Many are calling Season 3 of the hit FX series American Horror Story the best season ever. Though I enjoyed watching this season, we need to clear some things up concerning the show’s intertwining of historical events and figures associated with Black history.
Queenie’s character, played by Gabourey Sidibe, is descended from a real person named Tituba. During the Salem Witch Trials, Tituba was accused of being a witch and beaten until she confessed. However, she was never put on trial and did not face execution. There is a historical debate waging about her ethnicity. However, most historians believe she was most likely Indian or mixed-raced with African ancestry. According to historian Benjamin C. Ray, two enslaved Black women, Mary Black and Candy, were also accused of witch craft during the Salem Witch Trials. Eventually charges against Mary Black were dropped and she returned home. Candy was also found not guilty.
Marie Laveau, played by Angela Bassett, is a historical figure, turned into a fictional character on AHS. Marie Laveau was born in 1794 and was known for her powerful practice of Vodou . Though depicted in the show as childless (except for the one child she gave to Papa Legba), she was in fact married twice and the mother of 15 children. She even had a “junior” daughter called Marie Laveau II. According to historical accounts, Marie was loved and feared by many for her gift of foresight. She knew many secrets and was often called upon to testify in trials. She mostly kept quite, but if the defendants were mean people, she would tell all of their dirty laundry and shame their families. Though she was commonly known as the “Voudou Queen”, she was also an avid church goer who brought many people into the church fold.
The New York Times published an obituary of Marie Laveau in 1881 stating, “Marie Laveau, one of the most wonderful women who ever lived, passed peaceably away.”
It goes on to say, “Marie had a large, warm heart and tender nature, and never refused a summons from the suffering, no matter how deadly the disease. Where ever she went, she labored faithfully and earned lifelong friends. During yellow fever and cholera epidemics, she proved herself a noble, disinterested woman, going from patient to patient, administering the wants of each and saving many from death.” – NY Times 1881 Archives
Unfortunately, for many viewers their first introduction to Papa Legba was as some sort of boogeyman figure that takes innocent babies and snorts cocaine. It has drawn much warranted criticism, because demonizing African religions appears to be a re-occurring theme in Hollywood.
Papa Legba, played by Lance Reddick, is an important spirit or Lwa in Vodou. According to historian Leslie G. Desmangles, “Legba is the patron of the universe, the link between the Godhead and the universe, the umbilical cord that connects the universe to its origin.” Desmangles also states, ”In his function as the guardian of universal and individual destiny, Legba is of Yoruba origin…’” Vodou spirits are derived from West Africa and are often associated with Catholic Saints. Thus to some, Papa Legba is also known as Saint Peter. However at times, Legba assumes a trickster persona called, Kafou. Still Kafou is viewed as an “inversion of Legba.” Devotees sacrifice roosters and chickens to Legba.
The word Vodou means spirit. Vodou is derived from West African Vodun practiced in Ghana, Nigeria, Benin and among various ethnic groups across the western coast of Africa. American cinema has done a wonderful job of mainstreaming the fear of Black-ness and African derived religions. Due to this fear-mongering, many people, including African descendants have become afraid of or disconnected from traditional or indigenous religions. Traditional or African derived religions have been practiced for thousands of years. During slavery and colonization, Africans and African descendants were punished for practicing their own religions, which at times led to a disconnect in understanding these religions among future generations. Vodun, like other religious practices has its benefits and disadvantages. But it is not inherently spooky or evil, these types of depictions are concoctions of the Eurocentric dehumanization of Black culture.
While many African descendants may lack historical knowledge of traditional religions, many of their religious practices in Abrahamic religions are still derived from traditional practices. This includes but is not limited to: call and response, the use of drums, repetitive lyrics, songs like “steal away” that include alternative meanings, ring shouting, and “speaking” things into existence. These are all African traditions that deserve a more nuanced understanding.
Marie Delphine LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates was a real life serial killer in New Orleans. For years, she brutally tortured, maimed, and killed slaves. Her sick actions were discovered in 1834 during a house fire. Contrary to what AHS depicts, LaLaurie was born and raised in New Orleans and her family is of Irish descent. She was famous for hosting parties and entertaining guests. Delphine LaLaurie may have known Marie Laveau, who lived in her neighborhood. When LaLaurie’s evil acts were discovered, she and her daughters were chased out of New Orleans by an angry mob. Some believe they changed their names and fled to France.
The New Orleans Bee covered the story in 1834:
Upon entering one of the apartments, the most appalling spectacle met their eyes. Seven slaves more or less horribly mutilated were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other. Language is powerless and inadequate to give a proper conception of the horror which a scene like this must have inspired. We shall not attempt it, but leave it rather to the reader’s imagination to picture what it was.
These slaves were the property of the demon, in the shape of a woman whom we mentioned in the beginning of this article. They had been confined by her for several months in the situation from which they had thus providentially been rescued and had been merely kept in existence to prolong their suffering and to make them taste all that the most refined cruelty could inflict.
I’m glad that American Horror Story writers included these historical events and figures in their story line. Though their depiction is wrought with Hollywood spin and the same “old fear of Blackness” approach, more people are asking questions about these figures and opening up discussions about what is fact or fiction.
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