Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

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Hearing, Writing, and Reading Voodoo: 
Cultural Memory in Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams and Voodoo Season
Tatia Jacobson Jordan

August 2008

 “Grandmère, my mother, my daughter, and myself—we were all named Marie.  This story is in all of us.  Be sure to write everything down…Voodoo is worth remembering.”
–Marie Laveau in Voodoo Dreams

 

     Jewell Parker Rhodes acknowledges that Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau is “a cousin to Zora Neale Hurston’s work in that there is an African American folklore experience embodied in Voodoo” (Rhodes and Ramsey 3).  Her contributions to contemporary fiction in tackling both Voodoo and Marie Laveau as subjects in her work go deeper than simply using a folkloric subject as fiction, however.  James Clifford argues:  “The time is past when privileged authorities could routinely ‘give voice’ (or history) to others without fear of contradiction” (7).  Writing about Marie Laveau evolved from oral legend to the Works Projects Administration (WPA)’s written accounts, to Hurston’s inclusion of Laveau and her “nephew” in Mules and Men, followed by fictional portrayals of her in Robert Tallant’s The Voodoo Queen in 1956 and Ishamel Reed’s The Last Days of Louisiana Red in 1974.  A twenty year gap ensues before Rhodes resuscitates the languishing Laveau legend by penning Voodoo Dreams in 1993 and then Voodoo Season in 2005. These novels rank significantly in the evolution of the Laveau legend as it progresses from the 1880s to the twenty-first century.  Only within Rhodes’ tome is Marie Laveau read as a feminist triumph:  an increasingly spiritually and economically successful Voodooeinne, forced to overcome all too realistic racial and gender limitations in antebellum Louisiana.  She is given voice and motive and through this characterization as she informs us of the spirituality of Voodoo while mired in the truth of the black Atlantic:  the French, Caribbean, African, and American potpourri of New Orleans. 

     Flesh and blood Marie Laveau lived in antebellum and post-bellum New Orleans, her life spanning eighty years of the transformational nineteenth century from 1801-1881.  Laveau’s heritage consists of Caribbean, African and Native American on her mother’s side, while most researchers speculate that her father was a white landowning New Orleans citizen.   Because of her position as a Voodooeinne and a powerful public figure, Laveau and her legend persist in polarizing public opinion.  Oral legend states that Laveau was both socially and politically active and used her standing as a Voodooeinne to “protect the vulnerable, heal the ailing, free the enslaved, and bring calm to the chaos that had become New Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase” (Plant 102).  Barbara Rosendale Duggal writes that in records from the WPA, one woman states that she doesn’t know whether Laveau was good or bad, but she was “powerful” (163). Laveau “is said to have traveled the streets of New Orleans as though she owned them, counseled the socially elite of both sexes, won every case she took to court, influenced city policy, borne fifteen children, grown rich, and died in bed (though legends hold she was reborn young again to reign as queen some twenty years more), all as a woman of color in the ante- and post-bellum South” (Duggal 163).  According to Carolyn Morrow Long, the real Marie Laveau was a landowning Voodooeinne, the primary queen of New Orleans from the 1820s to the 1870s, who served a racially integrated male and female clientele, many of whom were white elites that paid her well for her services, allowing her to build wealth (84, 93, 118).  Marie also had a prison ministry from 1850 to 1870 (Long 163). In another non-fiction account of Marie Laveau by Ina Johanna Fandrich, The Mysterious Voodoo Queen:  Marie Laveau, Fandrich laments Robert Tallant’s default position as the definitive source of Voodoo in the twentieth century because of the misinformation he perpetuated (3).  She also relies heavily upon oral legend when it comes to analyzing Laveau’s importance.  As a result, she attributes Laveau as being more powerful in her community than Long does:  “Although stigmatized as a woman and a person of color and thus excluded from holding public office, narratives and eyewitness accounts seem to indicate that it was she who reigned over the city, not the municipal authorities” (1).  She looks at Laveau as part of a community of black women, particularly of “African or racially mixed origin with strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church and a deep commitment to the spirits of their ancestors” (2).  As Fandrich recently attested in an interview, Laveau was an “urban healer […] known for being the most powerful person in 19th century New Orleans.  People from all walks of life ended up at her doorstep to consult with her” (Calongne).   She also acknowledges the space that Laveau carved out for herself:  “unlike white women of their time who were restricted to a life in their homes, most free women of color could not rely on male protectors or providers and had to draw from their own strength as independent individuals.  They participated actively in professional life” (222). This is particularly true of Laveau, whom both scholars agree owned property (Long 107).  According to several theories, Laveau’s daughter may have impersonated her, or resembled her to such an extent that many citizens of New Orleans remember Laveau’s work to have extended even after her death; thus, a tale of the two Maries continues to be told.  Fandrich’s work on Laveau underscores how oral accounts of Laveau strengthened her legend as compared to the census and property records that Long focused on for her book.  It is within these oral and fictional accounts that Voodoo’s role in this society is illuminated, Laveau’s expertise allowing her to prosper even in the midst of racial tensions and blatant sexism. 

