Circling Dantò’s Daughter: Reflections on Lenelle Moïse’s Performances of Shamelessness | Kantara Souffrant
The Viscera: Memories of My Mother
My mother says Ezili Freda tried to kill her.
Pinned her between a car and a wall and that is why she wears a gash on her head.
And silence around her heart.
My mother says Ezili Freda tried to kill her.
That’s why she won’t go back or speak their names.
That’s why she dares not encourage our lighting of candles or our dancing for Saints.
My mother says Ezili Freda tried to kill her.
Beautiful, (un)loved, salty cheeks that are home to dried rivers of grief.
She and Freda seem one and the same.
My mothers says Ezili Freda tried to kill her,
But Dantò stepped in.
Black. Not beautiful like her sister Freda.
But Dantò be loyal and shameless.
Dantò be mother to mothers.
Mother to those without house or home.
Mother to Ayïti Chérie, my muse, my love.
Dantò be keeper of secrets with her gutted lingua.
Dantò is thankless.
Her name went unknown on her/my tongue until yesterday.
The secret(s) too hard to reveal in the daytime.
But dreams and shadows reveal themselves to those willing to play along to their fancy.
“She saved me.”
“Did you thank her?”
“I thanked her by leaving and living.”
But her own tear streaked face and hardship as mother, a woman without house or home reveal the need for prayer and baths of basil and florida water.
Womb-washings and thanksgivings.
My mother says Ezili Freda tried to kill her.
But it was Dantò that saved her/me.
Made work unafraid.
Made truth a requisite.
Made Haiti loveable. Love-able.
The Reflection: Shameless
I was taught to be ashamed of Vodou. Similar to many Haitians in the Diaspora and in Haiti, I was taught to hide any desire to know the spirits, the lwa. The teachings of fear and shame that I inherited were probably due to my own parents’ traumatic tales of Vodou. Yet despite their best efforts to keep me/us from Vodou, here we are, generations and miles away from Haiti turning our young Haitian-American heads back towards Haiti, towards Ginen (Ancestral Africa) and back to the lwa. Here we are circling the cosmograms of spirit, faith, and time in search of ourselves. What happens when Vodou skips a generation and unwittingly travels across the waters? When Haitian Diasporic and generational love of Vodou becomes shameless, a requisite for our story and truth-telling? In the works of poet-performer-director Lenelle Moïse, a 1.5 generation (born in Haiti but raised in the U.S.) Haitian-American we see the ways that Vodou becomes a visual and visceral guiding force. Moïse is an artist who uses Vodou to, as I describe it, “circle the cosmograms,” to (re)turn to Haiti vis-à-vis (re)turning to Haitian Vodou as a philosophical and aesthetic ethos. In what follows, I use the memories of my first encounters with Moïse as well as her poems, “Kissed There Myself” and “Rada Raincoat,” to reflect on how Moïse circles the cosmograms and shamelessly returns to Vodou and female power, thereby satisfying a Diasporic longing for Haiti and Haitian Vodou.
I first met Lenelle Moïse in February 2007, during my junior year at Oberlin College. Moïse was one of the guest performers for our yearly Black History Celebration, sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center. She was there to perform her one-woman show, “Womb-Words Thirsting” (now titled “Word Life”), which she circulated around colleges and community-based theaters beginning in 2006. As the designated and only “out” Haitian woman (“out” as queer and “out” as Haitian) on campus, I was charged with picking up our Haitian-American poet-performer from the airport. I did not know Moïse or her work at the time, but during our 30-minute drive from the airport we learned that we shared similar stories: both of us had been raised in strict Seventh-Day Adventist households; both of us had begun learning about Haiti and Vodou as a means of unlearning what we had been taught as children to believe about Haitian people and Vodou; and both of us identified as queer and/or pomosexual.
Story-sharing with Moïse was a true reminder of black feminist theory, especially the importance of self-definition and safe spaces for speaking and talking to other Black, or in this case Haitian, women. Both Moïse and I, in our shared excitement, were able to find a language and see a recognition in one another, thereby replacing “controlling [negative] images” of Haitian queer-Vodou-inspired women “with self-defined knowledge deemed personally important [and] essential to Black women’s survival” (Collins 2009, 110-11). We were reflections of each other’s divinely queer Diasporic bodies.
