Open Letter to Cat Yronwode and Lucky Mojo Regarding the Accusation of New Orleans Voodoo as a Faux Religion Perpetuated by Fakers
In recent years, contact between Americans and Haitians, an influx of Haitian immigrants to the USA, and the popularity of Voodoo among interested white practitioners with backgrounds in Paganism and/or Hermetic magic have led to the creation of a form of the ritualized practice hat goes under the name New Orleans Voodoo.
New Orleans Voodoo is a newly constructed faux-religion which has no cultural, family, liturgical, or social roots in traditional African, African-American, or Haitian religions, but traces back to literary sources instead. Since the mid 20th century it has evolved under the hands of four major promoters, none of whom had direct lineage transmission from the previous ones and each of whom accreted a small following which took no part in the major social life of New Orleans.
Each of these promoters was or is an author and/or the owner of a tourist venue or a store. Each of these promoters and their followers drew or draw upon a handful of 20th century anthropological and popular works describing Haitian Voodoo, which they use as source-books for their performances. These source-books include the works of authors such as Zora Neale Hurston (1938), Maya Deren (1953), Alfred Metraux (1958), Milo Rigaud (1969), and Wade Davis (1985). At best the fabrications of these promoters can be said to be historical fantasy recreations in the style of the Renaissance Faire venues in the USA, and at worst they have been a means to part sincere seekers from their money under the guise of offering exotic initiations or ecstatic worship services that are spurious at their root.
The four major promoters of the faux-religion of New Orleans Voodoo have been Robert Tallant (1940s), Charles Gandolfo (1960s-1990s), Sallie Ann Glassmann (1990s), and Denise Alvarado (2000s). Other, less well-known, promoters have included the author and publisher Raymond J. Martinez (1950s), the dancer Ava Kay Jones (1980s-1990s), the author and store owner Sharon Caulder (1990s), the store owner Miriam Chemani (1990s - present), the author John Shrieve, and the paranormal / haunted tour organizer "Bloody Mary."
New Orleans Voodoo has historically had no community membership base, in Louisiana other than as a source of employment for shop employees, dancers, authors, and publishers. These faux-religionists write books, compose music, sell Voodoo-themed goods in their shops, hold Voodoo-themed festivals and workshops, and put on Voodoo-themed dance and drumming performances for tourists. The latter events were especially popular under the direction of Charles Gandolfo and Ava Kay Jones.
New Orleans Voodoo has been promoted to the outside world by small independent coteries of less than ten or twenty core participants who charge money for their literature, workshops, museums, tours, and/or performances. Its wider range of participants are tourists and spiritual seekers; there is a notable and significant lack of community participation from the environs of New Orleans. None of its leaders or followers can demonstrate that its practices spring from a local community base.
Having been repeatedly accused of fakery, some of the promoters of New Orleans Voodoo have belatedly sought initiations in Africa or Haiti to add gravitas to their literary mining expeditions through well-known works describing Haitian Voodoo. Others have gone out of their way to acquire actual African artifacts to display in their museums, or to purchase Brazilian Quimbanda statuary to resell as spurious Voodoo goods. At least one made a point of importing Haitian art for sale -- some of which, it turned ut, was manufactured for her by a movie-prop maker in Hollywood California. And always among the expensive and exotic faux-Voodoo religious goods are salted a dizzying variety of small, cheap faux-Voodoo trinkets made in China, often decorated in Mardi Gras style, as if Mardi Gras were an alternative form of Voodoo. And, of course, when they wish to promote "magick" or "spell-casting", they turn to traditional African American hoodoo, which they re-brand as Voodoo.
First, before my response, I have a couple comments. Where is your source of information coming from? Have you not read any of the historical records or literature that clearly indicate Voodoo arrived in the 1700s when the first Bambarans set foot in New Orleans? Who happened to have also brought the gris gris tradition with them which remains, since the 1700s, an integral part of New Orleans Voodoo?
As you and I have never had a real conversation other than one concerning mutual plagiarism, and with the unfortunate exception of our initial "introduction" to each other where I was falsely accused of being the editor for a document that someone on my forum had written, I had hope we remained on at least cordial grounds as I continued to look out for your work being lifted, etc. and shared with you instances of the misuse of your online presence by unscrupulous others, simply out of common professional courtesy and an effort to demonstrate good will and character.
It is evident we don't see eye to eye on things in terms of our mutual experiences and knowledge about Southern hoodoo and especially New Orleans Voodoo. Yet, I have never publicly named you as a major hoodoo marketeer or accused you of anything other than offering an alternate point of view from my own. Any personal thoughts or feelings remain my own.
Imagine my surprise to find this in my inbox. "The four major promoters of the faux-religion of New Orleans Voodoo have been Robert Tallant (1940s), Charles Gandolfo (1960s-1990s), Sallie Ann Glassmann (1990s), and Denise Alvarado (2000s). Other, less well-known, promoters have included the author and publisher Raymond J. Martinez (1950s), the dancer Ava Kay Jones (1980s-1990s), the author and store owner Sharon Caulder (1990s), the store owner Miriam Chemani (1990s - present), the author John Shrieve, and the paranormal / haunted tour organizer "Bloody Mary."
And of course, I was provided a link where i got to read the whole sordid story.
