A Dangerous Woman

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A couple of years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a Vodou ceremony hosted by Societe La Fraicheur Belle Fleur Guinea, home of several dear friends who are themselves great pleasures of living here in the Crescent City. Their House and mine are friendly to one another and jokingly we refer to ourselves as cousin families; after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, one of their houngans was displaced to Boston, where I got to meet and befriend him. After he moved back to New Orleans, his was one of the main voices that convinced me to follow and move to the Deep South.

*maybe one day I’ll interview him for this blog; we’ll keep our fingers crossed.*

Anyway, today’s post is brought about both by a short discussion that took place at that celebration and by an email I received from a well-meaning questioner…

The ceremony was hosted at the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a venerable cultural treasure of the City of New Orleans, and one of the nation’s first mutual aid societies for the African American community (as well the hosts of one of Mardi Gras Day’s finest parades). The space hosting the ceremony, one of their buildings on N Broad St, featured a bar in the back, where several ladies of the Zulu Club were working as bartenders.

A few houngans and myself were finished calling Ezili Freda into the head of one of the Manbos in attendance, and while Freda was making the rounds of the crowd, we sided up to the bar, where the bartender asked us “So… who is she?”

As we began explaining Ezili Freda to the charming lady behind the bar, talking about her beauty, her questing for perfection, and her social graces, we made careful point to talk about why those qualities are ever in demand for our Lady of Beauty… her relationships to the men in her life, her status as a high class kept woman, and her survival based on the patronage of the men she serves as mistress.

Our bartender burst into laughter, and said “Oh… She’s a THOT!”

Now, to explain the resulting hysterical laughter from a group of initiates who were trying to figure out if they were laughing at truth or sheer blasphemy, let’s take a moment to break that down for folks who might not be familiar with the term in American slang… THOT stands for “That HO Over There”; a term used, not very kindly at all, to describe young ladies putting on a show of sexiness and carnality as a way of seeking out a Sugar Daddy or men who’ll support them as a mistress the men might buy expensive gifts for. Gotta say I hadn’t thought of using that word, but I gotta say that bartender was, in a way, DEAD ON with her calling out the truth and her seeing through the changing societal attitudes about sex and power in the changing times of the world. Probably need to explain why, though, so here goes.

(Yes, there’s a HUGE disconnect between our modern era’s flashy-flesh focus on easy sex and Vodou’s spirits, especially those who are a product of a significantly more socially and sexually repressed time; bear with me here and you’ll get more than a peek)

There’s a HUGE amount of knowledge and lore about our beloved Freda that just doesn’t seem to leak out much into popular American consciousness and especially not into the new-age appropriators of Haitian and Vodou culture, who think our girl is a Goddess of Love and who is concerned with nothin’ more than love and delights… a huge amount. I think it’s about time to sit down and discuss who our beloved Lady is and break down a bit of the why as well. We can begin, like many stories, with the words “Now, back in the day…”, so we should also take care to explain the *when* that the why and the who come from. Let’s start there.

Now, back in the day (told ya.), Haitian Society was fractured by deep divisions of color and class; peasants worked the land of the countryside much in the same way they had been forced to under the oppression of the French slavers, but in the cities there existed a stratified class system based on degrees of Caucasian/French vs. African heritage that manifested in strict rules and laws regarding who could own property, who could attend university, who was on top and who was by society defined as beneath. As follows most Colonial patterning, those who were palest were often closest to their Caucasoid colonialist parentage (and the wealth shared by those lucky enough to be claimed by their ancestors as legal children), and benefited by being allowed to attend university in France, being endowed with small fortunes, or placed in positions of economic and social power by right of their bloodlines. (Even today, Haiti’s general rule of thumb is the paler a person’s skin, the more the likelihood that they are a member of the nation’s ruling class)

In theory, a sharp separation was legally in place, with strict laws regarding marriages and inheritance… but in practice, while marriage between social division was forbidden, relationships often developed between members of the upper echelons of society and those beneath, ranging from abuses of authority that would lead to rape, relationships of love, or in a strange turn of events, relationships of social prestige.

Bear in mind that this was an era of continued cultural and racial intermixing overlaid on a time of hugely dramatic economic upheaval; what began with the children born to white masters by their African chattel-slave property grew into a free people of color straddling the middle ground between the white plantation owners and politicians and the peoples they owned; a stratified world grew to fill the void between as children were born with degrees of “blackness” and those whose skin lightened with successive generations rose to a high social sphere just beneath those of purely European ancestry (often times including owning their own slaves from the ranks of those beneath them in color and station). A caste system emerged based on degree of whiteness, with dozens of names describing a person’s skin tone used to delineate their acceptable station in the world.

Marriages were often arranged, generally as political or economical alliances designed to bring business interests together; men had little choice over who their wife would be, and of course the women had no say at all in a society that rarely acknowledged them as anything other than baby making machines. Wealthy men, who had the time and money, would take mistresses as a way to give a show of their wealth… but that only shows the story from the perspective of the rich patriarchy. To understand Freda, we need to look from the other side.