Womb-Words Thirsting, as it was performed in 2007 at Oberlin College, also reflected the divinely queer Diasporic body. The performance began with Moïse off-stage, with nothing on the lit stage except a table transformed through fabric, flowers, oranges, and a candle. When Moïse began her show she announced that the altar was for Ezili Dantò, the patron lwa of gay and queer people in Haitian Vodou. I marked this moment as the first time that I ever saw my queer Haitian Diasporic body reflected back to me in the divine. I would meet and see Moïse perform Womb-Words Thirsting for a second time at Northwestern in February 2010, slightly over a month after the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Moïse’s alter had grown smaller; however, Dantò’s presence was even more pronounced. During the course of her performance Moïse revealed to her audience one possible reason why she had to/must be queer: her immigrant mother had refused to serve Ezili Dantò and, for this reason, the lwa claimed her child as a lesbian.
The intimate relationship between Ezili Dantò and Moïse reflects the importance of Vodou in the Haitian experience, particularly the 1.5 and second-generation experience. In the groundbreaking tome Vodou in the Haitian Experience: A Black Atlantic Perspective (2016), Celucien Joseph and Nixon S. Cleophat successfully argue that Vodou discourse pervades every aspect of the Haitian experience, be it in Haiti or in the Diaspora. Vodou is a trope, cultural phenomenon, and an important marker of Haitian identity, one that is “used in the intersections of memory, trauma, history, collective redemption, and Haitian Diasporic identity in literature both by Haitian male and female writers and cultural critics” (1-2). Indeed, if Vodou can be understood as a trope capable of shaping Haitian cultural, social, and philosophical thoughts and relations, then we must also consider Vodou as a hermeneutic, capable of being charged and utilized by those of us, such as Moïse, who grew up in Haitian homes that were unwilling (or scared) to ouvri bayè-a (“open the doors”) to the spirits.
Moïse’s work and my own visceral response demonstrate that Vodou is a language that allows us to connect to our ancestors, narratives of our parents, and/or their homeland. We, the grandchildren of those who formerly served the spirits, are using our talents to return to and open those doors that were shut a generation (or two) ago. The reopening of spiritual pathways, particularly by 1.5 and second generation female, feminist, and/or queer identified Haitian Diasporans (groups of people who have been marginalized both in Haiti and the Diaspora) is part and parcel of circling the cosmograms, returning to Haitian Vodou in an effort to better know Haiti while simultaneously creating space for alternative voices: that of women, queer people, and Dyaspora.
“Kissed There Myself,” and “Rada Raincoat” are poems that evoke circling the cosmograms with both poems drawing inferences to Vodou while centering the imagery of the texts on a female subjectivity. In “Kissed There Myself,” we have a poem personified as a truth-telling, skirt wearing, female-embodied spirit who is, “shameless.” The poem-personified is coolly confident, highly self-aware and determined. Regal despite possibly being “flat broke,” the spirit described in “Kissed There Myself” dons an extremely curated costume that is nothing short of bold: fishnet stockings, print dutch wax headscarves, clogs, amongst other items. My memory of Moïse wants to interpret the poem-personified as Moïse herself, a woman whose own style and beauty is a fine patchwork of bold colors and natural essences, similar in quality to a blush of “brushed on cinnamon.”
Despite the spirit’s similarities to Moïse, I am also drawn to the ways that the woman characterized by/as the poem is an apt portrayal of a modern-day Ezili. In many ways, the poem feels like an homage to an Ezili incarnate, a woman who shamelessly blends the sacred and profane in Moïse’s text: “twerking by moonlight” and bathing her nude body in “chango storms.” The Ezili lwa are a pantheon of women who are a variety of ages, skin-tones, shapes and temperaments. The multitudes of Ezilis model the broad range of women’s experiences in this world for as anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown (2005) assessed, “In addition to providing examples of love, care, and hard work, they model anger—righteous and raging—power and effectivity, sensuality, sexuality, fear, frustration, need, and loneliness. In so doing, they become mirrors that give objective reality to what would otherwise remain, as it does in so many cultures, women’s silent pain and unhonored power” (221). Ezili’s boldness comes from her/their critical shamelessness; her/their uncompromised bringing of her full self anywhere and everywhere. Ezili does not hide from the truth of who she is—a woman capable of love and anger, beauty and ugliness, sacred and profane acts. Ezili always stands firm in her complexity and similarly to Moïse’s “Kissed There Myself,” Ezili announces her presence without retreat, marking her space in a kiss, a cry, a sashay, anything that lets you know that she has arrived.
