How Whitewashing Villainized Black Women’s Magic in Louisiana

The more we know about our history, the more Black women can feel supported in our magic—a magic filled with power and grace, not evil. 

Offerings at the tomb of New Orleans vodou priestess Marie Laveau (1801-1881), who healed many during a yellow fever epidemic in the 19th century with her knowledge of medicinal herbs—perhaps learned from her own mother’s garden. (Karim Rezk / Flickr)

As Halloween draws near, “voodoo” costumes will undoubtedly be on the main menu. But the most popular versions of these costumes meant to scare and entertain the masses are racist depictions of a religion that encompasses African traditions and honors the innate wisdom of Black female practitioners in Louisiana. Few are aware of these issues because either they’ve never lived in Louisiana or have never met a Black woman from Louisiana who practices vodou. But I have the honor of both distinguishing factors.

The first time I met a Vodou priestess was on my birthday. We reveled in our shared love of lemon cake and her gracious presence shattered my preconceived ideas of a woman waiting behind a dark curtain to cast dark spells over all who crossed her. Our encounter was serendipitous, but what was most unexpected was my personal reckoning. In the short time we spent together, I realized that, even I, a Black woman in Louisiana, was guilty of upholding whitewashed plots and racist stereotypes towards women in historically Black-led religions. In my quest to understand and dismantle my own bias, I took to research that first led me to pop culture.

Racism and whitewashed Louisiana voodoo stories are most often portrayed to the rest of the United States in films and television shows. Just in my lifetime, I can think back to the 1987 movie Angel Heart, followed a decade later by the movie Eve’s Bayou. These classic films based in Louisiana spotlight Black and Creole female characters who practice voodoo.

In Angel Heart, a film directed by a white male and ridden with racist overtones, a young Lisa Bonet stars as Epiphany, who is portrayed as an outcast sacrificing an animal and having sex in a graphic scene of blood and aggression. In the end, her character is killed off.

In Eve’s Bayou, directed by a Black woman, Diahann Caroll appears in the film as Elzora, a voodoo woman who the young Eve visits to request a curse be placed on her father. Elzora also foretold the futures of Roz and Mozelle Batiste. In this film, elements of voodoo added layers to the intricate stories of affluent Black and Creole female characters who were elegantly complex and mysterious.

A still from Eve’s Bayou (1997), a drama set in Louisiana in 1962 that follows a wealthy Creole family.

While Black men and Black non-binary folks also practice Louisiana voodoo, Black women are most often depicted as the voodoo villains with harmful and frightening powers. Whitewashed voodoo manages to romanticize almost every element of Southern magic except the Black woman, further complicating our spiritual identities and making many of us hesitant to openly worship outside of white norms. 

Whitewashed voodoo manages to romanticize almost every element of Southern magic—except the Black woman.

But the modern misrepresentation of Louisiana’s voodoo women in popular culture only scratches the surface of a darker narrative fueled by racism deeply rooted in the state’s history. Louisiana’s voodoo origins trace back to Afro-Caribbean religious practices in West Africa and Haiti that were blended with Catholicism. The religion was Vodou (one spelling of many)—which means “spirit” or “god.”

Prayer to Catholic saints became part of Vodou once the practice was banned in Haiti in the 1800s and the Roman Catholic faith became the religious standard. When West African and Haitian slaves were forced to Louisiana, Vodou practices came with them as a secular religion. Once well-to-do white women were spotted in attendance at Vodou convenings, whitewashing and overt racism led to horrifying tales about Vodou being published in white newspapers. The stories presented Vodou as evil and something to be feared

Today, Louisiana’s weeping willow trees still overhear stories of Vodou, a religion that remains taboo in our conservative state—a state where the masses fought long and hard to protect slavery as a morally upright system and racial resentment towards free-thinking Black women (and men) is as heavy as Louisiana’s heat in the summertime. 

The truth is that the fear of Vodou was the fear of Black religious freedoms, because when people have religious freedom, they also tend to develop a deeper sense of identity. Demonizing these freedoms led to the biased depictions of Black women who practice Vodou that we see today. Take, for example, the voodoo doll. In popular culture, these cursed dolls can inflict pain on someone with the simple stick of a pin. But in Vodou, the dolls are seldom used, and when they are, the purpose is to connect to ancestral spirits.  

The fear of Vodou was the fear of Black religious freedoms—because when people have religious freedom, they also tend to develop a deeper sense of identity.

The historical magic of Black women in Louisiana goes beyond spell casting and superstition. It was about honoring our ancestors, building community, and fighting alongside Black men in resistance to slavery and oppression. But reinforced Vodou misconceptions are yet another example of what can happen when whitewashed narratives overtake underrepresented peoples’ stories and practices, no matter the location. 

Being a Black woman in America is layered in contradictions of “Black girl magic,” because depending on the context, these words create a loaded phrase that can either celebrate the Black woman or perpetuate the strong Black woman archetype that dismisses our vulnerabilities and demoralizes us as superhumans who should carry the world’s burdens on our shoulders with a smile.

The solution to reclaim the stories of Louisiana’s Vodou women in films and television is easy to identify, albeit difficult to execute. Consult with Vodou experts for creative direction. Call out prejudices. And withhold monetary support from stories that do more harm than good to Black women.

But more important than entertainment is real life, where we must challenge anti-Black narratives that discourage our rights to openly embrace Black-led religions. The most powerful starting point would be holding intention to learn Black history outside of Euro-centric narratives—because the more we know about our history, the more Black women can feel supported in our magic. It’s a beautiful magic filled with power and grace—not evil. 

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Princella Talley is a writer based in Louisiana. She is also a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.