Finding our way back to the religions stolen from our ancestors
It's not fair that so many of us have been deprived of the cultural traditions of our ancestors.
Not enough people know about Bois Caïman. I only learned of it myself within the last few years. Even among those of us who are familiar with the 18th century slave rebellion that led Haiti (once called Saint-Domingue) to its independence from French colonial rule, some do not know that this insurrection began with a secret Vodou ceremony.
Bois Caïman is the site where the seed was planted that would eventually grow into the Haitian Revolution. A black pig was sacrificed to honor Erzulie Dantor, a goddess associated with love and protection from violence, and the group made a pact with her to fight against the white people and denounce their white god.
It is said the ritual was led by Houngan Boukman Dutty. The following is the prayer attributed to him as he stood before the gathering:
“The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It’s He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It’s He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men’s god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts.”
Growing up, any religion outside of Christianity was considered “the devil” in my home and community. There was no other god. I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter or talk about the zodiac, and the pastor of my childhood church once spent an entire sermon ranting about a neighborhood woman who offered psychic readings, saying we needed to run her out of town. There was violence, repression, and fear of knowledge in the environment where I grew up, and it was learning the truth about our history that saved me from how miserable and inadequate I felt.
It was the interests I developed in college, studying history, media, literature, race, gender, and their connections, that eventually led me to the work I do now and to readings about religions like Vodou/Voodoo that do not demonize them. This is how I learned that the belief system carries deep cultural roots and significant meaning in Haiti and West Africa, and about how it helped lead enslaved Haitians to freedom.
Its integral use in birthing the successful Haitian slave insurrection has partly influenced white perceptions of the religion, especially among white Christians. Pat Robertson has alluded to the Bois Caïman ritual in order to demonize it, referring to it as a “pact to the devil’’ and citing it as the cause of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010.
Vodou, of course, is not the only religious tradition with roots in Africa to be demonized and misrepresented throughout the centuries. Much of the panic that prompted the infamous Salem Witch Trials was due to the white Puritan fears of Tituba, an enslaved Afro-Indigenous Barbadian woman, and her non-Christian spiritual practices which were quickly interpreted as witchcraft and dark magic.
Part of the main inciting event was the accusation that Tituba was teaching these practices to others and engaging with the devil. It was her forced, fantastical, and false confession that ultimately set everything in motion. The Salem witch panic was both gendered and racialized, and a product of white Christian colonialism, though retellings of or references to this historical event often overlook this point.
These things have been on my mind a lot lately, especially since I read about the “Slave Bible” now on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands, is its chosen title, stating clearly its intent for use in the area of the world that is the modern-day Caribbean. The Haitian slave rebellion culminated in their independence in 1804, and the first iteration of this “Slave Bible” was published in 1807, according to associate museum curator Anthony Schmidt.
Passages that might have encouraged enslaved Africans towards uprisings were intentionally omitted from these Bibles. Schmidt puts it into perspective by saying, “[T]here are 1,189 chapters in a standard protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232… What they’ve cut out is the story of the Israelites captivity in Egypt and their eventual liberation and journey to the promised land.”
I can’t say whether or not the Haitian slave revolts and the publishing of Bibles like these are directly linked, and I haven’t come across any historians arguing this theory in my reading. I can’t say whether or not the rebellion—one of many—and how Vodou was used in it sent waves of panic throughout the other Caribbean colonies and inspired the British to specifically work towards further suppressing African religious practices among the enslaved and forcibly converting them to a kind of Christianity that did not include stories about liberation from captivity. But I think it’s a fair connection to make.
White colonizers, enslavers, and capitalists have always conspired to keep Black and Indigenous people from uprising, and Christianity has been consistently used as a tool of white supremacy. We know how Christian enslavers in the U.S. used the Bible to subjugate and control the enslaved and how pro-slavery passages like Ephesians, 4:5 were often uplifted—“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”
Like I said, these things have been on my mind a lot lately. Especially after the killing of Christian missionary John Allen Chau by the Sentinelese people. His death has brought the violence of colonialism and Christian missionary work to the surface for people who haven’t been paying attention to history. The Sentinelese, estimated to have lived on their island for at least 60,000 years, are known as one of the last “uncontacted tribes” in the world, but there have been attempts to invade the tribe for centuries. Even 13th century traveler Marco Polo wrote in his journal about how hostile they were to anyone who approached the island—“They are a most violent and cruel generation who seem to eat everybody they catch.” Simply referring to them as an “uncontacted tribe” does not provide enough weight for the fact that they have been violently resisting colonialism for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years.
I envy the Sentinelese, and I celebrate them, and I’ve spent many hours sitting with that. I’ve spent many hours soaking in my own sadness about the fact that I don’t know more about African and Indigenous religions and belief systems because I was brought up in the American South, in the Bible Belt. It’s not fair that so many of us have been deprived of the cultural traditions of our ancestors, and I spend a lot of time considering what white Christian colonialism has taken from us, to the point where Vodou is even demonized in African countries to this day.
When I learned of the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman and how they called upon Erzulie Dantor, I sought out more information on her and other Vodou spirits. I learned that she is considered the patron of lesbians. She is a fierce defender of women and children, especially single mothers and victims of domestic violence. Her protections often come in the form of exacting revenge against abusive husbands and philanderers. A knife is her weapon of choice. She has two scars on her dark cheeks, which are believed to either be tribal scarification or the result of a fight with her sister, Erzulie Freda, the patron of gay men and drag queens.
Though I found this intriguing at the time, I wasn’t ready to come to terms with a queer Black goddess and her protections, or my own queerness. I had to spend some time unpacking all my trauma from a Christian indoctrination before I could truly begin such an exploration.
I used to think it was religion that traumatized me, but I’ve come to understand in recent years that it was the violence of the puritanical Christianity I was raised in. And even if I never return to religion, at least now I know there are knife-wielding queer Black goddesses.
Black millennials are moving towards embracing African and Indigenous religions and practices in large numbers, learning about the cultural truths we have been kept away from for too long. Cultural genocide has always been one of the most insidious parts of white supremacy and colonialism. Suppressing the religions of Black and Indigenous people in order to forcibly install Christianity has been integral to maintaining a system of institutional racism, and I’m proud to see that so many of us are intentionally finding our way back to belief systems more akin to what our ancestors practiced before it was ripped away from them. I hope we continue to embrace them and recognize that, in doing so, we honor those who came before us.