Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mama Lola A Vodou Priestess In Brooklyn

Misconceptions of a group’s culture can sometimes lead to prejudice and mistrust of an entire group due a mistaken view of that group’s culture. Haitians in the United States have been victims of fears and misconceptions due to the religious practices of vodou which are shared by a majority of the population, and also due to many other factors which include accusations of spreading diseases like rape and the poverty that many Haitians live under. Haitians who have fled this country in boats have also led to a negative view of Haitians. Cross-cultural research can help break down the walls between different groups and help gain a better view and understanding of a group with a different culture. The book that I chose for this report was “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen Brown. This book shows how removing the walls between cultures can not only lead to understanding between different cultures but also acceptance of the culture.

The book “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” while recognized primarily as an ethnography, tells several stories at once to form several interesting narratives. It not only contains the biographies of Mama Lola and some of her ancestors, it also gives an in depth look at some of the central characters of the vodou religion, and also some of the rites and practices of the vodou religion. The book also tells of Karen Brown’s story the author who is a White American and her growing involvement and initiation into the vodou religion. This also acts as a backdrop to talk about the growing Haitian presence in America, and the struggle of Haitians to keep their families and religious practices alive in America despite facing persecution and misunderstanding regarding their beliefs while still holding ties to their homeland in Haiti. Among the important themes of this book was in its telling of how vodou empowers Haitian women and gives them self assurance and self-reliance that makes Haitian women different from other women. And also the struggle for immigrants to hold onto their cultural values and systems despite living in a country that can be hostile to their cultural values.

The main story of the book relates to the story of Mama Lola’s life. Mama Lola’s life is very intertwined with her serving of the spirits and the book also thus contains an in depth look into the vodou religion. The story is not a complete beginning to end narrative as it starts off from one specific time period and in other chapters the narrative jumps to different time periods. This makes it at times difficult to understand what is going on in the story or to ascertain as to how and why certain things happened. Karen Brown also in some chapters writes of herself from a first person perspective while in other chapters she writes of herself from a third person perspective which can be confusing when it happens. Karen while making herself an important character in the story vaguely mentions certain problems going on in her life but speaks nothing further of it. The book is not her story but her bringing up of her problems would at least suggest a little more details about herself as she gets more involved with vodou and Mama Lola. This also adds to researcher bias as Karen is not a detached observer to most of the events she describes but also a willing and sometimes central participant in some of the events she describes. The book also in the account of the lives of Alourdes’ ancestors’ also seem very light in historical accuracy but are told in a way to focus on the morals of a story, which with the exception of the ancestors’ narrative strives for accuracy. The book strove more to describe what was happening while not spending much time on the results or success of what happened.

This book’s story is very personal to me, because although I was born in America I am a first generation descendant of Haitians. Many of the terms and perspectives held by some of the Haitians described by Brown are familiar to me. I can picture being in the houses and areas described both in New York and also Haiti. I am also a descendant of vodou priests from both sides of my family, and I easily picture and know the attitudes and thoughts of people like Mama Lola and the other characters. But, both of my parents are not into vodou and have never discussed any of the tenets with vodou with me so I am a stranger to many of the practices described by Brown. Vodou is often explained by Protestant Haitians as a religion of serving Satan. There is also a view that vodou itself is responsible for Haiti being as backwards as it currently is now. Vodou practitioners on the other hand have relayed a different view of this. This story not only opened my eyes to parts of Haitian history that are unknown to me it also expanded my knowledge of a religion that many of my family members still hold dear. It also helped to break down misconceptions that I hold about vodou and allowed me to come to a greater acceptance of a religion that if I was born in my homeland I would have had a better knowledge of. The book also helped me to see how vodou affects Haitian culture so thoroughly that it affects even those who don’t practice vodou. The vodou mindset in Haitian culture expands deep in basic Haitian culture even if you’re not into it, and that helps me to look at Haitian culture and vodou being intertwined. I never realized how much I had in common with the mindset of vodou practitioners as I always thought that my not being a vodou follower, I had very little in common with those who were followers.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has the highest rate of AIDS infections in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti has been beset by corrupt governments and insurrections ever since Haiti gained independence from France. Few Haitian leaders have ever managed to finish a full term in office without being overthrown or killed. Women in particular in Haiti face many severe problems from a high rate of child mortality to deaths in childbirth, rape, and many other problems. In a country where life is so difficult, many especially women turn to vodou for solutions with life’s problems. Vodou unlike many other religions actually empowers women instead of affirming a second class status. Women could be in charge of their own temple and make their own decisions unlike in most Christian denominations that do not allow women to take any kind of leadership positions. Mama Lola in her service of the spirits became an empowered women similarly to her female ancestors. In looking at lists like “The 100 Items of the Pancultural Adjective Checklist” (Matsumoto, p.153, 2008), we can see that many of the adjectives that are male associated can easily be used to describe Mama Lola. In religions such as Christianity women are taught to be subservient and wait on God or a man to solve their problems. In vodou women are taught that if they are seeking something they have to go out and get it their themselves. Before the women’s movement in the United States this would have been a radical idea in the United States. Karen herself born under the typical Western image of women must also change her mindset and become more of a go getter as she progresses in the vodou religion. The vodou religion also allows the women to view the world from a female based viewpoint. Mama Lola had a matrilineal view of her ancestry with only one male having an important role in her family tree. Mama Lola also expected her daughter to carry on her legacy and continue the family tradition. Mama Lola also followed the spirits her female ancestors followed and did not pay too much attention to the spirits followed by her male ancestors. There was acknowledgment of the male spirits but they were not as important as the female spirits, which mirrors Haitian society where many households do not have a male father figure around even though they are generally desired. The female spirits and the female priestesses do not have the time to sit around and wait for the effects they desire but they have to make a conscious effort to make it happen. Self-reliance and self-assurance are stressed for the women in vodou as well as Haitian culture in general. The women who must sell goods in the market to feed themselves and their families have no one to rely on but themselves and their spirits. An independent attitude must be fostered to know how to sell properly and keep others, especially jealous ones out of their business, similarly to how the female spirits foster an independent attitude. Vodou morality also does not condemn women for doing what they deem necessary to help themselves or their children. Normally under Christian moral guidelines women like Mama Lola would be wrong for committing prostitution or taking many lovers at a young age. Under vodou morality staying true to a person’s character is considered moral. For a person like Mama Lola doing whatever it takes to feed her children is morally acceptable under vodou.

