The Gumbo of Vodou

Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman's Story

There are as many misunderstandings of Sallie Ann Glassman as there are surrounding her chosen belief system: Vodou. After spending time with her, and with the exception of frank discussions regarding possession and healing, she’s just like anyone else. She has a Facebook page, she runs a store and she has big dreams largely focusing on making her chosen home a better city in which to live. She owns Salvation Botanica, wrote a book entilted Vodou Visions: An Encounter with Divine Mystery (second edition with Villard Books, a division of Random House, 2007), created The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot (Inner Traditions, 1992), helped create the New Orleans Hope and Heritage Project whose latest project is a Healing Center. And above all, she’s a Vodou priestess who believes she is on this planet to help bring healing and balance. New Orleans could do far worse…

Why did you decide to move to New Orleans?
It was the mysterious action of the Spirit, I think. I was living in Maine in my cousin’s unheated barn and it was Oct. 1 and 20 degrees. I just knew I had to go somewhere. My brother called me and he said that he had gotten a job teaching at Tulane University and I just out of the blue thought Vodou and jazz would be really interesting. I was on a plane the next day. This was 1977 [Glassman was 24].

I read in your book, Vodou Visions, that you felt “called” to Vodou.
I did! I have to say that I had the same reaction to Vodou that everyone else has. I thought it was evil and creepy and all about a death cult or something. It suddenly occurred to me, ‘Why was I so afraid of something I knew nothing about?’ I figured that in the past whenever something was that frightening, it was because it was really powerful, and I had a sense that [Vodou] would be empowering for me.

How did you begin?
My second day in town I ran into a guy from Martinique who took me under his wing and started teaching me a little bit. I’ve been studying ever since. I’ve been very fortunate in that the first person I met who was really living Vodou was a woman out in California, actually, named Cheryl Ito, whose husband had been formerly married to Maya Deren. [Deren] was a fabulous experimental filmmaker and dancer, and she wrote the best book on Haitian Vodou ever [Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti], back in 1953, and she did some film on Haitian Vodou [with the same name]. So I walked into this woman’s house [Ito’s] and there was a sculpture of Lasirèn the mermaid, and underneath it was the most simple bowl of fresh, pink rose petals for Lasirèn and something hit me. Much, much later in life I learned that Lasirèn ruled my head, was one of the spirits that rules over me. It was a very big moment. It felt like falling into a dream but actually it was much more like waking up. Since then it’s been a whole process. I went to Haiti in 1995 when I opened [Spiritual Botanica] and was initiated [Glassman is one of the very few white Americans to do so].

Why do you think Vodou interested you so much?
For me, I was really born this way. I didn’t prescribe to any particular religion but I was always able to see beyond the surface of things and nothing has ever looked very solid to me. It’s always been a process of trying to learn how to agree with other people about what’s here and what it’s like and what it means and I’ve always felt sort of off balance. I realized, it wasn’t until my 30s or 40s even, that I was just seeing things really differently. As a Monbo, as a Vodou priestess, that’s what I do. I look at the material world, the world as it is, and I look at how it could be as in that luminous inner reality eternal realm, and I try to bring healing to the space in between and bring those things into balance and union. When I went to Haiti, that was the first time that I was surrounded by a community that saw the invisible and related to it as more meaningful and more beautiful and more alive than what goes on out here that we’re all agreeing to. It was a real relief to me and a real simpatico that was going on with the people that initiated me. It was great.

When did you open Salvation Botanica?
I opened it in 1995. I had just moved into the neighborhood [835 Piety St., in Bywater] I think the year before or a few months before, I can’t quite remember. The neighborhood had the highest crime rate in the U.S. for three years in a row. I would ride my bike home from work – I was working as a bartender so I would get home really late – and make a beeline for my front door and hope to get in. There was mayhem happening all around. So I wanted to open the shop as an alternative.  I really felt for the kids in the neighborhood who had this as their reality.  At the time the neighborhood was very run down, it was pretty ugly, and I wanted this to be an island of salvation where it wasn’t about drugs and violence. It was about feeding the Spirit and honoring who you are. Shortly thereafter we held our first street ceremony to fight crime. The crime rate dropped 65 percent after that and it has stayed down. It was just bizarre to me that a few years later I read in Newsweek that Bywater was the second most up-and-coming, trendy neighborhood. I’ve always attributed it to the amazing power of Vodou. The police said it was their doing, but we all know better.

