On Being with Krista Tippett

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

Living Vodou

Last Updated

January 9, 2014

Original Air Date

June 28, 2007

The word “Vodou” evokes images of sorcery and sticking pins into dolls. In fact, it’s a living tradition wherever Haitians are found based on ancestral religions in Africa. We walk through this mysterious tradition — one with dramatic rituals of trances and dreaming and of belief in spirits, who speak through human beings, with both good and evil potential.

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Image of Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and author of many books about Vodou.


January 9, 2014

[Music: “Legba Nan Baye-A” by Rara La Bel Fraicheur De L’anglade]

DOCTOR PATRICK BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Haitian deities are neither good nor bad. There is no evil spirit. Spirits can be equally evil and equally good. And the idea is evil does exist, you have to be able, as a human being, to have control over it.

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: As Patrick Bellegarde-Smith puts it, Haiti is 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou. He grew up a member of Haiti’s small aristocracy of light-skinned elites, who rejected their own African roots. Today he’s a scholar of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, and a Vodou priest. But he’s nothing like Bela Lugosi, the mad Vodou priest in a 1932 Hollywood horror film that introduced the cartoonish connection between Vodou and sticking pins into dolls. The truth is not necessarily less magical, but it is more interesting. Vodou is a philosophical, spiritual worldview with 6000 year old roots in the part of West Africa we now know as Benin. And it is a window onto the inner life of the Haitian people. I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.

[Music: “Nago Pa Piti” by Mapou Fo]

MS. TIPPETT:I spoke with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith in 2007. His grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde, was Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, the Vatican and the League of Nations. As a leader of his class, Dantès Bellegarde spoke classic French and saw Vodou as primitive. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith came to the U.S. to study political science. And in the U.S., he found himself drawn into the spiritual world of Vodou. This year he was awarded the Jean Price-Mars medal for his work illuminating this tradition.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, this is rather common, it seems, among Haitians who leave Haiti. They become very intrigued by it once they have reached the United States or France or Canada and elsewhere because it becomes part of their Haitian-ness.

DOCTOR PATRICK BELLEGARDE-SMITH: You know, I even hesitate using the word “religion” because it’s far more than that. It’s a spiritual system. It includes philosophy, technology, science, and everything else. It invades all systems and fields. It is something that occupies one 24 hours a day.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: All of a sudden, they discover cultural roots they never knew they had. So that’s part of the process itself. In my particular case, I did not become interested in this academically. I became interested in it as a person who was looking at his social origins and those kinds of things. I was as far from religion as you can imagine.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: But my first involvement occurred about 20, 25 years ago when I was very, very specifically called by the spirit world to do something about this. And usually, one does not recoil from that kind of demand that one follows, one follows what it is that we need to do. And so, it was a very personal pilgrimage, as it were. And so I took it from there.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. Well, tell me about that. What happened? How, how did you know that you had been called by the spirit world? What was that experience?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, we have a process in the Haitian system, and also in the systems of West Africa and those of Cuba and Brazil where we get strong indication of — that something needs to be done. We call it “landomi” and “in the sleep stage,” but it’s not really a sleep stage, where the spirit world is simply very, very insistent that you do certain kinds of things and you take certain kinds of actions. And, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: So it comes kind of — you had to kind of what maybe someone else might call a dream?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. Someone else might call it a dream. But folks who know these things will say it’s not really a dream, because one can distinguish between dreaming and other kinds of things that are happening in that particular state that reminds me of the Aborigines in Australia, also, in terms of the dreamtime.

MS. TIPPETT: The dreamtime, yes.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes, very, very similar, in fact. And at the very same time other family members of mine were also getting those dreams, buttressing what it is that we needed to do collectively.

MS. TIPPETT: Can you, you know, can you recreate those early dreams or that calling for me? Give me more detail about what happened in them.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. It’s really interesting because the spirit world appears to you in the forms of persons, well, actually, embodied spirits and they are not—they don’t have bodies. But in my particular instance, it was in the form of my great grandmother, a woman whom I knew. She was born on December 25, 1855 and she died in 1952. And I was a young youngster then when she died but I remember her quite well. And she appeared to me and told me precisely what I needed to do, what why my difficulties were and it was that I needed to do for the family and for Haiti also.

