Hip Deep Essential Interview: Laurent Dubois
LAURENT DUBOIS is author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2005), (which is, in Walter Johnson’s words, the “emergent standard account” of the complicated twists and turns of the Haitian revolutionary process) and Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2011). We spoke on Sunday morning, April 20, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana, just before Dr. Dubois had to catch a plane to get home to Durham, North Carolina, where he is the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History and Director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies.
NED SUBLETTE: Tell me about Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.
LAURENT DUBOIS: This was a book I decided to write after the 2010 earthquake, about how the contemporary situation was linked to a long set of processes going back to the Haitian Revolution. The argument in brief is that the Revolution was this kind of epochal moment in the modern world, but also one that set up a long term set of conflicts — both by the kind of hostility with which Haiti was greeted as a successful slave revolution, and by the conflict within Haiti over what the very meaning of freedom should look like.
It’s also partly a history of Haitian thought. I tried to incorporate a lot of Haitian intellectual history, and try to lay out rural structures as well as political structures as much as possible.
NS: Most of the scholarship about Haiti has been done on the Revolution, but there’s been very little – and certainly not in English — about what happened after the Haitian Revolution, during the period in which Haiti became a nation.
LD: That’s part of the critical goal of the book, which was to write a lot about nineteenth-century Haiti. And it’s true that there’s very little in English about that period. In Haitian scholarship, there’s a little bit more, but still it’s one of the least studied moments and it’s absolutely critical because it’s the foundation, obviously, for what happens.
There are a couple of points I wanted to get across. First of all, I argue that nineteenth-century Haiti could be qualified as a success on many levels, which goes against the grain of how many people think of it, but there was a kind of new economic system that was put into place. Obviously, it had its problems, but it was based on small holding farms, on a combination of producing coffee for export as well as producing food for consumption within the country, and some logging also. And I lay out the ways that after the Revolution, the masses of enslaved people who had freed themselves created a new system. I used Jean Casimir’s term to describe it: the counter-plantation system. This is a kind of system that was not just about creating an alternative to the plantation, but also about creating protection from the return to the plantation.
I argue throughout the book that many of the structures in Haitian society are about securing autonomy and certain kinds of cultural dignity, but they also function as defenses against the return of these old structures that people remember in the form of slavery on the plantation.
NS: Do you see this playing out in the present situation of Haiti post-quake?
LD: I think so. I think these structures are very deeply part of the society. In 1804, Haitians overthrew the plantation system. They clearly stated to outsiders that they were refusing the plantation system, but they also stated it to their own leaders, many of whom were committed to the plantation system.
For the last 200 years, many people both inside and outside have argued that Haiti needs new plantations of one form or another, and we keep going through these cycles. And then they’re surprised when Haitians effectively refuse — when they say, “We don’t really want plantations.” This happened during the U.S. occupation. In the new context we have some of these things replaying, but at the same time the actual capacities and resources and vision that Haitians had of this alternative way of life have been under constant duress and have become more and more difficult to sustain.
NS: For the benefit of those who may not know that the U.S. ever occupied Haiti, could you talk about what the US occupation was, how it worked, and what its consequences were?
LD: The U.S. occupation of Haiti is little known, and one of the points of the book was to get that information to people. The U.S. occupied Haiti for nearly two decades, from 1915 to 1934. The U.S. goes in with the pretext that they’re going in to reestablish order, after a particularly violent political conflict in which the president was killed at a moment of great instability and conflict within Haiti. But there had been a kind of push within the State Department and with business interests in the U.S. to try to get into Haiti with the idea that, like other parts of the Caribbean, it could become a space for U.S. economic expansion. There’s also a kind of security justification, from the outbreak of World War I and the presence of German merchants in Haiti.
The occupation begins with almost no resistance in Haiti. Many members of the Haitian elite actually collaborate on, or are not in conflict with, U.S. occupation. However, things sour rather quickly. By 1918-1919, the U.S. starts using forced labor to build roads in the countryside and literally begins going around and pulling people out of their houses, tying them up, and making them work on these roads, which triggers fears of the return of slavery. A big revolt breaks out and there’s a very big, very brutal military conflict between Marines and Haitian insurgents that ends in 1919. During the 1920’s the U.S. in some ways repurposes the occupation, foregrounding educational and infrastructural initiative. This is when the National Palace — which was destroyed in 2012 — was completed. They eventually leave in 1934. So that’s part of the story. The other part of the story is that the Haitian reaction to the US occupation fundamentally transformed Haitian culture on all kinds of levels, musically, in literary circles, and so forth.
NS: Tell me a little more about that if you don’t mind.
LD: Part of the shock of the U.S. occupation is a confrontation with racism — that the U.S. basically sees almost all of Haitians as black, essentially as inferior. Whereas in Haiti there’s all of these social hierarchies. There’s a whole class of elites who have studied in France and are very educated — an extremely literate society, a very intellectual society — in Port-au-Prince. So the shock of the Haitian elite with the racist U.S. occupation, and the fact that the Haitian elite has to face the fact that they’ve essentially allowed the land of Dessalines to be re-occupied by whites, creates soul searching, necessarily.
