T&T Review Column: The Horrors of Slavery: Haiti, Vodou and the Myth of the Cursed Nation (November 2012)

The Horrors of Slavery: Haiti, Vodou and the Myth of the Cursed Nation

By Myriam J. A. Chancy (T&T Review, November 2012 column)

 Drums used by a “rasin” or roots musical troupe are also traditional vodou drums, Jacmel 2012 ©MJA Chancy

About a year ago, I taught an undergraduate course in Haitian Literature at the US university where I currently work.  It was actually a first for me, since I normally teach a range of courses in African Diaspora Studies and theory.  I was both excited and tentative about the enterprise.  I was excited both as a native of Haiti and as a specialist in Haitian (women’s) literature and culture, tentative because of the lesson in anti-Haitianism that the post-earthquake reality had taught me.  Probably for the first time, I had been made acutely aware of the fact that both for Antilleans and Americans, Haitians were at the bottom of the social and cultural hierarchies; faint memories of a period when Haitians were deemed part of the “4-H” club in the spread of AIDS, a theory debunked adroitly by Paul Farmer in the book derived from his research in infectious diseases in Haiti, AIDS & Accusation of 1993, resurfaced.  Another, perhaps more long-standing, stigma attached to Haitians was that against vodou (often misspelled as “voodoo” and confused with South US practices of “hoodoo” or witchcraft, especially as practiced in New Orleans in traffic with the spirits of the dead).  With the earthquake, and American TV evangelist, Pat Robertson’s infamous pronouncement of the tragedy being the result of Haiti’s “pact with the devil,” and as other right-wing Christians, especially US-based missionaries repeated the phrase, and not so right-wing Christians came to believe it, the country’s tumultuous beginnings were called into question.

Consequently, as I taught my class, I became subtly, then overtly aware that my students, varied as they were by class and ethnicity, were having difficulty swallowing the fact that Haiti and her beginnings had had a vast hemispheric influence.  The course syllabus took students from writings by non-Haitians such as Cuban Alejo Carpentier and British writer, Graham Greene, to the “social real” writings of Haitian writers such as Jean Jacques Alexis and Marie Vieux Chauvet, to end, finally with contemporary Haitian writing by both Francophone and Anglophone writers such as Marie Célie Agnant and Edwidge Danticat.  To me, the weight of the writings should have overridden any skepticism on the students’ part, but they did not.  The first and perhaps only hurdle was the stigma they held against Haiti, a stigma birthed from popular stereotype rather than fact.

This prejudice exhibited itself early, while we read Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World, a cautionary tale of how revolution can both lift up the masses, or lead to their exploitation.  Central to the novel is the character of Ti-Noël, largely a bystander as history unfolds before him during the Haitian Revolution.  Carpentier wrote the novel after a visit to Haiti, one that he found brought alive for him all the possibilities of the avant-garde movements then raging in Europe, especially ‘magic realism’; he found in Haiti a “marvelous real” – marvelous because it was anchored in the beliefs of the people, their faith in powers greater than themselves, but also in their tenacious struggle to be free from slavery, free to be fully actualized human beings.  Carpentier thus brings to life great characters of Haiti’s history, focusing on King Christophe’s assent from cook in a Cap-Haitien Hotel to leader of a grand Kingdom in Hait’s north, following his leadership of the poor to his final oppression of the same, while also outlining the barbarity of slavery and how the enslaved made use of their beliefs in another power, that of their ancestors and lineage to Africa, to empower themselves within it. Mackandal (“Macandal” in Carpentier’s text), was said to be a vodou priest, like Boukman after him, the sounder of the conch which was said to have united Africans together in a clearing called “Bois Caïman” in 1791.  Both were said to have used their powers to rally other enslaved Africans to the cause of freedom, to rebel against their chains.  Each time my students and I went other the “fabulous” passages of Macandal’s transformation from man to shape-shifter in Carpentier’s novel, my students insisted on the “made-up-ness” of the text.  It was fiction, after all.  It was all “magical” and mythical.  Why would Carpentier want us to think about Macandal’s powers as real, as the impetus for revolution?, I asked my students.  They didn’t know.   And, anyway, vodou was just some backward belief-system, wasn’t it? What could it matter?  It mattered because Carpentier’s inspiration was to find in the spirit of the people, in the use of vodou, or indigenous African practices, a rallying point for the enslaved Africans of the past, for Cubans of his present. He found an argument in Haiti’s past for Cuba’s future, and at the core of this unification was vodou.

