As mentioned in my previous post on Coven, the series is set in a boarding school for witches in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of the witches is Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), who is human voodoo doll. She can harm others by harming her own body. A rivalry between the coven and the entourage of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) leads Queenie, feeling isolated in the coven of white witches, to join the voodoo community. A few deaths later, she re-joins the coven. The aspect of race and race relations is explored through Queenie’s isolation within the coven and reintegration into it, and by a very entertaining Kathy Bates, as Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a former cruel slave-owner brought back to life in contemporary New Orleans, who is ‘adjusting’ to the new reality.
Race and ‘Othering’
The setting of New Orleans speaks of the image Hollywood writers have of the south: charming, sensual, black, and primitive, in an imaginary contrast with the rational, modern, and urban north. Voodoo originates in Haiti and results from the melange between Christianity and local practices. In movies, voodoo is generally to be found in the south and is thus seen as black people’s magic, sensual and primitive (Skeleton Key, Angel Heart, Jessabelle). Never mind the fact that the biggest concentration of Haitians is in Miami and NYC. A classic anthropological study of voodoo religion is Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola, a Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn. Alas, post-industrial NYC, symbol of modernity and urbanisation, doesn’t fit Hollywood’s image of irrational, sensual, and primitive magic.
This is an example of ‘othering’, a process of defining and legitimising one’s identity as superior to that of other groups. ‘Othering’ assumes that one’s identity is the ‘standard’, to which others are compared and found lacking. The ‘other’ can be seen as an ‘anomaly’ and/or threat within the group (Jew, homosexual), or be an outsider to the group. The insider other is the one who does not fit in the symbolic order of a society (see post on Trick ‘r Treat). The outsider other is not necessarily seen in disparaging terms, but through stereotypes and never on equal terms.
“Each society creates and recreates its ‘others’, for the process of identification involves the identities of these different ‘others’.” (McCrone, Sociology of Nationalism 1998: 118).
Having the West been constructed around modern scientific rationality, literate and urbanised culture, and industrial/post-industrial capitalism, the ‘other’ is often its mirror opposite: irrational, primitive, rural or close to nature. The ‘other’ is often racialised (see Stuart Hall’s ‘Spectacle of the Other’). Queenie is ‘other’ because she is black and her magic is voodoo, also portrayed as ‘other’, foreign magic. Yet, black people are segregated and discriminated against in contemporary America, so the Queenie’s sense of isolation in the white witches’ coven resonates with reality. Films and TV are not supposed to portray how things should be, but how they are and can be. I believe Queenie is not really ‘othered’ for being black; rather the series explores her identity and what it takes for a community to be inclusive. In addition, it is also interesting how voodoo gives Queenie an identity and culture that are missing in the others’ magic.
Rationality, Magic, and Voodoo
The other is seen as lacking a particularly narrow form of rationality (see posts on Sleepy Hollow and West Wing), the materialistic instrumental rationality of the nineteenth century. Early anthropology studied other cultures through the lens of the Western paradigm, thus misunderstanding them. For instance, Evans-Pritchard considered on magic among the Azande as flawed science. However, the conception of magic as a primitive form of science or confined to ‘imitative magic’, the control over nature, has been debunked. Magic “mystical action,” as Godfrey Lienhardt (1961: 331) calls it, “is not a substitute for practical or technical action, but a complement to it and preparation for it. … what the symbolic action is intended to control is primarily a set of mental and moral dispositions.”. It is a form of understanding that involves participation leading to a changed psychological state. It is sometimes called ‘participatory consciousness’.
Lienhardt showed how Dinka’s rituals were primarily social. They dramatised situations controlling experience of those events (1961: 335). For instance, in sacrifice the beast dies instead of human beings transforming a situation of death into a situation of life (1961: 338). Magic seeks a transformation in understanding: ‘the Zande’s belief in witchcraft does not exclude “empirical knowledge of cause and effect,” but it provides a social and cultural method of acting upon the world.’ (Tambiah 1990: 355)
At the core of Voodoo religion are relationships (see McCarthy Brown). Spirits are part of the ‘extended family’. This is reflected in the language of family/kinship used to refer to Priests and priestesses, who are called ‘papa’ and ‘maman’, while initiates are called ‘children of the house’. Voodoo parents provide protection to their children, which is often concrete help (food, help in finding work), with the temple providing a form of social welfare. Many of the rituals about healing relationships. The officiant, possessed by a spirit, speaks to individuals in the community and members of the community help interpreting the message. It is not so much about the supernatural and the control of nature, but the managing of fractured relationships among the living.
See my previous post on Coven on gender and the Dark Goddess.