MS. TIPPETT: What did she tell you?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well for one thing she told me something which other spirits have told me over and over again over the last thirty years. Humility seems to be a problem for me. I’m not very humble. And I need to somehow do something about that. I’m not exactly sure how to proceed, along those lines.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Am I humble enough? I ask my students…


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: …and they think it’s a joke. It’s not actually.

MS. TIPPETT: So because you are a scholar of this and you have a large view of it, I would like to talk about, you know, where this tradition of Vodou came from, how it evolved, you know, the context of African tradition. Because I — but I think it is a fascinating story that, you know, most people in this culture don’t know. These African religions, which were kind of transplanted to the Western Hemisphere.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. Those traditions that started in West Africa and Central Africa …

MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … are very, very similar, in fact. And, in fact, as part of the pagan world, they are very, very similar to other stories that we know about as well. Native American spirituality …


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … is quite, quite similar to what we do in Haiti. One of the women, she was a priest, who trained me, was a Haitian upper-class woman from the aristocracy. And she did a 40-year study of Hinduism. And she said, ‘Patrick, you cannot imagine the connections between Hinduism and Haitian Vodou.’ It was extraordinary. And her training came from people who were members of the peasantry, people who did not know how to read and write, people from the countryside, people from the rural slums of Port-au-Prince, for instance. And her training came from these folks. These are the folks who maintained religion over the course of 500 years.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And these people, that — there ancestors certainly came to the Caribbean almost literally naked. And so their knowledge was between …

MS. TIPPETT: As slaves.


MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Absolutely naked, literally as well as figuratively naked. But their knowledge was in between their two ears. And that they were able to, to maintain those traditions. A few years ago, I was in Benin, old Dahomey …

MS. TIPPETT: Now, Benin is, is a — people think the origin of what we, what we now call Vodou, right?


MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, actually, it’s old Dahomey. The Republic of Dahomey, which, unfortunately, has become the Republican of Benin.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. What we now know as Benin, yes, uh-huh.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s the core of Haitian culture in terms of the heritage itself. Not that there were not other Africans in Haiti. There were hundreds of different ethnic groups. But somehow, the core that mattered seemed to be from the old Dahomey region.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And so I was there. And I was invited to speak live on a national hook-up throughout the Republic of Benin on radio. And I had brought in, as I always do as I travel, Haitian CDs, Haitian music. And so I would play several cuts of Haitian Vodou music, liturgical music.

[Music: “Se Zekle Yanyan” by Societe Jour M’alonge Foc Nan Point Dieu Devant]

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And I turned around from the glass booth and there were a number of men out there, all middle-aged, all crying. And we talked subsequently and they said, ‘Oh, my God, you guys remember. You remembered. Those are our drumbeats,’ which are not recognized in Cuba, which are not recognized in Brazil because those are other ethnic groups in Africa …


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … that created those religions. And so those our drumbeats and we heard the words. And we know it’s not Fongbe, our national language, it is Haitian Creole.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: But some of the words we understood. We knew those words. In the same ways we have maintained those traditions for 500 years now. And they were quite impressed by that, so I got invited everywhere after that.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And it’s really interesting to see this. And at one particular point at the end of my stay after several weeks, the National Ballet of Benin was doing a public performance in front of hundreds of people. And on the last number, they pulled me onstage alone and I started dancing. And I went into a deep trance. And when I came back, because you don’t remember, I had to ask what happened. They said, ‘Well, you went into a trance from one of the particular spirits of our system.’


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And I — they told me which one it was. And, and after that, I went to greet the singers, and the dancers, and the drummers, the musicians. And all I would here is, in French, “He’s from Haiti. He’s from Haiti. He’s from Haiti.” I got hugs and kisses from absolutely everyone. And they said, ‘We were not sure about you, but you belong here. Welcome home.’


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: ‘And please, come back again.’ So my nickname after that was the African Albino or Albino African.

MS. TIPPETT: Because you were so light-skinned?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Because I’m so light-skinned, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: I’m the Albino African. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: But what — then, that is also a characteristic of Haitian aristocracy from which you…


MS. TIPPETT: … from which your family belongs to.


[Music: “Papa Loko” by Toto Bissainthe]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: Haitian-American scholar and Vodou priest Patrick Bellegarde-Smith.

