Pop Culture and the Voodoo Religion
Most of what people know about voodoo comes from inaccurate information both in fictional entities such as books and films and in ill-informed news stories where in a far-flung country (even one outside of West Africa, the home of Vodoun) the latest depravities of someone labeled a “witch doctor” or the perversely violent beliefs that have taken hold of a population are called voodoo. Voodoo isn’t seen as a specific religion but as a synonym for magic or superstition in a variety of broad contexts. It’s analogous to a film showing white characters adhering to wacky/sinister beliefs a scriptwriter invented and the film referring to it as Christianity or news media referring to any odd or egregious action taken by white people of any faith as Judaism.
Vodoun is a West African religion that was carried by slaves to the Western hemisphere, primarily Haiti and Louisiana, where it became known in its new forms as voodoo. Voodoo is a complex syncretic belief system that draws on African traditions as diverse as those of the Ewes and Dahomeys, the faith of the indigenous Tainos, and Catholicism and Islam. The foundation of voodoo is not charms (which attract the most outside attention) but monotheistic faith, belief in saints and spirits, and a focus on moral values such as charity and respect for the elderly. People do perform rites for protection and defense, but suffice it to say that voodoo is not about being a magician or a fairy godmother. Yet the rites performed in voodoo, when not exoticized and exaggerated past any semblance of accuracy or entirely fictionalized, are typically considered superstitious magic by non-practitioners while rites in Christianity – such as the belief that you can lay hands on people and cast devils out of them or anoint people with oil and heal them – are not.
To underline how offensive The Prince and the Frog’s version of voodoo is, imagine if another religion were treated as a system of enchantment that could be employed for good or for ill. Imagine if the prince had been changed into a frog because a Catholic priest, referred to as a magician, who is wearing a Roman collar but seems to exist in a separate universe from the actual tenets of Catholicism, sprinkled him with cursed water from a baptismal font, and the only way for the prince and Tiana to save themselves was for them to get the pope-wizard to feed them magical communion wafers. It’s because voodoo is an African religious system that it can be treated with such license as though it weren’t a real religion like Christianity or Hinduism.
- Tami Winfrey Harris on The Princess and the Frog. Of course, this applies to many uses of ‘voodoo’ in pop culture.