Are your wares limited to Vodou?
I sell all kinds of spiritual supplies, because I think that Vodou was the original religion – it’s the most ancient, or it’s roots are the most ancient; all religions came from Vodou and they all reflect Vodou whether they see that or not. Additionally, in the history of Vodou, when the slaves were brought to the New World they were forced to convert to Catholicism and so there’s an awful lot of Catholic iconography that’s woven into Vodou. Vodou also takes on the traits of the cultures it encounters, so there’s a mixture.

It’s a gumbo. There’s the African tradition, there’s Masonic mysteries involved, some Jewish mysteries and mysticisms, there’s certainly the Catholic imagery, there’s Native American stuff woven all through it – and that’s true whether you’re speaking of New Orleans or Haitian Vodou, the same elements are in place. So I have traits of many different religions represented here.

Everything here is intended to feed the soul and to bring people to a place of balance, empowerment and healing. All the work in Vodou is about finding a balance resonance and a healing art in life. So there’s candles, and when a person alights a candle they’re really lighting a way for the spirit to find them; they’re also lighting their own path because most of us are living in darkness and confusion and bring the focus to the mind and the focus to the intention. It recognizes that we have worth. I’m going to bring light into myself and I’m going to call on Spirit and ask for help and that implies that there’s something worth helping in here. To my mind the greatest plague of our century is self-loathing and self-judgment. We have candles for that. We have herbs for cooking and healing and for magical work I guess you can call it. Again, in Vodou it’s assumed that what the rest of the world might think of as magic is really very natural and that these herbs are powerful as we’re finding out more and more herbology and traditional medicine is learning more and more that the alternative, complimentary integrative medicines may be on to something. I’ve put a lot of study into Vodou’s medicinal qualities and beliefs and also in western medicine.

Has that study helped you in regards to the Healing Center that’s being built?
Yes! We’re building a Healing Center on the corner St. Claude and St. Roch avenues [the old Universal Furniture building,].  It’s been funny because a lot of the people involved with this effort are concerned that, because I’m one of the principal people working on it, that my association with Vodou is going to be off-putting to people. It’s been very difficult to get across to them that Vodou is entirely about healing, and that in this city if we don’t heal the issue around Vodou, slavery and bigotry and all of these prejudice and fear that’s around this negative perception, that we’ll never heal our city. It’s been a real struggle. I think people are starting to respect the real story and what’s its actually about. What I finally say to them is this is what a Vodou priestess is, this is what a Vodou priestess does, this is how she works in the world: She brings healing. All that other stuff you’ve heard is nonsense stuck in your mind. Get over it and let’s move on.

One of our goals is to form partnerships with allopathic doctors and hospitals because it’s being clearly shown in scientific studies that people heal better when they’re meditating, when they’re having energy movement done within them. I myself have healed myself of a tumor, torn ligaments and torn meniscuses in four and five days. It’s certainly helpful. We’re really approaching the Healing Center from a Vodou perspective in that everything has to be sustainable and everything is interrelated. We’re trying to create healing that’s sustainable on all levels. The first thing we did was talk to a UN advisor on sustainability. We’re addressing economic stability and physical, psychological, cultural, emotional and spiritual stability all at once. It’s a major, massive project. We’ve managed to move the world along from laughing at it to recognizing that it’s the wave of the future; that this is how it needs to be done. So we finally got government and neighborhood support; it’s become a real movement. It’s very exciting and a little intimidating. We’re looking to receive the public money in August and January; we hope to open eight months into 2010.  We’re going to have lots of activities: street universities, women’s centers, childcare and a performance area.

One of the things I’ve thought about [Hurricane] Katrina is that it shook things up enough that really revolutionary things might be possible. We know that there were things that just weren’t working and that were really tragic situations that were set up. So our mission in the Healing Center is to really right those things. We want to bring healing to the community but we wanted to reach both sides of St. Claude Avenue – the impoverished African Americans that were devastated by Katrina and the trendier, more mixed Bywater, Faubourg Marigny, French Quarter area – and bring these two universes together and to discover a common humanity. That’s what’s been happening. As we’ve been working on it, these polarized communities are not only working together but also realizing that we’re all humans. Whoops! (laughs). We hold a Halloween event called Anba Dlo – which means From Beneath the Waters ¬– we also had one of the Prospect.1 installations and we had 56 artists as the St. Claude Art Collective in there. Major media including The New York Times reported on it and said that this has got to be the most interesting venue for an art show ever. We had this huge party with everyone in costumes and the police right there with their precinct open. Everybody was saying, ‘How can you have a party in a police precinct?’ but it was fabulous.

