New Orleans Voodoo Museum in NY Times, and in Scholarly Perspective

Paul Harvey

Edward Rothstein reviews the New Orleans Voodoo Museum today in the NY Times, and makes a brief reference to Carolyn Morrow Long's biography of Marie Laveau (one of several competing biographies of this part historical/part mythical figure). Rothstein writes of the tiny museum:

It’s voodoo that these gravesite relics reflect. They are called gris-gris: items associated with seekers who wish to change something about their lives or the lives of others. My guide, Jerry Gandolfo, runs the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum in the nearby French Quarter. (His brother began it in 1972.) It is less a museum than two rooms, one consisting mainly of gris-gris along with altars used by contemporary practitioners. It is like an old curiosity shop, dusty, not terribly well cared for, almost startlingly haphazard.

The museum really needs the kind of curatorial intelligence that only emerges when Mr. Gandolfo, smartly stocked with information, associations and anecdotes, begins to speak. But the museum still gets something across about the powers of spirits (“vodu” in the Fon religion of West Africa) and their ability to make use of the lowliest of objects. No gilded artifacts or high-falutin’ pomp here: this is a folk religion in which power seems to flow from the trivial, or the horrifying.

A cool little slide show is here.

Time for me to pay another visit when the Southern Historical Association meets in New Orleans, 2nd weekend in October this year.

Here' the program, and apropos of the topic at hand, I'll paste in here a session on the scholarly study of this subject, scheduled in the Sunday morning slot when many participants will have left perhaps, but surely of interest to many. It features Carolyn Long and the younger scholar Jeffrey Anderson, author of a recent and very helpful study Conjure in African American Society, which I reviewed in the American Historical Review (subscription or J-STOR access required). My review, in brief summary:

Jeffrey E. Anderson provides a solid summation and overview of magical and religio-pharmacological traditions—captured in the single multivalent word "conjure"—in African American history. Conjure, he writes, was a "form of utilitarian, pragmatic spirituality" (p. 79), a composite of beliefs, suspicions, and actions with roots in African, Native American, and Western European cultures. Anderson's coverage of the African roots and European parallels to African American conjure are familiar from other recent works in the field, most notably Yvonne Chireau's Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2003). By contrast, his stress on Native American influences—including animals from the Underworld and the use of "diviners chiefly concerned ... with foretelling the course of individual lives, finding lost or stolen articles, and most important, diagnosing illness" (p. 66)—is a fresh analysis. As well, Anderson's emphasis of Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean influences on the later evolution of conjuring traditions in the United States distinguishes this work.

Here's the session -- ya'll come. And for god's sake, join the SHA already.

Sunday, October 12: 9:00-11:00 A.M. (Sheraton New Orleans)


PRESIDING: Charles Joyner, Coastal Carolina University

The Perils of Hoodoo: Scholarly Pitfalls in the Study of African American Supernaturalism
Jeffrey E. Anderson, University of Louisiana, Monroe

Superstition and Supernaturalism in White and Black Southern Folk Culture
Philip Gibbs, Middle Georgia College

Supernaturalism in the Body: Black Pentecostalism in the U.S.
Clarence Hardy, Dartmouth College

The Commercialization of Voodoo and Hoodoo
Carolyn Morrow Long, Smithsonian Institution

Motives and Meanings of Black Christianization in the Colonial and Antebellum Eras
Randolph Ferguson Scully, George Mason University

Voodoo, Women’s Religion, and Social Suffering in New Orleans: New Research on Old Spiritualities
Martha C. Ward, University of New Orleans


Mike Pasquier said…
There's an interesting, sometimes uncomfortably mean-spirited debate going on between historians of Vodu/Voodoo. Carolyn Morrow Long, for instance, considers two other recent "scholarly" works on Marie Laveau (one by Martha Ward and the other by Ina Fandrich) as complicit in the long tradition of mythologizing the so-called Voodoo Queen (I tend to agree with Long). In a review of Ward and Fandrich, Janet Allured writes, "Both [of their books] must be read with some caution." I've even witnessed a shouting match between scholars at a public reading, complete with accusations of research and idea theft.

There are a lot of reasons for this tension within the field: the crossing of practitioner/scholar lines, the lack of traditional kinds of source materials, and the fact that this is still a living religion that eludes simple definition.

All of which is to say that this will be an interesting panel discussion, depending on how you define "interesting."
Randall said…

The Voodoo entities must be doing double time this week. Speaking of Faith featured a terrific story on the subject of the practitioner/researcher this past Sunday:

"Living Vodou"

I miss all the best shouting matches at conferences.
Just for the record, although I disagree with Ina Fandrich and Martha Ward on some aspects of Marie Laveau's biography, I have never been involved in a public shouting match with either of them. I look forward to participating in the SHA panel with Dr. Ward.
Brooke Butler said…
Would it be possible to get a transcript of this upcoming panel?