August 14th was the 225th anniversary of Bwa Kayiman, the initial meeting and ceremony among enslaved African that began the Haitian Revolution and ultimately created the first Black republic and Black ruled country in the world. It’s still on the books as the single largest and most successful slave revolt ever undertaken. In addition, Bwa Kayiman is an actual place you can visit in Haiti—it’s in the north, about an hour and a half south of Labadie. I haven’t been there (yet) but I imagine I’ll get there some day, as it’s a pretty big pilgrimage site.
Bwa Kayiman is really important, for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the most obvious.
1. It was the powder keg moment that began the TWELVE YEAR Haitian revolution. The story goes that, at the time, there were roughly 50,000 whites on the island as a whole (it was not yet divided, really, into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and close to 500,000 enslaved Africans. History says that there were French who saw it coming, but colonialism is colonialism and no one wanted to touch the idea that enslaving people was a bad fucking practice that should be undone. Profits would be lost, territory surrendered, and the world could potentially end. So, no one in power did anything.
The enslaved Africans, though, had well and truly Had Enough, and probably for quite awhile. Word was put out that there was to be a gathering in the north to plan a revolt, and people showed up. Popular history said that it was led by Dutty Boukman and Cécile Fatiman, named as the houngan and manbo respectively that led the ceremony, but I think that’s misleading and I’ll tell you why in a minute. Regardless of who ran stuff, it happened. If the accounts recorded are correct, a Haitian pig was slaughtered and some lwa stepped forward for the first time—namely Ezili Danto (or, more accurately, Ezili Je Wouj/Ezili Red Eyes, Danto’s furious and bloody sister) and many of the Ogou only known in the New World. They extracted promises from the enslaved Africans present, and in return promised aid and strength for the fight to come.
The enslaved Africans said yes, the lwa said yes, and by morning the north of Haiti had started to burn. In about a week, the entire northern coast and upper third of the island was controlled. Within a year, half the island belonged to the Africans who said ‘no more’. This lasted for twelve years. A TWELVE YEAR revolution where enslaved Africans never gave up and never backed down. I don’t know about you, but there are very few things in my life that have been unending and constant for twelve years. I don’t think I have ever done anything for twelve years.
History notes the eventual success, where the French were ejected and very few white folks allowed to remain on the island, and the first nation established as a result of a successful slave rebellion. This is still celebrated today on January 1, the official day when victory was declared, and Haitians and adherents of vodou mark it sometimes with ceremony, but almost always with soup joumou, a special food linked with celebration and victory.
2. It was the moment that solidified what vodou was and made it undeniably Haitian. This is where I think it is incorrect to label Boukman and Fatiman hougan and manbo in Haitian vodou. Prior to the revolution, there were a ton of different religious practices on the island based around where the enslaved Africans were from. There wasn’t, however, a uniform practice or a common religious ‘language’ spoken. Bwa Kayiman changed that and basically set down the roots for what vodou is today. When we talk about different nasyons/nations of lwa—Rada, Petwo, Kongo, Ibo, Djouba, Nago, Wangol, Makaya, and on—we are really talking about lwa who largely came from specific regions in Africa, or Haiti. What Bwa Kayiman did was bring all that together and find a common way to speak a ceremonial ‘language’ across individual groups, families, and lineages. If I go to another sosyete that uses the asson, I have a basic understanding of what will go on and how to participate as a priest there. Even though it is a separate lineage from asson, if I walk into a peristyle that is in the tchatcha lineage, I will even understand a little bit there, too, since we also use the tchatcha in asson houses. Basically, it pulled all of these spirits and practices together and made something that could be spoken anywhere. This didn’t happen over night, of course—it took time and practice—but it was the beginning.
Further, it rooted the spirits in Haiti and made them undeniably Haitian as well. A lot of the liturgy in vodou acknowledges that we have left Africa and can never go back. In vodou, Africa has become l’Afrique Ginen, a sort of paradise-like other place where the lwa reside. We long for l’Afrique Ginen, but we are where we are and so we do what we can here. That rooting in Haiti is what says Ogou is not the same as Ogun in Orisa worship. They have the same or similar roots, but Ogou is undeniably Haitian and is very much the screaming, howling, blood-drinking voice of the Haitian revolution. It is why Ogou Shango and Sango from Yorubaland are not the same. It’s why lwa are not interchangeable with Orisa—even though many Orisa reside in our Nago rite. It’s like a permanent cultural translation that changed the spirits in a particular way. In vodou today, you can see the African influence in a variety of places, but it has been translated through a Haitian lens.