Vodou is related to other transplanted African traditions such as Santeria, which took root in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil. In all of these places, Catholicism was the official religion of colonizers. Slaves and common people hid the spirits they knew inside their veneration of Catholic saints. To this day, many Haitians combine Vodou practices with Catholic devotion. The avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren documented this in film and in a 1953 book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.

[Film Excerpt]

MS. TIPPETT:The title Divine Horsemen, refers to the way Haitian Vodou practitioners speak about being ridden by spirits or deities who they see as diverse manifestations or emissaries of the one God.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH:African religions have always been monotheistic, always. This is not true of ancient Greece. This is not true of ancient Rome. But this is certainly true of African systems.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And so they are monotheistic. However, god is immaterial in every sense of the word. God is an it. It’s pure spirit that is so far removed from normal, from people in general, that one does not pray to It. In fact, in the African traditions, there are no prayers addressed to the supreme entity. No prayers.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. What is your word for the supreme entity? What’s your word for god?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: In Haitian, in Haitian Creole, we have adopted the French vocable, and that would be “Bon Dieu.” Good god. “Bon Dieu.”

MS. TIPPETT: Ah, that’s Bon Dieu. Because it looks on the page like, B-O-N D-I-E. I see.


MS. TIPPETT: That goes — OK.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Usually pronounced Bon Dieu if you’re from the countryside.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: There is another word for Him as well. Gran Met, the great master, the great architect. But there are no prayers addressed to Gran Met or to Bon Dieu.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: What we do is to address our prayers to a number of spirits in the spirit world that are called lwa, L-W-A. And these are deities, but they are not God. They are deities and they have stories as fascinating as those gods in Greece or in Rome and elsewhere.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Are fascinating. And they are pure spirit as well. But in order to manifest, they will come down at ceremonies and sometimes outside of ceremonies to address us. The person who is ridden by that deity does not know, does not remember, is out of his or her body as it were. And people will have to tell you later what transpired at that time. And so, it, it becomes quite exciting, as a matter of fact. One person who described it beautifully is in the best book ever written, I think, about Haitian religion, and that’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren. And Maya Deren, who died in her 50s, was a Russian Jew who was born in the Ukraine, came to the United States at four. She became extremely important in terms of avant-garde cinema in this country. She was also initiated into Haitian Vodou. She was also an anthropologist. She worked with Joseph Campbell and the others. And in a chapter called “White Darkness,” she explains the process of going into trance and losing contact with this world. And it is a magnificent chapter. Maya Deren is one of my favorite people in the world. And she’s been dead for quite a while now. I never met her, of course. But she goes through all of this in her book and establishes some very interesting connections.

MS. TIPPETT: Do you have to be a priest to have that experience of being ridden by the spirits?


MS. TIPPETT: Could you tell me about the first time that happened to you? Or, or a very memorable time that that happened to you?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, people will have to explain to me what went on because I have, um, going through the experience you have no recollection…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH:…no clue that this is happening to you. The very first time I went in to a trance it was for a female deity, a female spirit.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Um, and, males and females go through trance for males and female spirit, interchangeably. That’s not an issue. Gender does not matter at all in the context of that spiritual world. So it’s a, it’s a free for all in that sense. And Maya Deren herself went through several trances when she first got to Haiti back in the 1940s. And she was not initiated. She did not speak the language. She had just landed in the country.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. But do you, let’s say, when you’ve first had this experience is this something you open yourself to? Is it part of of a ritual?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, in my particular case it was a ceremony of initiation.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH:..but these things can affect you at any point, at any time based on your receptivity to the spirit world. And also what the spirit world needs to do and needs to accomplish.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Well my understanding from just reading about this is that there’s, um, you know you said earlier on what your great-grandmother first appeared to you in dreams, she told you you needed humility. And my understanding is that this process of the spirits entering one is one of a real releasing of self.


MS. TIPPETT: It’s a loss of control. I mean, you’re describing a complete loss of control. You don’t even know what happened.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. It’s the equivalent of handing the keys to your car to a very good friend …


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … and then hoping that the car will not be mangled and it will come back to you in one piece at some point because you are no longer the driver of that particle car. Somebody else is at the controls with the keys and gone away. And hopefully, you will get your body back and you will get your car back.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you know, I think someone listening to this for whom this is a very new concept and, I think, there’ll be plenty of people like that would say, ‘Well, if this is real, if this happens, why doesn’t it happen to everyone?’ It seems to me that …


MS. TIPPETT: It can?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yeah. Yes. Of course, it can. And you see — in the African-American church, in certain denominations especially, you have that every Sunday, you know? When the, the spirit comes down …


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … the spirit manifest. And it’s really interesting because when I came to this country 41 years ago, one of the things that I had fun doing is going to African-American partisan churches. I felt totally at ease. I felt totally calm.

