Thursday, April 5, 2012

When vodou comes to church

Papa Legba is a veve symbol associatd with the sun, seen as life-giver and as the bridge between realms

It must be the spirit of the vey vey that moved the Bull Durham Blues Festival back to the Durham Athletic Park. Just when it seemed like the event wouldn’t be able to find a suitable home, maybe the vodou worked some magic.

My Christian readers may take offense at the suggestion that vodou rather than prayer paved the way for the move back to the place noted for some of Durham’s best memories. Don’t blame me for making mention of the power of the veve, a symbol associated with vodou, for evoking the move back to the best place to hold a festival. Take a close look at the symbol on top of the Hayti Heritage Center. It’s a veve.

How did that happen?

I mean, seriously, how is it that a vey vey tops what was the St. Joseph AME Church? The building was completed in 1915, and those church going members conceded to placing a veve where the traditional symbol of their faith normally stands. Vodou takes the place of the cross.

Given the name given the community surrounding the church – Hayti – it’s clear that those living and working in the community, back in the day, were moved by Haiti’s fight for liberation. It was on August 22, 1791, at a vodou ceremony, that the call for revolution was issued by a vodou priest. Dutty Boukman, the Hougan (vodou priest), was captured and executed, after plantations went up in flames.

Toussaint Louverture led the revolution that inspired slaves throughout the new world. It’s understandable why those engaged in building businesses and establishing a life free from the grip of their former owners selected a name that conjures thoughts of liberation. Haiti is the best way one could say, “we ain’t playing over here.”

The spelling is different, but the sentiment is the same. Durham’s Hayti was and is a symbol of black pride. But does that answer the riddle of why a vey vey was chosen to top the church in the heart of the community? I mean, that’s a move toward ecumenism way ahead of its time. It’s tough enough getting the Baptist in the same room with the Methodist, how did they agree, in 1915, to get a meeting of minds between the Methodist and the vodou?

It would be an insult to their intelligence to suggest they didn’t know. Someone may want to offer that they thought the symbol cute. Not hearing it. Or, could it be, that the people in Durham’s Hayti weren’t as uptight when it came to the practice of vodou? Maybe they understood that vodou is a merging of Catholicism and African religion. Maybe it was practiced among those who attended the church, and, if that is true, it may be a part of Durham’s religious history that no one wants to address.

What makes the presence of the vey vey so intriguing are the images inside the former church. The vodou symbol on the top is an interesting juxtaposition to the stain glass windows of the Duke’s on the inside. The Duke’s are immortalized in stain glass because they helped pay for the building. They poured money into helping getting North Carolina Mutual Insurance started. Those deep pockets funded the building of the White Rock Baptist Church and Lincoln Community Health Center.

That vey vey on top of the church says volumes about the black community’s racial and religious identity. The stained glass inside says loads about the relationships between the white people who helped fund black folks dreams and the people who gathered every Sunday to praise the Lord. The building held it all in balance in a way begging us to contemplate the implications of being grounded in such a complex communal identity.

The center continues to function while maneuvering around its varied interest. In one corner is a legacy of revolution swinging on top of the building. In another are the images of white privilege, power and money. In between it all are challenges to remain faithful to the interest that continue to support the work. Like the symbol on the top, so much remains hushed under the cloak of that’s none of your dang business. Sadly, generation come and go unaware of the significance of their history. Someone knew. Someone may know, but no one is talking about how vodou ends up on top of the church.

So, what happens when you have a union between vodou and an AME Church? It’s like two for the price of one. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what it took to bring the Blues Festival back to the Durham Athletic Park.

Only God knows.

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