Karen McCarthy Brown – A Radical Feminist Study of Vodou Religion

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Image: Drew University

Karen McCarthy Brown (1942-2015) was a professor emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology at Drew University whose academic work has had an influence on several important fields of study such as anthropology, religious studies, gender studies, and feminism.

Brown spent many years doing field work research on the island of Haiti where she studied the Vodou religion and community. She also spent years studying the Vodou community in the US, and would even convert to the religion herself through “marrying” the Vodou god Ogou. Much of Brown’s motivation, beyond that of her feminism, was that she wished to push back on negative stereotypes people had of the Vodou community and the Vodou religion, and one way to do this was through her ethnographic spiritual biography book called Mama Lola (1991).

This book, which took her roughly a dozen years to complete, won Brown several awards from the American Academy of Religion and the American Anthropological Association. It centers on Marie Thérèse Alourdes Macena Champagne Lovinski (commonly known to as Mama Lola), a Vodou priestess and religious leader in Brooklyn, and an individual with whom Brown formed a strong friendship with over several years. Brown’s fieldwork and research put her in close proximity to Mama Lola as means to enter in to the culture, beliefs, and traditions of the Vodou religion. Brown was clearly hands-on for she “ran errands, helped to cook the ritual meal, and lent a hand constructing the altar that is the focal point of each Vodou ceremony” (1). She also explains that,

“In a way, I was setting out to do fieldwork on my own psyche. I remain convinced that this was the best and perhaps the only way for me to move my understanding of Vodou beyond external description into the deep places where it takes up dreams and fears, hope and pain of actual life” (2)

Brown’s book is interesting to scholars not only for its engagement with the Vodou religion and its practices, beliefs, traditions, and customs but also because of the feminist expression and theorization included within it. Brown wants to examine women’s religious experience, and she therefore presents the challenges and influences that exert themselves on Haitian life, particularly that of women’s lives. She shows how Haitian Vodou creates prominent leadership roles for women practitioners of the faith, and says that when “women’s religious leadership is unfettered by male control… religion begins to take account of the circumstances of what women’s lives,” and that in Haiti “Women’s voices are strong, but they do not dominate” (3). She finds that within Vodou,

“Women become visible. In Vodou, women have begun to tell the stories of women’s lives from their point of view, in striking contrast to religious systems in which goddess figures function as the carriers of male projection about women” (4).

Brown’s work with Vodou religion is a feminist elevation of female subjectivity. It is a study of the everyday life of a woman (Mama Lola), and is therefore an attempt to enter into the subjective views of a specific individual. This approach to knowledge, Brown believes, is different and preferable to the masculine, male biased approach that constitutes conventional objectivist theories of knowledge. She believes that such approaches are not necessarily the best, that they purportedly possess a patriarchal bias behind them, and that they are cases of male arrogance. Brown’s work seems to be a reaction against these perceptions. Brown’s approach promotes an “insider knows best” methodology to studying religion, and this might explain some of her motivation to convert to the Vodou religion itself. As long as one remains outside of the community he or she wishes to examine then he or she cannot claim a deep understanding of that community.

This is also where Brown’s work has been criticized and where challenging questions have been posed (5). For example, it is not clear that Brown possessed a better and deeper knowledge of the Vodou religion than any other just because she was an insider as a result of her conversion. She might have been but we do not know for she did not compare her knowledge to anyone else. Brown’s work also possesses a lack of arguments in favour of her epistemology, namely her notion of how one should go about obtaining knowledge. Why suppose that her “insider” methodology is better than the “outsider” objectivist methodology when it comes to obtaining knowledge about religion? Further, is there an inconsistency involved too? If the insider methodology is the correct approach then how can Brown criticize other worldviews and ideologies of which she is not an insider to herself? As such, Brown’s extreme subjectivist methodology would undermine theoretical, exploratory, and investigative efforts into a great deal of phenomena across a wide range of academic disciplines.

References

1. Brown, K. M. 1992. Writing About ‘the Other.’ Available.

2. Brown, K. M. 1991. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. p. 134.

3. Brown, K. M. 1991. Ibid. p. 255.

4. Brown, K. M. 1991. Ibid. p. 255.

5. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: A Introduction. p. 202-203.

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