MS. TIPPETT: Especially, I suppose, in Pentecostal churches.


MS. TIPPETT: Where — but again, there’s an invitation in that culture, in that worship service. There’s an …


MS. TIPPETT: … there’s an openness to that happening.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. That’s right. And I remember the first time I saw it in the Pentecostal church and I, I’m like a lawyer. I don’t ask a question unless I know the answer first. And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ They said, ‘Oh, the holy spirit is here.’ I said, ‘Fine. What’s its name?’ ‘It’s the holy spirit.’ I said, ‘It’s too generic.’ I know 417, and I need to know which one it is to recognize that spirit and welcome it in the proper sense.

[Music: “Fall Down” by West Angeles Cathedral Church of God in Christ Choir]

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about these spirits you know. Let’s say, for example, you mentioned earlier a scholar who found a really, real affinity between Hinduism and Vodou. And Hindus will often feel a special affinity with certain gods, right? With certain deities.


MS. TIPPETT: Do you also have that experience? Are there …

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes.



MS. TIPPETT: Or yours, I mean, for in your case, would be the spirits.


MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Deities claim each and every individual. And different deities will claim you. And you have one that becomes predominant in terms of your spirituality, but also in terms of your personality. Then there are other spirits that interact with those. And sometimes you can have an internal struggle between various spirits. In terms of Cuba, in terms of Brazil, each priest favors one particular spirit, and does not necessarily call upon the others. But in Haiti, it becomes possible to be initiated to all of them and to call upon all of them if need be. And some of those spirits have changed in my life, in my 60 years of existence.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Those that were very significant 30 years ago have taken a second seat. And others have come forward. For instance, one that is terribly important to me is a female deity who’s always taking care of me. And that’s Ezili Dantò in the Haitian system. And she’s represented as one of the black virgins in the Roman Catholic Church, and she signifies motherhood, motherly love.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And she’s always been exceedingly close to me. Another spirit, which has become far more significant over the past decade or so is Ogou. He’s been a constant companion, which is interesting. He represents justice, and he hates injustice. And he is also a warrior.

MS. TIPPETT: And you mentioned how a certain spirit is represented also. There’s a Catholic saint parallel, which is fascinating in Haiti and in Brazil and Cuba because the Catholic Church was so dominant there, and that became intermingled. But it’s, it’s also an interesting way to think about how this idea of a relationship with a certain spirit, though, it may sound very strange, you know, to someone …


MS. TIPPETT: … listening. In fact, there is a very strong parallel among Roman Catholics who will associate personally with particular saints.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. Yes, indeed.

MS. TIPPETT: So tell me, you’ve just mentioned these two spirits who are really part of your identity. It sounds like in your daily life.


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, how does that express itself? Do you have representations of them in an altar or …

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. Yes. In fact, before I forget, Ogou, Ogou Feraille is St. James.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: The Roman Catholic connection is terribly significant because it allowed African deities an actual, physical representation …


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … which did not exist in Protestant North America. You have that in New Orleans, where the Haitian presence was absolutely powerful over the last 200 years. You have the Roman Catholic saintly heritage in Cuba and Brazil as well. And that was to avoid certain levels of persecution. And so people could hide, literally hide behind the Roman Catholic saints. But I remind people that Roman Catholic saints, all 10,000 of them or thereabouts, are dead people. Mostly dead white people. Deities were never people.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And they were never born. And they were never — they never died. But it became interesting to be able to cover up what it is that you did — literally cover it up — when a slave owner was approaching. As a matter of fact, it reminds me of the martial art, one of the most prominent martial arts that one finds in the African continent and in Brazil, capoeira, where people would pretend to be dancing, instead of practicing martial art, a very deadly martial art, when the slave owners or people in his retinue would come by. So there was this disguise. We wear the mask.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about the complexity of African deities. You’ve said they are more complex than saints in many ways. And one way is that saints are almost perfect people. As you say, it was someone who lived …


MS. TIPPETT: … and what, what is revered about them is their goodness.