Detail from Oloffson Hotel mural: Gran Bwa (Lwa) or St. Sebastian, herbalist and master of the forests, Port-au-Prince 2012 @MJA Chancy

After a couple of weeks of resistance, I took a different tact.  I asked my students to compare the following Biblical passages with one we had read in Carpentier and to explain to me the difference between them in terms of what they expressed of one group or another’s beliefs.  Here are some the passages I provided:

Now after the Sabbath, towards the dawn of the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and          came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.  His appearance was like  lightning, and his raiment white as snow.  And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. (Matthew 28:1-5)

Now when he [Jesus] rose early on the first day of he week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. (Mark 16: 1-5, 9)

Jesus came and stood among them and said to them ‘Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I sent you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” [John 20:19-23]

Now, before I’m accused of some form of blasphemy, let me confess that I was raised as a Roman Catholic, baptized in Haiti within days of my birth and confirmed later in a Catholic Church in Canada.  I am fully aware that, for some, the above passages are sacred.  Yet, as a literary critic, I ask that you read them along with me not for what articles of faith they reflect but for the richness of imagery and metaphor they convey.

Here, the writers of the books of the New Testament each give their version of Christ’s resurrection, and, in each, there are tales of unexplained phenomena – in Matthew, the resurrection is marked by a grand earthquake and the appearance of an angel whose own appearance is like lightning, and “zombifies” the guards; in Mark, the mysterious angel also appears, then Jesus himself is described as having cast out demons; in John, the Lord shows the wounds of his crucifixion and breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples.  For believers, these scriptures speak of great sacrifice and godly powers.

I then returned the class to this fictional passage in Carpentier, telling of Mackandal’s final fate, and rebirth, a passage that reflects the beliefs of vodou practicioners in which historical figures and heroes become loas in the pantheon of gods:

Macandal was now lashed to the post. The executioner had picked up an ember with the tongs.  With a gesture rehearsed the evening before in front of a mirror, the Governor unsheathed his dress sword and gave the order for the sentence to be carried out.  The fire began to rise toward the Mandingue, licking his legs.  At that moment, Macandal moved the stump of his arms, which they had been unable to tie up, in a threatening gesture which was none the less terrible for being partial, howling unknown spells and violently thrusting his torso forward.  The bonds fell off and the body of the Negro rose in the air, flying overhead, until it plunged into the black waves of the sea of slaves.  A single cry filled the square: “Macandal saved!” (Carpentier 46).

What is the difference in the belief expressed in these Biblical passages and in Carpentier’s tale?, I asked.  The students, most of them of some Christian faith, fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats but I could see that I had struck a cord.  One young man put up his hand.  I called on him.  “The only difference,” he said, “is that most of us are used to the stories from the Bible, so we think of them as true, and we don’t know the second story, and it tests our beliefs, so we have to think of it as untrue.”  I breathed relief.  Most prejudices are the result of some discomfort, what Frantz Fanon and other psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance.’  My only point in making these comparisons was to lead the students to see that they could not suppose that their beliefs alone were true; couldn’t someone who was not Christian read the passages about angels appearing with earthquakes like thunder, the casting out of demons, showing death wounds yet being alive, breathing a spirit into a human being, and read them as fabulous or, to use Carpentier’s terminology, as “marvelous”?  But what could make believing that en enslaved African could outwit death lead to such vigorous denials and disapprobation?  Could it be that the Christian view point was so entrenched, and the colonial baggage that inevitably accompanies it, with the Church’ s history of missions and proselytizing to the four corners of the earth, that this alone could render baseless an alternate point of view?  The issue is not so much whether anyone believes that Mackandal flew to the heavens and then became a god overseeing his people, it is why a black resurrection cast in vodou terms seems impossible or implausible when the story itself reads similarly to a Biblical passage that makes similar claims for a Jesus that those of us raised as Christians do not question and take as truth.  Could it be that along with given beliefs, we’ve absorbed the tale that Black gods and Black triumphs do not exist, even in the face of Haiti’s successful and triumphant Revolution?  There are many who still do not realize that Haiti freed itself from slavery in 1803 and became a self-proclaimed nation in 1804.  If vodou led to such liberation, then why is it continuously blamed as the cause of Haiti’s ills?  The answer is simple.

Vévés/Vodou Drawings on the wall of a private home, by Ernst Printemps, Jacmel 2012 ©MJA Chancy

