Review: Voodoo and Power

Yvonne P. Chireau

Yvonne P. Chireau is Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College.

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Yvonne P. Chireau, "Review: Voodoo and Power," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Kodi A Roberts. Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans 1881–1940. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015. 231 pp. 978-0807160503.

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In Voodoo and Power, Kodi A. Roberts brings revisionist perspectives to bear on Voodoo in New Orleans. Long neglected by scholars, Voodoo remains a poorly understood domain of American religion. Rejecting consensus histories, Roberts resituates Voodoo as the product of diverse racial and religious interactions within the unique social climate of New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century. Part cultural analysis, part denominational history, the book outlines the emergence of Voodoo by focusing on organizational structures, leadership, and economic operations as key aspects of its development from discrete magic practices into sustained institutional forms.

The chapters are arranged into two sections. The first concerns the role of two female progenitors of New Orleans Voodoo. The second focuses on lay and professional “workers”—an apt euphemism for the conjoining of economic and ritual activity, both public and private, that engaged religious practitioners. Although Marie Laveau remains the “mytho-historical” founder of Voodoo, its most significant innovator was Chicago-based spiritualist Leaf Anderson. Revisiting local ethnographic sources, Roberts shows how Laveau initiated the client-centered, service-oriented structure upon which Voodoo was established, while Anderson adapted Laveau’s model and built a thriving denominational network of Spiritual churches. The book examines Voodoo through the lens of practitioners’ aspirations, specifically their shared quests for economic power, social stability, and religious meaning. The book also highlights the multiracial character of Voodoo, arguing that its portrayal as an African-American religion has been based in large part on faulty associations, including an unwarranted focus on African origins and its distortion vis-à-vis the stigmatizing racial politics of the Jim Crow era.

The author is at his best when meticulously documenting how Voodoo workers navigated difficult political and legal terrain in the city of New Orleans, detailing their struggles to own property, acquire tax-exempt status, and incorporate their churches. Following Leaf Anderson’s model of religious entrepreneurship—and with extraordinary acumen and perseverance—practitioners lay the groundwork for the institutionalizing of Voodoo with chartered churches and viable commercial enterprises. “Their economic successes,” Roberts writes, “allowed these individuals to surround their socially and legally suspect spiritual practices with the material infrastructure of legitimacy,” including “lawyers, businesses and churches” (195). The book carefully maps the vast, contested realm of interests inhabited by Voodoo practitioners, their constituencies, and their detractors, a realm in which magical activity coalesced around strategies for achieving socio-economic well being. Far from its beginnings as a persecuted religion, and beyond the unfettered hostility directed toward its practitioners through physical violence, arrest, and imprisonment, Voodoo in New Orleans would come to attain a distinctive status, achieving a profound and lasting impact on the city’s identity.

Voodoo and Power provides intellectual and academic credibility to a subject that has been fraught with dubious scholarship. Nevertheless, religionists may be dissatisfied with this book, which gives insufficient consideration to the processes of synthesis and hybridity. This manifests in an inadequate treatment of the transformation of Catholic-infused Hoodoo into Protestant-styled supernaturalism, especially between the Laveau era and the Anderson era, when an emphasis upon personal healing and financial magic shaped the scope of extra-ecclesial services and practices in the emerging Spiritual churches. Furthermore, the book eschews potential connections between Voodoo and rival sectarians in nineteenth-century New Orleans, such as the creole Spiritualists, or notable male metaphysical healers such as Valmour. In casting his study within such an insular framework, Roberts allows external religious affinities to go unexplored. In terms of origins, for example, the book says nothing about the midwestern Spiritualist associations with which Leaf Anderson was acquainted, or the theological trappings of apostolic Christianity and Pentecostalism that surely informed the liturgy of the Spiritual churches. Further research might lead to greater clarity concerning religious syncretism and Voodoo, as exemplified by the veneration of the Indian Black Hawk, Anderson’s patron saint and topographic egregore. Questions also remain about the overlap between Voodoo ceremonialism and folk domestic practices among ethnic Catholics in New Orleans, as well as the centrality of somatic ritual practices such as spirit possession in the Spiritual churches. Greater attention to the tools and methods of Religious Studies might yield relevant insights regarding the production of culture in the transition of Voodoo from “magic” to “religion.”

Studies of Voodoo typically predicate their analyses of religious formation on the influence of African cultures, and so doing tend to highlight interpretive categories such as race. This is a mistake, according to Roberts, for the “common association” between New Orleans and Voodoo underscores “the impossibility of cultural containment along racial lines.” Perhaps more than anything else, the U.S. context marked Voodoo’s creation. “If indeed Voodoo began as an African or African American religion,” he writes, “by the twentieth century African religion had become New Orleans religion, and more broadly, American religion” (70). Accordingly, it may no longer be valid to separate Voodoo from other subjects in U.S. church historiography, as Voodoo and Power forces us to reassess the meaning of religious pluralism through its investigation of a regional church, charting its beginnings, its development, its growth and organization, while emphasizing the core themes of doctrine, practice, theology, and leadership that are common to other denominational narratives. It is a much-needed perspective on a marginalized tradition that is shown to be nothing less than a true American religion.