MS. TIPPETT: Now, Vodou spirits, deities, are much more complicated than that.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. And they’re not perfect deities. They have their problems. They have their difficulties. You’re talking in terms of an imperfect world that mirrors our world. So whatever you see in human nature or in nature, because human nature is part of nature …

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … it is literally reflected in the mirror with the other world as well, with the metaphysical world. Haitian deities are neither good nor bad. There is no evil spirit. Spirits can be equally evil and equally good.

MS. TIPPETT: They’re both, right?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: They’re both, they’re both.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And the idea is that you cannot eschew dealing with evil. Evil does exist, and you have to be able to control it. You have to be able, as a human being, to control over evil, to have control over it. And you can work it both ways. That there will be here to pay, if you excuse the pun. There will be here to pay if you choose to serve in the evil side of things, because it will hit you three times as hard, and not just you, but your family for generations to come. So, yes, you have a choice. You have a choice to be good …

MS. TIPPETT: You have a choice and there are consequences.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: There are — there are no sins, but there are consequences.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: The Brazilians have an interesting saying, “There are no sins below the equator.” I absolutely love that because just find your equator on your body. There are no sins. There are consequences to one’s action.

[Music: “M Pap Mache A Te Anye” by Rara La Bel Fraicheur De L’anglade]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith through our website, onbeing.org. Coming up…the relationships between Vodou, reason, science, and morality. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[Music: “Mennwat Dance” by Gwoup Premye Nimewo]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: Haitian-American scholar and Vodou priest Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. We’re exploring Vodou as a prism of the philosophical and spiritual world of Haiti – and as a bridge between its ancient roots in Africa and its more recent past and present.

As my guest, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith says, Haiti is 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou. He had a Catholic aristocratic upbringing there. He’s now a scholar of Africology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and a Vodou priest. As he’s been describing in a conversation I had with him in 2007, Vodou has nothing to do with the Hollywood image of sticking pins into dolls. The Drew University anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown helped bring serious study of Haitian Vodou to Western scholars with her 1991 book, Mama Lola, about a Vodou priestess in Brooklyn’s Haitian community. That book recounts dramatic Vodou gatherings under Mama Lola’s leadership.

[Music: “Guantanamo Rara Sont” by Cite Soleil Rara Inorab Kapab]

MS. TIPPETT: There are a lot of stories in there about Mama Lola’s experiences of being ridden by spirits …


MS. TIPPETT: … and they’re quite raucous, right? I mean, that’s one …


MS. TIPPETT: … word — theatrical is the word she uses. Raucous is the word I use.


MS. TIPPETT: There’s a God, a deity, Gede, who, who …

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: One of — one of the dominant spirits in my world …


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … in my own self, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: In your own self. So, all right.


MS. TIPPETT: So what is this? He, he — is part of the realms of sex, death, and humor.


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, talk to me about this figure, that this is so unusual.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And, and those three things are intimately connected.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … intimately connected, pun intended.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. But not usually in religion.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. Yeah. Well — this is interesting because this is the crossroads. This is where the metaphysical plane intersect with the physical plane. This is the transition, the passage. And it’s interesting that American news magazines now, and magazines and newspapers will use the word “transitions” instead of — you know, we have those columns in Time and Newsweek, and it’s labeled “Transitions.” That’s an old African idea.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. Where they report deaths and divorces …

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: If you go back 20 years ago, we never used that word. Never did.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: They report people getting new jobs. That’s a transition. And next to it, somebody died. It’s a transition.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, there is difference between getting a new job and actually dying. And it, it is a bigger transition I think. But you see death is not death and birth is not birth because your eternal soul existed before your birth. You always were. You were never born as spirit. Every individual is spirit first, human being second. I think that we have an advantage over the spirit world, the deities, the lwa. Or in Christianity, over angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim …

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … in the sense that they must envious of us. They must be jealous of us. We have bodies. We can do things with those bodies. They’ve never had bodies.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: They can’t externalize certain kinds of behaviors. So, indeed, when they want to dance, they have to invade your body in order to do it.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And to me, I think I have an advantage over the deities because of that. I’m able to dance. If prayer is powerful, when you sing it, it’s that much more powerful.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: The word made flesh. That when you dance it, it really expand the territory that you can cover in that sense.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: You see — and to go into trance oftentimes in the Haitian context, you have to explode certain constraints. Drumming might help you do that.