For the women of the cities, possibilities were pretty bleak. Women, of course, being forbidden to own much or have their own say in the political and economic processes of the country, were left in a position of desperation… literally, survive or die. Those women who were born of a history of racial mixing were left too pale to be anything but resented by the darker-skinned peasantry who remembered very strongly that pale skin only led to servitude and pain, and too African to ever be accepted as the proper wives the young men of Society could use to further their interests. The only choice that remained was to hope to be placed as the mistress of a man of wealth; in that position, they would often be housed in beautiful surroundings and kept in an environment of luxury… though the luxury was not actually for them, but for the pleasure of the man wealthy enough to buy it. The women of the demi-monde danced a very fine edge; they had to cultivate a lifestyle of art, grace, and beauty, making themselves appealing to the men who kept them, but they had to do so at the expense of their feelings, personal desires, and anything that could endanger their ability to survive. At all times they had to present the image of perfection or they would risk being left penniless and alone.

For a FANTASTIC examination of how the world of the demimondaines (the women of the half world in between societies layers) grew in New Orleans, please read Anne Rice’s majestic novel The Feast of All Saints; New Orleans in the day of the Quadroon and Octaroon mistresses, debutantes emerging into “Society” (announced as eligible to be “placed” in mistress arrangements via “balls” where they were paraded before and encouraged to dance with the young men who would in essence be purchasing them), shared huge similarities with the Port au Prince of the same time.

From that place of female artistry, one for which a cross-cultural reading of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha will contrast in spectacular light, comes our beloved Mistress… Ezili Freda.

“Since moving to New York I’ve learned what the word “geisha” really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I’ve been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don’t turn up quite as they should. She has no idea what to say! …this woman is thinking, “My goodness… I’m talking with a prostitute..” A moment later she’s rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can’t sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day, so was I.” -Arthur Golden, “Memoirs of a Geisha”

Ezili Freda (AIR-zee-lee fray-DAH) emerges from this shadowy world a woman skilled enough to hide most traces of desperation, a toughened survivor who does battle with the appearance of effortlessness and elegance; we speak about her wearing three wedding bands for her “husbands”, but each of the men who keep her as their mistress have a primary wife of their own. Each of them “honor” her with expensive trinkets and jewels, but Freda understands completely that each golden necklace is still a chain, each jewel another link in a slave shackle that, though it be gold, still doesn’t glitter. Freda is not “white” enough or from a high-stationed background where she could have been given in marriage to a young man who may someday rule a plantation or a bank. Freda’s weapons are her cosmetics, her smile, her perfumes, her body, her sensuality, her beauty… but she knows that time is finite; soon the wrinkles will come with force; soon her hair will lose it’s luster, her skin it’s softness and it’s glow; soon, the men who keep her in her shining and golden cage will no longer see her as desirable or a jewel they can show off on their lapel. She may live a life of seeming elegance and art, but you can bet there are occasional stories of a lost gemstone, a bracelet that got misplaced… a growing hoard of hidden wealth that can help her when she is no longer seen as being worthy of the lifestyle other people placed her in. Perhaps the commodities she can tuck away are given to those whose beauty has faded before hers, in the hopes that those who come after will care for her in turn.

Ezili is fresh, she is cool, she is Freda… so says the song; Freda walks in a cool twilight world of lace, perfumed powders, cool champagne to sip and delicacies to hand feed the man whose lap she graces. Freda loves her men; when she comes in possession, a traditional display is her flitting from man to man, often asking for “marriage” of a man who can place her in a beautiful world. Freda can become intensely jealous of things or people she may perceive as threatening her position, and many people forget/simply dont know that among her many objects one may see on a Vodou altar, hidden amongst her fans and her toiletries, her perfumes and her combs, he mirrors and her ornaments, there is almost always a sharp and deadly dagger. It may be jeweled, it may be a work of art… but she knows how to use it. Unlike her sister Dantor, who proudly shows off and threatens with the sharpness of her blade, Freda’s knife is never seen in the open; she would never be so crass as to be seen armed or to do anything that could scare away the men she needs, but while her smile and her laugh carry music across the perfumed space, her blade is behind her back or carried securely in her bosom.

We welcome our Mistress into ceremony with joy, but we can never resent her for the things she has or the qualities she represents… because, even though the majority of our tradition are people from the bottom rungs of the ladder, we know that Freda works just as hard as we do and that her desperation is just as real. We offer her the finest things we can, and in exchange she shares with us her gifts, but we recognize and honor in her a woman who uses her beauty as a tool of survival, another person who struggles in a cold and ruthless world to stay alive.

Freda often takes the imaj of the Mother of Sorrows/the Mater Dolorosa; in this image, we see her clothed in expensive silks and positively dripping under a staggering amount of golden jewelry, but her face shows a hint of the sorrows she knows in her heart. Beside her at a table is a framed picture of a child, perhaps one she had to bear in secret and hide to preserve the appearance of her almost effortless youth. She knows she cannot know her child other than in secret; she knows her life comes at the cost of her ability to love as she pleases. For these things, and for so much more, Freda knows the true compassion that comes from a life of hidden misery, wrapped in so much beauty. Can she trick herself into allowing herself to enjoy, all while being careful not to ever be anything less than desirable?

