From Sun Jan 26 15:00:17 2003
Date: Sun, 26 Jan 2003 11:52:19 -0600 (CST)
From: Bob Corbett <>
To: Haiti mailing list <>
Subject: 14606: Bellegarde-Smith: Article on Vodou Researcher Elizabeth McAlister

From: P D Bellegarde-Smith <>

Religious Rituals

By Jeffrey B. Cohen, The New York Times, Sunday 19 January 2003

ELIZABETH McALISTER tries to keep talk of her own experience with voodoo out of discussions of the religion itself, because as a white American, her history with the religion is bound to be so atypical, she said.

So as an assistant professor in the Religion Department at Wesleyan University, the wife of a Haitian man, the mother of an adopted Haitian daughter and a follower of the religion herself, Ms. McAlister has to find a balance between the personal, the professional and the academic.

I’m not here to exalt the religion nor am I here to denigrate it, Ms. McAlister, 39, said in an interview in her office. I’m simply here to elaborate and educate and interpret.

It is the education that is often wanting in a society for which vodou—the Caribbean spelling of voodoo that she prefers—means a sinister, primitive black-magic activity filled with dolls, zombies, snake handling and a whole bunch of other crazy stuff, Ms. McAlister said.

Voodoo is a religion developed by Africans forced to leave their homes behind and work as slaves on Haiti’s sugar plantations. A broad religion with millions of faithful and countless forms of worship, voodoo incorporates some African belief systems with aspects of Catholicism and is known for its saints, its ceremonies, and, unfortunately, its sensationalization, Ms. McAlister said.

Part of my work is about recognizing there’s a religious tradition at work here with elaborate religious rituals that can be compared and contrasted to other world religions, she said. However, part of that involves care taking to some extent. It does involve correcting the public’s understanding.

Ms. McAlister was first introduced to Haitian culture in the 1970’s by her father, George, a civil rights advocate who opened a community center in his hometown of Nyack, N.Y., to serve a growing Haitian population.

As a student at Vassar College already interested in things Haitian, Ms. McAlister joined a few friends in Haitian percussion lessons. Soon we were playing voodoo ceremonies in New York, I was an anthropology major and I recognized this as a fascinating moment of religious migration, she said.

Ms. McAlister earned her doctorate from Yale University in American Studies, an interdisciplinary degree that enabled her to see phenomena in multifaceted ways, she said.

That is the approach that Ms. McAlister said she and like-minded colleagues bring to the study of Haitian culture, particularly Rara, the six-week Lenten festival about which she wrote her first book, Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora (University of California Press, 2002).

Nobody understood that it had such deep levels of meaning, nobody understood that it was a religious ritual, she said. They called it a #8217;country carnival,’ and it was thought there wasn’t very much to say about it.

But indeed there is. In her book, Ms. McAlister writes that: Rara festivals are a number of things at once: they are musical bands, carnivalesque crowds, religious rituals, armies on maneuvers, mass political demonstrations and performances of national pride.

Prof. Leslie G. Desmangles met Ms. McAlister when they appeared together on Phil Donahue’s television program in the late 1980’s. Since then met, the two have collaborated several times, and Mr. Desmangles—a former president of the international Haitian Studies Association and a professor of religion at Trinity College—has kept abreast of her work.

Hers is really the first serious study that’s been made of Rara, said Mr. Desmangles, a Haitian native. Since it’s always been associated with the lower classes, the uneducated, no one really thought it was worth studying.

Ms. McAlister did, and she studied it from the inside out—learning the Creole language, parading the streets and joining the crowd.

When you’re studying culture, one of the things you learn is how to move in that culture, Mr. Desmangles said. She accomplished that—she was young, the rest of us are a little different—but she learned very quickly.

Prof. Gage Averill, who now directs New York University’s ethnomusicology program, once taught at Wesleyan as well. He first met Ms. McAlister in the early 1990’s on a project in Haiti, and he agrees that part—but not all—of the academic’s job is to re-educate the public.

Anyone working in Haitian sociology, anthropology, or cultural studies has to do some reconstructive surgery, just because the popular notions are so strange and so off-kilter, Mr. Averill said. As of the 1930’s, this was a very popular place for American tall tales.

But scholarship is about more than debunking popular myths, and Ms. McAlister’s work is as well, Mr. Averill said.

She has figured out some issues about how Rara is socially constructed, how it’s put together, who runs the bands, how long they’re pledged for, and what kind of role they have with the saints, Mr. Averill said.

She also has studied what she calls transnationalism—the ability of the culture and religion to transcend national boundaries.

Take her own home.

She met the girl who would be her daughter before she met the man who would be her husband, Ms. McAlister said, recalling how she went to the shooting of a music video for a family band called Boukman Ekxpeyrans in Haiti in 1993.

I was dancing during the shoot when my straw hat blew off my head, she said. This little girl picked it up and started dancing it back to me, and we danced together all afternoon.

That’s how she met Lovely, the girl who would become her daughter and who would introduce Ms. McAlister to Holly (pronounced O-lee) Nicolas, her future husband.

Because of the way transnationalism works, our household is embedded in this network of people that go back and forth, she said, speaking of the Haitian emigration that has left family members in Haiti, France, Montreal, Chicago, Boston, and, yes, Middletown. We have a box that came from Boston and is waiting to go to Haiti. My own household is in the network of transnational flow.

Even though the study of Haitian culture is certainly broader than the study of voodoo itself, one can’t study one without the other, Mr. Desmangles said.

The difference between Haitian society and American society is that you can describe U.S. culture without really discussing too much about religion, Mr. Desmangles said. In Haiti, religion permeates every aspect of the culture. You can’t avoid it, you can’t put it aside, it’s going to be there.

What helps distinguish Ms. McAlister from her colleagues, though, seems to be her personal involvement in the Rara tradition, both Mr. Desmangles and Mr. Averill agreed.

I think the scholarship has a nice balance, Mr. Averill said. It is informed by her participation, but it’s not just an expression of it. So she is challenged to find a kind of defensible scholarly position.

But Ms. McAlister sees both pitfalls and challenges in her scholarly work. The right could say, ’You’re a partial insider, therefore your scholarship is questionable,’ she said. The left could say, ’You’re a partial outsider, therefore your scholarship is questionable.’ So I just have to maintain my academic integrity.