American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

Vodou and the U.S. Counterculture

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Maisha Wester (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Tori Ekstrand (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Dalton Jones (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Katerina Ruedi Ray


Considering the function of Vodou as subversive force against political, economic, social, and cultural injustice throughout the history of Haiti as well as the frequent transcultural exchange between the island nation and the U.S., this project applies an interpretative approach in order to examine how the contextualization of Haiti's folk religion in the three most widespread forms of American popular culture texts – film, music, and literature – has ideologically informed the U.S. counterculture and its rebellious struggle for change between the turbulent era of the mid-1950s and the early 1970s.

This particular period of the twentieth century is not only crucial to study since it presents the continuing conflict between the dominant white heteronormative society and subjugated minority cultures but, more importantly, because the Enlightenment's libertarian ideal of individual freedom finally encouraged non-conformists of diverse backgrounds such as gender, race, and sexuality to take a collective stance against oppression. At the same time, it is important to stress that the cultural production of these popular texts emerged from and within the conditions of American culture rather than the native context of Haiti. Hence, Vodou in these American popular texts is subject to cultural appropriation, a paradigm that is broadly defined as the use of cultural practices and objects by members of another culture.

One form of cultural appropriation is cultural exploitation, a concept that is central to the chapter on film and manifests itself as a mode of misrepresentation. Following in the wake of the early twentieth century, when the U.S. occupation of Haiti denounced Vodou as violent anti-white cult and widespread media frenzy in America sought to demonize the Nation of Islam by relating it to the distorted version of Haiti's folk religion, Hollywood perpetuated Vodou's disrepute to an extent that it can be read as a means to further denigrate growing black resistance to white oppression after World War II. In order to divert from its racist undertone and justify the maintenance of ostensibly oppressive white supremacy, films like Voodoo Tiger, Voodoo Woman, and Macumba Love are not only symbolic of demonizing black resistance as chaotic and random violence but also suggestive of portraying whites as victims of black aggression.

Unlike film, music and literature appropriated Vodou in order to ideologically support the revolutionary course of the U.S. counterculture. Music had a particular impact on the three New Left currents black liberation, feminism, gay rights activism, and their interconnectedness insofar as Vodou in the lyrics of songs such as "Voodoo Voodoo" and "Voodoo Man," "Voodoo Eyes" suggests different gender, sexual, and racial hierarchies. Vodou in U.S. literature such as Reed's postmodern novel Mumbo Jumbo, by comparison, disseminates ideologies that are emblematic of buttressing the anti-imperial discourse of the peace movement during the Vietnam War. These ideologies, for instance, suggest mediating between two oppositional sides in order to balance out conflict and are thus significative of resonating with liberal activists who traveled to Southeast Asia in order to negotiate between the U.S. and North Vietnam.