[Music: “Port-au-Prince Drumming” by The Unknown Drummer]

MS. TIPPETT: And when you talk about dance and this kind of cathartic, physical experience as part and parcel of your spirituality and of your metaphysics, the images that come to mind are not of Western religion, but very vividly, of African culture, of Brazil, right? It …


MS. TIPPETT: There’s a sense in which this, this understanding, this practice and this entire sensibility is lost in Western culture, a lot of it. As you say, not in African-American churches. I mean you can find it. But in our kind of dominant culture and in kind of the Protestant worship where you sit up straight and pews and pay attention and listen.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Exactly. It’s like, you know, Jimmy Cliff used to perform his reggae music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And I heard him several years in a row. And I would get up and go to the aisle and be told by men with huge flashlights to go back to my seat immediately because of some rules and regulations about fire hazards and that kind of thing. Perhaps I was going to combust, you know, what’s, what’s that expression, I don’t know. But it’s very hard for me to sit in a pew or sit in a chair and listen to reggae music or any other kind of music. For that matter, if it goes against the grain in terms of what my cultural heritage calls for. And so it, it’s quite difficult. But you see, dancing is, to me, one of those primal kinds of things that comes naturally with the body. You see, the body is not sinful.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: We were not born; we’re not conceived in sin. Sex is not sinful. There is no such thing as original sin. There’s no such thing as heaven and hell, for heaven’s sake. So none of these things exist as realities for us. So the body is absolutely wonderful.

MS. TIPPETT: Something we skipped over, I don’t want to lose this. When we talk about, though, the, the dark potential, the evil potential that is in spirits as it is in human beings, there is also — I’ve, I’ve seen the word “sorcery” associated with Vodou.


MS. TIPPETT: Is that a reflection of that? And is that where this idea that, that we have from Hollywood comes from about Vodou with people sticking pins in dolls?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: I think so. Of course. We do have a precept in Haitian Vodou: When you look into the cosmic mirror, the image that looks back at you is the image of God. It’s your own face. And God, on the other hand, is not good nor evil. God is neutral. God is absolutely neutral, unaffected by goodness or evilness. And the spirit world can, indeed, use all these things. And you can use them because you have free will.

MS. TIPPETT: And all right. So in the West, religion is associated with morality. Now, that word means different things to different people. But how do you think about — you know, morality as a function or virtue or right-living? You know, I’m using different words …


MS. TIPPETT: … in different traditions …

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes, of course.

MS. TIPPETT: … in context Vodou. And then, you know, with this image of these, as you say, these prurient gods who are very important in dominance.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. Right-living is an outcome, but it is also a quest. Right-living. But let me give you one illustration in terms of showing you how it works there. Abortion is not a good thing in Haitian Vodou. It’s not a good thing. On the other hand, you’ve got to do what you got to do. And then, you will argue your way out of it with the spirit world later. They might actually understand the conditions that led you to doing this. It’s not a nice idea to have an abortion, but the person has to do what a person has to do. And this applies, generally speaking, to all kinds of other moral dilemmas that each and every individual faces in life.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: You’ve got to do what you got to do. Then we’ll argue about it, because you can argue with the deities. You see it actually in ceremonies. People are arguing with the deities, sometimes not in a kind way.

[Music: “Lamizé Pa Dous” by Toto Bissainthe]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: scholar and Vodou priest, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith on the cosmology and practices of Vodou, the African-based religion of the Haitian people. To see some of the ritual he’s describing, go to onbeing.org and find Stephanie Keith’s photos of a Haitian community in Brooklyn worshipping Ghede and other spirits.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you about this concept of knowledge, konesans?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Konesans, konesans, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Konesans.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: A French word originally — yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Clearly coming from French, yes.


MS. TIPPETT: Now here’s a definition I read. It’s, and this would be the knowledge of a priest, you are a priest, so this is something, I’m assuming, you have an experience with — the definition I read is an ability to read people with or without cards; to name their suffering; to heal.


MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me about that.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Other people may have it as well. It’s not limited to the priesthood necessarily. But there is training. And you see — it’s not, you don’t go to a seminary and after four years you have a diploma and you’re a priest.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And that’s it. The training that I have undergone over the last two decades will never ever end. There’s no end process at all.

MS. TIPPETT: Even after a death, I understand.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Exactly. Even after death, I continue in that particular road. And so, but other people can have it as well.