Now this could get really ugly, as I feel as though the respect I have shown for you has not been reciprocated, given past experiences and this current article on your website. And nothing gets in my craw worse than someone who shows me one face and behind my back shows their true character. With the numerous times in which we have emailed back and forth and the many times Nagasiva has written and asked questions about things he said he wanted to know my opinion about, it would seem to me we could have had some very constructive conversations about your thoughts and opinions about New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo, or your concerns about me as a person or my qualifications. But no, you had to make it personal by jumping on the discredit Denise bandwagon. Okay, let's go there.
You have a right to your opinion, as do I. But let me ask you this, could it be possible that you are wrong? Could it be possible that what you know about New Orleans Voodoo and the role of Hoodoo in the tradition is not what you think it is? Could it be that you don't know me at all except for what others who don't know me have stated, and our limited email conversations?
Let me be clear about a few things. One, I was born and raised in New Orleans, and my experience with Hoodoo and Voodoo never did and never has come from the French Quarter Voodoo variety. Nor has it come from literary sources about Haitian Vodou. And this is why everything you have stated and all of the haters fail; the platform of comparison is not qualified as such. That is tourist Voodoo, that is not the Voodoo that has survived along the bayous in its many variations and handed down through families and by virtue of being in the culture. You also have not recognized the small group of people in the French Quarter who are actually doing great things with regards to the preservation of the religion and who have worked hard in the community to preserve things like the sacred cultural geography intimately related to Voodoo in New Orleans. Voodoo in New Orleans began as a bunch of different African religions forced together, where slaves and Natives found common themes, and it is through those common themes where New Orleans Voodoo comes from. It has come to embrace the influences of many cultures as you are aware. While there was a period of time when there were community ceremonies and celebrations, these were not the actual rituals taking place, only parts and representations of it. The real stuff was and always has been until recently behind the scenes, in secret. Unless you grew up as a person of color in the South, which you are not, and experienced the necessity of remaining underground, which you have not, then it would be hard to understand.New Orleans Voodoo practitioners do not deny that the religion lacks the formalized rites of Haitian Vodou. That doesn't mean it is not a religion. It doesn't mean that it is not a religion because much of the tradition for many, looks a whole lot like Hoodoo. That's not something I, or Mambo Sallie Ann, or Charles Gandolfo, or Zora Neale Hurston, for that matter, made up. That is the way it is and has been. Tallant, on the other hand, definitely fabricated quite a bit, much of which I have attempted to clarify over the years. I can understand the confusion, however, if you were never immersed in New Orleans culture or the traditions of the Louisiana swamps. Trust me, there's a whole lot more to the story than you will ever have the privilege of knowing or seeing.Those who have accused me of "fakery" as whoever authored the article wrote, and I assume it is you, are at least half my age, not from New Orleans, never spent any significant time there or in Louisiana, and have never provided any sources for their accusations. They wouldn't know "real" New Orleans Voodoo if it stared them in the face. That is because the platform from which they are judging the religion is not the religion; it is French Quarter tourism. Of course it doesn't match up. But instead of taking me up on offers for productive discourse, they, as have you, have made assumptions about me and some very well respected individuals in New Orleans that is simply founded on ignorance. Instead they, as have you, have taken it to the public. This will not sit will with many of those whom you accuse to be fakers of a "faux" religion.
In everything I have written, I have never claimed to be the last word on New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo, only to say that it is my experience. The reason for that disclaimer is because anyone from my generation, and anyone who has done their research (not just reading books, but actually talking to people who are actually from Louisiana and actual practitioners) will know that the manner in which it has been passed down was through individual families and thus there is variation. There is as much variation in the manner in which Christians may express their devotion to God, some may actually do unto others while others could care less and still other fall somewhere in between. The variations do not disqualify it as a religion. There are still unifying beliefs and practices that make it what it is. New Orleans Voodoo is a living, breathing, fluid tradition and this is part of its beauty and its appeal to believers.
It is true that some New Orleans Voodooists have sought initiations in related traditions. Some have clung to vestiges of the religion by continuing in the practice of New Orleans style Hoodoo and rootwork and no longer claim the religious aspects of it. Some are Christian, quite a few are not. Many have developed unique yet recognizable rites of their own. Some folks belong to temples and houses, most do not. New Orleans Voodoo has long been known to be an individual religion, having been made so due to sociohistorical circumstances like the Louisiana Black Code, and as I mentioned earlier, the rampant and pervasive racism that has characterized the South for so long.
You may not wish to know the truth behind your accusations or have any interest in exploring preconceived notions based on outsider and fledgling opinions or blues songs. You may not have any interest in actually speaking with some of the people you have accused of fakery or perpetuating a "faux" religion. That is your choice. However, I find it deeply offensive what you have written, and a deliberate attempt at claiming a cultural narrative that is not yours to claim. Indeed you have a right to your opinion, but unless you have walked in my shoes, Priestess Miriam's shoes, Mambo Ava Kay Jones, and the many others whom you did not acknowledge in your misguided article, you will never know the truth. Instead, it appears this is more of the case of wanting to be "right," instead of really wanting to be right, and that is just unfortunate.
You have not been, nor will you be the only narrative on the indigenous traditions of the South. More folks, and more folks of color, and more scholars of color, are speaking up. I strongly encourage you to do as our Cherokee elders say, "listen or your tongue will make you deaf."