CaMD Scholar Kianna Jean-Francois ’23 Explores Distortion of Haitian Vodou

Jean-Francois explored Voudou through a new, non-Eurocentric view- point.

Kianna Jean-Francois ’23 shared her perspective on Haitian Vodou on February 17 in Kemper Auditorium. Her presentation, “Se Pa Voodoo, Se Vodou: Undoing the Western Demonization of Haitian Vodou,” is a culmination of her research for the CaMD Scholars program with the Office of Community and Multicultural Development (CaMD). Unpacking the origins and political significance of Vodou, a religion of resistance that was developed and spread during the transatlantic slave trade, Jean-Francois focused on debunking myths about the religion that still stand.  

In her presentation, Jean-Francois acknowledged the stigmas and demonization of the Vodou religion, something that stemmed from European slave owners. Jean-Francois then highlighted the importance of retelling stories about Vodou from a Haitian perspective, which she cited as a form of resistance.

“The idea of resistance is something I really wanted to focus on, because Vodou became this religious force that was able to unite the enslaved people against their enslavers… This was something that I actually didn’t find many connections to in my research, because Vodou at the time wasn’t thought of by enslavers as a resistant power. It was thought of more as a satanic cult. I think that a lot of my concept of Vodou has to do with an idea of resistance, rather than a perspective of European writers who focused on people coming together to talk about how they were going to kill a bunch of white people,” said Jean-Francois. 

Detailing the explosion of Haiti in popular media and Western culture following the occupation of the United States of America, Jean-Francois described the concept of the Vodou “zombie,” which an American journalist used to misportray Haitian culture and Vodou. Jean-Francois also drew connections to the willingness of others to consume the falsification in regard to their perceived image of Haiti.

“This depiction of the ‘zombie’ was also a depiction of the Haitian people and many of the Haitians themselves were upset. But people in the outside world and people in the U.S. were so willing to consume this image of these shells of human people, who were under the control of their master. I don’t think this is a coincidence to the time period where people are thinking of Haiti as this politically unstable nation with roots in demonic satanic cults,” said Jean-Francois. 

Later in the presentation, Jean-Francois expressed the difficulty of providing an authentic description of Vodou without overgeneralizing, as religions are extremely diverse. Having debated whether or not to delve into different historical contexts, Jean-Francois recounted the decisions she had to make on what to include in her presentation.

“At first, I felt like I wanted to talk about the connection between Vodou and the transatlantic slave trade. But in order for me to do that, I also had to talk about slave raiding and slave trade in African kingdoms that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans. There were pieces where I was, ‘Do I want to talk about this? I don’t want people to hyper-focus on this and misinterpret what I’m trying to say…’ I had to dive deep into a lot of details, and take all those details and decide what was important, ” said Jean-Francois.  

Jorge Sausa-Briones ’25, who had been interested in attending Jean-Francois’ presentation since she was announced as a CaMD Scholar, appreciated how the artwork explained the misconception of Vodou, but also how they paid tribute to the culture.  

“I think that the two art pieces that she showed are really good examples of what people who aren’t Haitian think of [Vodou] and also what they mean to Haitian culture, because other people have bad ideas of Haitian art. But I think Kianna really explained why these art pieces are so beautiful and so meaningful for people with Haitian heritage. I think that was really one of the best parts of [the presentation],” said Sausa-Briones.

Another attendee, Nadia Choophungart ’24, recounted how she had seen media demonizing Vodou prior to the presentation, but had little exposure to the actual religion and its role in people’s lives. Choophungart commented on how Jean-Francois’ presentation informed her of the differences and equipped her to pick up on and combat such distortion. 

“I thought it was interesting to see how different things I would see in current media and especially American mainstream media has come from this misrepresentation of vodou. I think [the presentation] gave me more knowledge for the next time that I encountered such media to be aware of its effect, which is really important,” said Choophungart.