If “Kissed There Myself,” is an ode to the woman herself, then “Rada Raincoat,” seems a sensuous dedication to the objects of adornment that grace Ezili and/or her children in the Diaspora. The poem gets its name from the titular line, “rada raincoat tent this faith.” Rada is one of the primary nations of Vodou, brought to Haiti from Dahomey, present day Benin. Ezili Freda, lwa of love, is traditionally associated with the “cooler” Rada nation, while her sister Ezili Dantó, known for being a fierce warrior and mother of the Haitian Revolution is typically associated with the “hotter” Petwo nation born in colonial Saint-Domingue under the context of slavery. The Rada raincoat thus becomes the ultimate signifier of Haitian longing and displacement: an object/artifact/spiritual guard and connection to Haiti.
An initial reading of the poem “Rada Raincoat” takes me into Haiti. It is hard to imagine how the words might read and feel to those without a cultural context for them, those who have never been to Haiti, or longed for her affects. “Rada Raincoat” is an ode to those objects that are inherited memories from my parents’ childhoods in Haiti, and that peppered our home (whenever possible) after a trip to a local Caribbean grocery store or a long sojourn back to Haiti. Barbancourt rum (the de facto national rum of Haiti), the sacred mapou (silk-cotton tree) around which Vodou ceremonies may occur, water from the Saut-d’Eau waterfalls where pilgrimages are made throughout the year but especially in July where people bathe in Ezili’s waters, and the sweet sticky fruit kenap (Spanish limes). “Rada Raincoat” is a reminder of the material realities of Diaspora, the ways that artifacts—be they rum, fruit, flowers or costuming—serve as conjurings of home. Vodou is also one of those previously shameful conjurings. Yet Vodou and the Ezilis who dance on the pages of Lenelle Moïse’s poems entice us to be shameless.
 I refer to “Diaspora” with a capital “D” throughout this essay. In so doing, I aim to reinforce Diasporas as their own porous and precarious entities. Diasporas are indebted to their “homelands” but simultaneously live separately from (literally and discursively) and alongside their physical and ideological homelands and/or nation-states.
 I will not rehearse the full scope of circling the cosmograms here. For more, see Kantara Souffrant, “Circling the Cosmogram: Vodou Aesthetics, Feminism, and Queer Art in the Second-Generation Haitian Dyaspora,” in Vodou in the Haitian Experience, Edited by Celucien L. Joseph and Nixon S. Cleophat (Lanhman, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 35-63.
 While to this day I would still use “queer” to describe my non-heteronormative political and personal commitments, Moïse has called herself “queer,” “lesbian,” and “pomosexual.” As these terms are fluid and mobile, they evidence the uncompromised importance of us being able to name ourselves for ourselves when, where, and how we choose to do so.
 “Ezili” is often spelled as “Erzulie.” I use the Haitian Kreyòl spelling throughout this document.
 Moïse’s Wombs-Words Thirsting was presented on Friday and Saturday, February 19 and 20, 2010, at Annie May Swift Hall, Alvina Krause Studio, 1920 Campus Drive, Evanston, Illinois. The performance was part of the “solo/black/woman performance series,” funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation and co-organized by Professors E. Patrick Johnson and Ramón Rivera-Servera. Gina Ulysse served as the respondent to the performance, and her analysis is published as “Rasanble: Some Critical Reflections on Lenelle Moïse's Womb-Words, Thirsting” (2013).
 The phrase “ouvri bayè-a” comes from a verse from a Vodou song to the lwa Papa Legba, keeper of the crossroads. Legba is called upon first in all Vodou ceremonies and he “opens the doors” between the worlds of the spirits and the mortal realm.
 “Dyaspora” is the Haitian Kreyòl spelling of “Diaspora” and is often used as a pejorative to demarcate those people of Haitian ancestry who live outside of Haiti’s geographical borders.