So there’s a period led by Jean Price-Mars and other writers, of people basically saying, “Look, we have to transform the way we think about ourselves as Haitians.” There’s been a lot of francophile-leaning cultural politics: a rejection, often, of certain parts of Haitian culture. So there’s a whole process of trying to figure out a different way of thinking about what Haiti is and what Haiti means. Musical Haitians are at the forefront of this actually, and Michael Largey and Gage Averill have written about this beautifully. There’s a whole movement of musicians who try to reconnect with Haitian music and new kinds of compositions. Musicians write basically rebel kinds of songs that are performed and there are protests against the Marines. The musical story of this period is really exciting and really interesting.
NS: What do we know about this music? There wasn’t any recording being done in Haiti. I’ve always been fascinated by this music but I’ve not heard any of it.
LD: The great historian of the US occupation is Roger Gaillard, who wrote many volumes about before, during, and after the occupation. I recommend them highly. None have been translated into English from French, but he pays attention to the cultural politics. So he’s got some great documentation about musicians like Kandjo [Auguste de Pradines] and others. There have been some films made about the music of this period, and there’s a certain amount of it which is formal composition — basically Haitian classical composition or orchestral composition, for which there’s sheet music. There’s a book by Michael Largey, called Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism, that looks at that particular branch of music. There was a composition [by Occide Jeanty] called 1804 that was performed openly in the Champ de Mars until the Marines figured out that this was basically a call to arms. It wasn’t a sung piece, but it evoked the Revolution. So we can reconstruct that. Then you do have in 1937 this extraordinary collection of recordings by Alan Lomax that does get us into the immediate post-occupation period of music, so with that we can get a sense of what the popular vernacular forms of music were up to that point.
NS: Could you explain to our audience who Jean-Jacques Dessalines was and what is his enduring significance in Haiti today?
LD: There’s a great Vodou song that was transcribed in the 50’s by a French anthropologist — it’s still sung — that says, “Dessalines Toro d’Haiti” — Dessalines is the bull of Haiti — which to me captures a lot of his symbolism.
Dessalines was an ex-slave. He was part of the revolutionary armies during the 1790’s, worked closely with Toussaint Louverture, and at the moment when the Haitians are battling the French for independence and Toussaint Louverture is captured, deported, and dies in prison, he becomes the leader for the final push for Haitian independence. He’s the one who declares Haitian independence on January 1, 1804, and is seen as the founder of the country in many ways.
Interestingly, Dessalines is one of the few historical figures from that period to really be present in Haitian Vodou. There’s a lwa, Ogou Dessalines, and he’s invoked in songs very often. Obviously he’s a very important historical figure, but he’s also a very potent symbol within Haitian memory, within the practice of Vodou as well, as a kind of marker of what it means to be Haitian and what it means to stand up to outsiders, to stand up to slavery, to insist on a kind of radical liberation and for that reason he’s been evoked by almost everyone. Every side of the political spectrum has to somehow deal with Dessalines and try to appropriate him in many cases. But I would say that he’s probably the most important historical symbolic figure in the way that he’s been deployed the past 200 years.
NS: Since we’ll be mentioning this other name, we might as well back up and ask if you could give us a thumbnail of the importance of Boukman.
LD: Boukman is credited with being one of the main leaders of the first stage of the Haitian Revolution. In August 1791 you have a gathering, which is also a ceremony at Bois-Caïman, in which the plans for an uprising of the enslaved in the north of Saint-Domingue are finalized and the commitment — the oath — is taken to carry that out. Boukman is believed to have come from Jamaica, sold illegally from Jamaica to Saint-Domingue, which happened frequently. He was a leader relatively briefly. He led the uprising early on. He’s killed within a few months. His head is cut off and put in the middle of the plaza of La Cap. So his leadership role was relatively brief, but critical and potent in terms of setting off a huge revolution in August 1791 and so he’s of course remembered for that. The name of Boukman Eksperyans and others are kind of another kind of touchstone figure, about whom we know much less in a way in terms of his biography and exactly his thinking than of someone like Dessalines, but who is symbolically important.
NS: What was the role of Vodou in the Haitian Revolution, and then, how did Haitian nation building and Vodou work together?
LD: It’s a great question. There’s always a question of, what is Vodou? What do we mean when we call it that? Many people who practice it don’t necessarily say, “we are of the Vodou religion” in the way that other religions sometimes do. People talk about serving the spirits. Vodou and the Haitian Revolution emerge together and there are lots of practices under slavery that are bringing together various African traditions, as in other parts of the Americas. The Revolution sets in motion a huge amount of movement with in the colony, and the structure of the religion that we have by the 19th and 20th centuries, where you have different kind of African nations represented but in a kind of collective, is in a way a symbolic recognition of and sign of what the Haitian Revolution achieved, which was to create unity out of great diversity and difference.
