From 'Voodooism' to 'Vodou': Changing a Us Library of Congress Subject Heading

By Ramsey, Kate | Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

From 'Voodooism' to 'Vodou': Changing a Us Library of Congress Subject Heading


Ramsey, Kate, Journal of Haitian Studies


For years, practitioners and scholars of Haitian Vodou have challenged misrepresentations of the religion and advocated against the spelling "voodoo," a word that is still often used pejoratively. In fall 2011, discussions that began at the Haitian Studies Association meeting in Mona, Jamaica led a group to come together to work jointly towards these ends. Ultimately, twenty-five Haiti- and internationally-based scholars and scholar-practitioners who have published on the religion signed a letter requesting that the US Library of Congress change its primary subject heading for the religion from "Voodooism" to "Vodou." Contacts at the Library of Congress advised that this petition was well-timed, given that the single heading "voodoo music" had recently been changed to "Vodou music" following a request by Temple University Press and Benjamin Hebblethwaite. In addition to a proposal letter, the group submitted several supporting documents, including a list of all the subject headings recommended for revision; examples of the use of "Vodou" in US-based newspaper, magazine, wire service, and news website articles; excerpts from reference works that use "Vodou"; and excerpts from scholarly writings explaining the problems with using "voodoo" and/or advocating for "Vodou."

Capitalizing on the collective momentum, the group expanded the effort to request that the Associated Press and The New York Times revise their influential stylebook entries to "Vodou," and called upon other news organizations to do so as well. In support of this broader effort, Leslie Desmangles, Professor of Religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, wrote an eloquent further rationale for the change to "Vodou," spotlighting the history of stigmatization attached to the usage "voodoo" and thus its inappropriateness to name the religion.

Building on years of individual and collective effort, this initiative has already seen historic results. In September 2012, the Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress announced that in reviewing the submitted materials they "found the documentation of the scholars' and practitioners' arguments that 'voodoo' is pejorative to be compelling" and had decided to revise the subject heading "Voodooism" to "Vodou." This landmark decision reinforces the group's contention that English language usage is shifting towards "Vodou," and it will support ongoing efforts to convince The New Tork Times and the Associated Press, among other news organizations, to change their stylebooks. As a record of this process, some of the materials presented to the Library of Congress are included below, either in their entirety or in excerpted form.

April 15, 2012

Dear Libby Dechman, Paul Frank, and Janis Young:

As a group of scholars who study and publish on Afro-Caribbean and West African religions, we are writing to urge the Library of Congress to change the existing Subject Heading "Voodooism" to "Vodou."

According to the online Library of Congress Catalog there is only a single published book with a title featuring the word "Voodooism" and it dates from 1934 ( Voodooism in Music and Other Essays, by Sir Richard R. Terry). Please note that we are decidedly not suggesting that the Subject Heading be changed to the more common usage "Voodoo" as such a shift would only reinforce the current problem. Both of these terms connect to a long history of denigration of West African and Haitian religions and are rejected by almost all practitioners and scholars of Vodou. The word "Voodoo" is still frequently used to signify fraudulence, spuriousness, and charlatanism as the expressions "voodoo economics," "voodoo politics," and "voodoo science" exemplify.

While there is discussion among scholars and practitioners about how the name of the Haitian religion should be spelled, "Vodou" is the spelling most widely used in published works and is also the name by which the Haitian government officially recognized the religion in 2003. …

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