By Karen McCarthy Brown
Comments by Bob Corbett
Until the publication of this extraordinary book, I believe it is fair to say that treatments of Haitian Voodoo fell into two categories. There is a huge collection of sensationalist books, mostly by Americans, which mix a bit of fact about Haitian Voodoo with a great deal of nonsense, exaggeration and misinformation. Much of this literature appeared during the American occupation (1915-1934), although one of the most notorious of all, Sir Spenser St. John's HAYTI, OR THE BLACK REPUBLIC, is a 19th century book by an Englishman. Mainly in response to these sorts of sensationalist and misleading works, the second category can be described as books which recognize Voodoo not only as the dominant religion of Haiti, but as a serious and legitimate religion, every bit as respectable as Christianity, Judaism or Islam.
Both these categories share one common feature - each describes the beliefs and practices of Voodoo in literalist detail, the first with the emphasis on the exotic beliefs and magical or erotic practices, the second with concentration on the beliefs of a milder set of religious practices, the "sweet spirits" of the Rada rites. In this sense both treatments of Voodoo are analogous to the most literal interpretations of Christianity, interpretations in which the believers accept and view each jot and tittle of the belief as referring to objective conditions and realities.
Karen McCarthy Brown's book is unique in my experience. While profoundly sympathetic toward Haitian Voodoo, it radically de-emphasizes the literalist interpretations of Voodoo and concentrates more on the meaning of the religion in the everyday lives of the faithful. The sense is that one might just as well regard Voodoo as a mythic system to guide one's life than regard it as making claims to the objective existence and participation of spirits in our everyday lives. Clearly the faithful of Karen McCarthy Brown's Voodoo are believers in the literalist sense. Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Margaux Kowalski, the Mama Lola of the title and more often simply Alourdes, is a Haitian mambo living in Brooklyn, New York. Brown started out visiting with her and studying Voodoo at her feet. Later Brown complicated the parameters of her study when she converted to the Voodoo religion and underwent initiation ceremonies under the tutelage of Mama Lola.
Brown's focus is two-fold, one more fascinating than the other. On the one hand, the bulk of the book is an analysis of the meaning of Voodoo in the everyday lives of Mama Lola's family, which is presented as a typical family of the faithful. The second focus is on the living, dynamic nature of the religion, which has to accommodate itself to the different environment of the immigrant experience of a Haitian family living in Brooklyn.
She approaches her subject both fictionally and anthropologically. In odd numbered chapters Brown recreates a fictionalized biography of Mama Lola's family, especially her Voodoo lineage which flows from her great grandfather, then the matrilineal line of her mambo grandmother, mother and leading toward the continuing tradition with her own Haitian American daughter, Maggie. The even numbered chapters present six lwa (Voodoo spirits) who are especially important in Mama Lola's life, and which illustrate the way the religion plays itself out in this particular family. Perhaps one of the strongest features of the book is the portrait of how Voodoo is family related, more a particular religious family than biological one.
In MAMA LOLA one gets a sense of the living reality of Voodoo, but not a systematic treatment of the literal elements-the nature of the priesthood, the rites and ceremonies and the pantheon. A reader wanting this approach would do better to supplement MAMA LOLA with one of the more scholarly and sympathetic books from category two. I might recommend James Leyburn's brief treatment in his famous 1941 book, THE HAITIAN PEOPLE. Mama Lola is a mambo, the priestess head of a small religious community and a healer. Brown claims that Voodoo is virtually 100% related to healing. I believe this is exaggerated, but certainly Mama Lola's personal Voodoo world revolves completely around healing or preventing illness and mischief on the part of the spirits. Born in Haiti in the 1930s, she migrated to Brooklyn in her late twenties. After first trying to ignore her roots, more because she had not succeeded in the U.S. than because she didn't maintain her faith or family love, a string of bad luck and illness forced her and her family to hurry back to Haiti to make their peace with the spirits. At that time Mama Lola realized that she was being called to be a mambo. Brown's loving and penetrating study follows Mama Lola over a ten year period. A minor theme running throughout the book is Brown's own spiritual odyssey dunr4, this period.
The central focus of Brown's MAMA LOLA is her interpretation of the role of Voodoo in the daily lives of the faithful. This view is completely consistent with a less literalist interpretation which Brown seems to emphasize at every turn.
Perhaps the best example of this is her own marriage to the spirit, Ogoun Badagris. During the course of the book Brown converts to Voodoo. During a particularly difficult time in her life, when she is undergoing a divorce and several other personal difficulties, she realizes that she has lost the courage and energy to run her own life. She has become passive, perhaps the victim of feeling so sorry for herself that she loses the confidence to act. Brown decides to "marry" the spirit Ogoun Badagris, a spirit who has precisely the qualities of assertiveness which Brown is lacking. But, at the marriage ceremony conducted by Mama Lola, when Ogoun Badagris mounts Mama Lola and Karen, the bride, enters into the room, Ogoun ignores her. Brown is confused, hurt, embarrassed. Everyone is watching, they know she is being ignored. Brown is forced to take things into her own hands, confronting Ogoun, gently but firmly berating him. for forgetting his bride.
What has happened in this event? Brown seems little interested in the literal story. Rather, these symbols provide her with the boost she needed in her life to recover from her "ritual malaise. She was forced to act with resolve, with aggressiveness, to take charge and demand her due. In the ceremony itself this played itself out by Karen finally seizing Ogoun and confronting him. She didn't let him ignore the bride any longer. It is the power of the religion to provide that sort of force in her life which seems to matter in Brown's account of Voodoo, not the literal description of the mounting and the marriage ceremony and other trappings.
MAMA LOA is also a book about women in Haiti. One of Brown's most penetrating analyses suggests that being a mambo is to embrace the lwa as a male substitute. Brown points out the place of women in Haiti - subservient to their men, often physically abused, living in an unfree, unsafe and uncertain environment, at the whim of their men's moods and desires. When a woman becomes a priestess she marries her main lwa. In the case of Mama Lola it is Ogoun Badagris, a spirit who provides the support to be a forceful self-reliant person. But in marrying a lwa the mambo leaves the difficult world of relating to a man. The spirit, while still somewhat capricious, is basically trustworthy, faithful, non-abusive and supportive. The fact that being a mambo provides her with some source of economic stability is a primary factory in the liberating nature of being a priestess. Brown suggests that even though Voodoo spirits, like humans, have both positive and negative aspects to their personalities, if one serves them well, as a mambo is likely to, then the odds are that the spirit marriage partner will treat her well in return.
Karen McCarthy Brown takes us inside the lived-world of Haiti Voodoo. This is not an account of facts and creeds. It is an intimate look into the private relationship of one Voodoo family, and especially it's leader, Mama Loa, with it's spirits. We don't see the exotic magic of the first category of Voodoo, nor the dry academic political correctness of the second. Rather, we live Voodoo as a vibrant life-directing force alongside Mama Lola and her family. When I am asked to recommend readings on Voodoo, this is now my first and primary recommendation, though I would recommend accompanying it by some other text that presents the drier and more scholarly account of the rites, creed and pantheon of Haitian Voodoo.
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