     Oral records written down during the WPA indicate that Laveau was larger than life, and more than fifty years after her death, still fervently talked about.  Laveau’s importance lies not in the truth of whether she was a political activist or an emancipationist, legendary tales that Long disputes in her search for strictly factual evidence about Marie Laveau (211).   Rather, her continued relevancy rests in what she represented to hundreds of free and enslaved African Americans in nineteenth- and twentieth-century New Orleans. These illiterate non-citizens were faced with an America that increasingly denied basic rights to people of color. In 1900 in the U.S., forty-five percent of African Americans aged ten years and older were illiterate (Carby 126). Therefore, to discount what passed through oral legends is a mistake, for meaningful rituals, traditions, and stories were “read” as heard by the recipient.  Zora Neale Hurston began the story of the fictional written Laveau. Thus, although Rhodes adds to a field where several others researchers and writers have tread, she hears the legend, writes it, and allows us to truly read a heretofore absent African American subjecthood for Laveau, recognizing a fictional void where cultural memory belongs, and filling it.

The Portrayal of Laveau in Voodoo Dreams         

     Rhodes’ major contribution to the Laveau legend is her historicization of Laveau as an African American female in the antebellum period.  Though Marie grows up in the small bayou of Teché, her awareness about race develops as a result of her immersion in New Orleans society.  Her first encounter with the reality of New Orleans as a slave owning state as it existed in antebellum America emphasizes how the African American woman’s color marks her as public property. Marie, as a free African American, encounters the white racist Antoine on her first visit to the city from Teché.  In the bustling life of the city, she, and others like her, are treated as property and as sexual objects in the public marketplace, not with the respect accorded a white woman.  Entering the city for the first time, Marie sees Antoine who grabs her and interrogates her as to her status:  free or enslaved.  Unfamiliar with being treated in this manner and ignorant of the implications of attacking a white man, young Marie “scraped and scarred him with her nails.  Blacks in the crowd gasped at her courageous folly” (47).  This act of violence motivates Antoine to whip Jacques Paris, the man who steps in to save her from certain death.   After this encounter, Jacques tries to educate her on how to negotiate the New Orleans’ racial atmosphere, and Marie thinks she “had never sensed, like now, the brutality of slavery.  She hadn’t seen, smelled, or heard the misery” (59). 

     Writing a Laveau tale that for the first time addresses the historical reality of racism as it must have affected Laveau speaks squarely to the literary tradition of Zora Neale Hurston. One of the major criticisms Hurston faced as she penned Mules and Men was this charge by many of her peers of an apparent lack of awareness “of the period’s racial politics” (Duck 273).  In her celebration of African American culture, little mention of racial inequalities exists.  Likewise, Robert Tallant’s portrayals of Laveau never mention race as an obstacle to his Laveau character.  By incorporating this depiction of racism, Rhodes informs us of the reality that Laveau faced.   Nowhere was the irony of the democratic liberalism of the new republic worse than in the American south during this antebellum period where neither free nor enslaved blacks were able to achieve economic independence, a cornerstone of liberalism.  Evelyn Glenn argues that race and gender are “fundamental organizing axes of the labor system” and that this labor system both “creates” and “recreates race-gender categories and relationships,” a situation that characterizes early America as well as the antebellum period (56).   In this way, race and gender almost become interchangeable, inseparable reasons to exclude people from citizenship and paid labor.  Though historians have shown women were in the workforce in early America, women’s labor was seen as a threat to “men’s post-Revolutionary project of reconstituting their own ‘independence’ in market culture” (Nelson 36).  As such, women were used, along with blacks and “others” to reinforce a national idea of manhood—exclusionary white manhood (Nelson 37).  These scholars emphasize that race and gender were categories used to exclude African Americans, particularly females, from paid labor. By attaching this reality to her story, we see the importance of what Laveau overcame as an economically successful Voodooeinne.

