Haiti and the distortion of its Vodou religion

Millery Polyné, a Haitian-American professor at the Gallatin School-NYU, teaches African-American and Caribbean history. Elizabeth McAlister is a religion and African-American studies professor at Wesleyan University, whose expertise is on Haitian Vodou. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)I vividly remember walking out of a Boston movie theater at the age of 14 feeling that my Haitianness, my blackness, and my faith had been assaulted.

I laughed uncomfortably as we re-enacted scenes from "The Serpent and the Rainbow," Wes Craven's 1988 horror film set in Haiti, which reached cult status within the genre.
"I want to hear you scream," hollered my friend in a fake Haitian accent. "Don't let them bury me, I'm not dead" was my response, mimicking the macabre gestures of a zombie.
    After sitting for 90 minutes enthralled yet embarrassed, confused but entertained, there I was, a young Haitian-American, who, as the intellectual Frantz Fanon once articulated, felt the "weight of his melanin."
    Millery Polyné, left, and Elizabeth McAlister
    "The Serpent and the Rainbow" was the first time I saw Haiti and Vodou on the big screen. The film premiered as thousands of Haitians arrived on Florida's shores fleeing economic and political turmoil, amid sweeping pseudo-science judgments of Haitians as agents of death as carriers of AIDS.
    Surrounded by a group of my multicultural friends, ill at ease with my body and sense of self, I continued to playfully walk like a "zombie" and misrepresent a religion I actually knew little to nothing about.
    It turns out there are reasons for both the unfair stereotypes about Vodou and the histories that produced them.
    It boils down to the twin forces of colonialism and racism.

    A faith born from slavery

    Vodou is the creation of the descendants of African slaves who were brought to Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) and converted by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries.
    Vodou shares much with Christianity, and Vodou initiates must be Roman Catholic. The Christian God is understood as the creator of the world, who created spirits to help govern humanity and the natural world.
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    But Vodou departs from Christianity in how it views the cosmos.
    There is no heaven or hell in Vodou.
    We humans are simply spirits who inhabit the visible world in a physical body. Other spiritual forces populate the unseen world. The ancestors are also part of that spirit world, and can guide their children through dreams and signs. All these spirits dwell in a mythic land called Ginen, a cosmic Africa.
    Historically, Vodou has been an emancipatory faith that enslaved people turned to when they were brutalized.
    For that reason, French slave owners considered Vodou a threat and that is why it has been grossly misrepresented by white colonists and Haitian political and spiritual leaders alike.
    Is it spelled Voodoo or Vodou?

    Vodou is the proper spelling of Haiti's traditional religious and healing system.

    For years, practitioners and scholars of Haitian Vodou have challenged misrepresentations of the religion, which usually misspell the tradition as "voodoo" and associate it with frenzied chaos, evil, and witchcraft.

    In 2012, the US Library of Congress changed its primary subject heading for the religion to Vodou.

    Indeed, Vodou spirits inspired the revolution against Haiti's French colonizers more than 200 years ago that established Haiti as the second independent nation in the Americas after the United States -- and the first to abolish slavery.
    It was during a religious and political gathering that enslaved Africans and Creoles mounted an insurrection against plantation owners in August 1791. This famous nighttime meeting -- known as the ceremony at Bois Caïman -- was a tremendous feat of strategic organizing, since it unified Africans assembled from different plantations and diverse ethnic groups.
    At this clandestine ceremony, a leader named Dutty Boukman led an oath to fight for freedom. A priestess named Cecile Fatiman consecrated the vow when she asked the African ancestral spirits for protection during the upcoming battle.
    Under a tree, she slaughtered a black pig as an offering.
    Two weeks later, the rebels set plantations ablaze and poisoned drinking wells, kicking off the revolution.
    Panicked slave owners throughout the Americas reacted by clamping down with extra force on all African-based religious practices.
    They circulated stories that linked the religion with blood and violence, images that endure to this day.

    The demonization of Vodou

    Negative and exotic images about Vodou resurfaced when the United States expanded its influence in the Caribbean during the 20th century. The United States occupied Haiti and seven other Caribbean countries between 1898 and 1934. Americans targeted Haiti for industrial and technological development, and as a site of exploitable labor.
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    Distorted portrayals of Vodou became a political tool to support US control. During the US occupation, Vodou practitioners were portrayed as cannibalistic devil worshipers and linked to the poor Haitian citizens who resisted foreign intervention.
    US Lt. Faustin Wirkus went so far as to set himself up as the ruler of a small island off the mainland. In his 1931 memoir, "The White King of La Gonave," he writes:
    "We had orders from headquarters ... to make a report leading to criminal punitive action ... against all priests and priestesses of Vodou.
    "The cult of Vodou was the medium of black magic, blasphemy [and] treason to Haiti."
    Over the years, the Americans systematically destroyed Vodou temples, sacred drums, and altars, and violently repressed Haitian anti-imperialists.
    A litany of books and films created during the US occupation depicted racist images of Haitians and Vodou that still inform our perceptions and treatment of Haiti.
    Films such as "White Zombie" (1932) and "I Walked With a Zombie"(1943) took the reality of exploited labor in the Caribbean and manufactured a mythic figure at the center of a horror genre still very much with us.
    Recently some evangelical Christians have resurfaced the explicit claim that the Vodou spirits are demons working for the devil.
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    For evangelicals, the reason Haiti has suffered a long history of political instability and economic poverty is because the devil is holding Haiti hostage. Evangelicals want to convert all Haitians to become born-again Protestants.
    When Pat Robertson made the outrageous claim that the 2010 earthquake happened because Haitians had made a "pact with the devil" at the ceremony at Bois Caïman in 1791, he was parroting ideas already in circulation.
    By linking Vodou's distinctively African-based spirituality directly with evil, Robertson and other evangelicals construct a theology that is racist and intolerant.
    Vodou practitioners do not see their family spirits as demons. For them, this recasting of Haitian religion as something evil is a dangerous move that feeds conflict and obscures Haiti's real problems: exploitation from foreign powers, political corruption, the collapse of the agriculture sector, a shortage of doctors, and the constant portrayal of Haitian Vodou as sinister.