Whosoever Doubts My Power: Conjuring Feminism in the Interwar Black Diaspora
This dissertation uses the revolutionary potential of Caribbean religion to theorize black feminism between the two World Wars. It argues that women artists and performers across the diaspora produced ethnographic and creative representations of Haitian Vodou (and its sister religions) in order to formulate a radical and pan-African feminism. Unlike accounts of the savagery and hedonism of a sensationalized “voodoo” perpetuated by white male travelers to Haiti, black women’s narratives of Vodou focused specifically on its status as a theology of resistance. By re-animating apolitical narratives of “voodoo” with their original spiritual provenance in Vodou, women of color laid claim to the political force of the religion behind the largest successful slave revolt in the Western hemisphere.
Over four chapters, the Vodou lens of “Whosoever Doubts My Power” shows that black feminism and black radicalism are inextricable. Following the tradition of Karen McCarthy Brown and Natasha Omi’seke Tinsley, I take the religious forms of the African diaspora as potential sources of feminist political mobilization. Haitian Vodou, hoodoo of the American South, and other Afro-diasporic cosmologies allow women to attain the highest positions of leadership (Marie Laveau), and to follow the example of powerful female spirits (Ezili). My dissertation unpacks the radical underpinnings of Afro-Caribbean religious symbology in works by and about black women. In doing so, I address the gender imbalance in scholarship on interwar figures such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Aimé Césaire, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, which often portrays the black radicalism of the interwar period as an endeavor crafted solely by men. If, as Brent Edwards argues, “black radicalism is an internationalization,” I seek to call attention to the transnational movements of women in this time period, despite their more limited access to international circuits. “Whosoever Doubts My Power” bridges the works of Anglophone, Francophone, and Creolophone women whose paths crossed, collided, or simply ran parallel in the shared transnational dream of the voodoo queen. I also include the life and travels of little-researched figures like the essayist Suzanne Césaire and the performer Florence Emery Jones in order to correct the archival elisions of black women’s contributions to the construction of a Pan-African radical tradition.
At times metaphorical, at other times quite literal, this dissertation argues that Black female artists deployed African-derived religious practice in order to intentionally blur the line between cultural inheritance and invention. These practices were not just a means of deflecting or circumventing racism and misogyny; rather, engagements with New World religions became a world ordering system, a cosmology meant to replace the traditions that had been lost over time and in the Middle Passage. Often, these practices were processes of invention as much as they were processes reclamation. In fact, the power of the voodoo/Vodou lens lies precisely in its liminal status between factuality and invention, between myth and history. In a lacunar archive of the Middle Passage that makes past African traditions unknowable and Pan-African solidarity untenable, Afro-diasporic artists must come to terms with the lost of their histories and communities. However, rather than succumbing to the loss of that realization, Black artists of the interwar period used the idea of Vodou to conjure imagined histories and mobilize imagined communities in the present. It was not so much the end of a worldview as the beginning of one.
Florence Emery Jones
Zora Neale Hurston
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Rights for Collection: Duke Dissertations
Works are deposited here by their authors, and represent their research and opinions, not that of Duke University. Some materials and descriptions may include offensive content. More info