An Equilibrist Vodou Goddess

Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha

Ezili Banda, Ezili Banda,
Ezili Banda, pase sa'l vo.
Ezili Banda, Ezili Banda,
Ezili Banda, pase kò-li.

Pretentious Ezili, sexy Ezili,
Sexy Ezili outdoes herself.
Strutting Ezili, preening Ezili,
Preening Ezili thinks she something.1

This vodou chant for the Haitian spirit Ezili Freda, who many women and men have called to be their protector and guide (mèt tet), speaks volumes about the ways that Ezili Freda is revered and praised, but at the same time seemingly distanced. Ezili Freda is the lwa, or spirit, of love and abundance. She is mostly known in the Haitian pantheon for her material possessions: gold necklaces, earrings encrusted with jewels and diamonds, silks and satins, and pink and blue lace trim. Preoccupied with establishing her wealth and upper-class luxury, she is also depicted in Haitian mythology as being involved in numerous scandals with lovers, both practitioners and other male lwa, such as Legba, Danballah, Gede, Ogou, and Agwe.

Although she is commonly compared to and associated with the Yoruba deity Oshun and Ezili Whydah of Benin, Ezili Freda is a key example of what happens to a spirit when it travels across the water. The spirit, having vestiges of its African past (because of the Middle Passage), now responds to a different set of needs and desires its practitioners have. The spirit also has to respond to the new territories (land) and rules of governance that have either helped or hindered her followers. It is this dynamic that makes the diaspora such a distinct site of religiosity: the continual reworking of memory (at the forefront, our African past) and, at the same time, the constant adaptation or malleability of both the human and the divine as they interact in rites and rituals. My own research consists of personal interviews with Haitian Vodou practitioners, ethnographic study, and fieldwork in a sacred Vodou community in Montreal, Canada. I examine the combative and complacent gender performativity of Ezili Freda in sacred spaces and how she is revered through altars and multiple artistic representations, focusing on her diverse sexual identities.

Ezili Freda, like Haitian Vodou in general, has a distinct trajectory, stemming from the history of the Haitian people, who have endured French colonization and enslavement. Haitian Vodou is a powerful element in understanding the formation of gender, sexuality, and colorism in Haiti. Vodou's acceptance of sexual and gender diversity is a part of the religious worldview. This distinguishes Haiti not only in terms of its religiosity, but also in terms of the variety of sexualities and genders possible. Early scholarship tended to provide limited representations of these deities, which did not expose the full complexity of multifaceted lwa and their important role in understanding femininity, womanhood, and sexuality in Haitian society. Representations of these lwa had become fixed, usually constructed as binaries or opposites of one another; in the case of the Ezili figures, Ezili Freda is sexualized whereas her "opposite," Ezili Dantò, is not.

Thankfully, groundbreaking scholarly work is now being done on such Vodou deities as the venerated Ezili Freda, exploring the complex yet contradictory notions of social constructions surrounding colorism, femininity, and sexuality in these representations, all of which are grounded in their unique social and historical contexts. I am interested in how scholars and practitioners view the significance and representation of the Haitian Vodou deities' Ezili family and their different manifestations—Ezili Dantò, Ezili Freda, La Sirenn, Ezili je wouj (red eyes), Gran Ezili, Ezili-kokobe (the shriveled)—and in looking at how they have been constructed as binaries, but challenging some of these accounts. Through educational, anthropological, religious, performance, sociological, and historiographical enterprises, new scholars are beginning to expand and complicate the understanding of these Haitian Vodou deities. I, too, embrace a perspective in which all Ezili, and, more specifically, all Ezili Freda, have complex identities and provide healing to the practitioners who worship them.

My questions include the following: Why are gender and sexuality important issues to discuss within the context of Afro-diasporic religions? How have Haitian scholars viewed gender and sexuality within the context of the Haitian deity Ezili Freda? What can scholars learn from this deity and from a greater understanding of Haitian gender and sexuality? And finally, how does Haitian religion function as a mode of survival and healing?