MS. TIPPETT: Do you have an ability to, to read people as this other definition goes?


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, do you, do you …


MS. TIPPETT: And that is something you have cultivated as you’ve cultivated …


MS. TIPPETT: … in your garden of …


MS. TIPPETT: … of spiritual gifts.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: I think so. I have also seen young children able to read people. A small child who …

MS. TIPPETT: Well, right, yes.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … is not verbal yet will know whether an adult likes children or not.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: This is something that we breed out of children together with special friends that they have that are invisible to the rest of us. We breed that out of them. Remember the film The Sixth Sense?


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Where that little boy who goes around saying, “I see dead people. I see dead people.” It took me years to see that film. My students said, ‘You have to see it. You will like it.’ And I said, ‘I see dead people.’ And I said, ‘So what? A lot of us see dead people.’

MS. TIPPETT: All right.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: So what’s the problem with this?

MS. TIPPETT: And you know that is an experience that many people report — having conversations, having dreams that are not dreams, with people they love who’ve died and yet our culture has no way to assess or …


MS. TIPPETT: … or interpret or give validity to that kind of — but there’s so many reports of it. But you’re talking about that being kind of embraced by this …


MS. TIPPETT: … religious tradition.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And I’m not afraid of dead people. As a child, I was afraid of drumming. I was afraid of snakes. I was afraid of going to funerals. I was afraid of all these things. Now I embrace all of this. It doesn’t scare me at all. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of pain, but now we have morphine so I’m OK. I’m OK with that. It’s the pain that precedes death that is an issue. Death is not the issue.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, and OK, this is kind of getting at something I wanted, a place I wanted to go next. So we’ve been speaking, you’ve been speaking to me, and I’ve been inviting you to speak, as much as a practitioner and a priest of Vodou as a, as an academic. But you are an academic. You are an intellectual. I’m sure you’re aware …


MS. TIPPETT: I’m sure you’re aware of this genre in American culture, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, which are really saying that the entire religious enterprise is, you know, it’s a crutch that human beings have relied on that it doesn’t have validity that, that are more rational and scientific and mature we are, we will let go of this. Now


MS. TIPPETT: … that critique is mostly aimed at the monotheistic traditions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam, present events — but I’m sure they would also say this, I mean, what you’re describing is not rational, right …


MS. TIPPETT: … by a kind of Western scientific definition. So I’m curious how you — what is your response. To the extent that you feel your religious sensibility is criticized by that, what is your response to those kinds of arguments?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: You know, we’ve heard it before. Karl Marx said that religion is the opium of the masses.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: I think he was wrong. Now we have Hitchens and other atheists saying the same things. That’s really interesting. When you look at Albert Einstein and a number of very incredible scientific minds …

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … they were believers ultimately. But they did not believe in the God as defined in the book. They believed in a different kind of a god and …

MS. TIPPETT: Cosmic religious sensibility.


MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And that was Albert Einstein. And you see, African religion has never had a problem with actual science because in African religion, all African religions, it says, and this is the predominant note, all things are energy.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, and that is …


MS. TIPPETT: You could say that that’s being affirmed by modern science that …


MS. TIPPETT: … that idea.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: The physicists …


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: … that would tell you that all things are energy. What’s the difference between religion and physics is that in African religion, all things are conscious energy. Evolution makes sense within the construct of African religion.

MS. TIPPETT: But some would say that — let’s say, Haiti is the poorest country in …


MS. TIPPETT: … in the Western Hemisphere.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

MS. TIPPETT: And some might say, this is a perfect example for Marx’s theory that this is the opium of the masses or maybe Dawkins, you know, saying that it’s a crutch.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Yes. Yes. Yes, of course. And for some people I’m sure it is a crutch, for some people, certainly. And it’s really interesting that a number of Ph.D.s in Haiti have now recognized their attachment to Haitian Vodou. And it’s not just a cultural thing. It’s not just they’re trying to be Haitian about it. But there is a deep sense of spirituality, which some of these educated people in the country now have reached a conclusion that this is the way to go. A number of individuals — scientists and people of that ilk — have gone to Haiti and have seen the beauty beyond the poverty.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: The poverty is unbearable. But there’s something else at work here.

