During my last trip to New Orleans, four years ago, an older cousin I visited remarked over dinner that I bore more than a passing resemblance to Marie Laveau, the legendary voodoo priestess whose name became synonymous with the American contingent of the voodoo faithful, and with New Orleans mystique in general. I was dismissive but immensely flattered. Looking like Marie Laveau in the South is a hell of a lot more prestigious than looking like, say, Courteney Cox in L.A., or Whitney Houston anywhere. In her day Marie Laveau was no mere celebrity, but a spiritual leader on a par with the pope in the minds of her believers. Today her name is invoked primarily for the tourists, but I got curious about her — and my own cultural history. Though I was born in Los Angeles, I‘ve always felt my true nativeness was firmly elsewhere, in the black Creole wards of New Orleans from which both sides of my family hail. Who better to detail the mysteries of my past than Marie Laveau, who was not only a voodoo doyenne but a Creole woman to boot?
In New Orleans last month, I promptly got on the Laveau trail. The heat was blistering, damp, unmoving in a very Southern way. Ducking in and out of the meager shade cast by verandas throughout the French Quarter, my boyfriend and I made our way to Rue Dumaine and the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, which seemed about the most legit voodoo stop mentioned in our tour book (except for Marie’s tomb, which a bus driver told us to avoid because St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 was in a bad part of town, and thugs had lately been preying on visitors).
The museum, despite its grandiose name, is small, more a gallery than a museum. After checking out the lobby, with its dolls and other voodoo paraphernalia for sale, my boyfriend decides he‘ll pass. He slips back into the street, into the cloak of heat and wet, and I’m on my own.
A huge oil painting of Marie Laveau sits above the admissions desk: She is lovely and infinitely serene, a turbaned Mona Lisa with gold hoop earrings, a scarlet-nailed hand at her breast and almond eyes that follow you about the room, though not creepily so. Except for the mocha skin and dark hair, we look nothing alike, and I am disappointed about this. Laveau is always described as a quadroon — a person of color who is a quarter black. Neat color divisions like that broke down long ago in New Orleans, until folks like Marie, with their tangled bloodlines and mostly French surnames, were simply known as Creole. She is not me, but certainly looks to be family.
I begin wandering the museum, past a solemn, almost Quakerish portrait of Marie‘s daughter, who was also named Marie, and who was nearly as renowned a voodoo priestess as her mother; past briefly noted histories of voodoo that explain it is a shotgun marriage of West African beliefs and Catholic trappings, no doubt dismaying to the missionaries and slave owners who assumed that African blacks would drop their indigenous beliefs altogether if introduced to superior European religion. Next comes a re-creation of the “wishing stump,” where Marie once held court on the Bayou St. John, and where people would come and offer prayers and deposit wishes like pennies. Suddenly I realize I am being stalked from room to room by a short woman with an enormous bosom and a red scarf on her head. She sidles up to my right side and introduces herself in a voice like crushed velvet: Madame Coco, voodoo priestess. “You could use a reading, child,” she murmurs, seriously. I smile; she does not. I suspect she wants to warn me away from my infidel boyfriend, which alarms me.
I make my own escape outside, across a steamy courtyard, to the educational voodoo video room, where a documentary is showing old Hollywood images of voodoo that are so patently ridiculous — black folks shimmying in convulsions, with bug eyes and bloody chickens — that I laugh aloud. I feel Madame Coco’s disapproval from somewhere in the building and make a final exit.
Later on, traversing the quarter‘s open-air market, we spy a shop facade across the street that simply reads, “Music and Voodoo.” A wooden staircase winds down to a store that indeed sells vintage records, and voodoo items. It has an altar where shoppers can make offerings — to the record gods, or loa — before they browse. It’s an odd but unquestioned hybrid, like L.A. places that peddle Chinese food at one counter and doughnuts at another. Another rendering of Marie, queen of all things hybrid, smiles contentedly from the recesses of the modest shrine. I realize that New Orleans is my Kansas in the midst of L.A.‘s vast, glittery Oz — a place I may search for, but as it turns out, a place I never really left.