Practitioners of Vodou (or voodoo) gathered in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Prospect Park Saturday evening to celebrate the anniversary of Bwa Kayiman, a ceremony credited with launching Haiti's 1791 slave revolt.
The devil was not invited.
The history of the Bwa Kayiman (Bois Caïman, in French) ceremony is shrouded in mystery, but it's generally agreed that on August 14, 1791, slave revolutionaries sacrificed a black pig, swore an oath to overthrow the French and sealed the pact by drinking the pig's blood. "The god of the white man calls him to commit crimes," the Vodou priest Dutty Boukman reportedly said. "Our god asks only good works of us. But this god who is so good orders revenge!"
It was quite the call to arms, and it inspired the New World's only successful slave mutiny, culminating in Haiti's independence. Or, according to people like preacher Pat Robertson, it inspired more than 200 years of misery. This is the same ceremony that he slandered, nanoseconds after a massive earthquake devastated the country in January, as the swearing of a "pact to the devil."
"They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French," Robertson said. "True story. And so the devil said, okay, it's a deal. And they kicked the French out … but ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."
Robertson's alternate history is somewhat akin to asserting that Americans threw babies into the harbor at the Boston Tea Party, or that the French crucified Jesus on Bastille Day. Not only is it horrifically inaccurate, but it also maligns an event that gave birth to both a nation and a national identity.
A few yards in front of Gran Bwa's boulder sprouts the poto mitan, the pole through which the spirits are said to travel. Beneath it, a veve with images of two snakes is drawn for Damballah, a serpentine spirit of wisdom. To the right of Gran Bwa sits an altar table for Bossou, a strong and bull-like spirit, and behind Gran Bwa spreads an offering table with special foods and drinks for different spirits, according to their liking. A raw egg is on hand for Damballah, and a bottle of Haitian Barbancourt rum sits ready to quench the thirst of Ogou, the warrior and politician.
The clergy sing, dance and salute the spirits with candles and water and rum, and the drummers beat out the sacred rhythms that will call forth the lwa. For a time it appears as though the spirits aren't interested in joining the festivities. Hours go by, with specific songs sung for the Marasa, the sacred twins; for Damballah; for Agwé, ruler of the sea. None decide to join.
Then, during the songs to Bossou, the spirit appears to seize control of a man's body, tossing him about as though by the horns of a bull. But the spiritual possession does not fully take, and the man soon wanders out of the circle, disoriented.
Shortly thereafter, at 9:30 p.m., the police arrive. The permit for the drums expired at 9 o'clock. A group sings a final handful of songs, and there is some talk of continuing without the drums, but at 10:30, people begin breaking down the altars, and it appears as though the night will pass without any spirits making an appearance.
Bazile covers the statue, and instantly, the spirit takes hold of him. Bossou, in Bazile's body, shakes and screams and snorts like a bull. As a crowd circles him and sings the spirit's praises, he greets all comers with an extended elbow, which they take in kind, forming a sort of whole-arm handshake. Bossou then begins spraying rum on people. He twirls them in circles. He runs around, threatening to charge the crowd. And then the trance is gone, and Bazile falls backward, caught by others before he hits the ground.
The ceremony attracted well over 100 people, including the occasional curious passerby, one who cradled a pair of fishing poles and another who beat a football he was carrying as though it were a drum. But no matter how often practitioners put their religion in front of the public, they may be fighting a losing battle in trying to counter negative stereotypes about their faith.
"We're strong mentally, but we don't have the ability to overcome the propaganda," Pierre says. "Even my mom, since 1980, she left Haiti to live here, and she became Catholic. To her, I'm a lost child. She's saying she's praying for me every day."
Calvin Hennick is working on a novel about Haitian Vodou. He can be reached at email@example.com.