What's in a Name?

Every now and again, I am asked about why various practitioners use "nicknames" as their main identity. In many traditions this is the norm. Spiritual mothers of New Orleans are all Mama something's or Reverend Mothers, and who knows how many drs there are in the world of hoodoo. I have been referred to as Mama D, Priestess Denise, Voodoo Mama, and reverend sista docta healer medicine woman by any number of people. I use to use Voodoo Mama much more than I do now, but as I have become much more in the public eye and have a serious academic reputation to maintain, I have transitioned over to my real name as my primary identity. I happen to be of the school of thought that transparency is a good thing because it gives my clients more confidence in me as a practitioner. Even when I used Voodoo Mama more than I do now, I have always been open about who I am and where I am from. Just check any of my websites and click on the About Me page and you will learn a lot about who I am, my background, and where I am from.  If anyone wants to know who I am, just look...it's really no secret.

I can't say this is the case with everyone. For some reason, there are those who insist on using a first name or some given name and do not reveal anywhere on their sites their real names or anything much about them at all. Maybe that works for them, I don't know. Personally, I would feel much more confident in having someone perform a service for me if I knew who they were, what their experience was, and where they are from. I mean, I wouldn't go to a dentist named Dr. Bob with no reference to his training or expertise anymore than I would go to a spiritual worker named Dr. Bob who gives no reference to how he obtained his expertise or background. But that's just me...

And for the haters out there, Dr. Bob is a fictitional name with no reference intended towards any real person.

I think this is one thing that is addressed with Cat Yronwode's Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (AIRR). For people who need such validation and have no other background or qualifications, this can be a good thing. I suppose even those who have a background could benefit as well. That is what credentials are for, to demonstrate a level of mastery over your particular area or areas. Credentialing gives you credibility because it is bestowed upon you by a group of peers who are already established in your area. But it is only one way in which a reputation of reliability is built or demonstrated. There are many more ways, such as time in the field, life experience, and related professional credentials along with complete transparency.

Now I am not a member of AIRR, nor do I intend to become a member. My life is a whole package of credentials that make me an expert at what I do. Credentialing is a tricky thing when it comes to indigenous healing systems, however. The requirements for holding specific titles are not uniform across cultures. What makes me an expert in my area does not make me an expert in your area, especially given regional and cultural differences. But the fact that my experience lies in a different, but related tradition does not make me any less reliable or competent than you (and I am speaking figuratively here).

But this brings me to an issue that just irritates the hell out of me. Why is it that people who have no idea of my experience or credibility are so quick to attack and squash? What is it with these people? And you know who you are...

Look, if you are going to criticize me and my work, then do so with intelligence. Read my work, learn about my background, dispute what you see with the facts and not with some side of the mouth, grade school playground bullshit. I welcome open discourse on any topic in which I have written...or not. I think intelligent discussion is productive and constructive. It keeps you and I in check and it keeps us accountable to each other and at our best. Nothing wrong with that.

As an academic with advanced degrees, I am used to having to back up every statement with proof. That is the culture of the academic world. If I say something about Native American healing for example, I better be able to back it up with facts or a damned good theory based on related literature and research. My name depends on this. I have taken this training and used it in my life as an indigenous healer, author, and rootworker. The training I have endured on an academic level makes the malicious gossip on forums a joke. But jokes can be hurtful.

My academic training is an afterward, though, to my spiritual training. I wasn't born an academic...I became one. I wasn't born in a university. I was however, born and raised in the unique, Voodoo and hoodoo rich culture that is New Orleans. I am a Creole woman and proud of it. And at the risk of sounding racist and absolutely not being racist, no white person half my age can tell me what I am and what I do is not legitimate. My earliest lesson that I can remember being an actual lesson was by a spiritualist aunt on the bayous of Mississippi when I was around five years old. I was instructed in the art of candle magick and communicating with Spirits. That's when my spiritual training started...at least, that's when I remember it starting. My whole childhood I was taught about plants, minerals and animals, what is referred to as herbalism and animal and mineral curios in today's hoodoo lingo. Back then, and I'll date myself, back in the 60s, we didn't call what we lived hoodoo. It was just life. It was fixing this and doing that or making a mess of somethin'...you get the picture.

And I'll share something else for those of you who feel the need to denigrate my name and for those of you who may just be interested in the juicy details. Do you know what it is like to grow up in the Deep South as a person of color? Nevermind the fact that I was a Voodooist (and in New Orleans, this includes hoodoo for many people, including myself). Do you know what it is like to have to shove your spirituality away underground just so you can maintain a measure of safety? But still, not be safe anyway? Do you know what it is like to pass as white when you can just to be accepted and not part of a "nigger hunt"? Yes, I said it...I said it because it is the sad ass truth. I can tell you that I know what it is like to be shown an oozie in the backseat of someone's car, ready to be used on such hunts, and praying to the Spirits that be that I would not be found out for who I am. Because many of my friends were white, and because I am creole, I was more accepted than my darker brothers and sisters. People focused on my Indian and Spanish heritage more than anything else. But these experiences affected me in a deep and profound way, and for a long time it affected me in a bad way because I internalized it, felt guilty, and punished myself for the sins of another.

At this point, if you are still reading, you may be wondering what does this have to do with hoodoo or Voodoo? Well, I am here to tell you that it has everything to do with it. Because hoodoo is not just a "magickal system" as it has been reduced to in contemporary writings. Hoodoo is part of the history of Louisiana, and I am part of that history, along with anyone else who was born and raised in the culture as I was.

Indigenous religions have for ever and a day been demonized by the predominantly White Christian majority. My ancestors were oppressed in the least and murdered at the worst for being who they were. The religions of my ancestors were made illegal and many were imprisoned. Children were stolen from families with the express intention by the government to break down the family systems and destroy culture. This was very effective. Hoodoo, that is, the use of herbs, roots, bones, natural elements and their spiritual qualities was not separate from Voodoo. According to Dahomean cosmology, the knowledge of how to utilize the sacred herbs, roots, bones, and other natural elements for controlling and changing one’s destiny was given to the people from Legba, who received the knowledge from the Forest Spirits. Hoodoo, in its form today, is a direct result of colonial government policies, church dogma, and slavery, and ongoing persecution of those who openly practiced the Voodoo religion.

And so I ask this question of my criticizers, is this part of your history? If so, what are you taking it out on me for? If not, what are you taking it out on me for?

See, the thing is that just because I was born a Creole doesn't mean I am immune to criticizing other people for what they do. There were times in my life that I am not proud of that I exhibited the behaviors of my oppressors too. I used words and actions to hurt other people, both on a magickal and a not so magickal level (its called lateral oppression in psychology). And then I was enlightened by a few good people who understood the soul wound that I was experiencing. The soul wound is the effect of intergenerational trauma on the psyche of the colonized. Yeah, it is somehow metaphysically technical and you will either get it or you won't. Either way, its okay. We all come to understanding in our own time and I am am certainly not one to judge another for their degree of enlightenment.

What this all boils down to with regards to name bashing on seemingly meaningless forums is tolerance and respect for self and others. You can either continue to be intolerant and disrespectful of someone you don't know and have never spoken to (but if you have read this lengthy post of mine you know me a little better), or you can quit being a cowardly gossiper and address me directly, like any self-respecting person and professional practitioner in any field should do. After all, if we are rootworkers in it for healing and light, then why not act like it.

Now, dispute THAT.

Copyright 2010-2013 Denise Alvarado, All rights reserved worldwide. Please ask if you would like to repost this article.

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