BOOKS & THE CULTURE Varieties of Religious Ecstasy From Voudou to Jimmy Swaggart BY ELISABETH H. PIEDMONT-MARTON AMERICAN VOUDOU: Journey into a Hidden World. By Rod Davis. University of North Texas Press. SWAGGART: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist. By Ann Rowe Seaman. Continuum Press. 448 pages. $27.50. Rod Davis and Ann Rowe Seaman, both former Austin residents, each spent a decade researching their new books by traveling some of the back-est of back roads in the American South. And by going to church. But they likely would never have crossed paths on their journeys into the dark eddies of religious practice. Davis’ object of study is voudou: the religion whose very survival depends on its ability to dissemble and dissolve into shadow. Seaman’s, on the other hand, is televangelism, and one of its most phototropic leaders, Jimmy Swaggart. Voudou is secretive and cultish, bodily, even orgiastic; it welcomes darkness, makes deals, and negotiates truces with inevitable forces of evil. It comes from the old world but has deep roots in the new. And perhaps most important, it belongs to black people. Southern evangelical protestantism is white. It seeks the bright lights of the media, implores members to resist the urges of the body in favor of the rigors of the spirit. It believes that triumph over evil is possible. When you get right down to it, though, both religions are in the business of reckoning good with evil, and squaring the flesh with the spirit. Davis’s American Voudou was a long time in the making. As he suggests in the preface, the gods took their time, but finally looked favorably upon the book’s publication. Having been orphaned by his original publisher after a merger, Davis has found a fortuitous home in University of North Texas Press, as the academic imprint both confers credibility and allows him to include extensive photographs, a glossary of voudou terms, and two appendices. Davis defines voudou as the broad category of “any of the New World theologies emanating from the Yoruba religion and kingdoms” in Africa. He explains that he prefers the creole spelling to the more common “voodoo” because it’s less freighted with centuries of “racial falsities and perversions.” Unlike Haitian or Santeria varieties, which are practiced fairly openly in some parts of the country, true American voudou has been driven underground by “centuries of its repression.” Despite concerted and protracted efforts, however, southern whites failed to exterminate the religion. Voudou proved both elusive and adaptable, taking on “as many guises as necessary to survive.” Its protean persistence proves to be the author’s greatest obstacle, and he recognizes that the search for the hidden world of voudou will take him down many paths: “hoodoo, root medicine, spiritual healing, juju, black magic, and dozens of other euphemisms and forms.” Consequently, Davis’ inquiry takes the shape of a journey with few fixed destinations. Perhaps taking a cue from his predecessors Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Deren, he adopts an ethnographic approach, and places his own perceptions at the center of his observations. He abandons the pretense of “objective” reporting and instead acts as guide, inviting readers to share his curiosity, skepticism, wonder, and fear. Both informed and open-minded, scared enough to be credible and brave enough to be interesting, Davis is an ideal narrator. He’s at his best in passages such as this one: I drove eastward across Louisiana to ward the Mississippi border, passing deep green maize fields and thick stands of hardwoods. It was a rare dozen miles that I didn’t come across a church: small or grand, brick or wood or aluminum siding thrown up for Baptists or Methodists, Catholics or Pentecostals, blacks or whites. It was Sunday afternoon and each church was a godly beehive not only to services, but to wedding parties, prayer meetings, picnics and Bible study. He brings the same convincingly sympathetic and keen eye to his visits with Cuban Santeria priests in Miami, African separatists in New York City, and assorted root doctors, healers, and seers he meets along the back roads of the South. Because it’s more than a travel narrative, Davis’ subject also demands a certain amount of exposition, and he delivers with confidence and economy. Citing primary as well as theoretical sources, he brings the scholarly work on American voudou to bear on his own observations. He clearly explains the process of syncretization, in which voudou gods become fused with Christian saints, thus providing voudou with safe camouflage and allowing both kinds of deities to preserve their own identities. Less convincing are his attempts to articulate a connection between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the practice of forbidden voudou: Were not preachers the leaders of virtu ally every struggle for black liberation in American history? Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, even Malcolm X all based their power on religious vision. Perhaps the religions they invoked were no longer called voudou, but their role among the people was the same: to bind society, to provide a forum for the spirit, to produce lead ers, to lead in struggle if necessary. Setting aside this political speculation, American Voudou is a marvelous road trip and a fascinating and painstaking piece of research. Davis, with persistence, preparation, and an amazing ability to inspire trust and confidence, takes us places few of us will ever go, and shows us a shadowy and fiercely defiant subculture whose rituals and beliefsand sacrificesoutlasted all the considerable ammunition white Southerners JULY 21, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
You May Also Like
The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.