One of the more interesting conflicts that Mama Lola and other Haitians faced in living in America is the loss of family ties and the struggle to maintain those ties. While vodou does promote the independent self and helping practitioners to fight for themselves, at the same time it acknowledges the need for interdependence. The spirits themselves are part of family groups that are important to them, and the followers of the spirits generally look for strong family ties. A big struggle for Mama Lola is to tie the religion that places so much emphasis on Haiti and the family members who lived there and bring it to America where those ties do not exist. In America also Mama Lola and her daughter Maggie are very tied together and feel entirely dependent on each other. Success and continued good luck is also dependent on remaining aware of doing what is owed to the spirits. While affirming independence to be successful in life requires a proper combination of independence and interdependence. Not having that interdependence either with the spirits or the family would only be disastrous in the long run.

Another perspective in which to look at the story is the larger story of immigrants keeping their culture in the face of adversity. Throughout the story it is frequently mentioned that Mama Lola and several other vodou followers keep their practices secret to avoid scrutiny. This goes in hand with Haitian culture where people with differing views to the status quo particularly in politics must keep their views hidden or face repercussions. Also in vodou itself, for large sections of Haitian history vodou followers had to keep their beliefs hidden. Under the French days of slavery, vodou was forbidden and followers had to cloak the religion. Into the days of Haitian independence vodou was also outlawed and shunned by the upper class and Roman Catholic clergy. Haitians thus had vast experience in managing to practice vodou while remaining undetected. So in New York, Mama Lola and other Haitians were well practiced in how to avoid unwanted attention. The 1980’s, the time period which was the time period when a large portion of the events in this book took place was also a tough time for Haitians in Haiti and America. Large numbers of Haitian refugees were fleeing to the United States on dangerous boats and facing repatriation to Haiti if caught. The overthrow of Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier only increased the number of refugees coming to America. Haiti received attention due to the large numbers of Haitians who had AIDS and political violence rocked Haiti in the late 1980’s. This news would leave to a negative perception about both Haiti and Haitians such as was shown to Maggie. Personally I can also attest in school in New York City in the 1990’s I can also recall myself and other kids being made fun of for being Haitians. It was a big insult to even call another kid a Haitian, and Haitians from Haiti were derided as boat people and other cruel terms. As shown in the story Mama Lola still maintained her practices and beliefs and considered it a great skill to be almost invisible with her practices so that she did not have problems with others.

Another method of analyzing this book is by using Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory of Development in analyzing the growth of Mama Lola. There was not even information given in the book to examine whether exosystem and microsystem had an impact on Mama Lola’s development. Macrosystem is especially useful in Mama Lola’s development. The larger cultural values and beliefs had a direct impact on Mama Lola. She absorbed the values and beliefs of her culture and used it directly to guide her life. Her entire outlook on life is guided by the value system she learned growing up. This affects her so much that it can realistic for Karen to call Mama Lola a Haitian living in America, while her daughter Maggie who spent the first 12 years of her life in Haiti was an America who grew up in Haiti. Growing up and living in Haiti had made too much of an impact on her to change even with living in New York for over 20 years. Haitian culture is at times a hierarchal culture with strong emphasis being placed on social class. Mesosystem can be seen in playing a strong role in Mama Lola’s development. Her interactions with her children, her religious disciples always showed and reaffirmed her status. She dealt with people in a manner consistent with what a person of status in Haitian culture would be expected to. Her role as the primary financial and spiritual power in her family obligated her to behave in her specific manner. The chromosystem component seemed to be of little value for Mama Lola. The changing sociohistorical influences in her life seemed to do little to change her. The political upheaval in Haiti and life in the United States actually seemed instead to strengthen her resolve and hold on to her culture and beliefs. Cultural change among Haitians and vodou is slow and near nonexistent.

The story of Mama Lola is not just the story of one Haitian voodoo priestess but also the story of Haitian lives in America. Haitians in America have faced adverse challenges in America while at the same time striving to remember their homeland and provide for family members still living there. Careful analysis of this story can lead to a better understanding of how to understand different cultures and break down walls that exist in America today.

Matsumoto, David & Juang, Linda. Culture & Psychology 4th Edition. Wadsworth, 2008.
Brown, Karen. A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn Updated and Expanded Edition. The University of California Press, 2001.

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