     In this account, we see how Marie must find and embrace her racial and cultural heritage by relying on the memories of others, and in spite of the racism and sexism she encounters, both of which are intricately intertwined. With her mother gone, and her Grandmère to raise her, Marie fights for ancestral memory at the beginning of the tale:  “For hours, Marie had stared at the squiggly veins in her hands, trying to imagine where the crazy quilt of blood all went.  In the mirror, she couldn’t see Creole or mulatto.  When she pinched skin, she couldn’t feel Indians stirring in her veins.  Tales of slavery were as distant as Grandmère’s Bible characters” (17).  We also see the lack of choices Marie has as a female.  With no real future set before her other than to marry and have children, Marie feels constrained by her gender.  Grandmère pressures her to marry young because of her memory of slavery (27), a legacy Marie acknowledges in her journal dictated to Louis DeLavier:  “Marie is a slave name” (164).  The adults surrounding Marie constantly attempt to silence her.  Education is not an option for Marie who has grown up in the world of Teché. Her suitor, Jacques, although in love with her, still sees her as an object, someone to fulfill his desires, as when he tells her that “lovely girls don’t need to talk” (74).  Later, when tutoring with Doctor John while learning Voodoo, he tells Marie she is “nothing,” and that “women” are “worthless and stupid” (322-3).  Doctor John, as he was called in real life, is portrayed in Voodoo Dreams as a mentor whose abuse Marie must confront as she attempts to be the first woman in her family to overcome the abuse she has suffered at the hands of a man.  His account in this novel is truly fiction; no evidence exists that he was the controlling lover of Laveau as portrayed here, but instead illustrates the wider point of the pervasive level of abuse as a form of sexism that existed in antebellum New Orleans and elsewhere in the south at that time.  

     Sexism also affects how Marie views Voodoo.  Marie’s true heritage illustrates the transnationality of Voodoo:    “Creoles veined from the line of French royalty.  Mulattoes veined from the line of an African Queen.  And Muskogean warrior veined to make the stew wield power” (16).  Integral components of Caribbean and African Voodoo honor the female gender.   Marie Laveau finds that Damballah, the God of Voodoo, favors women (127) and honors them as creators (145).  Voodoo pays tribute to Marie as a black and as a female, unlike Christianity where the common perception exists that all the saints (gods) are white and male, except for Mary, the mother of Jesus.  We see in these pages just how Voodoo morphs from a Haitian and African religion to merge with Catholicism, illustrating that Voodoo serves both individual and collective black identity in the South:  “For many, Voodoo was an escape from the daily brutality of their lives […] For others, Voodoo was salvation. With gods who acted human, people felt less alienated” (212).  In this way, we see a lesser known aspect of how Voodoo evolved in the south as well as how closely connected its appeal is to the reality of race and gender.

     Being a female and African American plays a crucial role in exactly what the gods or God can offer a woman like Laveau as she struggles with her Grandmère’s wishes for her to become Catholic.  A main component of the Code Noir that was instituted in 1724 included the enforcement of Catholicism, because Voodoo was perceived as a threat:  “To prevent Voodoo outbreaks in New Orleans, all blacks, especially Dahomeyhans and Haitians must be baptized and taught the Catholic faith” (Code Noir 221).  A number of Voodoo participants have been shown to be practicing Catholics.  This truth appears universally in all Voodoo literature of the south.  This amalgamation of religions existed even earlier in Haiti because of similar threats with Haitian slaves that instigated the Code Noir there in March 1685:  “All the slaves in our Islands will be baptized and instructed in the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion…We forbid any public exercise of any religion other than the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman; we wish that the offenders be punished as rebels and disobedient to our orders” (Du Bois 50).  Recent scholarship has proven that the integration of both religions occurred in other places within the circum-Atlantic as early as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Atlantic creoles played a prominent role in this religious consolidation during the height of the slave trade in charter communities.  Here, the deities were also an amalgamation of both African and Christian (Berlin 255). Including the truth of the black Atlantic as its cultural beliefs evolved and tying it to the Laveau legend, we see exactly how New Orleans fits within the larger transatlantic arena.

