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African American religions and the voodoo label

In 1932, an African American man named Robert Harris killed his tenant on a makeshift altar in the back of his home in Detroit, Michigan. Harris, who was allegedly part of Detroit’s burgeoning Black Muslim community, described the murder as a human sacrifice to Allah.

Harris was put on trial for murder; however, following some bizarre courtroom rants during which he referred to himself as a “king” and the murder as a “crucifixion,” Harris was declared insane and sent to an asylum. Even while reporting on his delusions and his confinement in the asylum, newspapers throughout the United States published stories referring to Harris as the leader of a “Voodoo cult” that practiced human sacrifice.

Although the authorities knew that Harris had a history of threatening to harm his wife, his children, and his social worker and that his actions were the result of mental illness, they detained leaders of the Allah Temple of Islam—the Muslim community to which Harris allegedly belonged—asking them about their beliefs regarding human sacrifice. They allegedly ordered the Temple’s leader, Wallace Fard, to leave Detroit. Elijah Muhammad took over following Fard’s departure and changed the temple’s name to the Nation of Islam. He also moved their headquarters to Chicago. These name and location changes were designed to shake off the negative reputation that the community had developed following the Harris case. Nevertheless, the first scholarly article about the Nation of Islam, written in 1938, was titled “The Voodoo Cult Among Negro Migrants in Detroit.” Additionally, claims that Fard had promoted human sacrifice resurfaced when the Nation gained notoriety during the Civil Rights era and was a way to discredit the work that they were doing.

The founders of the Nation of Islam are not unique. Many African American religions have been labeled as “voodoo” by outsiders and have been falsely accused of barbaric practices.

The history of “voodoo”

The term “voodoo” is deeply rooted in anti-Black racism. Specifically, the term first came into popular use during the US Civil War and was used to argue that Black people were superstitious by nature and would “relapse” into barbaric practices if not controlled by white people through slavery. After the Civil War ended, similar arguments appeared in a variety of US newspapers, reporting the “primitive” practices that had supposedly become popular since the end of slavery. The authors argued that such practices proved that Black people were not ready for citizenship, the right to vote and hold public office and other rights extended to them by post-war constitutional amendments.

Over the following decades, the term “voodoo” evolved and was no longer used simply as a broad term to refer to Black spiritual practices in the US. By the late 19th century, “voodoo” was also a gloss for African based religions in other parts of the Americas. In particular, false allegations that Black people in Cuba and Haiti were engaged in voodoo-related human sacrifice and cannibalism were common around the turn of the 20th century. Such stories often reflected on the horror of such things happening so close to the US and the need for an American military presence to quash these practices. 

Biases remain in the 21st century

The negative perceptions of “voodoo” did not end in the 20th century. They are regularly reinforced through news reports, television, movies, and other sources. Like the founders of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, the bizarre actions of a single mentally ill individual are often attributed to entire Black religions or communities. Recent cases that have been described as “voodoo” include a mother who set her six year old daughter on fire, two women who caused third degree burns to a five-year-old while trying to cleanse her of “demons,” and a man who stabbed his dog thirty-seven times then stuffed it in a suitcase and left it to die.

In other cases, it would go without saying that such senseless acts of violence have no place in religious ritual. However, all these cases were attributed to “voodoo” and linked to Afro-Caribbean, especially Haitian, religious beliefs and practices. Such incidents have a negative impact on devotees who have felt compelled to hide their religion for fear of persecution after such cases are reported in the media. In at least one case, it led a Christian bishop in Massachusetts to denounce “voodoo” before a cheering crowd of hundreds of people. Despite the well-publicized cases of several mentally ill individuals, African American religions do not engage in human sacrifice, cannibalism, or any related acts. However, after more than 150 years of rumors and stereotypes, the term “voodoo” has little life outside of such racist myths about it that were developed to support slavery and imperialism. Aside from a small community of people in New Orleans, devotees of African American religions typically do not use “voodoo” to refer to their own faith. Nevertheless, outsiders continue to mislabel a wide variety of African and African American religions, especially Haitian Vodou, as “voodoo” and attribute barbaric practices to them. These misconceptions cause great harm to devotees who suffer discrimination and violence at alarming rates.

Feature image by Tracy Lundgren via Pixabay.

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