SESSION 5 – Thinking vodou: faith, the archive, the law

kyrah malika daniels, colin dayan, christina mobley, kate ramsey

MODERATED by Gina Athena ulysse

We cannot fully plumb the channels of meaning forged by peoples in struggle since times immemorial. We can, however, explore certain material factors that have contributed to the evolving symbol system manifest in Vodoun arts. Special attention must be given to the dynamics of transformation, inner tension, and the underlying constructs of action that are the essence of the present: the logic of underground realms. Subversive fumes, explosions of latency. Such an approach is revealing in light of Haiti’s present agony, and of its past. For in Haiti, the present is juxtaposed to a past of infinite complexity, in which crossroads seem ever re-encountered...At once the product of particular historical forces and the agent of this history, the Vodoun we examine is laden with contradictions. Born of revolt, it is also the descendant and defender of systems past. Its motor of advancement then lies in its being both product and agent; it has embryos of change within itself and within the broader society.
– Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, “Underground Realms of Being: Vodoun Magic,” in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou

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Kyrah Malika Daniels is Assistant Professor of Art History and African & African Diaspora Studies, with a courtesy appointment in Theology at Boston College. Her research interests and course topics include Africana religions, sacred arts and material culture, race, religion and visual culture, and ritual healing traditions in the Black Atlantic. Her first book manuscript (When the Spirit is Ill, in progress) is a comparative religion project that examines key ritual art objects used in healing ceremonies to treat spiritual illnesses and mental health conditions in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 2009-2010, Kyrah served as Junior Curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Following the earthquake of 2010, she worked in St. Raphael, Haiti with Lakou Soley Academic and Cultural Arts Center, a grassroots organization that develops arts-based pedagogy. Her work has been published in the Journal of Africana Religions, the Journal of Haitian Studies, and the Journal for the American Academy of Religion.

As a Black Atlantic religion, Vodou differentiates between knowledge and wisdom, particularly sacred wisdom (konesans). Konesans comes with divine responsibility, and refers to empirical knowledge from the physical world, as well as wisdom from the ancestral realm of spirits (Michel 2006). Notably, Haitians often exercise reservation in revealing Vodou’s privileged philosophiesRespecting this initiatory knowledge, how do we as native scholars and foreign academics acquire knowledge about religion? As cultural “insiders” and devotees, how do we discern what information, if any, should be shared with wider audiences? 

It is no mystery why Vodouizan appear reluctant speaking to foreigners. This mistrust reflects Haiti and Vodou’s long history of exploitation by Western researchers. Haitian healers, artists, manbo, and houngan all know that their cosmological insights will fatten researchers’ dossiers, while they remain anonymous “informants” with pseudonyms masking their identity and erudition. Respectful research methods informed by Vodou ethics indicate that to access protected knowledge, researchers must build trust in long-term relationships, displaying intentions to return with reciprocal gestures of appreciation.

Let us be clear: these knowledge bases are not “secrets.” Africana traditions have long been accused of keeping “secrets” from outsiders and non-initiates, as if everyone is entitled to sacred knowledge when they have demonstrated no commitment to community. Such concern suggests that the West assumes all (ethnic) knowledge to be open-access, as if wisdom ought to be downloadable for public access. And yet, traditions such as Vodou, grounded in sacred arts and proverbial riddles, keep both insiders and outsiders dancing to ascertain ultimate truths.

To advance Haitian Studies in the next century, we must adopt a Vodou ethics: acquiring (certain) knowledge while protecting sacred wisdom; respecting Haitian elders and youth as cultural experts, privileging indigenous and initiate perspectives, honoring and citing Black, Haitian, and women scholars, contributing meaningfully to our communities of study, and demanding justice for Vodou as a 21st century global religion.

Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her areas of study include American literature, English and French Caribbean Literatures, Haitian historiography, and American legal scholarship. She has published a considerable body of scholarship, including A Rainbow for the Christian West: The Poetry of René Depestre (1977), Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (1987), Haiti, History and the Gods (1998), The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007), The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011), which was selected by Choice as one of top-25 "Outstanding Academic Books" for 2011. She has also written widely on prison rights, the legalities of torture, canine profiling, animal law, and the racial contours of US practices of punishment for The Boston Review, The New York Times, The London Review of Books, and Al Jazeera America, where she is a contributing editor. Honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and fellowships from the Danforth Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Davis Center for Historical Studies and the Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton.


In the days before her untimely death, Rachel Beauvoir Dominique wrote me about her 9 dogs, sent her blessings to my dog Stella, and gave me advice about sevis for my met-tet, Danbala, the sweet snake god of the waters.  Dogs, gods, and rituals of naming: 

Gwo neg and Princess (husband and wife), their 4 first children: Tiegwoje, Titètbounda, Petite Fleur and Paolinha.  Then the last two kids, Tigrigi and Clementine, my beloved, who I saved from an early decease (runt).

It was fitting that for Rachel the fit service for the gods went along with a discipline of care for all living things, human or non-human, animal or vegetal.  The rules of the lwa, the breath of dogs, and law like love.  We talked about the concreteness of vodou practice, its obsession with details and fragments, with the very things that might seem to deny its force.  If she had been able to visit Vanderbilt, as we were planning, she might have discussed the law of the lwa or lalwa, a subject that has long fascinated me. But what we most wanted to talk about was how experiencing the life of the spirit might guarantee a politics that is both rigorous and visible.