And this is tied into the New Orleans Hope and Heritage project, correct?
Yes, we started Hope and Heritage Project right after Katrina. We had our “hurrication” in Houma, because my partner, Pres Kabakoff, set up emergency offices there. Everyone was pretty frantic. The rest of us peons in the world really wanted to help rebuild the city, but the people that were in that business were just so busy and so frantic that I think we were an annoyance to them. I wanted to put together a salon of concerned citizens, a think thank, to dream of ways that we could help rebuild the city, because basically no one was listening. We called it the “Sunday Salon” and it’s been meeting every week since October of 2005. We’ve done three projects so far. First was a cultural project, because it was so apparent that that image of New Orleans that was going out over the media was that we were buffoons who were drunk all the time and that nobody should give us money, that they should just let us sink down. So we wanted to get out a very positive image of New Orleans. We chose 50 authors to write essays from the inside, about some cultural aspect of New Orleans and why it’s irreplaceable. Then we recorded the authors reading their piece, and made videos of them, and now there’s the New Orleans Hope and Heritage project videos. They’re about to go on the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing site. They’re really wonderful, lively and exciting.

We have an environmental sustainability engineer in our group and he and Pres put together an advisory committee on sustainability that advises the City Council on how to make the city sustainable and so they’ve been working hard on that. That was our second project and the Healing Center is our third.

How would you describe the way most people see Vodou?

The image of Vodou is so negative, destructive, exploitive and full of fear. While the reality of Vodou is so empowering and so blessing.  It’s really all about liberating people from the things that keep them prisoner and keep them enslaved, whether it’s habits or it’s a society that’s built on violence and inequity. It allows people to find their balance. It allows communities to find that same balance and allows people to empower themselves, free themselves and to become spiritual beings. So it’s been my mission to turn around that terrible evil hat’s been done to Vodou. When you realize that it’s a religion that was born in slavery, that the whole idea of Vodou as being evil and licentious was coming out of the Inquisition and the same complaints and that vilifying that was levied against the Jews was applied to Afro-Caribbeans. It certainly took hold. That’s why I use the Kreyòl spellings for Vodoun terms in my life and my work, out of respect for what these people had to endure, what Vodou had to endure and what the lwa [or loa, spirits that are revered, much like saints in Catholocism] ultimately had to endure.

My theory is that on a psychological level human beings do a lot of transferring and projecting. If you’re feeling really guilty and bad about something, you transfer it onto the other person and you vilify them. I think that would be a heavy load to bear if you were institutionalized in slavery. To just recognize and own how evil that is and how much harm that did to people.

What are lwa?
Spirits that were once human, so we recognize them as if they were family and friends. Also, we recognize them from inside-out because we are recognizing ourselves.  They speak to our humanity and our spirit. As much as we’re confined by identity – “it’s a black thing” or “it’s a girl thing” – Spirit is flowing in and around all the time opening up pathways that we’ve tried to fence in.

What is the role of art in Vodou?

You just can’t separate Vodou from the art, music and ritual forms that invest it, nor can you separate its history from all of those other expressions. In Vodou’s art forms [she gestures to sequined flags, paintings and metalwork that adorn the shop’s walls] it’s just astounding to me that people coming out of such absolute depravation, and having been there [Haiti] the depravation is so extreme we can’t really imagine it. It really makes New Orleans look like a garden place; we’re doing so well here in comparison. They take absolutely nothing, just incredible suffering, and turn it into works of art and beauty. And gestures, their gestures are dances and the dances have meaning and they’re spectacular and there are thousands of them. Each one of them is coded and represents a whole concept and a whole being. So these things become language and the language is expressing, you could say, the mind of God.

That’s one of the major misunderstandings about Vodou. People think that it’s this Satanic thing or that’s it’s paganistic, but actually there’s a recognition of the supreme deity of God, Bon Dieu [as he’s called in Vodou], that everything that we experience is a container of God’s life force and everything is an expression of God’s life force. So you look at this art and it’s not only flashing and beautiful and full of color and light in itself, but it’s indicating that Spirit is coming that Spirit is behind this. There’s meaning and purpose behind it all. 

How do you view the way Vodou has translated in New Orleans?

