How A Voodoo Priest Taught Me To Let Go Of Racial Stereotypes

Photo: Vera Petruk / Shutterstock
How A Voodoo Priest Taught Me To Let Go Of Racial Stereotypes
Self

You've seen the word, Voodoo, in the headline above. Now, ask yourself what is it about this word that makes you curious about the blog you are just starting to read? Are you interested in Voodoo, the religion, or are you intrigued as to what having a Voodoo priest over to one's house might possibly entail, due to assumptions you've made on what a Voodoo priest must look and act like?

And what is it that you imagine when you think of a Voodoo priest, especially one who makes a visit to a person's house? Bones? A funny hat? Animal sacrifice? Magic powder and zombie dust?

There's a very good chance that your first impression of Voodoo was created for you, thanks to a very racist Hollywood interpretation. What probably comes up for you is a stereotype, based on some white man's version of the black boogeyman archetype.

Let's go back in my history a bit. Right before I met the priest, I had taken an interest in Voodoo. Around 20 years earlier, I received a very intense vision, while enduring chemotherapy for breast cancer. I saw an old man — extremely old, standing at a crossroads in a large empty field.

He was balancing himself on a large branch, using it as some sort of walking stick. He had a congregation with him in this vision, and they were all beckoning me to sit in a chair — an infusion chair, where the main figure, the old man, would stir a pot filled with hot black oil — oil that he would feed me with a ladle. 

Throughout my chemotherapy, I would see visions of him, again and again — not animated as I did in my oil drinking fugue state, but still I'd see him on walls, in closets, peeking out here or there. I was always shocked by him, but never threatened. I knew there was something to this vision; I just had no idea what it was.

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When I saw this man I, like everyone else who is completely ignorant to Voodoo, immediately thought he was some sort of Pagan-earthbound priest, as the waking dreams were so spiritual in nature, so allegoric and symbolic. He was like nothing I'd ever seen before, but something told me that he was not only something that might be related to Haitian Voodoo, but that he, himself, may be a spirit — a loa recognized by the Voodoo community.

Years later, I found myself staring at a symbol and falling into it. I've always loved symbols and sigils — in fact, my entire life has been spent seeking out religious art and symbology but this one symbol I knew as a 'veve' really drew me in. It was so enticing and alluring to me, that without even knowing what it meant, I decided it was so beautiful that I had it tattooed on my back.

It was the Voodoo veve for the loa spirit they call "Papa Legba."

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And so, I reached out to the spiritualists I know to find out more about this Papa Legba, and it just so happened that someone knew a man in town who just happened to be a Voodoo priest who studied in Haiti and New Orleans. I called him, had a chat and asked him if he'd like to join me at my house for a sharing of stories.

He agreed and set aside the time for the first Monday of the month, as that was Papa Legba day.

He arrived, on time, books in hand. He's also brought with him a cigar, a handful of candy, a white cloth and a pocketful of shiny pennies. Together, we set up an altar dedicated to Legba, who I found out was the spirit of the crossroads, the entity that one entreats when they wish to speak to the ancestors. To entreat Legba, we sang songs to his image, offered him candy, cigars, and pennies, which he loves. 

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The priest lit a candle and began the Monday sermon — a song passed down to him by his Mambo, the priestess who took him on and allowed him to know all he knew.

He danced before the altar, completely engaged in his little tune. My presence did not inhibit his freedom in any way; he was there to share the blessing, to explain the loa to me, to give me some very special reading material and to discuss Legba's presence in both my life — and in his.

He wore nothing special, no fancy duds or jewels. In fact, everything about him was plain, sober, and kind. if not joyous. He was a Voodoo priest, yet he looked like a regular ol' guy to me. Could it be that someone of such great power and wisdom could reside inside a regular ol' guy, without a costume created in American Horror Story?

So, I asked him why Voodoo was perceived as such a scary thing. I told him that all I'd ever known of Voodoo was from the movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the few horrifying takeaway images. There was no cannibalism going on, no cauldron of human stew, no spears, bones or bloodcurdling screams here.

He said, "White people have always needed a boogeyman. Hollywood created the Voodoo boogeyman to bolster their racial prejudice against black people. Black people in film have always been portrayed as the bad guy, but all that started with the early Hollywood films. Voodoo is a religion, a beautiful one, filled with love, family values, and great respect for those who've come before us and the lessons they pass down. Those who practice Voodoo believe in nature and the spirits. We don't eat white people for lunch, and we don't wear their bones as necklaces to show our evil power. This is the gift Hollywood gave to the Voodoo community."

I told him about my chemo-vision of the old man and the walking stick. He said, "Yep, that's Legba. He shows up from time to time."

"But why during chemotherapy? And why did he feed me oil?"

"Because you were at the crossroads between life and death — that's where he lurks. Your vision took you to his realm, and the oil he prepared for you, it kept you alive. He was grounding you on earth, in your life, because you were not ready to die, even though you thought about it. The oil is a lubricant — he was making it easier for you to slip back into your life. You were not meant to die at that point, and on some level, you summoned him because you were at a crossroads: life, or death. He helped you slide back into your life."

After the priest left, I kept the rituals going, every Monday, and on Legba day, I would pour him a little rum, as a special treat. I devoured the books the priest gave me, and I still keep them right next to my bed. Now and then, I feel the skin of my back raise up a bit, as tattoos do sometimes.

When I feel Legba's ink rise, I know that at that moment, a choice is being presented to me: do this ... or do that. All things are spiritual choices to me now, and everything before me starts with a moment where I'm standing at the crossroads, watching the little old man wave his walking stick.

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Dori Hartley is primarily a portrait artist. As an artisan, she is a silversmith, a sculptor, a doll maker, a muralist, a faux painter and a costume designer.