The Vodou Archive: Gonaives, November 2012
Our small team of researchers came to Gonaives in November 2012 at the invitation of Oungan Michelet Tibosse Alisma in order to document Gede ceremonies and Vodou practice in Gonaives more broadly. Michelet was born and raised in Gonaives and has since relocated to Miami where he runs a prestigious Vodou temple. Our group of visiting researchers was made up of Ben Hebblewaithe (University of Florida), Aimee Green (University of Florida), Eric Barstow (Duke), and Claire Payton (Duke). This website was created by Eric and Claire as a project for the Haiti Lab at Duke University.
Eric Bartsow is currently completing his Master’s of Fine Arts degree at Duke University’s MFA program in Experimental & Documentary Arts. He has placed all of his focus on filmmaking and understanding the process from beginning to end.
Claire Payton is a PhD student in the Department of History at Duke University, where she focuses on modern Haitian history. She is also the creator of the Haiti Memory Project, an online archival collection of interviews with Haitian earthquake survivors.
The Vodou Archive: Curating and Sharing the Sources of Vodou Religion and Culture (by Professor Ben Hebblewaithe)
This project seeks to improve the understanding of a central Haitian and Haitian American spiritual tradition by gathering the audiovisual and textual sources of Vodou communities, by interpreting what we collect, and by diffusing the knowledge via an open access website. The project is part of a long tradition of scholarly work stretching back to the early twentieth century that has sought to counter reductionist and racist visions of the religion through ethnography, analysis of visual culture and music, and an exploration of Vodou’s language and history. Such work has turned to the central texts in Haitian Vodou: its Creole-language songs. Building on Hebblethwaite’s (2011) Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English, this project focuses on making that knowledge available in Haitian Creole and English along with substantial interpretative scholarly apparatuses. The Vodou Archive will be the first extensive multimedia digital library to deliver a diversity of Vodouist perspectives and complement them with rich scholarly exegesis that situates the source materials in their national and international historical and cultural context. In the English-speaking world, Vodou sources are underserved and emerging areas of research. This project is launching an e-library that will fill major gaps in knowledge about the religion and serve as a springboard for research.
What is Haiti Vodou?
Vodou is the hereditary spiritual tradition of African descendants in Haiti (Jil and Jil 2009). Until the mid-twentieth century, when scholars and practitioners began writing down songs, Vodou was transmitted orally from elders to children and from priests to initiates. Vodou, or serving the lwa (spiritual beings and forces), is a religion, philosophy, culture, and way of life that mainly comes from two major regions in Africa: Dahomey and the Kongo. Dahomey was a large African kingdom and empire that lasted until 1892 and included parts of the countries currently known as Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, and Benin, the seat of its power. Dahomian ethnolinguistic groups were the most numerous populations in the early colonial period of SaintDomingue (c. 1680–1750; Bellegarde-Smith 2006). The second major influence came from the Kongo, which supplied the majority of slaves in the late colonial period (c. 1750–1791) (Blier 1995:83; Jil and Jil 2009:199; Rigaud 1953:26). Vodou songs and traditions are important historical records in their preservation of many African historical (i.e. Bosou, Achade), religious (Legba, Danbala), cultural (i.e. lwa, ounsi, ason, oungan), and geographical (i.e. Rada, Savalou, Boumba) terms. Although African influences are fundamental and tangible in Vodou, they are creolized or blended into a coherent Haitian religious and cultural system (Brand 2000:15; Michel 2006:30; Monsia 2003; Rouget 1991, 2001). This system is one among a series of such religions within the Atlantic perimeter—places like coastal West Africa, Bahia, Brazil, Haiti, Florida, and New York—where there are diverse groups that inherited, maintain, or adopted African religions and philosophies (Murrell 2010: 1). Vodou songs are a testament to the tenacity and creativity of the ancestors who taught and practiced these ancient traditions in the dreadful conditions of Saint-Domingue.