Some Fredas are known for arriving in grace and beauty but, as the possession continues, they begin to cry and sob while the vodouisants around them press them with finer and finer gifts in an effort to please them… but we know that Freda, as she cries, trusts us with her pain and can finally let down the wrought iron facade of effortless elegance. We know and love her; we can provide her a safe place to allow her emotions out so that, when the tears are wiped away, she can once again assume the mask like smile that her men can never be allowed to see behind. Her declaration of open trust to us only makes us love her all the more; she is one of us, suffering through life and fighting her fight the only way she’s truly allowed to. There’s really no difference between her and the kept women of today, women who through their desperation dye their hair, go under the knife for facelifts or botox treatments, giving everything at their disposal to stay youthful and beautiful lest they lose their men to younger, up and coming beauties who could destroy their homes and families, their places beside men of economic wealth and power. There may well be no difference at core between Freda’s demimonde of placage/placement in gilded cages and the young ladies of today provoking Sugar Daddies with their flashes of skin and loose sensuality.

There is so much more to Freda than a “Love Goddess”; to appropriate her name and to force it into an artificial notion of “Goddess”hood or to fail to see the struggle she represents is to give her dire insult. Likewise she is NEVER vapid or one dimensional the way so many in the online-only Vodou world would portray her. Freda in many ways helps us to live better lives, showing us better opportunities and helping us to shoulder our own burdens/put on a happy face and hide the pain, but she is in no more control of her destiny for her supposed high station. She knows all too well that to the men around them, women like her are still a *thing*, like a beautiful piece of furniture or an ornament that shows the other men around him how much of a flagrant display of wealth the man who’s elbow she rides can put on. She knows all too well what it takes to protect what she has, and that even while appearing to be fragile and in need of protection, she can kill if that’s what it takes to maintain her position. She finds wonders in ways to improve life and improve station; after all, behind the beauty is sharply focused ambition and a keen mind that completely understands what can come from an improved station in life. She is a wonderful and amazing woman of complexity, but a truly dangerous woman to those who insult her or who would seek to command her without the understanding of what is hidden behind the beautiful silken veils.

***

“Ezili fre, li fre, li Freda
Ezili fre, li fre, li Freda
Ezili O! Li pa manje moun anko.

Inosan Bondye va gade ou”

Ezili is fresh, she is cool, she is Freda
Ezili is fresh, she is cool, she is Freda
Ezili, Oh! She doesn’t eat people anymore
God will behold you as Innocent.

***

For a playful yet still poignant comparison, watch this video… many of you may know the song from Leonard Bernstein’s masterwork Candide, but here the mindblowing soprano Diana Damrau performs the piece with a stunning pathos showing a woman experiencing being abducted and trapped in the same demimonde mindset we spoke of above.

“Glitter and be gay,
That’s the part I play;
Here I am in Paris, France,
Forced to bend my soul
To a sordid role,
Victimized by bitter, bitter circumstance.
Alas for me! Had I remained
Beside my lady mother,
My virtue had remained unstained
Until my maiden hand was gained
By some Grand Duke or other.

Ah, ’twas not to be;
Harsh necessity
Brought me to this gilded cage.
Born to higher things,
Here I droop my wings,
Ah! Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage.

And yet of course I rather like to revel,
Ha ha!
I have no strong objection to champagne,
Ha ha!
My wardrobe is expensive as the devil,
Ha ha!
Perhaps it is ignoble to complain…
Enough, enough
Of being basely tearful!
I’ll show my noble stuff
By being bright and cheerful!
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!

Pearls and ruby rings…
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets…lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

And yet of course these trinkets are endearing,
Ha ha!
I’m oh, so glad my sapphire is a star,
Ha ha!
I rather like a twenty-carat earring,
Ha ha!
If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!

Enough! Enough!
I’ll take their diamond necklace
And show my noble stuff
By being gay and reckless!
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!

Observe how bravely I conceal
The dreadful, dreadful shame I feel.
Ha ha ha ha!”

I’ll write more about this amazing Lady at some point soon, but there’s already a lot here to think about and to compare to the silly notions that outsiders bring to the table when they think they can speak for us instead of seeking to learn how things truly are or when as non-initiates and outsiders they sell us books all about how they know these spirits better than the generations of Haitians who have cared for them through time; this is one of the dangers concerning people’s approaches to this tradition… much like Freda herself and the duality between her gracious smile and the sharpness of the hidden knife she carries, what people see on the surface rarely shows the complexities of the currents hidden beneath the visible spectrum. It’s too easy to be lost in the visible world, much the way Freda keeps her men; few are willing to really investigate what lies beneath, and as a result, so few ever really approach the truth.

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