      Marie’s Grandmère eventually converts from Voodoo to Catholicism because of the implications of living in America, where white is privileged and the African culture remains suppressed.  We see her loss of cultural beliefs when she details how she cannot worship the black gods anymore:  “now she prayed to white Gods”; Black gods have no power” (41).  Grandmère concedes her cultural heritage to avoid the war that she sees coming between blacks and whites.  In pre-Civil War America, the racial tensions are palpable and get increasingly worse toward the turn of the century.  As a result, both she and Marie convert to Catholicism.  Accordingly, Grandmère must overcome her negative feelings towards the white gods in order to become a Catholic: “Her slave mother had taught her there was life in things, African spirits in wood, iron, and the sea.  But she prayed to people now.  White saints.  Statues with eyes, noses, and mouths.  Why not?  Whites had always been more powerful” (34).  For Marie, the allure of Voodoo lies partly in its ability to represent her, not the values of a white society of which she remains excluded:  “she knew white saints must be powerful; Grandmère wouldn’t honor them without reason.  But Marie was interested in other types of spirits—spirits who might listen to the pleas of a black girl needing her Maman” (108).  For the first time in fiction, valid explanations exist that historicize the religion, illustrating why Laveau chooses to become a Voodooeinne.  In earlier accounts, as in Tallant’s, her decision rests wholly on her stubborn beliefs in “jungle” superstitions (3), or never even enters the narrative.   In lieu of the transplanted laws of the Code Noir that were imposed and enforced by white lawmakers, Voodoo as a transnational religion speaks to a woman sharing its heritage:

Voodoo was and could be a “mixed blood” stew, the right faith for a new World and a New World Voodooeinne.  Had it even been called Voodoo in Africa?  Or was it descended from another faith that was transformed as the slave trade went from African to the Indies to the Americas, transformed as Africans themselves altered in color and language? (297) 

As Voodoo evolves in the new world, Marie embraces its combination of both Voodoo and Catholicism.  Wanting in part to recover the lost language of her great grandmother Membe, a slave transported from Africa to the new world, Marie converts to Voodoo.  Membe visits her as a spirit guide in the novel, explaining her sorrow at the loss of her language and culture when transported to America.  Membe’s beliefs as she comes to America through the middle passage as heard in Marie’s dreams help transform her into a Voodooeinne (341).  By practicing Voodoo, Marie feels she honors her heritage. 

     By hearing Voodoo and then writing Voodoo as a source of both cultural pride and spiritual nurturing for Marie, Rhodes positions it within its original historical context as a religion, a revision that refutes much popular conception of Voodoo as a cult or devil worship.  Much of contemporary popular conception of Voodoo dwells on its hoodoo elements, magic and spells, rather than its religious origins in the Caribbean and Africa. This capitalistic aspect of Voodoo has been a source of contention in historical accounts of Laveau, as both Tallant and Martinez, male authored accounts, show her capitalizing economically on weaker patrons. Hurston, in Mules and Men, posits Laveau’s nephew, a fictional Luke Turner, as a genuine practitioner of the religion, and this plays a large part in Hurston’s decision to undergo a Voodoo initiation ritual.  In the nineteenth century and earlier, Africans and Haitians viewed Voodoo as an avenue toward spiritual growth, a genuine religion. Voodoo practice in Africa was a very serious endeavor.  To be a functioning member, you had to go to a “religious learning center” and be immersed in the religion (Muliri 38). Voodoo in both Haiti and New Orleans is like other religions in that its participants seek to operate on a higher spiritual plane in a predetermined meeting ground that always includes an altar, prayers, songs, drumming and dancing; its objective is spiritual communion with the gods (Duggal 160). Much of this religious significance is lost in contemporary culture.

             Strong evidence exists among social scientists that Voodoo practices produce positive results in its adherents, a sentiment that has existed in research for several decades (Bartkowski 560).  Yet, since Voodoo’s inception in this country and in Europe, pop culture has added to the negative conception of this religion (ibid).  Unfortunately, there have been more swindlers and posers in the twentieth century than ever before.  Patrick Bellegard Smith relays that by the end of the nineteenth century, Voodoo had undergone many changes in New Orleans.  Leaders who reigned after Marie Laveau proved incapable of holding the followers together.  Most citizens of New Orleans, like the tourists who ventured into the city, knew Voodoo only as a magical act, hoodoo, which was less centrally organized than Voodoo. Subsequently, many practitioners did not emphasize the worship of African deities or Voodoo dances to any significant degree (56). The practice of Voodoo began to be pushed even more underground as emancipation prompted a flood of new laws including an 1881 ordinance forbidding public gatherings, an 1887 state law which allowed for healers to be prosecuted for practicing medicine without licenses, and an 1897 ruling against “fortune telling” (Long 128). 

