I’ve been writing about cultural appropriation for some time now. I’ve done videos, workshops, and blog posts about the subject. If one things is clear it is that things are not simply black and white, to pardon the pun. When it comes to ATRs, or African Traditional Religions, one must realize that they are complex systems, where each ile, hounfor, or house is run as a completely autonomous entity which is self-governing and self-defining. My opinions on the recent controversy surrounding Witchdoctor Utu are solely my own, but they are however based on decades of experience and initiation in these traditions, as well as my degrees in cultural anthropology.
The obvious issue that come to the fore is whether or not it is acceptable for non people of color to practice these traditions. The fact of the matter is that many already do, and this has been the case for several hundred years. Personally, I believe that if the religion is approached with the proper respect and tribute then it is okay for anyone to practice. My experience has shown me that each practitioner must be evaluated individually and also on the basis of lineage and training.
I could go on about this for hours … and I have. However, the real reason for this post is the Con and the controversy surrounding Witchdoctor Utu. Now I have known Utu for a long time. I actually even wrote an endorsement for his new book Conjuring Harriet “Mama Moses” Tubman and the Spirits of the Underground Railroad. It reads ” It is not often that Black History and magick are given the attention and respect they deserve. Conjuring Harriet “Mama Moses” Tubman and the Spirits of the Underground Railroad is an incredible work whose time has come. Witchdoctor Utu and I have been spiritual family for almost 2 decades, we have been together inside ritual and out, and I truly can’t find enough wonderful things to say about him. His first book is stunning and not to be ignored.” But this discussion is no longer about the book. What has happenned since Utu was removed from the list of presenters at PanTheaCon has escalated into a dystopic nightmare of accusations, lies, and even threats. I feel compelled to publish here statements from Utu himself, and Baba Teddy Olujimi Jauw, who wrote the foreword to the book. What follows is their unedited statements-
Statement from Witchdoctor Utu :
This whole ordeal; my yet to be released book and my presence banned from a Neo Pagan conference, albeit the largest one in the world has opened more than a few cans of worms.
Originally it was cultural appropriation that was leveled at me and my work, a futile attempt and since shot down and rescinded thanks to many, especially since there are still several white women on the program teaching conjure/hoodoo, Brujeria, Japanese and South American practices, so if cultural appropriation was truly the case, everyone would have been removed, but alas it was only myself that was singled out, and irresponsibly so.
I also want it to be known I am no victim here and have not felt hard done by. I simply defended myself and have taken the moniker of “banned” and “dangerous” as a badge of honor, and PantheaCon has actually blessed my work and the legacy of the spirit world within the pages of my book. I will prosper because of it, the legacy of the many spirits of the Underground Railroad both black and white, Canadian and American, receiving attention in a manner they would not have if this ordeal had not transpired.
However, seeing as I was able to withstand a fairly ferocious attempt at assassinating my entire character with many other baseless accusations having nothing to do with appropriation and in fact coming out of it stronger than before, I am happy to let this be a point of attention for the many uncomfortable and complex issues it has brought to the forefront.
Am I as a Scottish born Canadian raised man entitled to be among African Traditional Religions? Of course not, however I was invited in. Despite the overwhelming support from Priests and Priestesses of African Traditional Religions throughout the over the 15 years I have been sharing these practices surrounding the Underground Railroad spirits as well as when this ordeal took place, for which I am very grateful, this is not an African Traditional religion I am presenting in the first place.
All I have done is shed light upon heroic figures as well as the unnamed and forgotten freedom fighters and freedom seekers who I feel are worthy of exhalation and reverence, and used my privilege and standing to reveal some aspects of the Underground Railroad that has previously been suppressed, mostly by white American academia, especially in regards to how much voodoo, root work, spiritualism and conjure were a part of the freedom train.
Of the many complex issues at hand is the fact that several Underground Railroad descendants both Canadian and American, some of a historic nature not only supported my work throughout but enabled me in this book. They feel that their legacy is not represented by religions with roots in the Caribbean, South America and their cultures. And despite our different cut in cloth as many of the descendants are in fact Christian and in particular Episcopalian and Baptist, that the truth is the truth and should not be suppressed. If U.G.R.R. descendants are alive today because of the many means that their ancestors used to empower themselves through numerous spiritualities then all of those spiritual practices deserve to be counted when honouring the many brave men and women who had to crawl through swamp and marsh, perused relentlessly by torturer’s and bounty hunters. The Underground Railroad is a North American legacy, a black legacy as well as white. It was a unique clandestine movement that brought many religions, colours, classes and two countries together to fight against human bondage. I live in St. Catharines and have now for 30 years, I live right where Harriet “Mama Moses” Tubman brought her track to its end. The Underground Railroad is a part of my regions culture and the spirits are crying to be heard, understood and wiling to help us elevate ourselves as better humans while elevating their legacy. If sacred work of this nature is to be deemed conversational and open up many uncomfortable feelings and notions, all of them dignified, entitled and true, then so be it, I am happy to be of service in any way that I can. (statement ends)
Statement from Baba Teddy Olujimi Jauw :
I am writing this because I have many friends who are trying to understand this from an objective standpoint and have messaged me privately and sent me emails to try to ‘grok’ what’s going on. Especially my California friends in Big Sur, San Francisco and other places where I was a part of POC spiritual communities.