New Orleans in particular was built on the back of Vodou and Vodou informs all of our culture. Our aesthetic and the rhythm of life here is based on Vodou drums and types of singing – the call and response – the food that we eat, the houses that we build, the architecture and the ironwork all over the city. When you start to learn a little something about Vodou and you start to read the symbols and learn what they mean – and you start to take away the fear element and the judgment that’s attached to it and just look at it for what it’s communicating and what it comes from – you see Vodou’s legacy throughout New Orleans. For my book, that’s why New Orleans is unique in the world. A lot of people said to me when I first moved here that New Orleans has a European flavor and I said, no it doesn’t it has an Afro-Caribbean flavor. That’s the different drum you’re hearing here, and seeing and recognizing. That’s why this city has a life and a spirit and a soul that’s missing in most places. It’s all because the Vodou perspective is there’s this invisible reality that’s reflected darkly into the physical world, but that invisible reality is full of spirit and life; it’s so beautiful and alive underneath our feet that all we have to do is open up to it, recognize it and bring it through, and our life becomes much richer.

But it finds its highest expression in spontaneity and interpretation as does jazz and as does New Orleans in general. I think that’s something’s that really characteristic of New Orleans and New Orleanians, that trends and different cultural traits come here and somehow New Orleanians put a spin on it and make it their own, and it comes out in some garbled, wonderful and re-inventive way and has a whole new flavor to it. 

It’s the same process that went into the Creolization of say Catholicism or the Native American practices or the Masonic mysteries, that it all got reinterpreted and remixed so that there’s all these different spices but each of them retained their own flavor, or you’d be missing something and it would be unbalanced. But all together it’s this whole new thing. All of the different Catholic saints are masks for the spirits they represent. I would say the only exception to that is John the Baptist who remains as the saint, but also the lwa. He isn’t made secret to represent something else. It’s interesting because on St. John’s Eve, Marie Laveau held her very famous ceremonies on the bayou and we’ve picked up that tradition. We do a ceremony in her honor on St. John’s Eve. A powerful, beautiful ceremony that hundreds of people come out to. So that’s kind of what I mean, there’s a tradition and there’s a particular perspective there that spins what’s in place that reinvents it and re-imagines it and makes it our own. It’s not theoretical thing, it’s an experiential thing.

Was Judaism incorporated in the same way?
There’s something in Judaism called Kabbalah, which is a mystical form of Judaism and the Masons were kind of carrying Kabbalahism with them. And in Vodoun [“Vodou” is the adjectival form of “Vodoun”], you will hear about the same thing as a saint representing a lwa and different attributes, foods and colors that they like. It’s very Kabbalahistic, that you can sort of align the world like an index file and different qualities, vibrations and numbers, go in the same place. All of these reveal something about one another without being exactly the same thing. So there’s a great deal of that. Also because of the shared experience of being vilified by the Inquisition and Jews being called against Christ or against the church and being Satanic and doing the work of Satan in the world, eating their children and sacrificing babies and all of that bit, because the same claims were transferred to Afro-Caribbeans, there is a kind of kinship there. It’s not entirely without some anti-Semitism, but there is recognition, understanding and a bonding that happens. In Haiti, for instance, you’re not allowed to own land unless you’re of African origin, so an edict was passed that Jews are of African origin because they were in slavery in Egypt. That’s within their heritage; they were on the African continent and Jews can own land. There are all kinds of traits. Some of the spirits have stars of David as their symbols and representing force. There are all kinds of traces of it throughout.

Hollywood has seemed to grab on to the idea of possession as a very scary thing. Is it?

First of all every body’s image of possession is seeing Linda Blair’s head spinning around, puke coming out and horrible noises.
It’s not like that at all, but it is a little scary. Your ego puts up a fight against letting go. I was born a neurotic Jew, so my head says ‘this is nuts! Why don’t you shut up and get well.’ That eventually gives way in regards to what the lwa wants. I ask, “What can I do to be of service and allow this beautiful thing to happen?”

Next thing you know, your eyes open and everyone is staring at you. Afterwards I felt a sense of awe in my body. My electromagnetic frequency has been altered and I’m vibrating at an extraordinary rate. Later the community tells you what the lwa said and you integrate it.  You just have to fall back into the arms of spirit and trust that it will catch you and set you down someplace safe.

During the last week of my initiation in Haiti in 1995, I had a very dark night of the soul. I kept thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not spiritual enough. I’m not worthy enough.’ Finally I heard my voice saying to the spirits, ‘this is it. This is what I’ve got. Do with it what you will. Let me be of service.’ It saved me and let me take up my power. That power is what allows me to voice my ideas and speak up, to take a stand against oppression and suffering.

Truly the miracle of Vodou is that it allows human beings to be spiritual beings temporarily. 

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