Vodou is a religion deeply integrated into the everyday lives of the people who practice it in Haiti and the diaspora, informed by their struggles and their needs. In Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers, Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith argue that the Vodou religion is a form of humanism. It offers a practical way of understanding the world, a way of being, and a way of living one's life. Karen McCarthy Brown echoes these sentiments in Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn:

Haitian traditional religion the repository for wisdom accumulated by a people who have lived through slavery, hunger, disease, repression, corruption, and violence—all in excess. (98)

Vodou is the system they [Haitians] have devised to deal with the suffering that is life, a system whose purpose is to minimize pain, avoid disaster, cushion loss, and strengthen survivors and survival instincts. (10)

Thus, Vodou's value as a religion lies in its ability to be malleable when it comes to the needs of its believers: it is informed and shaped by their histories and directly responsive to their tribulations. During Vodou ceremonies, practitioners can receive advice from lwa about their own personal problems and can be channels through which the deities speak to initiates. This is a practical, everyday faith that gains meaning from the active participation of the initiated. Its power is not created through a formal dogma, but through the lived experience of Haitians.

This practicality is reflected in the various forms of sacred space in Vodou. Vodou ceremonies can be experienced in a Vodou temple, but they are just as likely to be carried out in a practitioner's basement, or in any other private space. Within any space, Vodou provides a special gathering in which the community can talk about specific peoples' trauma and physical pain. Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins has suggested that alternative sites are a form of "subjugated knowledge," in which intimate spaces are created, especially for Black women, and from them comes new knowledge of self-definition and self-value.

One must understand the deities residing in a ceremony to bring about healing, counseling, and empathy. Roberto Strongman draws from Mama Lola to extend the work on transpossession—being taken over, or mounted, by a spirit. The service also applies when a practitioner is mounted by her mèt tet. As Roberto Strongman illustrated in his article "Transcorporeality in Vodou," the body is a psychic reality and source of human life that was metaphorically symbolized through the physical body. Strongman continues his analysis of the duality of the self by adding that the body consists of many parts. The ti bon ange is the conscience that allows for self-reflection and self-criticism, and the gros bon ange is the psyche, the source of memory and personhood. It is the gros bon ange that must be prepared well and separated from the initiate to allow the spirit, the lwa, to enter in its place. The fundamentals of Haitian Vodou describe the body and soul as a multifaceted place where a lwa can be allowed to mount an individual.

In Haitian Vodou, the lwa not only take over the bodies of the ceremonial participants, but also use them to deliver messages to others, becoming a source of reason and help. In Strongman's analysis, the phenomenon of the spirit entering the body of a participant involves displacing elements of the participant's psyche. This reveals how complex gender dynamics are in Vodou, since any person can be a receptacle for either male or female lwa to enter, regardless of the gender or sexuality of the possessed. I think we should also consider concepts of transqueer possession—what happens when a male spirit mounts a female practitioner and vice versa—and the importance of this performativity. During my fieldwork in Montreal, I witnessed a devotee being taken over by Ezili Freda. The other practitioners sprayed the devotee with perfume, covered her with a baby pink scarf (the color Ezili Freda is associated with), and washed her feet to show their respect. They treated her with care and showered her with gifts. Mostly, there were men around her and she was greatly upset when women were close to her. Like Oshun,2 she is a very jealous deity, so it made sense that she did not want other women competing for the attention of her male followers. Ezili Freda is also very vain, and the men made sure that the pink silk, jewelry, and gifts they brought to her were clean and expensive, as befits her high-maintenance, feminine persona.

