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  1. The term “voodoo” has its roots in West Africa. It comes from the word for “spirit” in the Fon language. The French used the term “vaudoux” (which eventually morphed into the anglicized “voodoo”) to refer to a variety of African spiritual practices, which they typically regarded as superstitions and barbaric practices, in their colonies in the Americas.  
  1. In Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, devotees of the religion that is commonly referred to as “voodoo” typically do not use this term. Vodou is a more respectful and widely used name. In fact, scholars and devotees created a successful campaign to have the US Library of Congress change its entry labels for “voodoo” and “voodooism” to “Vodou.” Most well-known North American and European media outlets have started to use “Vodou” instead of “voodoo” as well. Nevertheless, this shift in terminology does not seem to have reached the public.  
  1. Before the Civil War, most people in the United States had probably never heard of “voodoo.” But after the Union army seized New Orleans, newspapers across the country began to print stories about the “voodoo” practices that were supposedly common among Black people in Louisiana and the rest of the US South. As I discuss in Voodoo: The History of a Racial Slur, people who opposed emancipation and the extension of voting rights to people of African descent used such stories to argue that Black people were too superstitious to be granted these rights and freedoms.  
  1. In the early twentieth century, sensational claims that Black people engaged in human sacrifice and cannibalism formed a major component of US imperialism. When the United States sent forces to occupy nations with large populations of people of African descent, especially Cuba and Haiti, the US media claimed that a “civilizing” presence was necessary to stop these barbaric practices that were allegedly taking place. Such accusations were largely exaggerated and, in some cases, entirely fabricated. Rather, as I argue in Voodoo, they were merely racist justifications for military invasion and imperial dominance. 
  1. In the 1930s, the police, the media, and even scholars referred to the group of Black Muslims who would eventually become known as the Nation of Islam as the “Voodoo Cult of Detroit.” This nickname came about because one of the group’s alleged members, Robert Harris, killed his tenant on an altar in his home and claimed that he committed the murder as an offering to Allah. These allegations about “voodoo” sacrifices had an enormous impact on Black Muslims in Detroit, causing them to change their name, their leader, and the location of their headquarters.  
  1. Despite the name, “voodoo dolls” are not actually derived from the religions of Haiti, Louisiana, or West Africa that have been labeled as “voodoo.” Instead, these dolls are based primarily on European concepts of witchcraft. Long before the Atlantic slave trade and any significant contacts between Europe and West Africa, Europeans used curses and paintings or sculpted images of people to cause individuals harm in the way that so-called voodoo dolls are used in popular culture today.   
  1. Disney’s first movie about a Black princess was set in New Orleans and centers on a story about a “voodoo” curse. The villain is an evil “voodoo doctor,” Dr. Facilier aka the “Shadow Man,” who is helped by his “friends on the other side.” The film features “voodoo dolls,” shrunken heads, human skulls, and other invidious stereotypes.  
  1. After the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and injuring and displacing many more, controversial pastor Pat Robertson publicly claimed that the disaster was God’s retribution for Haitians practicing “voodoo.” Referring to the famed Vodou ceremony at Bois Caiman where leaders of the Haitian revolution prayed for spiritual protection for their uprising, Robertson alleged that Haitians had made a pact with the devil to gain their independence from France. Unfortunately, and partially as a result of such stereotypes, Vodou devotees suffered discrimination and violence following the earthquake and the subsequent cholera outbreak. Additionally, devotees and scholars report that Christian missionaries, who received much of the aid to help rebuild, refused to give supplies to Vodou devotees and used the dire situation to coerce people to attend their churches.  
  1. Despite what Disney, Pat Robertson, and a slew of horror movies have said, devotees of Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo do not worship the devil. In fact, the devil does not even exist in the cosmology of most African diaspora religions. The notion that “voodoo” and other African diaspora religions center on devil worship is based on racism and religious prejudice dating back hundreds of years. To justify slavery, colonization, and other atrocities against non-Christians, Europeans often argued that non-Christians (especially Africans) did not have religion, practiced fetishism, and/or worshipped the devil. Unfortunately, these stereotypes became pervasive over time, and they have been reinforced in recent years through television, movie, and other representations of African diaspora religions.   
  1. In case it is not clear from the previous points, “voodoo” is an extremely racist term. For centuries, it has been used to denigrate the spiritual practices of people of African descent and to argue that Black people were too superstitious for independence and self-governance. The term, and all the stereotypes that come with it, continue to support harmful prejudices and violence against Haitian Vodou and other Africana religions. The word should be eliminated from our vocabulary, except for the rare circumstances in which devotees chose to adopt or reclaim it.  


Danielle N. Boaz

Danielle N. Boaz is an associate professor of Africana studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She studies discrimination and violence against African diaspora religions from the eighteenth century to the present day. To learn more about the racist history of “voodoo,” check out her book Voodoo: The History of a Racial Slur (forthcoming August 2023).

Cite as

Boaz, Danielle N.. 2023. “Ten Facts about the Racist History of “Voodoo” .” Anthropology News website, August 9, 2023.