Going even one step further down the line, Bwa Kayiman is what made the enslaved Africans Haitian. In the same way that Africa is spiritually out of reach, the enslaved Africans who became Haitian came to the realization that they would never be able to go back to Africa and that it was lost to them. The island now had to be home and so they had to be something different. As a non-Haitian, I think this is why Haitian cultural identity is so strong now—there is this deep investment in being who you are no matter where you are because Haiti is the roots that grow the tree. Even in the Diaspora, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Haitian self-identify themselves as Black—they are Haitian first and Black is a designation that the US government gives them.
3. As it solidified what vodou was and was to be, it instilled revolution as a core part of vodou. Vodou is a living history of Haiti—our liturgy speaks about what happened over and over, and it brings it to the present, where Haiti is still suffering at the hands of colonialism and Haitians in Diaspora must fight white supremacy and colorism at every turn. Revolution is the drum beat underneath everything—the lwa come down screaming and crying and fighting because their children still suffer and there is still so much to do to assure the future. Vodou is a continual process of seeking balance by upsetting the table that has been set for you, and this is the legacy of Bwa Kayiman and the Haitian revolution. We all have to survive somehow, and it’s bloody out there.
This is one reason why vodou is a hard and uncomfortable religion—the bar was set with enslaved people deciding that they were tired of being abused and exploited, and so they made war. That’s the expectation—we will go to war for what we need and what is important to us, and there will be pain and suffering and casualties along the way even with the assistance and protection of our lwa. Vodou is not for the comfortable or for those who are extensively privileged. It is a religion of self-empowerment—you must get up and fight, because revolution does not happen on the proverbial couch or come with a 401K and tax refunds. When you build a foundation on revolution, the fight is in every song, every dance, every prayer, and every offering.
4. Bwa Kayiman made vodou an undeniably political religion. This has been on my mind a lot lately, especially with the latest vomit all over the blogosphere about politics and minority religions. It sounds like a joke sometimes when it is said, but vodou really is the original Black Lives Matter movement. It places high value on those who suffer at the hands of life circumstances because of who they are, and it provides the tools to aim towards a leveling of the field…if you put in the work.
This isn’t a unique characteristic of vodou—politics are present in all world religions, and all world religions have gone to war at some point, whether it’s to protect the faith, protect the people, or simply because the divinities are engaged in pissing matches with each other and someone gets stabbed—but what seems to be unique is the embracing of the political as a natural part of the practice. The lwa are unapologetically political in nature—they have strong and decisive feelings about the world at large and know how to move in it.
Having politics be entwined with religious practice is what seems to trip up outsiders who are interested in vodou. It surprised me a bit when I first showed up, but my religion has always been political—as someone who Western society continually tries to make illegal, I can’t afford not to have my religious practice support how I move in the world. What happens most often with outsiders coming in—and it is what is happening now as people try to build movements out of separate non-cohesive practices by applying cultural concepts to a non-existent worldview—is that there is this desire to put vodou/religion in a box and take it out when necessary. This is not how it works, nor is it maintainable. The essence of Bwa Kayiman as the spark of revolution is ‘if you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, you’re all the way out’—vodou and religion in general are infections, in the best of ways. Vodou permeates everything, all the time. There is no halfway. You can’t keep vodou/religion in a box. To try and say that politics do not belong in religion is to deny the fights that the ancestors—blood or lineage—engaged in to keep the religion alive, to deny the autonomy of the spirits and divinities to have a deep investment in how the world works and how we move in it, and to engage in the Western privilege and long-standing modern church practice of keeping religion on a shelf and out of the world. It is the whitest of white people problems, and I just can’t understand it at all.
And, since vodou is a culturally based religion made up of primarily dark-skinned folks, you have to be good with all that entails. There is no room for your racism and unexamined white privilege. There is no room for your ethnocentrism and shock and/or revulsion when ways of living are very different than what you are used to. There is no room for your offense when people will not speak English for you, or when the color of your skin is a factor in how you are treated. If you can’t lift up the lives of those who suffer and get out of your own way to do so, your time in vodou will be very, very hard.
So, today—225 years and 10 days after Ogou and Ezili Je Wouj came down screaming and soaked the ground with blood—I think about the revolution and how Bwa Kayiman lives every day in those who serve the lwa. I think about how kanzo is an indelible tie to that blood-soaked ground. I think about stamping my feet on the ground that my spiritual ancestors set on fire, and I think about the ancestors who fought to oppress those they would keep subjugation. I think about the revolution that was my kanzo, and how Ogou lit everything on fire around me to allow a new life to take root. I think about how it’s not over for me and for all my Haitian brothers and sisters. I think about their every day fight in Haiti and in the US, and I think about how it will never be over for them or for me. Mostly, though, I think about how revolution is an act of love—for my lwa, for my brothers and sisters in the religion, and for me—and what it means to be loved in such a rooted, bloody way. I wish that it was easy to translate what that really means into words, but, like vodou, it is something that happens to and with you.
If you’re in, you’re in.