In short, Utu was ‘deplatformmed’ as a speaker at the upcoming PanTheaCon, one of the largest spiritual gatherings in the country. Doublespeak. He and his unpublished book were banned. I won’t delve into the details but, in short, he has been accused of ‘appropriation’ as well as a number of unspecified attacks and vague insinuations that are more personal and totally unsubstantiated because they are completely groundless. I won’t aid their cause by fanning the flames of gossip and innuendo but you can read about this by reading the Wild Hunt and reading the comments as well. It’s very convoluted and has devolved into a social media trial and circus.
I will start by admitting that while I may be honest, informed, understanding and factual as I can be, no one within the controversy would consider me ‘objective’. Let me explain…
WHO I AM IN ALL OF THIS
I would have to say, at the outset, that I am uniquely positioned to comment on this debate that has blossomed across the country, unlike 99.9% of all other participants, because a) I have actually read the book and b) I wrote the Foreword. This is an unpublished book they are all talking about and making decisions about. A very good book.
PanTheaCon acted unilaterally to ban the presentation without having read it or giving any sort of minimal due process. They simply believed a group of people who are a) not in charge and b) not informed. When confronted, they doubled down and eventually closed their open FaceBook group, deleted all mentions and published a wan explanation that left out the original ‘appropriation’ excuse and, instead, put forward a personal and passive aggressive attack.
Because of this, Witchdoctor Utu has been forced to defend himself against a slew of mushrooming attacks by people who a) have no direct information and b) are just piling on because he is white, a foreigner, a male, has long hair, dresses funny or whatever they could think of in a misguided campaign of white saviorism ‘social justice’. Unfortunately, just having to defend yourself these days can make other gatherings stay away from you or simply assume your guilt.
So I will address this logically and confront PanTheaCon’s original rationale. Then I will address why this is dangerous to all of us who write, teach and practice ATR’s and diasporic American religions as well all other forms of paganry, heathenry and non-Christian alternative religions.
The implication here is that a person who is white (and Scottish) cannot a) write a book about Harriet Tubman and b) speak about it from the standpoint(s) of the diasporic traditions of VooDoo, HooDoo, Conjure, Rootwork or any number of variants that this work is related to or a part of. I will address the race issue first.
These American descendants of Haitian VooDoo or Vodou variations are part of a North American diaspora that came through New Orleans from Haiti (Cuba and the DR) starting in the 1600’s. These variations are the descendants of ‘ATR’s’ or African Traditional Religions.
‘Vodou’ is a Dahomey/Fon based word that means ‘our gods’ or deities, Orisa, Saints, Lwa or what have you. It is not a religion but a way to classify the many cultures, religions, archetypes and concepts of the many peoples who were taken into slavery or opposed the colonial forces throughout the Gulf Diaspora, Central and South America.
What we call Voodoo (in Haiti, the DR and diaspora) is an amalgamation of hundreds of cultures and in many variations to the point that ‘voodoo’ in one village looks nothing like the ‘voodoo’ in the next village over. Most indigenous participants think of the word ‘voodoo’ like we say ‘belief’. So in the island once called Hispaniola we will hear people say that they are RaRa, Rada, GaGa, Obeah, Gineh Fon, Voodoo, Vodoun, VoDou and more. And, for instance, GaGa in one village may look closer to Obeah than the Gaga in another village.
There is no one religion, no bible, no pope, no ten commandments and no central authority. Those are white cultural constructs. While some may call it a religion, that is only to garner respect from a western perspective.
The variant that overtook New Orleans in the 1700’s was largely based on the Yoruba religion so it has many Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa attributes mixed in with others. I am a priest of what is called Odu/Ifa in Nigeria and am consecrated in its Haitian Offshoot called Gineh Yoruba VoDou. What may be closest to the original variation brought into New Orleans when hundreds of Yoruba speaking ‘Ogou Warriors’ kicked the ass of the French Army.
They were transported by the Polish Mercenary Navy.
This is important to this debate. When Haiti won its independence as the very first free country in the Americas (way before the USA) it did so with an alliance of many African peoples and many other ethnic groups. As Voodoo became more homogenized, its practices absorbed all of these peoples. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the first president of a free Haiti declared Poles as ‘black’.
