians at certain points in history, Voodoo (spelled Vodou in Haiti and pronounced voe-DOO) has functioned as a sort of liberation theology, lending its energy to revolutionary movements.

One of those movements made Haiti the first black republic in 1804, another brought an end to the Duvalier family's 30-year grip on the country in 1986 and boosted into temporary power the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then a Catholic priest, in 1990.

Parallel universes

Donald J. Cosentino, cocurator of the exhibition that was 10 years in the making and editor of its catalog, said in an NCR telephone interview that he thinks of Vodou and Catholicism as "parallel universes -- parallel universes with bridges,' that allow Haitians to easily move from one to the other.

Cosentino believes that Americans need to know more about Haitian arts and culture. American Catholics, he said, need to know "more about how Catholicism relates to Caribbean culture and history and to black people generally."

The exhibition, which strongly favors the aesthetic over the sensational, fosters strong appreciation for Haitian arts. Although snakes are often associated with Vodou worship and are well-represented throughout the natural history museum, no live snake appears in the exhibition.

Haiti looms large in the American consciousness, inversely proportionate to the island's small size, Cosentino said, because the tiny nation "has come to epitomize what every white culture has found both alluring and frightening in black cultures. …

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