In 1791-1803, when the Haitian Revolution took place, the dominant belief amongst Europeans and Americans was that Africans were less able, less capable, and less deserving of humane existence.  It was believed, and promulgated, in order to undergird the plantocracy system and systems of enslavement, that Africans needed to be subjugated in order to understand the value of freedom.  Africans were said to be simple – they believed that all things had a spirit (this is called “animism,” and worshipped the living gods of nature; when one considers that we are presently in the “anthropocene” age, so named for the destructive behavior of human beings in their assumed ‘mastery’ over nature, it seems that such beliefs were much more ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ than those that took precedence over African epistemes which were systematically denigrated and supplanted by European modes of thinking) – and in need of (brutal) governance.  It was presumed that Africans were incapable of thinking about freedom, much less carry out a Revolution, and yet, laws had to be passed to illegalize the education of slaves and those who learned to read and write were severely punished: tongues were cut out, hands chopped off, bodies whipped.  The Haitian Revolution challenged, successfully, all of these beliefs and barbarous conducts.  In the face of unrelenting, vicious brutality, a barbarity that did not reveal the promise of Enlightenment credos of equality nor exemplify, in the hands of self-professed, Christian slave traders and owners, the Christian ideals of treating one’s neighbor as oneself, enslaved Africans complied, in order to surive, to the violence of conversion while holding on to their native beliefs, often blending the two.  Vodou is the result of such blending; it is, in fact, a syncretic belief system, marrying African beliefs with Christian and indigenous (Taino or Arawak) ones.  Where the Christian sees a cross, the enslaved African and today’s vodouisant sees both the cross and the sign of the crossroads, or the cardinal points of the four corners of the world.  Where the Christian sees an iconography of the Virgin Mary, the vodouisant sees both the Virgin Mary and Erzulie, goddess of the sea.  Where the Christian sees an image of St. Peter holding his keys, the vodouisant sees Legba, opener of doors between worlds. To fail to understand this in 2012 is to perpetuate, Christian or not, a pattern of thinking which only does us all harm, which relegates a group of people to sub-human existence for the mere reason of holding on to systems of belief that in another time preserved and consecrated their humanity.

Even after the success of the Revolution, when elites would come to govern the nation, often put in place by outside forces, especially by successive US governments, even within the nation, vodouisants were regarded with suspicion, primarily for their collective power.  The Catholic Church and the Haitian governments persecuted believers so much so that vodou practicioners went underground.  In 1935, President Sténio Vincent, instituted a law which made vodou and all “superstitious” beliefs (presumably herbalism and other healing practices) illegal.  This law stood for fifty-two years.  Under François Duvalier, who recognized the popular appeal and power of vodou for the rural and poor Haitian, vodou became a point of infiltration to gain power over the masses.  We know that Duvalier père killed revered vodou priests and priestesses, and replaced them with plants who reported back to him on various activities.  Duvalier terrorized the population through some of these societies, even as he continued the policy of interdicting vodou practices.  As he exercised his power through torture and killing sprees, he anointed himself “Baron Samedi,” or the god of death, which he certainly was, and vodou, normally a religion of healing and empowerment, became perverted by the State.  With the downfall of the regime came release and restoration.  Under Aristide, religious reform took place; the right to religious freedom was protected under the constitutional amendment, Article 297 of 1987 whereby vodouisants were also explicitly protected from persecution.  For reasons unknown, this past summer, in June 2012, the Martelly government revoked the clause, following a constitutional amendment that had been prepared under the auspices of the Préval government.  It’s now open game on vodouisants.  But what is there to fear from the sacred beliefs of so many, even if practiced by some educated elites since vodou is primarily the religion of the poor and dispossessed?  Might the fear be that such beliefs might lead, again, to revolt and revolution, to demands for clean water, shelter, education, gainful employment, under the protection of the gods?

Today, the vodou community is splintered.  Christian missions, mostly from the US South, promising medical aid and food in return for conversion have gained steady ground.  Since most of are not Catholic, holding syncretic beliefs has become less possible.  Haitians in despair have also come to understand that foreign prejudice stands between them and potable water, medical care, food, and thus have reconciled themselves to sacrificing beliefs and history, a history which no longer serves.  On the other hand, in some places narrowly identified with the Revolution, such as Gonaïves, vodou is experiencing a strong resurgence in resistance to such losses.  And, despite all of this, traces of vodou remain in popular expression, entwined with daily living, from the drums used by cultural groups, to the details in murals, to paintings in private homes where vodou is openly acknowledged, in the altars in dingy corners where beliefs remain, hidden from sight.  Why should anyone have to abandon their beliefs, hide their ancestral and historical memory, fear the consequences of remembering both colonial depravity and the mechanism which freed an entire, mixed population from its horrors?  Interestingly, conversions to Islam since the earthquake have steadily made ground, not, as some would believe, because Haitians are joining the ranks of anti-Western fringe factions, but because some early, African inhabitants of the island were of Muslim origins (some believe that Boukman was, in fact, Muslim), traces of which they have left in some of the practices of vodou, including in the ubiquitous ritual tracing of vévés with cornmeal on the ground during worship, a ritual which has been modernized and concretized in artistic representations, paintings, sculptures, and, even, in body tattoos among some younger adherents.

Might it be possible that the earthquake that some saw as an expression of damnation for a disavowed history might have been the cry of the angels, three hundred thousand of them going to their graves and rising collectively again, so that somewhere, somehow, the great courage of this fledging nation might be recognized, so that the beliefs that have nurtured generations in their hopes for a better tomorrow might be respected and sanctified? So that, for once, the world might see in the average Haitian, not the face of an ‘other’ that must be feared, but a human being within which the spirit moves, whether by the hand of a Christian, or African god, a spirit deserving of daily, holy bread?

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