Welcome to our series, “Excellent Excerpts,” where we share selections from recently or soon-to-be published books we think you should check out! In this post we are featuring Vodou en Vogue: Fashioning Black Divinities in Haiti and the United States by Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha, out June 2023, University of North Carolina Press.
This book is not about Haiti’s poverty. If you are seeking a conversation about the country’s economic condition or the relative poverty of Haitian people, you will be disappointed by the pages that follow. My aim instead is to challenge our ideas and assumptions about Black practitioners of Vodou. Vodou and wealth are falsely understood as opposites, as mutually exclusive. Haiti and Vodou are represented as poor without any investigation of the geopolitical White supremacist forces that create that poverty in the first place. To define Haiti through poverty is to negate the long-lasting and ongoing impacts of colonization and the continuing postcolonial stripping of wealth from its national coffers by France, the United States, Canada, and, increasingly, China, a country eager to extract resources from Haiti. The insistence on calling out Haiti’s poverty in the face of the Global North’s wealth ignores how Western Europe and North America gained and maintained their wealth. It also fails to account for the incalculable amount of wealth that Haiti has created for European powers. Simplistic questions about Haiti’s poverty are distracting, dismissive, and denigrating and often devoid of rigorous theoretical foundations. Usually, criticisms about Haiti’s poverty and the stylish adornment practices in Vodou do not involve political or economic arguments that might animate the concerns of a Marxist, for example. These criticisms do not condemn the way capitalism operates in the Western Hemisphere but merely the perceived material excess of Vodou. The many conversations and lectures about Roman Catholicism I participated in and heard throughout my time in academia never included questions about its lavish ceremonies and vestments in relation to the wealth or poverty of the laity. Yet the ritual adornment in Vodou is often categorized as a showy demonstration of social status and improper spending, rather than an expression of religious beliefs
From the Introduction
A silk, sapphire-colored sheet was pinned to the wall behind the altar, decorated with scarves in varying shades of red and blue in honor of Ezili Dantò, the warrior goddess, protectress of children, and guardian of lesbians and gender-fluid people. Black female ceremonial leaders stood out among the crowd, allowing ruffles, excess layers of cloth, and embroidery to display their status in the room and to the gods. The fabric of their dresses was so voluminous that the skirts extended outward from the waist in a grand bell shape, echoing the aristocratic silhouette of bygone colonizers in a ceremony indebted to West and Central African ancestors in fashion, music, ritual, and spirit. To many, a Vodou ceremony is a feverish movement of bodies and the rhythmic beating of the yanvalou drums, but to Manbo Maude, a Vodou priestess in Haiti and the United States, it is also a celebration of ritual fashion. During this ceremony in Jacmel, Haiti, the audience was drawn closer by the lavish dresses, the coral blues and scarlet reds that sashayed through the room as part of the swirling fabric of the female practitioners’ outfits. People sucked their teeth in appreciation and shouted in joy. Bright head wraps covered the women’s hair. Many women wore makeup and ornate gold jewelry, with rings on every finger. The men, with freshly shaved faces, had ironed their crisp shirts and pants only moments before the start of the ceremony. The colors of their outfits complemented the dresses worn by the women dancing in the ceremony, completing the ritualistic tableau Manbo Maude envisioned for her temple.
In Haitian Vodou, the gods care about how they look. African Diasporic gods are not symbols: they are thinking, feeling, drinking, and talking entities in the lives and ritual practices of devotees. Spirits, or lwa in Haitian Kreyòl, shape the lives of practitioners through style, aesthetics, and adornment, investing in the physical presentation of their presence. They are, without doubt, vain. Nowhere was this vanity more evident to me than when interacting with Manbo Marie Maude Evans, a Haitian mental health clinician living in the United States who practices Vodou through numerous avenues, including card readings, possession, visions, and dreams, in both Jacmel, Haiti, and Mattapan, Massachusetts. Her title Manbo refers to a female Vodou initiate who has undergone training in ceremonial, spiritual, and ritual work. Through her and the Vodou practitioners who serve the spirits under her guidance, I explore how the spirits provide inspiration for religious dress while intervening in everyday situations in practitioners’ lives.
Manbo Maude’s temples are sites of innovation that reflect the dynamic relationship between race, gender, and sexuality in concert with religious ritual, material aesthetics, and spiritual embodiment. I assess Vodou and fashion through the senses because touching, seeing, and listening to fabrics are requirements for the production and use of spiritual clothing in Manbo Maude’s home. Over the past twenty years, scholars of religion have turned to the concept of sensory religions to account for the multisensory experience of ritual practices. In “sensational religion,” the senses are worthy sites of critical analysis, and religion can be investigated through the experience of the body. When the practitioner’s body is the focus of study, material and social contexts can illuminate behaviors, feelings, and beliefs. Just as the body is mutable, growing and aging with time, so too are the materials involved in ritual culture. Materiality contends that objects have meaning and that this meaning is given to them through the context not only of religion but also by the circumstances of devotees’ lived experiences. These objects are not passive. They are dynamic because of the messages they convey and the spiritual powers imbued in them by individuals and the gods. Adornment plays an important role in the critical analysis of individuals’ self-articulation as practitioners and as members of a religious collectivity, including their direct interaction with the spirits through possession.