     This anti-Voodoo sentiment has worsened since the 1980s when phrases such as “voodoo economics,” used initially by George Bush Sr. to describe supply side economics, became integrated into popular lexicon.  “Voodoo” carries negative connotations in front of any term as a prefix, more recently seen as a slur on President Clinton’s proposed healthcare plan in the 1990s; “voodoo healthcare,” used “trickery” “lying” and “gimmicks” (Bartkowski 567-8).  As such, Rhodes’ novel, penned in the 1980s and published in 1993, re-envisions Voodoo in the midst of this negative usage in American-speak.  Wayde Compton, in his comparison of Voodoo in contemporary authorship, agrees that Rhodes’ portrayal of Voodoo focuses on the spiritual (490). Rhodes takes Hurston’s aims further, then, by attempting to disprove the negative portrayals of Voodoo by envisioning the religion as decidedly more spiritual than many have before her. 

     Here, Laveau appears as first and foremost a community healer.  Since Rhodes’ fictional revision, researchers like Ina Fandrich have also posited Laveau as a healer.  Ample accounts of Laveau as healer existed in the oral legends, and Tallant also describes Laveau helping the yellow fever victims.  Yet only this fictional account gives motive for the healing aspect of the legend. Laveau’s motives consist not of avarice or manipulation, but are truly altruistic as a result of her concern for her community and as an outpouring from her religion.  She starts her ministry to heal the sick, to help the helpless.  This healing ministry also appears as a family legacy, once again stemming from the transnational origins of Voodoo, as many of its healing components counteract traditional Western medicine.  Much is mentioned of Marie’s Grandmère as being a healer: “Villagers left offerings on the doorstep: a piece of string, a twig, a lock of hair.  When they were ill, they begged Grandmère to lay her hands on their wounds and sores.  They swore she had the power to heal in her fingertips” (101).  Nattie tells Marie that healing is her family legacy: “‘Same business your Grandmère do now,’ she said with studied nonchalance.  ‘Roots, herbs, and such.  Delivering babies, animal or human.  Preventing sickness.  Your Maman and Grandmère be well known in New Orleans.  They cured many people’” (102).  Not confined by Western ideas of healing, Marie heals others with charms and spells, but more frequently with healing words.  The people within this society often seek healing and need healers (113, 189).  Marie feels a responsibility to heal the downtrodden in her community: 

Marie winced.  Her faithful followers were raggedy black men, poor mulattoes and downtrodden slaves, and sad bourgeoisie of free coloreds. Nonetheless, Marie felt a strange, unfamiliar pride that among the white sinners her own people were reaching out to her.  She felt a deep joy that black people seemed to be needing and loving her. (357) 

Another type of healing occurs as she helps Jacques after he has been poisoned and tortured. Marie becomes a spirit guide and helps lead Jacques to Damballah; she helps him to believe in African gods and after he dies, guiding his soul over the water to the motherland (366).  In all of these ways, healing as a service to her community serves as Laveau’s primary motivation, a much more positive detailed portrayal of her than has been previously seen.

     As a feminist text, there is no question that Rhodes presents Voodoo as matriarchal in the novel.  Historically, females were drawn to Voodoo more than males, with many researchers stating that 80% of Voodoo participants were women.  Researchers debate the actual numbers and insist that both men and women participated equally as leaders.  Barbara Duggal argues that Voodoo was attractive because women needed each other for spiritual and social purposes, an obvious response to the racial and sexual oppression.  White women were society women, also with few rights, and blacks were either slaves or economically oppressed, as well as generally mistreated (Duggal 172).   In other words, “barriers of race, class, and culture” were not barriers when it came to a common “spiritual sisterhood.”(Teish qtd in Duggal 173).  When we see what an equalizer voodoo was in this context, that moments of shared sisterhood often proved more powerful than the racial and gender barriers of the South, it more clearly magnifies the way that Voodoo brought people together.  There is some disagreement between historians as to whether Voodoo in Africa and Haiti was historically matriarchal.  Most accounts agree that never in Haiti or Africa did the Queen hold power as Laveau held power in New Orleans. Before Marie Laveau, Voodoo was a combination in New Orleans of reigning kings and queens (Bryan 107-8).  Before the turn of the century, Voodoo power was equally dispersed between the queens and her many assistants, most of whom were male (Duggal 170).  Rhodes does make a point of writing Voodoo purposefully as a matriarchy, as she alludes in an interview (Rhodes and Ramsey 9). Marie Laveau’s reign as queen and her portrayal here underscores the power she held, uncharacteristic for an African American female, even within Voodoo.

