The goals of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) for library services for young adults recognize that “young adults need and deserve services that address their educational, informational, cultural, and leisure time needs” (IFLA, 2010, p. 2). It is during young adulthood that many people will discover and take an interest in worlds outside of their own, compelling the Search Institute to present “cultural competence” as one of the forty Developmental Assets for adolescents. The Search Institute defines cultural competence as when a “young person has knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds” (The Search Institute, 2010).
Books about zombies, such as Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves (2010) are thrilling and entertaining for young adults, but the myth of zombies is as misunderstood as the religion with which they are often conflated. When confronted with the term Voodoo one with only tangential knowledge of the religion may think of black magic, witch doctors, and acts of cannibalism taking place in such locales as New Orleans and Haiti. Even thoughtful and well-researched books about Voodoo and its connection to zombies, such as Harvard-educated ethnobotanist Wade Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, have been trifled with in the name of entertainment. As New York Times writer Samuel G. Freedman points out, the film version of The Serpent and the Rainbow “was transformed by Hollywood into a fright movie that recycled every intolerant cliché about the religion”, including the religion’s creation of the concept of zombies in their most well-known form. The same article points out that the 2009 Disney film The Frog and the Princess made its villain a “Voodoo magician.” This is particularly disheartening considering that very few movies Disney produces are aimed at a black audience and which claim to tell a black story. To capably explain these misunderstandings about Voodoo and the roots of zombie lore, librarians must familiarize themselves with the religion’s history.
Voodoo traces its roots to modern-day Benin. Known as Vodu or Vodou in the language of this region, Fon, the religion and its beliefs and practices evolved as men, women, and children of this region were moved to new worlds as slaves. These people in bondage attempted to continue their religious traditions in their new homes. The Caribbean variations of Vodu, including those of Haiti, became known as Vodun, while in New Orleans and other southern American regions the religion was dubbed Voodoo (Wilson, 2010, p. 2292). Vodu rituals and beliefs, which center on human access to spiritual forces including naturalistic spirits and dead ancestors, were imported to the West during the slave trade, largely between the years 1730 to 1790 (Glazier, 1998, p. 543). European and American “masters” exposed African slaves to Catholicism, leading to the development of Vodun in places such as Haiti and Voodoo in the Gulf Coast of the United States (Phillips, 2010).
Slavery transformed contemporary perceptions of Voodoo and Vodun and its connection to zombies. In Haitian Vodun there are a variety of gods, or lwa, and it is believed that a man or woman’s alliance with these lwa protects him or her from sorcerers whose dark magic falls outside of what is sanctioned in Vodun. The sorcerer, or bokor, has the capacity to “raise and control corpses as zombi, the soulless and mindless laboring dead, a belief of African origin emerging in Haiti through the awful drudgery of slavery.” (Phillips, 2010). While Vodun in Haiti and Voodoo in the United States are distinct in many ways, the two offshoots of Vodu share the fact that there is less of an emphasis on spirit possession, where a practitioner invites a spirit to enter their body, and greater prominence placed on priests and priestesses who have “healing practices and the ability to influence people and events” (Wilson, p. 2293). Given the history of enslavement associated with practitioners of Vodu, Vodun, and Voodoo, it is entirely understandable that the congregations would want to feel an ability to control their own future. Practitioners of Voodoo and Vodun took to heart the hierarchy of saints in Catholicism, furthering its transformation.
Desmangles (2009) decries the inaccurate portrayal of Vodou and Voodoo in the media:
“Popular Western novels, films, and spurious accounts by tourists have depicted Vodou (and its derivative Voodoo) incorrectly as sorcery, ritual zombification, and ritual cannibalism. Such depictions are derisive or even racist because a close examination of the religion’s ritual or practices fails to find any evidence that would give credence to these negative views “(p. 695).
Voodoo is one of the fastest growing religious movements in North America (Glazier, 1998, p.543). This expansion is understandable given the disasters in and following immigration from New Orleans – which suffered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – and Haiti – which was devastated by a 2010 earthquake. In the wake of Pat Robertson’s thoughtless and mindless comments on Voodoo practitioners bringing the earthquake upon themselves, Wade Davis gave a wonderful interview to National Geographic categorically disputing Robertson’s comments. Voodoo practitioners are able to practice their religion in their own home with a small community so the religion is transportable and indeed has a history of being just that. It is not unreasonable to suppose that any library in North America may find itself with a small but significant Voodoo community. As accessible members of the community with assumedly broad areas of knowledge it is appropriate for librarians to be able to correct misinterpretations regarding a client’s cultural background or misjudgements about a particular book that may be available through their library.
Zombie books can be imaginative, chilling, and fun alternatives to your everyday young adult novel. It is more than likely that young adults looking for zombie books will not be familiar with the history of Voodoo, and they may not even be aware of its connection, or, as I have attempted to prove, the lack of a connection, with zombies. While the young adult librarian does not need to hand out this article with every zombie book borrowed, it is good to know this information in order to conquer any misconceptions about Vodu, Vodun, or Voodoo.
To see the beginning of a Voodoo medium’s journey, check out this brief National Geographic video, Birth of Voodoo.
Desmangles, L. (2009). Vodou in Haiti. In Encyclopedia of African Religion (Vol. 2, pp. 695-700). London: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Freedman, S. G. (2010, February 19). Myths Obscure Voodoo, Source of Comfort in Haiti. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/world/americas/20religion.html
Glazier, S. D. (1998). Voodoo. In Encyclopedia of religion and society (pp.542-543). London: Altamira Press.
IFLA. (2010, July 16). (Revised) Guidelines for Library services for Young Adults. Retrieved from http://www.ifla.org/files/libraries-for-children-and-ya/publications/ya-guidelines2-en.pdf
Phillips, S. (2010). Vodou. In The Oxford encyclopedia of African thought. Retrieved from http://www.oxford-africanthought.com/entry?entry=t301.e380
Ryan, Carrie. (2010). The Dead-tossed waves. New York: Delacorte Press/Random House, Inc.
Search Institute. (2007). 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents. Retrieved from http://www.search-institute.org/content/40-developmental-assets-adolescents-ages-12-18
Wilson, C. R. (2010). Voodoo. In Encyclopedia of religion in America (Vol. 4, pp. 2291-2294). Washington, DC: CQ Press.