So, a typical ‘veve’ or symbol will have the Yoruba symbolism, but it may also have the Islamic ‘Musa’ symbol of Moses brought by Arab slave sailors, the Polish symbols of Polish Masonry and Catholicism whose black madonna (Our Lady of Czestachowa) is the national (and voodoo) Haitian patron. It may also include french Heraldry, Spanish ‘gypsy’ (Sinti and Roma from India and Pakistan), native Arawak or Taino Mayan symbols and most especially (to this topic) ‘Bridey’s Cross’. Because one of the most important ‘Lwa’ or deities of all VooDoo is ‘Ma’am Brigitte’ who was brought by Irish, welsh and Scottish female slaves banished by James II hundreds of years ago.
To say that a White Scotsman cannot be initiated into this tradition is a) patently false and b) provably ridiculous. Especially when he is shining a light on slavery and its modern day existence and giving us a traditional ritual and usage we call ‘Elevacion’ to liberate ourselves.
Moreover, the diaspora of the original ‘Gineh Yoruba’ eventually became NOLA Voodoo, Appalachian HooDoo, Southern Rootworking, Louisiana Swamp Witchcraft and encompassed Native American, American Slaves, Irish, Pennsylvania Deutsch, Sicilian Stregheria and other beliefs. The diaspora of African ‘VooDoo’ included any race, religion or culture that would have information or gods to oppose their common oppressors. It is rooted in the oppression and suppression of all peoples who were marginalized by racism and European religion. In other words, ‘whatever works to fight slavery’.
Not only does Utu’s book address this but it makes a powerful case for the elevation of slavery’s most iconic warrior and symbol. It encompasses the movements of abolition and escape and how Quakers, Atheists, Suffragists, Canadian Episcopalians, and other white groups defended, fostered and helped keep the Underground Railroad Underground as well as a powerful case to say that Tubman retained her ‘roots’ even as a practicing Christian. Many slaves did. Do.
To suggest that only a person of color may present this case is silly. To know that a group of non POC decided this is defacto racist in and of itself. The bottom line is that their ignorance of our religions and our makeup and our history is what happens when people think they are your saviors.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The modern diaspora movements have been multicultural since day one. Since Columbus landed on what is now Haiti bringing the first two slaves. Muslims.
For those of us who teach, preach, perform or practice any religions that are non traditional, this represents a chilling precedent where someone(s) can decide only black people can be voodoo and, therefore, only white people can be certain kinds of ‘Pagans’. We are already seeing this. These Spiritually Eugenic purity tests and purges are frightening and becoming more prevalent.
Even within this debate, we hear people saying that you are ‘homophobic’’ if you don’t accept that the Faerie traditions should only be for gay men. We have also heard that only women can be witches. Only people who believe in Polyamory are truly Wiccan.
This stuff happens but when self appointed saviors or purity police get to brand people as ‘appropriators’, ‘fakes’ or ‘enemies’ or ‘dangerous’ then we have entered into a realm of prejudice, fear-mongering and control we usually associate with Fascism and Religious Autocracy of European Colonialism and Colonial Christianity.
It happens. But when the organizers of Conventions and Gatherings that are supposed to celebrate our differences (see definition of ‘Pan’, ‘Thea’ and ‘Con’) capitulate to outside agitators, purity protesters, non-members of the practices they think they have the right or ‘privilege’ to police, then the effect is more than chilling. It is dangerous.
Especially when those who have the ultimate responsibility of making these decisions do so without public rationale and eliminate all evidence of their own wrongdoing and insinuate they did this for our own ‘safety’. Their message is passive aggressive but plain.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Please feel free to tag yourself in the comment thread or picture. If you are a leader, teacher, author, priest, priestess, etc. of groups that will be affected by this please communicate your titles and opinions on platforms like Wild Hunt, PanTheaCon’s page or feel free to republish this under copyleft commons. Also, the gatherings that you frequent who may become suddenly afraid of religions not usually or not well represented. Place your presence and your money in gatherings that share your values, openness, tolerance or even just curiosity.
And use whatever bully pulpit you have to oppose prejudice, purity tests, odious orthodoxies and misguided, misinformed movements and individuals.
Become informed before you comment. Don’t assume. Don’t be silent when you see an injustice and let the good always outnumber the bad. Mostly, don’t believe everything you read. Even this. Do your homework before you take sides.
Mostly… Do No Harm (statement ends)
In response to much of this discussion earlier this week Pantheacon released a statement which can be found here. I realize that this is a heated topic, if you would like to comment below we would love to have your input but please be respectful to myself, Witchdoctor Utu, and Baba Teddy. And remember to like and share !