by Veroneque Ignace, Founding Artistic Director of Kriyol Dance! Collective.
Building scholarship around Vodou and it’s practice is a beautiful thing. To uplift the philosophies that inherently exist in afro-indigenous practice — through the same academic industries that have raised prestige from dismantling those very philosophies — is just dope. It should always happen. Because black and indigenous folk been woke and everyone should know it.
But, even as I write those words something about all this has always concerned me.
In the past two years, I have had the opportunity to meet brilliant actors — writers, teachers, artists, activists, and Vodouyizan alike — who have all supported the idea that remnants of Catholicism in Vodou practice today are purely the result of colonization. They’ve supported the idea that access to scholarly writing and convening about Vodou is somehow the same as access to life-long sacred practice and communities. They go as far as to feature ritual practice in spaces that are devoid of any spiritual root or connection - academic conferences, predominantly white institutions, museums...
This scares me.
I am scared because I feel that there is a large part of what makes Vodou - my faith and practice - whole is going missing. The thing I’m worried we’ll all forget is: ancestors lived their spirituality the way they did for a reason. I do not believe that anything they accomplished was by chance nor by sheer whim of appeasing a colonizer. If we can agree on that, then we can agree that any reference to today’s Vodou practice as that which uplifts a white colonizer and degrades black identity is a slap in the face.
Let me be clearer.
Vodou, a living oral history, teaches me that my heritage is powerful. That my ancestors put their roots down in Haiti and built communities where folks supported each other through spiritual growth and maturity. There are ways of knowing that get passed down that speak to our place in nature and our ability to access nature’s power. These ways of knowing, though, have always, also spoken to the existence and power of a creator. Certainly, not a creator in the image of a racist jawn, the dieu blan, but a creator who built the landscape that we benefit from - that sustains us.
It is this understanding - this deep seated belief - that keeps me in fellowship with anyone with an awakened consciousness. It is that same belief that ensures I have no interest in having the “my-belief-is-better than-yours” conversation.
That said, the current conversation and movement to perform a version of Vodou practice that is for stage performance, or devoid of any mention of a creator, or that paints folks that pray litany as mindless, does a disservice to various oral histories that have shaped our practice today. In other words, there has never been a “right way to do Vodou,” Ritual practices can change from region to region, house to house, and family to family. Yet still, there has only ever been a common way based on shared foundational understandings that I, you, and divine are in harmony because we exist - because we are (in) nature.
Academia makes all this worse.
The ability to theorize and string together complex sentences is not what brings value to the existence of our practices. If you believe we have been this dope as Afro-indigenous folk, then you have to also believe that describing that dopeness is a gift and not you elevating anything.
There is a difference between what is theory and what is practice. Be careful.
For example, a scholarly paper on why Vodou should be stripped of all talk of saints and angels because of colonization, is a great theory, but it isn’t law. It’s a mistake to use that scholarship to dictate how we should (or shouldn’t practice). Brain exercises are not always soul exercises.
While there is science in our practices, there is no real hard proof of how things should be. Everything stems from an oral history. Our ancestors have passed on the trade of being… a historian.
Teachings of Vodou exist via generations and generations of folks acting and sharing, teaching and re-learning. Likewise, a colonized mind, as folks say, gets supported from lessons inherited. Does this mean that the two are one and the same?
I don’t think so. And, I believe to tote this as fact is a mistake. In fact, it is an insult to the communities that support the idea that we all are spiritual in nature. In attempts not to trivialize the point, I want to offer that a photo of a white Ezili Freda does not take away they fact that she is Negrès (#blackandqueening). Also, perhaps a statue of St. Michael the Archangel exists because someone just hasn’t created a brown version. In any case, the sacred arts we spend so much time delving deeply into are not the things that make Vodou; it’s the belief behind it all that make it. The belief that affirms that when we pray and practice, we have left these physical limitations and transcended space and time.
I’m writing this in September 2019. This month makes Lakou Societe St. Michel Archange 142 years old.
Officially formed in 1877, Societe St. Michel Archange is a community and spiritual Vodou temple in the capital of Haiti. It is a community hub for the people who live on Rue Magazine de L'etat in Downtown, Port-au-Prince.
A true "lakou" - or communal living system based on land, family, and spirituality - Societe St. Michel Archange maintains its age-old traditional practice while also attempting to be a center for community advocacy, change, and shared resource.
The space has been passed down from generation to generation to ensure that its practice persist, its community thrives, and its relationship to family and love never ceases to exist. After the passing of my dad, Wilfrid Ignace, servitor-in-chief, artist, and Sérénissime Grand Maître of the Freemason brotherhood, in 2016, I, inherited the space and all that came with it.
Each year we celebrate our little longevity in the face of social, political, and geographical threats to the physical space. It’s been 4 years since my Dad participated in this celebration. So I write this piece with him in mind. I hope that it offers some insight to the brilliant diversity in thought and practice that exists in Vodou. I hope it reminds us that when we create scholarship on this topic, we are talking about an active part of someone’s life; we are not discussing a people that is silent and extinct.
As I continue on my journey as a scholar, believer, and practitioner, I aspire to always be accountable in this way. I hope you all do too.
In 2017, the temple celebrated its 140 year anniversary and in honor of this, Veroneque Ignace endeavored to create an official archive documenting Ignace family history, ways of engaging the space, and more. This work is being produced in collaboration with artist-architect Nathalie Jolivert.
Sak Rete Ou? (What's Stopping You? in Haitian Creole), holds space for reflections, meditations, poetry, video blogs, and capacity to captivate readers through creative writing. To the question, sak rete ou?, we respond "Nou Se Kriyol!" (We are the Children! in Haitian Creole), implying and calling on the strength, kindness, and revolution of our Haitian ancestors to move forward!