 Lenelle Moïse, “Kissed There Myself.”
 The previously mentioned Ezili Dantò is but one form of a series of lwa who falls under the umbrella of “Ezili.” The most popular of the Ezilis are Ezili Freda, of the Rada nation of spirits originally from Dahomey (present day Benin). Freda is often described as light skinned with a sweet and feminine nature and she loves all things pertaining to luxury especially perfumes, lace, and sweet cakes and is often described as the lwa of “love” and male-desire. Ezili Dantò is the sister-spirit (literally) of Ezili Freda. Dantò contrasts Freda in nearly all regards; while Freda is of the “Old World,” light-skinned, genteel, and displaying a sort of colonial and coquettish nature, Dantò is a dark-skinned, fiery, and a warrior woman who defies notions of feminine gentility. For more scholarly/practitioner texts on the Ezilis and Ezili Freda see: Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); Harold Courlander, Haiti Singing (University of North Caroline Press, 1939); Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti (London, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953); Kenan Filan, The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding the Lwa (Rochester, VT, 2007); Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (New York: Harper’s & Row, 1990); Milo Marcelin, Mythologie Vodou: Rite Arada (Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, 1949); and Alfred Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti (New York, NY: Schocken Books, Inc., 1972).
 Chango (also referred to as Shàngó or Sango) being the Yoruba-Lucumi spirit often associated with thunder and lightning.
 For more on the Ezili’s and their colonial and post-colonial legacy see Joan (Colin) Dayan’s, Haiti, History, and the Gods (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1993).
 For more on the discussion of Vodou, Rada and Petwo see Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Claudine Michel’s Vodou in Haitian Life, Culture: Invisible Powers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Donald J. Consentino, editor, The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995); Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti (London, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953); Alfred Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti, Translated by Hugo Charteris (New York: Schocken Books, 1972); and Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983).
Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick and Claudine Michel, eds. 2006. Vodou in Haitian Life, Culture: Invisible Powers. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Brown, Karen McCarthy. 2005. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Collins, Patricia Hill.  2009. Black Feminist Thought. London and NY: Routledge Classics.
Consentino, Donald J., ed. 1995. The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Courlander, Harold. 1939. Haiti Singing. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Caroline Press.
Dayan, Colin (Joan). 1993. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Deren, Maya. 1953. Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti. London and New York: Thames and Hudson.
Filan, Kenan. 2007. The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding the Lwa. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1990. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. New York, NY: Harper’s & Row.
Joseph, Celicien, and Nixon S. Cleophat. 2016. “Introduction: Contemporary and Transnational Vodou, and the African Perspective.” In Vodou in the Haitian Experience. Eds. Celucien L. Joseph and Nixon S. Cleophat. Lanhman, MD: Lexington Books. 1-9.
Marcelin, Milo. 1949. Mythologie Vodou: Rite Arada. Port-Au-Prince, Haiti: Éditions Haïtiennes.
Métraux, Alfred. 1972. Voodoo in Haiti. Translated by Hugo Charteris. New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Moïse, Lenelle, “Kissed There Myself,” in Women and Performance: Nou Mache Ansanm: Queer Haitian Performance and Affiliation (2016)
Souffrant, Kantara. 2016. “Circling the Cosmogram: Vodou Aesthetics, Feminism, and Queer Art in the Second-Generation Haitian Dyaspora.” In Vodou in the Haitian Experience. Eds. Celucien L. Joseph and Nixon S. Cleophat. Lanhman, MD: Lexington Books. 35-63.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1983. Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. New York, NY: Random House.
Ulysse, Gina Athena. 2013. “Rasanble: Some Critical Reflections on Lenelle Moïse's Womb-Words, Thirsting.” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 15.1-2: 133-145.
Kantara Souffrant is a first-generation Haitian-American artist-scholar. She is a visual-storyteller who uses sculptures, voice, poetry and movement to weave her performances. Her approach to art creation is informed by her studies of African Diasporic faith and spiritual practices in which spiritual/ritual practices, performance, art creation, and communal transformation are inseparable. She has shared her artistic and scholarly work at numerous venues including: The Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diasporic Institute (CCCADI), New York University, Judson Church, praxis place(Chicago), Northwestern University, Fisher Gallery (Oberlin, OH), and The University of York.