The dead do not die. There is no beyond in the Christian sense, but rather a broken and obstinate communion between the living and the dead, as well as the tugs and turns with those entities that are not human. Sensation, the inexorable demand to be present, sets the terms for how we talk about creaturely experience that upsets the sensible or the reasonable—and the mean and monopolizing spirit such legitimacy masks. Let us continue this conversation, and commit to the rituals of living creatures, the law of the living, the law of the skin: ways of knowing that shove us into the gap of not knowing. 

Christina Mobley specializes in the history of slavery in west central Africa and the Caribbean with a particular focus on the Kongo zone and Haiti. Her book manuscript, "Vodou History: the Kongo History of the Haitian Revolution," uses a sociolinguistic methodology to investigate the trans-Atlantic history of the Kongo men, women, and children who endured slavery in Saint Domingue, helped win the most successful slave revolution in history – the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) – and founded the first black republic, Haiti. To get beyond the silences in the written archive, Dr. Mobley draws on non-traditional sources such as Vodou songs and language itself to recover the history of Africans in the Atlantic world. Dr. Mobley is a passionate advocate of collaborative research across disciplines and institutions, especially as it relates to Africa and the African diaspora. She was the founding co-director of the Global South Humanities Laboratory at U.Va., where she directed collaborate digital projects with undergraduate and graduate students. She is the creator of the Atlantic Worlds website and contributor to the Digital Library of the Caribbean’s Haiti: An Island Luminous project, Duke University’s  and Edouard Duval-Carrié’s collaborative art project Haiti: History Embedded in Amber.

It is such an honor to comment on this important passage from Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, whose wisdom and generosity taught me so much. As Rachel rightly asserts, during the Haitian Revolution, the institution of Vodou helped Africans from disparate regions to both come together as one while preserving the specific cultural grammars of their worldviews. Vodou was and is a means of turning isolated individuals into a community. In this way, it is the antidote to slavery as a state of alienation. As a cosmology, it both unites and also recognizes the variant worldviews of its small, cohesive communities of belonging in the nanchon or Vodou nations. Its very existence is therefore an act of resistance, a statement of collective humanity in the face of dehumanization, of collectivity and power in the face of oppression. Before, during, and after the revolution, successive generations of elites criminalized Vodou to coerce and oppress the believing population. In so doing, they implicitly recognized the power of resistance embedded in Vodou knowledge and practice.  Vodou is thus both the “product and agent” of this history, but Vodou is and always has been more than the sum of its parts. 

As Rachel put it so well, we can never “fully plumb the channels of meaning forged by peoples in struggle” but we can “explore certain material factors that have contributed to the evolving system manifest in Vodoun arts.” During my time in Haiti, Rachel helped me to understand how the songs and rituals of Vodou serve as a repository of African language, langaj, practice, and popular memory. The “Vodou archive” is a powerful source that can be used to recover histories of Africans silenced in the archive and then to use those perspectives to re-read that archive to recognize African ideas and worldviews coded in European misconceptions. This act of revealing and making legible non-European histories and, with it, non-European ways of knowing and being, represents the ultimate fulfillment of the emancipatory history of the Haitian Revolution and the direct achievement of Haitian Vodou.

Kate Ramsey is Associate Professor of History at the University of Miami. Her first book, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (2011) won the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians First Book Prize, the Elsa Goveia Book Prize from the Association of Caribbean Historians, the Haitian Studies Association Haiti Illumination Project Book Prize, and a Médaille Jean Price-Mars from the Faculté d’Ethnologie, Université d’État d’Haïti. Ramsey is co-editor of Transformative Visions: Works by Haitian Artists from the Permanent Collection (Lowe Art Museum, 2015), and co-curated the 2014 Lowe Art Museum exhibition of the same title. She is the recipient of a 2015-2018 UM College of Arts and Sciences Gabelli Senior Scholar Award.

This remarkable passage synthesizes some of the most important themes and arguments of Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique’s writings. How people in struggle forge “channels of meaning,” how they link their struggles and meaning-making across time, how to practice a scholarship and pedagogy of solidarity. Invaluably for us, these lines are also a statement of approach. “Special attention must be given to the dynamics of transformation, inner tension, and the underlying constructs of action that are the essence of the present: the logic of underground realms.” What is clear is that Rachel’s is a methodology of the kafou, integrating multiple temporalities as well as disciplinary fields. Objects, medicines, songs, rituals, stories, architecture, names, dates, landscapes — all are places of memory, palimpsests of and portals into “a past of infinite complexity, in which crossroads seem ever re-encountered.” Reading her writing here as elsewhere, we can see a Vodou ethos shaping such insights. “At once the product of particular historical forces and the agent of this history…[Vodoun] has embryos of change within itself and within the broader society.” The transhistorical reach and transdisciplinary rigor of Rachel’s scholarship, the extent to which her work integrally links the archive with the knowledge and memory of people in struggle today — all are unequalled. The spotlight in this passage on temporal simultaneity and cultural dynamism connects to another vital dimension of her work: the vision of “un musée vivant et un centre culturel axés sur une compréhension rationnelle de ce passé et de ses enseignements" (See “Fondation pour la Préservation, la Valorisation et la Production d’Œuvres Culturelles Haïtiennes"). Rachel’s commitment to creating, conserving, curating, analyzing, rethinking, and caring passionately for collections can be a guide for us, both in supporting collections in Haiti and in decolonizing museums lot bo dlo — necessarily joint and ever more urgent projects.