     Not only a matriarchy, Grandmère, Marie I, and Marie II function as a female trinity,.  Throughout the text, Marie searches for a mother, not a father (42,198, 223).  Marie’s life and that of her Grandmère and mother closely resemble Christ’s ministry in the Bible.  She is a healer who draws large crowds (141).  People look to her for salvation (257).  There are moments in the text where Marie refers to herself as having experienced a “rebirth” (119).  Marie dies and comes back to life during the text (305) and then walks on water (307).  Similarly, her mother was whipped to death by a mob and hanged on a crucifix (143, 337).  Much of Marie’s life, and the history of her mother and Grandmère, mirror a matrilineal revision of Christianity. This purposeful revision illustrates how Voodoo honors women as creators and healers in the tradition of what Hurston began with Tell My Horse.  In Rhodes’ account, maternity is much more of a rite of passage to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a female, and passes down from woman to woman a belief system that gets stronger with each generation.    Pregnancy and birth, as celebrated in Hurston’s Tell My Horse, are here equally empowering.  Rhodes creates a Voodoo matriarchy that shows the religion as an avenue of growth and independence for women, a reimagining that neither fiction nor nonfiction authors had yet shown.  

     The spirituality of Voodoo is one of Rhodes’ greatest contributions to this legend.  Marie fights against Doctor John’s desire to theatricize the ceremonies:  “Everything was theatrical.  In each ceremony she had to fight her way to spirituality.  She fought for some sense that her life wasn’t corrupted.  There was a Voodoo that existed beyond John’s interpretation and influence” (302-3).  At the beginning of her Voodoo career, Marie tries to create the Voodoo performance extemporaneously. Eventually, through Damballah, Marie begins to experience a real faith, a real belief: 

Yes, she exulted.  Damballah was filling her up, augmenting, not suppressing, her identity.  The relationship was symbiotic.  Damballah was the wise one, making her feel powerful, sharing secrets of creation, encouraging her to shed old images of herself…Everything was a cycle.  Time and earth and sky would heal. Everyone and everything would be reborn. (156)   

Laveau believes in a spiritual belief system within Voodoo, something her mentor, Doctor John, does not understand.  John reads her as a fake, as though he is feeding her the lines that she needs in order to succeed.  When Marie asks him:  “Don’t you believe something special happens to me? Something beyond belief?” John answers her: “Fantasies.” (205). Marie must overcome Doctor John not as a male, but Doctor John as a perpetrator who twists the religion of Voodoo for his own capitalistic purposes and robs Voodoo of its heritage, its spirituality.  For this reason, he must be overcome.  Like Hurston, Rhodes shows an authenticity within Voodoo, illustrating how true practitioners of Voodoo existed in America alongside corruptions of Voodoo.  Doctor John’s type of Voodoo (333) ultimately plays into its popular negative conception, as it is driven by capitalism.

     Voodoo Dreams truly helps us visualize the role that Voodoo and Laveau played in the New Orleans community, as well as the continued significance of including a Laveau character in fiction.  Through reading this fiction we are pulled into the process of hearing Voodoo as it has been heard for centuries as cultural memory. Through fiction, memory and imagination intersect to create a string of characters that come to self through Voodoo by embracing their cultural heritage, the language and religion of their ancestors, and in doing so are able to heal themselves, ultimately healing others within their communities. 

“Je Suis Marie”:  Laveau Lore in the Twenty-first Century       

            In Voodoo Season, Rhodes continues to both hear and write the Laveau legend, including another Marie Laveau figure named Mary Lavant, a Jacques Paris, and an evil doer like Doctor John.  Set in twenty-first century New Orleans, Dr. Mary Lavant moves into a neighborhood in New Orleans and works at a hospital for the indigent locals.  Through the course of events, Mary discovers that she descends from Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen.  The real Laveau again comes alive in fiction.  Looking at a painting of Laveau, Mary describes her:

The woman was banana colored.  Thick brows.  Full lips.  High cheek-bones, perhaps from a native descendant (hadn’t some Louisianans mixed with Choctaws?).  She had long, black hair; her body was rounded, curved.  Her arms were open, inviting the supplicants, the frenzied dancers close. (171)

Mary as a modern healer, a medical doctor, has the ability to heal beyond human capabilities because she possesses the sight, something she only knows as intuition until she follows her mother’s spirit to New Orleans, this city “that care forgot,” and meets people who can tell her of her gift:  “Spanish, Latin, Cambodian, a Creole patois, staccato Cajun, even the drawl of a backwoods South” (16).  Working at Charity hospital, she helps the down and out, the lowly of society.  Antebellum New Orleans has transformed into the global south, and Mary carries forward Laveau lore as she heals humans or animals, whichever happens to cross her path.  In the tradition of this lore, her mother is dead, and Mary yearns for love and a child, just as her great Grandmère, Marie Laveau, did in Voodoo Dreams.  We find out in this first book of a planned trilogy by Rhodes that Mary’s mother is Marie Laveau’s granddaughter who escaped from Teché in order to avoid Laveau’s evil descendents.  Pregnant with Mary, her mother moves North and becomes a domestic servant.  The economic model of the Laveau legend holds here, as well, as Mary becomes a doctor, not only to become a healer but because she will be financially secure, escaping the domestic servitude of her mother and the brutal poverty which enmeshed her childhood.

