Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
(1991), an ethnography and biography
by American anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown, focuses on the life of the Vodou priestess Marie Therese Alourdes Macena Champagne Lovinski, better known as Mama Lola. Mama Lola is the most famous Vodou priestess practicing in the United States, and McCarthy Brown’s book is an exhaustive study of her life, her childhood in Haiti, and her roles as a medical doctor, a psychotherapist, a social worker, and a priest. The book explores themes of traditional Haitian religion, race, class struggle, and refuting stereotypes in showing how Mama Lola overcame hardships in her life and rose to prominence by staying true to her roots. The narrative contains tales from Mama Lola’s life interspersed with traditional Haitian folktales and how they relate to her journey. The book, Mama Lola
, is considered to have turned the real Mama Lola from a little-known figure to a cultural figure in her community and is used widely in studies of the Haitian religion in universities around the world. In 1991, it was awarded the American Academy of Religion Award for Best First Book in the History of Religion, followed by the Victor Turner Prize in ethnographic writing by the American Anthropological Association.Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
is divided into twelve chapters, traveling back to cover the story of her family beginning with her great-great-grandfather Joseph Binbin Mauvant. Following a matriarchal pattern, the book often has a surreal, dreamlike quality in the way it depicts the interactions of Mama Lola and her family with the supernatural beings of the world of Vodou. In the first chapter, Joseph communicates with his wife, Manman Marasa in a dream, telling her that he has left for Africa and is fine, and the family has no need to worry about him anymore. In chapter 2, a powerful Vodou spirit named Azaka speaks directly to the followers of Vodou, reminding them to not lose sight of their roots, the importance of family, and their connection to the land of Haiti.
Chapter 3 observes two members of Mama Lola’s family, Alphonse Macena and Mary Noelsine Sina, as they develop a romantic relationship that begins with an instant attraction and a desire to escape from their troubles in their own lives. However, the relationship runs into trouble, which leads to Mary learning important wisdom for the rest of her life. Chapter 4 describes the Ogou possession rituals, where Haitians commune with spirits and are brought closer to their country’s complex military and political history, allowing them to learn its lessons and understand the role of power in their own lives. In chapter 5, a Baka spirit, evil reincarnated, is called into being by a neighbor of the Fouchard family who is consumed by jealousy and ends up entwining himself with the spirit.
In chapter 6, the female spirit Kouzinn shows the survival skills of a machann, or market woman, in a male-dominated family structure. This allows Haitian women to earn some independence. Chapter 7 focuses on Rapelle, a man who requests the help of the powerful priestess Philo (Mama Lola’s mother) in healing his son. He has dreamed about her, and she shows him how her healing abilities work and how to contact the spirits inside him. Chapter 8 examines the Ezilis, a group of female spirits that oversee the role of women in Haitian societies. This chapter provides an overview of the way women live both in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora community.
In chapter 9, Mama Lola’s daughter Maggie is given an illness by the spirits, and when the doctors cannot cure her, her mother tells her the spirits want her to become a Mambo and serve them. Chapter 10 continues to follow Maggie as she agrees to serve the spirits. In a dream, the spirit Dambala is appeased by her decision. Chapter 11 focuses on Karen McCarthy Brown as she goes through with an initiation into the world of Vodou and marries the Vodou priest Papa Ogou. The book ends with an examination of the spirit of death, known as Gede. Unlike many portrayals of Death, he is primarily a healer who uses humor to help people through difficult situations and guide them to the afterlife.
Karen McCarthy Brown was an American anthropologist specializing in the history and anthropology of religion. A professor of anthropology at Drew University, she was the first woman in the Theological School at Drew to receive tenure and reach the rank of full professor. She is best known for Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn
and her research on the subject of Haitian Vodou. In addition to her groundbreaking and award-winning book, she published twenty papers on religion, most on Haitian Vodou. She taught at some of America’s most prestigious colleges, including Temple, Barnard, Harvard Divinity, and Rutgers, and was named a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Copenhagen.