- Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881-1940 by Kodi A. Roberts
Voodoo is unquestionably one of the most distinctive features of New Orleans's cultural landscape. Despite all that has been written about Voodoo by researchers, and the myriad ways that Voodoo has been imagined by artists and writers, Kodi A. Roberts's study offers a fresh view of the religion. Uprooting fundamental assumptions about this mythologized tradition, Roberts situates Voodoo exclusively in New Orleans between 1881 and 1940, and he turns his analytical gaze from Voodoo's assumed African and Caribbean origins by investigating the practice as an indigenous American religion and spiritual industry. Challenging ideas about racial purity and the practice—notions that cast blackness as a definitive mark of Voodoo—Roberts traces Voodoo's interracial roots. He presents a historical account of Voodoo that is black, white, and indivisible from the structures and culture of white supremacy. Moreover, he depicts Voodoo, its spiritual forces, rituals, and "workers," as mired in the material world, innovating a spiritual economy whose primary valuation tools were money and power (p. 7).
The book unfolds in six chapters. Roberts surveys the various economic models that the city's workers used to build a Voodoo economy that thrived despite demonization and criminalization. From legendary workers Marie Laveau and Leafy Anderson—the visionary who brought Spiritual Churches to New Orleans in the 1920s—to the practitioners who navigated the Great Depression, Roberts unveils the pecuniary realm of the tradition. Roberts is at [End Page 446] his best when he probes Voodoo industries, tracking down workers and their business strategies such as institutionalization via Spiritual Churches, and experimentation with consumer trends like credit payment plans. Here Roberts finds workers conjuring rituals to attract money, discovers the power of money to ignite "the work," and reveals that even the soul could be bought and sold. His interpretation of Voodoo's earthly inspirations naturally leads to an examination of Jim Crow's influence on the tradition. Roberts follows Voodoo as it crossed the race line. Segregated cemeteries and waiting rooms; black and white workers and clients; spirits and saints whose ethereal guises mirrored the nation's racial construct; and black workers who claimed the power to attract white clients and to make remedies that trumped racism arejust a few examples. Roberts also dedicates a chapter to Voodoo and gender, arguing that the rise of female workers like Laveau and Anderson subverted the gender hierarchy, contending that men's and women's gender-specific woes encouraged workers to fashion treatments for their unique issues.
Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881-1940 is sure to enlighten scholars and students, but readers might also be left with questions. A more concise organization of the book's content could have reinforced Roberts's narrative. Those unfamiliar with Voodoo, and the practices that Roberts identifies as its equivalents, will not find a discussion outlining core tenets, deities, and philosophies organized under the Voodoo banner. Departing from popular survivals theories, Roberts moves between Voodoo, the Spiritual Church, and folk Catholicism, asserting that they were all a part of the same economy, without distinguishing between or connecting these strands. Roberts largely relies on folk collectors' records to track practitioners. His exploration of Voodoo's interracial past could be enhanced by a deeper examination of the assumptions and ideas that folklorists Zora Neale Hurston, Newbell Niles Puckett, Harry Middleton Hyatt, and Louisiana Writers' Project investigators—researchers he identifies as important agents who helped craft the idea that Voodoo was a black/African religion—brought to their studies. Similarly, an examination of the progression of the Spiritualist movement—which stretched back to nineteenth-century white women, the Fox sisters—might have strengthened Roberts's claims of Voodoo's interracial origins. Nonetheless, these points do not mitigate what Roberts has achieved in this important volume.