[Music: “O Bazilo Ou Pa We Nou Nan Chenn” by Sanba Zawo, Djakata]

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: I was trained oftentimes largely by illiterate peasants in Haiti — no shoes, no education whatsoever, can’t read, can’t write, starving to death. I sit literally on the dirt at their feet and I keep my mouth shut. And they say, ‘Well, you have a Ph.D., don’t you tell them?’ I said, ‘I don’t tell them anything.’ They are my teachers. They’re my mentors. And these people are learned. It’s not because you’ve gone to school that you’re educated. And I have met people who couldn’t read and write, who were absolutely brilliant and understood what the deal was.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. What the deal was, what?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: What it is to be fully human. And it is to accept the pain and the joy at the same time. And you remember that African-American slaves and other slaves in the Caribbean, enslaved Africans, they were really lambasted for dancing even on the auction block.


DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: And African-American culture is vibrant. It is recognized around the world. Jazz is everywhere, gospel music and everything else. It is a joyous culture in the midst of a tremendous amount of pain and struggle for freedom, which still lasts till now.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. This is my last question. Your grandfather, who we spoke about earlier, who was a great philosopher and statesman in Haitian history — he was an intellectual who said that voodoo was primitive, that Christianity was superior. I wonder maybe you do converse with him. You know …


MS. TIPPETT: … I wanted to ask you, what, how would you talk to him about how you have now decided to give yourself to this religion, and both as a human being and as a scholar?

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, it’s really interesting because I was very, very close to my grandfather growing up. I benefited from his library in his home in Port-au-Prince. He had tens of thousands of books. And people are telling me, ‘Well, he must be spinning in his grave.’ I said, ‘Not at all.’ He’s quite satisfied that I’m making amends for him, for the kinds of things he refused to recognize. He also thought that anything having to do with Africa was no good, all the way down to his kinky, nappy hair. Well, I’m quite proud of my nappy hair. I’m nappy-headed. And so was he. And you see he was pro-French. It was a family that was light-skinned, had been light-skinned for a number of generations, and would make very, very sure that the entire family for generations to come would stay light-skinned, because we’re not going back to Africa because that is savagery.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: Well, Africa does not mean that to me at all. When I wanted to get my mother angry as a child, I would say, ‘Mother, I love them drums.’ And she would say to me, ‘Oh god, why can’t you like the violin? The violin is much better’

MS. TIPPETT: Right. All right.

DR. BELLEGARDE-SMITH: But on her deathbed literally, I would put some Haitian music. And that’s the bed she would never get out of. She was moving. Days before her death, she was moving to the tune of Haitian drums.

[Music: “Se Zekle Yanyan” by Societe Jour M’alonge Foc Nan Point Dieu Devant]

MS. TIPPETT: Patrick Bellegarde-Smith is a professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He’s the author of several books, including Haiti: The Breached Citadel. He’s the 2013 recipient of Haiti’s Jean Price-Mars Medal.

[Music: “Se Zekle Yanyan” by Societe Jour M’alonge Foc Nan Point Dieu Devant]

MS. TIPPETT: Patrick Bellegarde-Smith lost nine extended family members in the January 2010 Haiti earthquake three years ago. He wrote this to us, after those events unfolded:

“I…come from a well-connected family whose story parallels Haitian history over the last two centuries. Every corpse is mine; every body is mine. Their spirit fuses with mine and that of all Haitians. Spirits live beyond death – and before birth. The dead are not dead, but alive in new dimensions. I gain solace from that ancestral thought.”

[Music: “Signale Agouet Aroyo” by Pierre Chériza Fénélus]

MS. TIPPETT: To listen again or share this show with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, go to onbeing.org. And follow everything we do through our weekly email newsletter. Subscribe through the newsletter link on any page at onbeing.org. On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, and Mikel Elcessor.


[Music: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Johann Sebastian Bach]

MS. TIPPETT: This is the sound of a wooden ball, tripping down a massive xylophone-like construction on a forested hill, and playing a version of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. It comes from a popular Japanese cell phone commercial.

It’s also a favorite On Being blog post of 2013, with one hundred thousand likes on our facebook page and nearly 800 comments on our website. Many called it art, some called it a waste of time, one commentator marveled “at the construction and the engineering, magnificently portrayed as Bach would have been in wonder of it all.” One thing is for sure, it’s just another example of how beauty can turn up anywhere, even in a cell phone ad.

See for yourself: onbeing.org.

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