African and African Diasporic religions continuously demonstrate the significance of multisensory and material objects and their impacts within the natural and supernatural, the profane and mundane, and the living and the dead. What are seen, felt, and heard in the production and wearing of religious clothing shape how people engage their faith through a sensorial concept I call spiritual vogue. I coined this term to address multisensorial ritual practices in Manbo Maude’s temples, as defined by the performative use of fashion to unify practitioners and connect with the spirits. Spiritual vogue is an interactive framework centering both the process of being seen through dress and the roles of touch and movement; it focuses on spiritual communication between practitioners and the audience through adornment practices. The spiritual vogue framework underscores fashion as a key example of the aesthetic ritual practices that animate African Diasporic religions like Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Candomblé, and Cuban Lucumí, more widely known as Santería. Through Vodou ceremonies, Manbo Maude’s body and those of her practitioners in Sosyete Nago function as ritualistically stylized individuals while simultaneously interacting with one another and the audience, influencing practitioners’ actions and the connotations of their performativity in service of the spirits. I argue that spiritual vogue depends on the interactive processes of three crucial groups, which are all necessary for ceremonies to function properly: the practitioners, spirits, and audience. Grasping the concept of spiritual vogue requires understanding that the presence of the lwa in Vodou ceremonies is not symbolic for many participants and devotees but real, and the legitimacy of these spirits has substantive effects on their actions and ritual practice.
The word vogue has multiple meanings, some of which are useful to the study of Vodou. Its meaning is derived from a French word for fashion. The term has come to embody sophisticated style in part because of the fashion magazine Vogue, which has approximately 1.2 million subscribers across the world and editions in more than twenty countries. “Vogue” is a popular term to describe style in general and is a part of our everyday lexicon in the United States and beyond. Queer Black and Brown people invented the concept of vogue as a dance performance in the transgressive, gender-bending spaces of Ballroom culture, dating back to as early as the 1920s in the United States. Ballroom culture and Vodou are vastly different traditions, yet they share the ability to offer a safe space where Black people can be seen as they want to be seen: both are capable of offering sanctuary.
The primary inspirations of spiritual vogue are the dynamism of Ballroom culture and the invention of vogue by Black and Brown queer people: these provide insights into performance and fashion that shape my perspective on Vodou and Vodou ceremonies. Scholar of gender and sexuality Marlon M. Bailey describes Ballrooms as animated by a fluid “gender system” that articulates gender, sex, and sexuality categories derived from the lived experiences of participants. An integral part of the gender system is the performance of these categories during balls in front of an audience, which, in combination with fashion, makes these categories legible for the community. I am not stating that the gender systems in Manbo Maude’s homes are as complex or transgressive as those described by Bailey, although some queer people do play important roles in her temples. To my knowledge, Manbo Maude’s homes are largely populated by heterosexual, cisgender people, with a much smaller minority of queer, transgender, and nonbinary people. The sex, gender, and sexuality norms in her temples are clearly more heteronormative and are not formed with queer people at the center. However, Bailey’s insights into the importance of the performance of gender provide a meaningful context for Vodou spaces.
As in Ballroom, gender dynamics within Vodou temples grow out of the lived realities of participants and reflect often complex relationships with gender, sex, and sexuality. As Bailey makes clear, identities in Ballroom are not produced in isolation. Instead, they are a product both of individual and communal representation, relying on “performance rituals” to construct expectations in a given community. Performance rituals are also an integral part of Manbo Maude’s religious practices, shaping interactions between practitioners, the audience, and the spirits. They are actions and events undertaken in service of communal cultural practices, expressing broadly understood ideals through the bodies of community members. These rituals affirm values and reflect the worldviews of the performers and of the spectators witnessing their display.
In Ballroom and in Vodou, performance rituals are drawn not only from the lived experiences of active participants but also from generations of cultural and religious continuities that stretch back to Western, Central, and Southern Africa: these long histories of enslavement, migration, and innovation show themselves through the intricacies of dance and fashion. The deployment of fashion is a primary link between these two spaces where aesthetic rituals connote ideas of community and power, emphasizing a sense of togetherness that combats the marginalization of the outside world. Ballroom is a unique culture, and yet the performance rituals performed within those spaces and the scholarship generated from its study have meaning for much broader trends in Black cultures. This holds true for the study of Black queer cultures more generally. Centering the insights gained from Black queer people and scholars illuminates previously overlooked parallels between African Diasporic communities, shifting conversations around gender, sexuality, and faith.
From VODOU EN VOGUE: FASHIONING BLACK DIVINITIES IN HAITI AND THE UNITED STATES by Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha. Copyright © 2023 by Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.org
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