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Reviewed by:
  • Vodou Haitiano. Espîrito, Mito E Realidade ed. by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Claudine Michel
  • Elisa Larkin Nascimento
Vodou Haitiano. Espîrito, Mito E Realidade. Edited by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Claudine Michel. Pallas Editora: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2011. (Translation into Portuguese by Amanda Orlando of Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, Reality, edited by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Claudine Michel. Indiana University Press; Bloomington, 2006).

“If you belong to Axé, say you do!”

This book arrived in Brazil at a moment when the social forces of African religion were engaged in a campaign to encourage their faithful to identify as such in the 2010 Census. Stigma and opprobrium marked the path of these religions and their people, targets of social, religious, economic and police persecution over centuries in all the Americas. In Brazil, until 1974, houses of Candomble had to be registered at police [End Page 304] stations. In this context, the faithful established the habit of identifying with the official religion—Christianity—when questioned by authorities. Thus statistics reflect a tendency parallel to that of demographic data: the underrepresentation of religions of African origin corresponds to the underestimation of the black population that resulted from social stigma against dark skin color. At the end of the twentieth century, the campaign “Don’t let your color pass for white” helped encourage people to assume their black identity. Today’s census data reflect this fact: 51.5% of the population identifies as black (“pardo” or “preto” in the Census jargon).

By hiding their religious identity from the powers that be, the faithful of black religions were adopting an attitude of protection—protecting themselves and their communities. This stance is not strange to theology of African matrix, in which protection often comes with what is secret. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of these religions, in comparison with official ones, is that they are not evangelical; they do not seek to convert. Their houses of worship receive, accept and shelter those who seek or are willing to follow the teachings needed to delve deeply into the relationship of human beings with cosmic mystery. Salvation is not their concern because they do not postulate original sin or guilt. Rather they occupy themselves eminently with the ethics of social and environmental responsibility as a prerequisite to mutual and collective protection. The place of the secret in this ethical universe distinguishes it from the public morality of civil society. Mystery, or what is secret, merges with protection in two senses: protection of the individual in his or her existential journey and protection of the community in its social life and in its relationship with nature.

Haiti and Brazil have cultural and historical aspects that at once converge and differ. Like all countries of the Americas, they both were forged in the violent process of enslavement of Africans and genocide against Native Americans. Thanks to these peoples’ capacity for resistance and renewal, Brazil and Haiti, like the other American nations, bear current and dynamic witness to cultures and civilizations that the West subordinated and used multiple tools and strategies to repress.

For a long time these cultures and civilizations received the West’s attention as objects of study, something exotic and curious for being outside the norm of “true” civilization—that of the West itself, raised to the status of “universal” by force of arms and colonial imposition. Only recently has this Western ethnocentrism been challenged critically by those it sought to exclude from the category of “universal humanity.” Shamans and diviners—considered ignorant and primitive—won their voices and took [End Page 305] the floor, producing knowledge in the proper academic form. Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, Reality brings us the reflections of creative thinkers and social scientists, practitioners or authorities of Vodou, mediated and enriched by their mastery of scientific discourse.

Haiti differs from Brazil in one fundamental event: the African population as protagonist and the force of its religion helped Haiti to free itself much earlier from the formal colonial yoke. The Haitian Revolution, which in 1804 founded the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, began in 1791 with a Vodou ceremony in Bwa Kayiman led by Boukman Dutty with...