I used to love Halloween.
As a child, I adored the dressing up as my favorite super heroine, rock star, animal, or – when I got a little older and fancier – donning some nice, natural looking fangs and biting on packets of fake blood. It was fun to watch as everyone around me toyed with the boundaries of identity and engaged in playful existential questioning around death and immortality. And who doesn’t love free candy?
But Halloween is not fun anymore, and it hasn’t been for some time.
Plastic Barbie masks (problematic in their own right, to be sure) have been replaced by “Baby Hitlers,” mockeries of a teen gunned down in cold blood, mockeries of lynching… mockeries of humanity and the violent destruction thereof. Though most decent people know enough to be disgusted – or at least to feign disgust and distaste – at the donning of blackface and offensive instances of cultural appropriation, there is still one seemingly acceptable recipient of disrespect and mockery: African and African Diasporic religious traditions.
Forget the ghost tales: Racism – specifically anti-blackness and anti-Africanism, often reinforced through religious bigotry – is the real American horror story. As far as we’ve come with regard to race relations and religious tolerance, during Halloween and throughout the year, it is still deemed acceptable to treat African and Diasporic religions as objects and fodder for hawking everything from chicken wings to novelty gifts rather than showing respect for them and their predominantly Black practitioners. While a Halloween display featuring a horror version of the crucifixion of Christ or the atrocities of the Holocaust for “entertainment” purposes is unthinkable due to the offense either of these acts would represent to particular religious communities, conglomerates like American Apparel and Universal Studios still find it acceptable to use the sacred symbols of African-descended peoples as decoration and a means through which to entertain their predominantly White clientele. In the name of “entertainment” our beliefs are routinely twisted and fabricated, our sacred symbols desecrated, our traditions depicted as “spooky” and evil. To add insult to injury, when we bring this wrongdoing to the attention of the offenders, we’re dismissed and told, essentially, that we should lighten up because “it’s only for entertainment” and that people understand that the displays have “no basis in reality.” (These are actual quotes from responses to letters of complaint, for the record.)
The problem, though, is that despite the fact that the brutal human sacrifice depicted in Universal Studios’ “Bayou of Blood” Halloween Horror Nights display, for example, is fake and is in no way a part of the practice of Vodou or any other African or Diasporic religion, the average non-practitioner doesn’t know that. As my colleagues and I have discussed elsewhere, this is precisely because these types of images are the most prevalent depictions to which they’ve been exposed. Aside from the religious intolerance these grossly inaccurate portrayals foster, they also help to buttress racist sentiments which continue to cast African-descended peoples as backwards and primitive, at best, and murderous savages, at worst. The representations may be false but this misinformation has very real consequences for the more than 100 million practitioners of African and Diasporic Religions worldwide who face continued prejudice and discrimination at the hands of those whose only points of reference for who we are is Hollywood’s skewed interpretations and sensationalized news reports about dead chickens.
The desire to entertain – during Halloween or at any other time of year – is no excuse for the promulgation of imagery that denigrates any race, ethnic group, culture, or religion. As we engage with this holiday, it is important to realize that “voodoo”-themed fare and other material that disrespects African and Diasporic religions falls into the same category as blackface and that consuming it helps perpetuate bigotry, both racial and religious. Whatever our backgrounds or beliefs, if we stand in solidarity and cease patronizing those who feel that the profit they make from this type of “entertainment” outweighs the damage they are doing to already marginalized communities, then maybe – just maybe – we’ll have a chance of changing the way this horror story ends.
Note: The human sacrifice portion of “Bayou of Blood” has since been removed, thankfully, but the display itself is still active.
Image courtesy of wikimedia and is released into the public domain under a free art license.