Voudon velocity: How West African rituals survived and characterised two historic migrations
Premiere of Macbeth at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. Source: Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
The soundscape of the Epe Ekpe festival, an annual tribal celebration in Togo, is punctuated by drums. The beat of this music is as sacred and meaningful as the many other ritual performances of the festival, which celebrates ancestors and families of the community while welcoming a new year. The drums, musicians say, have a connective power that is not hindered by physical separation. Distant relatives in the Americas can hear the music and know they are connected spiritually to home.
The instrument has travelled to stretches of settlement far from Togo and the West African countries of its origin. Along with it, the rituals and beliefs that rooted in this land transitioned into new forms, reflecting the changing power and positionality of black individuals in French colonies, Caribbean ports, and the North American British colonies that would become the United States. The Voudon spirituality, known now in its forms of Voodoo and Hoodoo, was carried forth by the enslaved population despite the determination of many slave owners and colonisers to impose Catholic and other Christian beliefs as a replacement. Over hundreds of years, it has acted as a resistance, a community-centric celebration, and a haven for practitioners seeking relief from danger.
In the contemporary urban centres of those former colonies of North America, Black Lives Matter protests erupt in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The soundscape of these gatherings is punctuated by the voices of black leadership, who have guided the demonstrations in protest against the perpetuating oppression of black individuals in the form of targeted violence and police brutality. Voices fill the digital space of social media platforms and echo through the streets of communities like drum beats.
A century before this current of protestors that rippled from Minneapolis to D.C., and from Brooklyn to Oakland, a current of migrating African Americans left the southern states and the violent inequality and lack of opportunity that threatened their lives and livelihoods there. Over the span of five decades, six million people relocated to northeastern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York City, seeking asylum from the ‘Jim Crow’ policies and community ethics that had grown from a foundation of white supremacy. This Great Migration influenced the cultural practices of urban centres, and, in certain neighbourhoods, established communities characterised by a black economy, art, and education. Harlem, in northern Manhattan, was one such borough.
The Black-Led Renaissance in New York City
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s was an explosion of literature, theatre, and music. In this new wave of content channelled into print and stage, ideas often incorporated characters and motifs that produced insight into the black experience in the early 20th century. Despite their migration, these artists of Harlem were temporally near to the experiences of emancipation and the history of generational slavery which had differentially exposed African-Americans to violence, exploitation, and injustice. Forums of art reflected this and connected with black audiences through narratives that structured the power of society in alternative ways.
Take for example an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, performed by an all-black cast at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. This production, nicknamed ‘Voodoo Macbeth’, premiered in 1936 and attracted an estimated 300,000 audience members who witnessed Shakespeare’s original screenplay altered by a new setting, style, and mysticism. In place of Scottish witchcraft, Afro-Haitian voodoo was written into the script.
Macbeth performance at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. Source: Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
Haitian professor Leslie Desmangles elaborates that Haitian voodoo, more formally called Voudon, is a complex web of spiritual proverbs, generational ethics, tales of folklore, systems of medical practices, and more.
In Orson Wells’ production of Macbeth, the practice was demonstrated through spirit possessions, ritual worship of various spirits known as loa, and through the musical backbone of drumming.
With the popularity of the play at the Lafayette Theatre, awareness of voodoo spread to white audiences, exposing the larger community to a spiritual practice that was carried across continents during the Transatlantic slave trade, and commonly practised in both southern and northern states by the mid-20th century.
At the same time as audiences were exposed to the intrigue of Afro-Haitian spirit possessions, Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Brown, and Oscar ‘Papa’ Celestin incorporated Voodoo and its Louisiana counterpart Hoodoo, or conjuring, into their prose and song. The infamous New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau, subject of Celestin’s work, seeks vengeance on a deceitful lover by using mysticism to overpower and destroy him.
Voudon as a shifting cultural practice
The variations in the broad practices of voodoo, captured in these 20th-century Harlem productions, showed how much the religion had shifted with the situational needs of the black experience in the Caribbean and North America. Over four centuries, enslaved and free descendants of West Africa continued to practice Voudon in Haiti and Hoodoo in New Orleans, but in the contexts of their variant environments and experiences, the rituals and idols were adapted.
In late 18th century Haiti, voodoo thrived amongst slave communities despite Catholicism’s popularity. Certain loa played new roles as protectors and idols to whom individuals would direct their prayers. In this period that led towards the Haitian revolution against colonial slave owners, the Nigerian spirit of hunting and warfare grew into Ogou, the spiritual military leader of battles against oppression.
Similarly, voodoo responded to a lack of control felt by slaves in the southern states. According to author and hoodoo historian Yvonne Chireau, the use of charms and conjuring was a means of seeking self-realisation and protection in times of danger.
The Transatlantic slave trade and the Great Migration were dissimilar journeys, but both long and monumental historic migrations which shaped the contemporary United States.
As millions of black citizens migrated away from the South during the latter, they had nuanced reasons which included, but also exceeded, a need to flee from bigotry. There were pull factors such as opportunity and representation that Harlem in the 1930s could offer. Families chose this pursuit, leaving all that they had known behind.
That action of self-realisation echoed in the powers of the loa and the characterisation of Voudon practitioners, captured in theatre and song.
Voudon beliefs persisted, centuries and miles from Togo and other African nations of their origin. The Lafayette Theatre was filled, night after night, with the sounds of drums. Through religious oppression, community uprising, shifting public perception and more, the practice of voodoo – malleable in its form – carried on.
Jenna Mulligan is a writer, educator, and migration scholar from the Southwest region of the United States. She is a postgraduate student at the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, with a focus on migrant information access and media representation. You can reach Mulligan with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org