From Voodoo to Vodou

Library of Congress by ctj71081

Librarians are giving up voodoo. The word voodoo, that is: the conveniently rhyming disyllable that first emerged in English in antebellum New Orleans and by the end of the nineteenth century had become almost obligatory in every British and North American report on Haiti – of which there were many, especially in the years following the invasion by U.S. marines in 1915.

From the 1930s, anthropologists began to prefer vodun or vodoun, marking their distance from the sensationalist travelogues and feature films popular at the time. Voodoo proved more resilient elsewhere, but has slowly succumbed to less derogatory alternatives.

In a self-styled language ramble the proprietor of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Richard Morse, remarked on the change that occurred between 1953 when his mother, Emy de Pradines, recorded an album entitled Voodoo and the late 1990s when his own band, RAM, released their Puritan Vodou CD.

To pin it down more precisely, I would suggest that the decisive shift took place some time between two art exhibitions: Spirit and Image: The Art of Voodoo at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987 and Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou which opened at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles in October 1995. The first occasioned an exchange over terminology between Donald Cosentino and Harold Courlander in the pages of the journal African Arts which already hints at what is to come. And it was Cosentino who co-curated the exhibition at the Fowler. The form vodou was gently recommended to all those contributing essays to the catalogue.

Right between these two exhibitions appeared Karen McCarthy Brown’s ground-breaking study, Mama Lola (1991), which uses vodou without feeling the need to specifically justify it, aside from remarking that book ‘follows the official orthography adopted by the Haitian government in 1979 and interpreted and applied by Albert Valdman in the Haitian Creole-English-French Dictionary’ of 1981. Although most Haitian authors continued to prefer the French vaudou, the Kreyòl vodou has appeared in French-language texts since at least the 1930s, and more frequently from the 1950s.

I haven’t come across many examples of vodou in Anglophone sources before 1991. One notable exception is, perhaps surprisingly, William Gibson’s 1986 novel Count Zero. But within a few years it became the term preferred by historians, anthropologists and other scholars of Haitian religion and popular culture. Haiti: Feeding the Spirit, a special issue of Aperturemagazine (1992), Joan Dayan’s Haiti, History and the Gods(1998), David Geggus’ Haitian Revolutionary Studies (2002), and Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World (2004) are just some of the influential publications which made this choice.

Travel narratives and guidebooks quickly followed suit. The first edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Haiti (1999) uses vodou as does Bob Shacochis’ The Immaculate Invasion (1999) and Kathie Klarreich’s Madame Dread (2005).

The mainstream press has been slow to catch up, but it is now no longer unusual fo find vodou used without comment, for instance the pieces on the Oloffson in Business Week (2001) and the Economist (2010). So far the Associated Press and leading newspapers such as the New York Times have failed to register these sweeping changes. But perhaps not for much longer.

In April 2012, the Congress of Santa Barbara (KOSANBA), the Scholarly Association for the Study of Haitian Vodou, co-ordinated by Kate Ramsey (author of the indispensable The Spirits and the Law), petitioned the United States Library of Congress to change its primary subject heading for the religion from ‘Voodooism’ to ‘Vodou.’ A few months later, the library notified the group that upon reviewing the submitted materials it had ‘found the documentation of the scholars’ and practitioners’ arguments that ‘voodoo’ is pejorative to be compelling’ and decided to revise the subject heading to ‘Vodou.’

The Library of Congress announced this revision in October 2012, making the statement: ‘PSD [Policy and Standards Division] was petitioned by a group of scholars and practitioners of vodou to change the spelling of the heading Voodooism. They successfully argued that vodou is the more accurate spelling, and that the spelling ‘voodoo’ has become pejorative. The base heading was revised to Vodou on this list, and all other uses of the word ‘voodoo’ in references and scope notes have also been revised.’

This change is now reflected on the Library of Congress Authorities site. Henceforth, books focusing on the religion and cataloged using Library of Congress Subject Headings will no longer be classified under ‘Voodooism’ but will be assigned the heading ‘Vodou.’

As a case study in the way language changes, the story of the shift from voodoo to vodou is fascinating and instructive. But it is also an important step in the struggle to make powerful institutions confront the linguistic heritage that for so long has effectively diminished the beliefs and practices of people deemed less than fully human. Let me join Amy Wilentz in making this an occasion for celebration.

The full press release (in English, French and Kreyòl) is available here (pdf).