The way Ezili Freda is represented racially is also interesting, though the surface interpretations based on her physical traits do not reflect her complexity. Freda's lighter skin is deemed to be indicative of an elite class that has social and financial "solidity." As Karen McCarthy Brown argues, "Ezili Freda imitates ideas of beauty that have social power and prestige" (255). This is in contrast to her counterpart, the "poor" Ezili Dantò, who is "black, black, black" (256). Ezili Freda is seen as the light-skinned mulatta—the term used for the sexually desirable, racially mixed woman during slavery, and the symbol of the prostitute. The mulatta is seen as more attractive and sexually charged than her darker-skinned counterparts, a product of the complicated racial caste system following colonization. In Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor, sociologist Kemala Kempadoo argues that, within the Caribbean, the image of the mulatta was understood to be particularly erotic. She writes:

If white womanhood represented the pinnacle of femininity, couched in assumptions of fairness, purity, frailty, and domesticity, and black womanhood the total opposite due to the presumed closeness to nature, dark skin, masculine physique, and unbridled sexuality, the combination of European and African produced notions of light-skinned women who could almost pass for white yet retained a tinge of color as well as a hint of wantonness and uninhibited sexuality of exotic cultures. (36–37)

Vodou has not escaped the colonial notions surrounding skin color that privilege whiteness over blackness in the social hierarchy. French colonization and the constant degradation of dark skin have left an indelible mark on Haiti, even centuries after the 1804 revolution that ended the slave system subjugating the African population. Color is inextricably connected to privilege. Ezili Freda represents an image of femininity defined by this history. Vodou is a religion deeply connected to the everyday lives of its believers, and within the world of Vodou practitioners, skin color has a discernable effect on life chances and perceptions of worth. Therefore, though it is a negative legacy of colonization, this ingrained hierarchy has made its imprint on the representations of the lwa in Vodou religious practices.

However, within Haitian religion, the lwa Ezili Dantò and Freda's erotic desires also provide healing and potential power for Haiti, Haitian women, and Haitian culture. Brown adds:

These female spirits are both mirrors and maps, making the present comprehensible and offering direction for the future. In the caricaturelike clarity of Vodou possession-performances, the Ezili sort out, by acting out, the conflicting feelings and values in a given life situation. By interacting with the faithful as individuals and groups, all the Vodou spirits clarify the options in people's lives; and the Ezili do this especially well for women. (221–222)

Ezili Freda, then, is not simply a shallow stereotype of female vanity, but a "mirror" capable of showing her followers the characteristics and strengths they may possess within their own hearts and minds. Moreover, there is power in Ezili Freda's shameless, proud embrace of her overtly feminine qualities; they are pieces of the female experience that practitioners can reflect upon and gain wisdom from in their own life experiences. She is a "map," offering paths of thought that value femininity, while also acknowledging some of the pitfalls of gender as a constructed idea: vanity, elevation of light skin over dark, jealousy, and vying for male attention. She is not a lwa that can easily be quantified or simplified, and this is where her value lies.

I argue that Ezili Freda is useful to her practitioners if and when she is recognizable as a symbol for substantive issues. Her light skin reflects notions of beauty that her followers understand on a practical level, whether they are critical of colorism in their society or not. She represents normative, discriminatory ideas about feminine beauty and embodies them in her appearance and in her performativity while mounting her supporters, but she should not be dismissed as an uncomplicated mimicry of these social structures. In the ceremony I witnessed in Montreal, Ezili Freda was teaching those in the room a lesson about the challenges of being female and relating to other women, about obsessions with material possessions, and about the historically constructed preference for and sexualization of light-skinned Black women in Haiti, and in the rest of the diaspora. Ezili Freda's significance is derived from her ability to speak directly to believers' lived realities and to offer possible avenues for personal reflection. These reevaluations and redefinitions of Vodou deities such as Ezili Freda provide a more complete, holistic understanding of gender, femininity, womanhood, and sexuality in Haitian diasporic religion.


Notes

  1. Translated by Karen McCarthy Brown in Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (University of California Press, 2001), 250.
  2. Oshun is a Yoruba deity.

Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha, MTS '13, is a first-year PhD student and William Fontaine Fellow of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, and Black feminism within African diasporic religions. This is an edited version of a paper delivered at the inaugural conference of the African and Diasporic Religious Studies Association held at Harvard University on April 5, 2013.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj