Vodou as Idea: On Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s “Ezili’s Mirrors”
By Gina Athena UlysseSeptember 28, 2018
Ezili’s Mirrors by Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley
The rationale for the change was clearly delineated: voodoo belongs to a long history of the denigration of West African and Haitian religion. Terms such as “voodoo dolls,” “voodoo politics,” and “voodoo economics” are racialized referents to magic, superstition, and an absence of enlightened reason. Those four dangerous little o’s conjure images of evil, witchcraft, sorcery, blood sacrifices, and orgies. Since the religion is synonymous with Haiti, even though the country is actually religiously plural, those of us who recognize and respect Vodou’s complexity know we must extricate it from geopolitically driven myths. These incarcerate Haiti in a narrative of exceptionalism discursively couched in mystique. Hence, defending Vodou takes on greater importance since these racist stereotypes limned above exist in a larger semiotic field that has real consequences in the material world. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s latest book, Ezili’s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders, reflects what is at stake in this debate.
Vodou is central to this work because as Tinsley writes, in its cosmology and community formation, the religion is radically inclusive of creative genders and sexualities. Additionally, a significant number of practitioners are both gender and sexually nonconforming. Tinsley chooses the lwa (spirit) Ezili from an extensive pantheon that consists of 21 nations (families) and includes as many as 400 individual spirits. Ezili is the lwa who represents divine forces of love, sexuality, prosperity, pleasure, maternity, creativity, and fertility. Moreover, Tinsley underscores, Ezili is also the one who protects madivin and masisi, the Haitian Kreyòl terms for lesbian women, gay men, as well transmasculine and transfeminine individuals. As a result, many madivin and masisi are devotees of this spirit. In four chapters interwoven with bridges, Tinsley recounts her search for this spirit from genesis to futures. She reimagines the various manifestations of Ezili as she sees this spirit evoked in the works of several queer Caribbean and African-American writers such as Sharon Bridgforth, Nalo Hopkinson, Ana-Maurine Lara, as well as in the work and lives of popular performers such as Azealia Banks, Whitney Houston, Rihanna, and numerous others, including Tinsley’s kin, who would not identify as Vodou practitioners.
From the outset, Tinsley asks her readers to receive her book like a song. It is a song for Ezili written in three voices, represented by three distinct fonts: the first, academic language and close textual readings, the way Tinsley was trained to write; the second (and her favorite), the voice of spirit knowledge that tells stories of Ezili’s various manifestations as these are incarnated in her chosen subjects; and the third recalls Black feminist ancestors, the foremothers who dropped knowledge and walked the path of Ezili. For Tinsley, these three voices resonate sonically, en tandem, with members of her favorite group Destiny’s Child and align with Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle, respectively.
If you’re feeling a bit at sea, that’s part of the point. Tinsley hopes “we can lose our bearings & find new ways to make sense, together & coming-apart-at-the-seams” — she invites us to openness. While this reviewer sticks to linearity, the book does not lend itself to such movement. Tinsley blurs genres, shifting location, time, and space to double-dutch the line between the sacred and the profane as she delves into self-reflexive Black feminist analysis, literary criticism, and spiritual meditations, all from a queer and performance-oriented standpoint. As such, Ezili’s Mirrors is an exigent work that, at times, feels like a labyrinth. The author had warned the reader the book would be difficult. Patience is required.
Tinsley is on a triple quest with clearly articulated intentions. She seeks to decolonize queer studies’ “persistent masculinization of black lesbians” by challenging the colonial fictions that continue to constrict them epistemologically and performatively. To do so, she will map out what she calls Vodou’s queer past and present, and through this process “learn the lessons of her spiritual ancestors.”
Tinsley approaches this colossal project with her inventive “theoretical polyamory” — the term she uses to denote a movement between different modes of theorizing music videos, popular songs, dances film, erotica, speculative fiction, and fashion “all married into one,” all accorded the same explanatory power as academic prose to make sense of queer Black lives. In so doing, she pushes back against institutional pedagogies invested in a fractured (often racialized and gendered) subject that must remain neatly confined to specific departments, and/or fields of study. Indeed, since no one lives their life along disciplinary lines, interdisciplinarity and/or multimodal intersectional forms of inquiry are necessary tools for integrative analysis.
The first chapter brings the bejeweled Ezili Freda to the fore. Often described as a mulattre, Tinsley views her embodied manifestations as the highpoint of performances of gendered creativity in terms of fe(me)minity. Flawless. Demanding. Freda, she contends, is the lwa of a Black femme function specific to African diaspora histories, one that contests the violent consolidation of femininity as the sole property of white women. Tinsley introduces Haitian-American performance artist MilDred Gerestant a.k.a. Dréd a.k.a. “D.R.E.D” (Daring Reality Every Day), a Black gender illusionist whose drag performances brought her to prominence during the Drag King era of the 1990s. In her later performance works, Dréd pays homage to Danbala, Bawon Samdi, and Ezili. Tinsley marvels at her gender-bending, she dressed “Bawon Sanmdi in a skirt and Freda in a beard, [reflecting] the queerness directly into Ezili’s mirrors.” Tinsley recognizes how Dréd’s work satirized the most archaic racist and racialized notions of Black masculinity, finding in the apparent reluctance of audiences to accept Dréd is indeed female an affirmation and challenge to the invisibility and even inconceivability of a more fluid Black femininity.
From the archives, Tinsley retrieves the story of Janet Collins, the first Black ballerina in the United States who performed at the Metropolitan Opera. At the age of 17, the talented Collins was invited to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with the caveat that she, fair-skinned, would be painted white when she performed; Collins declined. Throughout her career, the artistically trapped Collins struggled with racist strictures and their gendered dimensions. As she aged, the effects of these incessant assaults and their limits on her selfhood became evident. She suffered from bipolar disorder. Tinsley uses this story to remark on mental health — the social and emotional stressors that severely impact Black queer women.
Ezili Dantò, the dagger-wielding fierce mother-protector, a lover of women and men, manifests in the second chapter as Blondine, a Port-au-Prince vendor who appeared in the documentary Of Men and Gods, by Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire. Blondine literally and figuratively embodies the notion of women as machan ak machandiz (merchant and commodity), as she negotiates being queer in a Haitian society ridden with queerphobia. Other subjects include New Orleans’s esteemed “Queen of Bounce,” Big Freedia, and Angie Xtravaganza, the renowned house mother from the documentary Paris Is Burning by Jennie Livingston. In remaining chapters, Ezili Je Wouj, the lwa known for exacting revenge and whom Tinsley dubs the “cosmic dominatrix,” is personified by Domina Erzulie, a Montreal-based Vodouizan and dominatrix who expertly exploits Vodou as fetish in her profitable business. Though she may exert power over her white male clientele, according to Tinsley, when the fantasies end, Domina remains vulnerable as a Black femme. Lasirenn, the mermaid emerging from the sea, adds to Tinsley’s catalog of mirrored manifestations of the spirit, particularly in the context of addiction. Water, in all of its forms, is an important feature as conduit, metaphor, source of pleasure and recovery, a dwelling place.
Historical figures such as Mary Ellen Pleasant also make an appearance in Ezili’s Mirrors. The entrepreneur abolitionist — known to have had dealings with Marie Laveau, the so-called “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans” — subverted class/color codes to amass a tremendous fortune in the underground sex industry, becoming infamous as San Francisco’s first “Voodoo Queen.” Tinsley also ruminates on the documentary PotoMitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy by Renée Bergan and Mark Schuller to mark the ways in which Black women refuse to abide by structures of silence that are used to exploit them. Her forays in and out of these various lives enable Tinsley’s exploration of Ezili’s iterations in queer sex work, as these also relate to racialized sex play, the dailiness of survival in precarious free-trade zones, capital accumulation, and the invisible demands and tenderness of queer parenting. While the emphasis is on gendered confrontations with racialized power to negotiate the complex social, political, and sexual logic of capital, these examples also serve to broaden the spectrum of perceptions of Black femme.
By selecting Ezili’s archetype of womanhood from Vodou to portray a range of embodiments and enactments of genders, Tinsley shows the limitless possibilities of aesthetics, expressions, and performances of everyday life that have been available to Black women in the African diaspora. Her vignettes effectively unsettle the limited categories that abound in queer studies, and Ezili’s Mirrors will surely make a splash because, with sass, Tinsley returns the gaze onto her interlocutors, demanding they glare into their Eurocentric mirrors. (Let me add that it has been 40 years since Audre Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” in which Lorde refuted Daly’s homogenization of Black women, a task Tinsley is committed to in Ezili’s Mirrors.)
Tinsley’s achievement, however, is not without complications. While she admits in the conclusion that the work — constructed as fractals, through breaks with fissures — is imperfect, she does not address its biggest shortcoming. Any reader unfamiliar Vodou will be left with a reductionist perspective and unanswered questions regarding authority and legitimacy. The work contains inaccuracies, oddities, and tensions too numerous to list or to ignore. These derive from a fundamental problem: Ezili’s Mirrors does not elucidate the difference between the idea of voodoo as exotica, fetish, and macabre — a derivative of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls the “Savage Slot” — from Vodou as a bona fide religion with a theology and practice. This conflation, which Kate Ramsey’s The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti so meticulously captures, has historically been used as an oppressive tool, and has had more cache than the mundane reality of what practitioners call “serving the spirits.”
This all-too-common blunder has become something of a scholarly epidemic. The Vodou that appears in Ezili’s Mirror resembles a “new age” faith that has grown into a lucrative and competitive business, especially on the internet, engulfed by neoliberalism. In these times, initiation is a hot commodity (spiritual capital) that is readily available to those willing, and able to pay the price (economic capital). Anyone with a modicum of knowledge and access can claim to be something of an expert. Vodou as a subject of study is a minefield that requires curatorial sensibility and discernment to produce substantive work. Tinsley’s polyamoric approach indiscriminately engages with all sources, including some which have absolutely no legitimacy in Haitian Vodou communities.
I find it curious: Tinsley identifies as an Ifa devotee, yet chose Ezili rather than Osun/Yemaya, whom she would arguably understand on a deeper, more intimate level as her subject. Nonetheless, it would be too easy to state that Tinsley is misinterpreting the Vodou religion. She certainly takes a lot of creative liberties that gloss over “the logics of a reality that has its own integrity,” as Maya Deren so beautifully noted. To highlight the parallel with her polyamoric method, Tinsley dwells on “unresolved plurality” as indicative of Vodou’s multiplicity. She writes, “its lwas and rituals vary from Port-au-Prince to Northern Haiti to Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, New Orleans and Montreal,” yet eschews the fact that there are still laws and there is a regleman (ritual order) that is essential to its function regardless of location. Tinsley also claims to “write Ezili as theory…” or “this fractal mode of theorizing is Ezili…” Theologically, the absence of deference aside, it is a stretch even for literary criticism to claim authority as the voice of a spirit.
In a similar line, she imagines singers Azealia Banks and Rihanna respectively are incarnations of Lasirenn as “party girl” and Anaisa Pye, “the divine carefree black girl of Dominican Vudu.” The former she posits may have gone anba dlo, that is being born with deep spiritual knowledge, so does not require initiation. This reader is reminded that these are Tinsley’s imaginings, her prerogative, not the determination of religious authorities. What is more ironic, despite her emphasis on gaps, queer assemblages, and a willingness to experiment, Tinsley creates a totalizing narrative that strays far from Haitian Vodou as a religion “grounded in tenets of sacred healing that work to maintain balance and rhythm within the cosmos,” as Kyrah Malika Daniels puts it. This reinforces another crucial point: though the book is listed as Afro-Caribbean Religion, by appropriating the spirit from within her context, Ezili functions more as a trope in this work, thus placing the project in line with performance studies.
Ezili’s Mirrors is a deeply personal book about self-definition, desires, loss, reclamation, and sexual liberation. Tinsley is singularly focused to script and enact new futurities that will rescue Black girls/women in general, and the Black queer femme in particular, from structures of racialized epistemic, mental and physical violence. Therein lies the crux of the matter. In the conclusion, Tinsley restates that Ezili’s Mirrors is dedicated to her daughter, opening up space for her to be “all she imagines, mirroring back how she matters when the news pronounces her future dead.” As I write this review, Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black girl, was murdered by a white man in Oakland.
Ezili’s Mirrors reminded this Black feminist that too often we write, to paraphrase the late Barbara Christian, not only to reassure ourselves that we are alive, but also I must add, now even more than ever, to save Black lives. In some ways, this book, with all of its flaws, is an example of what D. Soyini Madison calls a “communal yearning,” which M. Jacqui Alexander punctuates as “a yearning for wholeness […] a yearning to belong […] that can subvert and ultimately displace the pain of dismemberment.” Tinsley is on a search for “divinity […] [in] black queer life,” a divinity that can be at once rescue, refuge, and route to the future. I read this book as a step toward the freedom envisioned in the Combahee River Collective manifesto 40 years ago: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”
As the site of the only successful slave revolution in the world, Haiti is the breeding ground of radical Black imagination. Tinsley chose Vodou, she writes, because “[a]s any Caribbeanist will tell you, Vodou is literally revolutionary.” Vodou is also explicitly decolonial; its very reformulation in the New World is testament to the fortitude of an enslaved population that resisted dehumanization, held on to their ancestors, and forged mortal and cosmic futures.
Sevitè who abide by the elders’ ethics know the creed: embrace all and reject none. Ezili’s Mirrors should not be dismissed. The book is a useful provocation for KOSANBA, performance studies, and queer studies to engage in honest and meaningful conversations about spirits pasts and present, and about divine Black freedom.
Gina Athena Ulysse is a feminist anthropologist, performance artist, and self-described post-Zora interventionist. Her latest book, Because When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, me & THE WORLD, is a collection of photographs, poetry, and performance texts. She is also professor of Anthropology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
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