"What Is the Truth?": Ezili, or the Power of Feminist Love

By Maltese, Emanuela | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

"What Is the Truth?": Ezili, or the Power of Feminist Love


Maltese, Emanuela, Journal of Haitian Studies


"God, do not judge! On the planet / A woman you never were": these provocative lines from the poem "There is no day's temptation" by Marina Tsvetaeva (The Best of Marina Tsvetaeva) offer the opportunity to challenge the traditional Western opposition between spirituality and what has been known as feminism. The Russian poet tries to re-open the spiritual world to womanhood: what happens if and when God is replaced by Goddess? If this thought seems impossible in occidental religions, in Afro-Caribbean beliefs such as Vodou, Santeria or Candoble, the presence of a Goddess is frequent and commonplace. In Vodou, the mutable and infinite deities called Iwa speak both as men and as women; in so doing, they welcome Marina Tsvetaeva's challenge by apparently approving the feminist reflection that recites that "speaking (as) woman is not speaking of woman. It is not a matter of producing a discourse of which woman would be the object, or the subject. That said, by speaking (as) woman, one may attempt to provide a place for the 'other' as feminine" (Irigaray 135).

My discussion will try to chart this feminist perspective within Vodou through the analysis of the film Erzulie's Tears (U.S., 2007, 8 min. 25 sec.) by Mary Ann Brooks, an African American dancer based in San Francisco, who confesses her ancestral powers in relation to her hereditary identity - with roots in the Caribbean, she has a Cherokee grandfather - and, in particular, to the incredible capacity of the Afro-Caribbean Vodou to adjust to new contexts through the diaspora. In the United States, specifically, the contact between the African American and the Haitian communities has proved essential in revealing the transnational character of Vodou: its appropriation by the African American community and so-called black feminism has allowed the encounter between spirituality and critical thought. In such proximity, Vodou figures as a religion, but primarily as a trope of resistance, especially for women of color: "Can spirituality be a basis on which one can heal and sustain a counter-colonial or a counterpatriarchal identity?" (Wayde 481).

In her long and penetrating research on Mama Lola, a Vodou priestess living in New York, the white U.S. anthropologist and sociologist Karen McCarthy Brown writes that, although Haitian culture is a misogynist one, "Vodou empowers women to a larger extent than the great majority of the world's religious traditions. As Haitians struggled to survive and adapt both during and after slavery, women gained social and economic power, gains that are mirrored in the influence of women within Vodou" (220). On her part, the African American performer, writer and ritualist Luisah Teish believes that the contact with one's ancestress provided by Vodou encourages feminist spirituality in that women who aspire to become mambos, or priestesses, cement the matrilinear tradition by constructing a communal image of the feminine:

[Mambos] must be constantly aware, brave and strong-willed, they have strong sex drives, they are sexually free, and are prone to possession by loa of the opposite sex (breaking down gender roles and allowing for homosexuality) they are communal; they can be any age, including children; and they can use Voodoo to alter their fate. (164)

In her anthropological study, TeIlMy Horse, Zora Neal Hurston gives a suggestive example of the role of women and matrilinearity within Vodou. In a vortex of characters, she depicts a very particular ceremony:

What is the truth? . . . knowing that I could not answer him he answered himself through a Voodoo ceremony in which the Mambo, that is the priestess, richly dressed is asked this question ritualistically. She replies by throwing back her veil and revealing her sex organs. The ceremony means that this is the infinite, the ultimate truth. There is no mystery beyond the mysterious source of life. (113)

The prominent role of mambos is due to their healing work. …

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