            In these characters, Rhodes recreates the Marie Laveau legend with modern prototypes of the lore.  Christianity and Voodoo are again mixed in the beliefs of Mary and Reneaux, her policeman lover and friend who helps her solve the murderous crimes in this New Orleans mystery. Like her great grandmother, Marie merges her new found belief in Voodoo with her faith in Christianity (194).  A Priest tells her that God has enough room for both belief systems:  “The older I get the more I see symmetry.  Reconciling of contrasts.  Opposites.   Everything has its season” (196).  Rhodes continues her quest to show the positive side of Voodoo, as we hear Reneaux tell her the history of the religion: 

Everybody in New Orleans believes in voodoo—most believe it’s evil, like the Hollywood garbage of ‘goats without horns,’ black folks sacrificing white babies.  Or like the erotic, racist view of white masters believing slaves had loose morals, and voodoo was ‘night dancing,’ a prelude to sex.  Only a few…believe in the real voodoo, the helping and the healing.  White culture has denigrated African-based faiths until most modern folks want nothing to do with them. (172)

Instead of the subtle fashioning of the spirituality of Voodoo that we see in Voodoo Dreams, here the lines between good and evil are more obvious; the choices are clearer.  Mary is embroiled in a mystery:  young pregnant women are awash in the emergency rooms, dead, for no apparent reason.  In an effort to uncover the cause and ultimately stop these murders, she teams with Reneaux.  Many of the characters are Christians who believe in the power of Voodoo.  Once again, the entire Atlantic world is in play, as not only is the setting in transnational New Orleans, but Caribbean and African folk medicine specialists are brought in to help solve the murders (175). As is customary in the Laveau legend, the serpent plays its role, and the importance of the serpent within Voodoo is discussed: 

Religions from the African Diaspora all value the snake as knowledge, all-knowing, an infinity and fertility symbol.  White Christians bemoan that a snake tempted Eve in the Garden.  But in voodoo, the same myth is a cause for celebration.  Snakes represent knowledge.  ‘Knowing” is what keeps you safe, strong.  What good is Eden with ignorance? (175) 

This explanation adds to Voodoo Dreams as another reason why many felt that Voodoo and Christianity merged together are stronger than either alone.  Just as in Voodoo Dreams, Mary must discover that her heritage of healing comes from voodoo.  DuLac, a Voodoo Priest, tells her that she has healed herself, and as such, she can now heal others: “Since you were a child, you’ve been preparing.  To be a healer.  That’s what voodoo is—healing bodies, souls, and minds” but only when she “understand who [she] be” (176).  Here we see the first order of Voodoo:  Mary must heal herself to be able to heal others spiritually.  In order for her to do this, DuLac gives Mary her great grandmother, Marie Laveau’s, journal.  As in Hurston’s Mules and Men, we see the importance of passing on words and the cultural remembrance inherent in Voodoo when chants and songs are spoken.  By the end of the novel, Marie’s words have power.  In this way, through Voodoo, cultural memory gets transferred from nineteenth-century Voodoo ceremonies through the fictional tale of Laveau.

             Marie Laveau from Voodoo Dreams resurfaces as a spirit guide to help Mary Lavant to heal and to prove her faith.  In her first test of healing after she learns of her Voodoo heritage, Mary heals herself.  For her next healing, she heals Reneaux (243).  As in the Hurston tradition and in Voodoo Dreams, a line exists that distinguishes those who are capitalistic about the religion and those who believe in it spiritually:  “Laveau’s descendents chose to do good or evil, to be charlatans or healers” (248).  By including this recognition, Rhodes continues with this emphasis on authenticity that Hurston began in her discussions of Voodoo in Mules and Men. Those who practice evil include Marie’s aunt, who kills with Voodoo.  She and Allez are presented as those who corrupt the faith for their own purposes, including making money.  As in Voodoo Dreams, the snake kills Allez (aka the abusive Doctor John character), thereby showing how the snake represents the antithesis of its image within Christianity.  This novel recreates the entire Laveau legend in all its glory, while more explicitly spelling out Voodoo as a cultural heritage.  In the end, the murders are solved and the killing ends because of Mary’s ability to heal her self, help heal her community, overcome the abuse of Allez, and find and embrace her lost cultural heritage. 

