Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow
One day in 1982, Harvard graduate student Wade Davis traveled to Haiti, a poorly understood nation wrapped in myth and plagued with economic despair, to find the truth about one of that nation’s most famous products: zombies. Ever since the American occupation of 1915, legends of black magic and the walking dead had scared white people the world over. Davis discovered that these stories weren’t mere campfire legends, but something more interesting.
But above his specific discoveries, Davis’ 1985 account of his journey began a pattern that would dominate his career. Instead of treating other cultures as merely exotic, or focusing on the gap between “our” customs and “theirs,” Davis treats distinct cultures as worthy of consideration in their own right. Though he hardly invented such an approach, at a time when unquestioned racist assumptions drove global interactions, Davis pushed this view into public discourse.
Davis, a former forest ranger and river guide accustomed to the rigors of life in the wild, ventured beyond the Haitian capital of Port au Prince to pursue the elusive zombies. This in itself made Davis remarkable among outsiders. Graham Greene wrote his classic novel The Comedians, depicting Duvalier’s Haiti as a sinkhole of crime and moral turpitude, without ever leaving the grounds of the Hotel Oloffson. Sadly, Greene’s behavior has been about typical of global visitors.
Strangers before Davis had immersed themselves in the culture and religion of Haiti, most prominent among them Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Deren. Davis followed in their path, not only speaking to Haitians, but participating in their ceremonies, and undergoing initiation into the voodoo religion. But unlike the artists who preceded him (Hurston was a novelist, Deren a filmmaker), Davis brought a scientist’s eye to the proceedings he observed and shared.
Voodoo—or, as Davis spells it, more in keeping with its Yoruba origins, vodoun—has been misrepresented by outsiders. Remember, most Haitians’ heritage runs back nearly unmingled to African slaves brought in by the colonial French. And from the days of empire, to the occupation, to the present, there have always been people willing to cheapen anything people of color hold sacred, just to keep anything different or challenging at bay.
And that goes double for the most misrepresented aspect of Haitian folk heritage, the zombie (Davis writes zombi). White people, at least since George Romero, have depicted a shuffling mass of mindless corpses, ravenously hungry and jealous of the living for being alive. It’s tough to observe Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead without recognizing a poorly coded metaphor for white racist stereotypes of lusty, savage Negroes at our gates.
Books like Gone With the Wind, and movies like Birth of a Nation, show African Americans as a faceless mass, wearing shabby clothes, motivated entirely by appetite, and obsessed with the desire to have sex with white women. While the mainstream culture now thankfully condemns such depictions, they remain present as part of our heritage. And if you change the black skin to rotting skin, you see the influence of naked racism in zombie imagery.
By contrast, Davis depicts a people who fear, not being surrounded by zombies, but becoming zombies. A nation which emerges from the fight against slavery would naturally fear any force, human or supernatural, that would strip people of free will and turn them back into slaves. Just as the zombie reflects undiluted American fears, it also reveals the one creeping dread all Haitians share.
Davis opens up a world many people think they know, exposing without judgment the texture of a nation that is beautiful precisely because it is different. Now that zombies have hijacked media culture, it behooves us to consider not only the origin of our myths, but the unspoken assumptions which drive our fears. I leave you with this important quote from Davis himself:
The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.