Drew Mourns Dr. Karen McCarthy Brown
Professor Emerita of the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion passed away earlier this month.
By J. Terry Todd, Associate Professor, Drew Theological School
Karen McCarthy Brown died on March 4, 2015. She was professor emerita of the anthropology and sociology of religion at Drew University, where she taught from 1976 until her retirement in 2009. She was the first tenured woman on the Theological School faculty, and the first woman to achieve the rank of full professor. Brown was a tireless advocate to increase racial, ethnic and national diversity among the Theological School faculty as well as to achieve gender parity in the faculty.
Brown was a noted anthropologist and religious studies scholar, whose work was focused on understanding and interpreting the religious practices of the Haitian Diaspora, particularly Vodou, one of the world’s most misunderstood and maligned spiritual traditions. In her three decades of fieldwork throughout Haiti and in the United States, Brown developed her central insight: that Vodou was, at its heart, a religion of healing. Brown argued that Vodou’s complex philosophy of self and spirit, as well as its rituals of trance and possession, brought opportunities for healing of bodies, minds and fractured human relationships. Her form of ethnographic research challenged traditional anthropological models of participant-observer methods.
During Brown’s research, she formed an abiding friendship and working collaboration with Marie Thérèse Alourdes Macena Champagne Lovinski, better known as Mama Lola. Under Lola’s guidance, Brown was initiated as a manbo, a Vodou priestess. From Brown’s years of research and relationship building in Haiti and the United States, the University of California Press published, in 1991, the groundbreaking work Mama Lola: Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Now in its third edition, the book has won many awards, including the Victor Turner Prize of the American Anthropological Association and the best first book in the History of Religions of the American Academy of Religion. A French translation of Mama Lola is now being prepared.
Along with her colleagues Dr. Arthur Pressley and the late Professors Otto Maduro and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Brown was one of the founders of the Newark Project, a multi-year research initiative designed to better understand and interpret the rich religious worlds of Newark, New Jersey. The project continued for a decade, deepening Drew University’s relationships to the city of Newark and its residents. As part of the Newark Project, Brown secured a major grant from the Ford Foundation to fund doctoral-level research to map the changing religious landscapes of Newark. That program produced a number of doctoral dissertations and many subsequent publications. In addition, the Newark Project established a program to pair Theological School students with Newark residents living with HIV-AIDS at the very height of the epidemic in that city. In her Newark Project initiatives, as well as in her other work, Brown was a relentless critic of neo-liberal economics and the effects it had on the lives of poor people in Newark, in Brooklyn, in Haiti, and beyond. She was also a fierce supporter of LGBT equality.
Brown was a graduate of Smith College (BA, 1964), Union Theological Seminary (MA, 1966) and Temple University (PhD, 1976). She held leadership positions in many scholarly societies, including the American Academy of Religion, the American Anthropological Society, the Haitian Studies Association and KOSANBA, the Society for the Scholarly Study of Haitian Vodou, which bestowed on Brown, in 2009, a special lifetime achievement award.
Karen McCarthy Brown is survived by her beloved spouse, Robert Machover of Milford, New Jersey, by her parents, both of whom are now in their late 90s, and by Mama Lola of Brooklyn. The family has asked that contributions in her memory be made to Partners in Health, the Boston-based nonprofit agency known for its work in supporting Haitian medical professionals in their efforts to bring healing to their fellow Haitians.
Read the 1996 Drew Magazine article about the Newark Project and Karen McCarthy Brown’s vital role in it.