     Rhodes, in a world of homogenized din, points to the hodgepodge assortment of cultural traditions from Haiti, Africa, and America within the matrix of New Orleans to bring the global south into perspective.   Everyone is of “mixed blood,” and mixed religions.  Dichotomies do not exist in Voodoo; In Voodoo Season, the line between good and evil may be more obvious but it is razor thin, and both are present in the same blood: the Laveau lineage.  One scholar points out a major difference between the ideas behind Voodoo in both Haiti and Africa versus the West: 

Dichotomous assumptions framing the western spirit—black or white, good or bad, civilized or primitive, Christianity or Satanism, the French or Haitian language—were not shared by many Haitians, which stymied a more encompassing vision in which rules were on a sliding scale, reality and survival brooked compromises, morality was situational, and people understood themselves always as part of a linguistic, religious, sexual, and racial continuum. (Bellegard-Smith 54)

In this way, a Voodoo text works against dichotomies, breaking down those categorizations that are so appealing in the Western tradition.  In an effort to deconstruct this idea of the West, we can “transcend the philosophical tradition which tells us that divinity, humanity, and nature are three completely distinct categories” (Duggal 174).  Both of these novels accomplish this goal.  In Voodoo Dreams and Voodoo Season, we see how Catholicism merged with Voodoo traditions to create a healing faith.  We see how popular conceptions of Voodoo can be misleading, that ultimately there are cultural traditions and beliefs informing those practices. The spirituality and humanity of Marie Laveau both receive emphasis.  Rhodes’ contribution to fiction brings back to our memory the integrity of the practice of Voodoo.  This feminist revision illuminates how the African American female is honored in the Voodoo tradition. 

     For Marie Laveau, then, to rise in Voodoo, to prosper economically and to own property underscores the dynamism of her moment and her accomplishments in the antebellum American south.  It also illuminates for a modern reader how powerful and necessary the vision of folkloric Marie Laveau was even after her death in 1881 post-Civil war, when “the rights gained by people of African descent were followed by ever more repressive Jim Crow segregation and racism in the 1880s and 1890s” (Long 183).  It may be just this moment of racism that propels Laveau to her meteoric rise in folkloric tales.  At the fin de siècle, Laveau’s fame appears to grow in inverse proportion to the racism attempting to clamp the liberal democratic ideals of citizenship, suffrage, and paid labor opportunities.  For these reasons, we see the importance of invoking a Laveau figure into a piece of fiction, for as a feminist figure, both literally and figuratively, she possesses the ability to transgress the public and private boundaries that appear so rigid for women in this period.  Marie Laveau, who allegedly bore ten children, is a figure who legitimately or legendarily possesses the ability to transgress these boundaries by being a mother as well as running a business that led to her continued economic success. Crucial for this examination is the recognition that Marie Laveau is able to locally transform herself, from a non- citizen to a citizen, from certain economic failure to an economic success, a decidedly strong female figure. When nations collide in the fictional figure of Laveau, she challenges the racial and gender constructs that confine the African American female.  This liberating figure speaks specifically to those accounts that have attempted to feminize or sexualize her economic success, something that is not an anomaly, but a true historically accurate depiction of the nineteenth century. An article published in the New York Times in 2003 entitled “Interest Surges in Voodoo, and Its Queen,” tells of a woman named Jackie who was diagnosed with a potentially deadly case of meningitis:  “Rather than resign herself to her fate, she boarded a train to New Orleans—her illness does not permit her to fly—and made an offering at the tomb of Marie Laveau” (Kinzer 1).  Having made a full recovery, Jackie then made another trip to the tomb “‘to close the circle’” (ibid). As with many subjects foreign, unfamiliar, or alien, we often let fear prevent us from a true understanding.  One does not have to practice Voodoo, or become initiated in its beliefs to understand and acknowledge its relevancy in the lives of millions.


 

Works Cited

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Tatia will complete her PhD in American Literature from Florida State University in April, 2009. Her areas of interest include Transatlantic American literature, nineteenth- and twentieth- century African American authors, and Caribbean literature. Her dissertation, "Fashioning and Refashioning Laveau in American Memory and Imagination" traces the explicit and implicit Marie Laveau figure as it originates from folklore and into twentieth- and twenty-first century fiction.

Tatia teaches American literature, women's literature, and composition classes at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. She also works at the literacy arm of Florida State University, The Florida Center for Reading Research. Tatia lives in Tallahassee and enjoys the south, having obtained her previous degree in Literary Studies from Georgia State University in 2004, but loves to visit her birth city, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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