Hollywood is all over Voodoo like white on dirty rice, and maybe that’s a good thing. Each week in my recent memory has brought another conversation with a producer looking to learn more. Sooner, rather than later the conversation turns around to who I am and how I got to this weird and wonderful universe of Voodoo.
Uppity, Contrary, and Downright Argumentative
Voodoo is an ancient religion. There is evidence that it’s parent religions in Africa were in practice as early as the 4th Century B.C.E. Now I’m uppity, contrary, sometimes downright argumentative. I didn’t accept it when my college professors told me there was “no such thing as divination in this country,” or that “modern magick was dead.” I knew different. I spent over a decade of my university career, at the University of R.I., New York University, and the University of London writing and researching the African based traditions of New Orleans Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, Candomble and Santeria ( more properly known as Lucumi.) Part of me just wanted to prove the narrow minded establishment I had run up against as an undergraduate was wrong. I studied with some of the best anthropology, history, plant science, cinema, television, and performance studies people in academia. In Voodoo we have a deity called Aida Wedo, she represents the Rainbow Prism of Possibility. She makes the spiritual connection between ancestral knowledge from Africa and indigenous practices from all the places the religion of Voodoo found itself being practiced. Unlike many of my fellow practitioners, I have done my best, for better or worse, to make my own bridge, to have both academic training and spiritual training in these traditions. I wrote about my initiations in Voodoo, Santeria (Lucumi,) and Vodou in my post Hoodoo, Voodoo, We do.
“Everything is ok as long as your clothes come off ”
I love to perform. Don’t get me wrong, I try to keep my clothes on, I’m not 18 anymore. When I was younger I sang and danced on Broadway, with my clothes on, and with people who have now become superstars. As an adult I have performed in front of thousands as a dancer and ritualist and have been happy to bring the world of Voodoo to those who may not have seen much of it.
When I first interviewed for Mac Rebennack, more widely known as the Jazz musician Dr. John, we had a long discussion about the history of Voodoo and magick in New Orleans. We talked about roots and resistance, and it was delightful. When we got to the discussion of my upcoming choreography for the show, he said “Everything is ok as long as your clothes come off.” He explained that there was a long tradition of vice coming and shutting the shows down back in the early seventies for “licentiousness.’ We managed to do a great series of shows, I kept my clothes on and vice didn’t show up, but we did get to serve some up some real ritual and for that I am grateful.
Brooklyn in the HouseBrooklyn has a reputation. It’s rough, ready and unashamed. I was raised here, and I still live in Brooklyn today. There are quite a few Haitian Vodou houses in Brooklyn, but fewer New Orleans Voodoo spiritual houses like mine. All religions are influenced by their surroundings, and pagan religions are defined by them. I believe Voodoo is a pagan religion because it honors the natural world around us, the sacred trees, rivers, and fires. In my documentary Bodies of Water: Voodoo Identity and Tranceformation, I talk about the connection to the water both in New Orleans and New York. I made the film years before Katrina or Sandy rose upon these respective sacred shores, but I think their supreme impact is obvious. Voodoo gives us ways to heal and to understand both our surroundings and our lives.
Sacred Food is a passionate interest of mine. For me, food is one of the easiest ways to heal and transform our core selves. It is also one of the simplest and in a way most sincere ways we have with connecting to the divine. I wrote the African-American Ritual Cookbook, after years of cooking and study with many Voodoo and Santeria priestesses. Everyone has to eat. I believe that you are never too old or young to learn how to cook. Some of you may be surprised to hear that I put in my requisite parental time as a girl scout leader. Part of my duties somehow ended up being that I was to help the girls gain their outdoor cooking badge. It was a bit nerve-wracking helping a bunch of 9 year old girls, most of whom weren’t allowed to use the microwave, navigate fire, propane, and matches. We made it through in one piece, my own daughter even went on to get her degree in restaurant management at Cornell. You will see a lot of recipes here on the blog, both treasured favorites of my ancestors, and new fusions of cultures and tastes like these religions themselves. So I’ll keep being different than other Voodoo priestesses. I’ll keep cooking, and dancing, and studying, and blogging. Be Well !