You have to remember that at the time of revolution, most people in Saint-Domingue had been born in Africa. They came from many different parts of Africa. Lots of languages being spoken, lots of music and religion. So the process of unification behind a particular goal was almost certainly aided by religious practice, which became almost the archive, or the marker, of that unity. Therefore in the period of Haitian independence it became a constant reference and resource, especially in rural communities.
After the overthrow of slavery, people could do things they’d been refused in slavery — bury their dead in a respectful way, have a family compound where they could continue to relate to the ancestors, practice their religion openly and freely. It’s quite clear that people wanted to have this space in which to do that. So rural Haiti was very shaped by Haitian Vodou, which also is a space for dealing with the many conflicts that happened in these communities. The lwa – they’re kind of the gods in Haitian Vodou — they can help and intervene in certain things.
So now that’s one part of the story. The other part of the story is that Vodou has basically been criminalized since the beginning of Haitian statehood. It’s always been seen by leaders as a dangerous thing. There’s a great book by Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and The Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti, that shows that whole history. There has always been that conflict and even a refusal of Haitian Vodou as a foundation for the nation from official circles, which often were a little hypocritical in the sense that leaders would have such legislation while they themselves were practicing the religion. But there’s a real struggle within Haiti over Vodou and its place in Haitian society that goes back a long way. And that struggle continues to this day with conflicts between Protestantism and Vodou and Catholicism and this very, very complex religious matrix in Haiti today.
NS: When does Protestantism come to Haiti?
LD: Relatively early. In the 1820s there were people from the African Methodist Episcopal church who arrived from the U.S. as part of the emigration movement of African-Americans. The Vatican, meanwhile, refuses to recognize Haiti, so there’s not an official Catholic church between 1804 and the 1860’s. However, there’s a lot of basically vernacular Catholicism, and there were priests – defrocked priests and rebel priests — who came to Haiti. And there’s actually a quite active Catholic practice. Besides the AME there were some other Protestant groups, perhaps most important institutionally, James Theodore Holly, who is an African American, part of the emigration movement to Haiti in the 1860s, ends up founding the Haitian Episcopal Church in the years after the Civil War — which is actually Haiti’s first national church, founded by an African American. It’s not a majority church in Haiti, but it’s an important church with a lot of important institutions. Which is also to say that African American Protestantism has an important role in Haiti, before other Protestant groups that really proliferated during and after the US occupation. The recent matrix of many, many Protestant churches from the US having missions in Haiti is more of a mid- to late-20th century phenomenon.
NS: You were speaking of Haitian intellectuals recognizing a need to valorize their own culture. We come into the age of noirisme, and into the age of Duvalier. Could you tell us how this develops?
LD: Part of the critical thing to understand about Duvalier is that he manages to draw on, appropriate, and twist a lot of the initial impulses of indigénisme and noirisme in the direction of a essentialist and racialist project.
The basic problem that the thinkers in the 1920’s confront is that they are in this society that has been shaped by African culture, that is majority rural, that has things like Vodou, the Haitian Krèyol language, and at the same time they’re facing a Western world that looks at all these things as savage and backwards. For a long time there’d been a kind of elite position, which was essentially, “Haiti has to modernize. We have to leave behind these more backward practices and basically join the west.”
People start questioning that more and more and say, “Well, how can we be at odds with everything about our culture? How can we refuse our history and our culture? We should be proud of who we are. We had this amazing revolution, we have this amazing culture.” So rather than seeing their own culture as backwardness and a break with progress, seeing the culture as a foundation. The question, though, became “How do we do that? What does it mean exactly?”
In Haitian history there’s been a long strand of seeing color conflict – colorism – as the key political issue, of seeing things in terms of a battle between a majority population that’s more dark-skinned and groups of people who are more light-skinned, many of whom are descended from people who were free before the Revolution, who had a great deal of wealth and land. I argue that the idea that that has been the central conflict in Haitian history is in some ways false, or not quite totally correct anyway. People have certainly been able to use to the idea of color conflict and politics, but the history was always more complicated than that, since the elite was often made up of people of many different backgrounds. Colorism is important, but it needs to be explained rather than used as an explanation for historical processes.
But Duvalier tapped into that tradition, along with the tradition of indigénisme, to basically argue that the problem is that light-skinned people have been in power for too long and that they have been an elite who have oppressed the rest of the population. And, you know, as with many political ideologies, there’s a portion of truth to it. It’s true that the US had kind of encouraged a kind of elite of light-skinned people to be in government and so forth. So there’s a kind of powerful charge to that. But what Duvalier also did was to take an often quite nuanced sense of how Haitian culture worked, of the multiplicity of influences, and then turn it into something where he basically said, “Haitians are Africans. That means we as Africans have these cultural traits.”
Duvalier was actually a fan of the works of Gobineau and the scientific racists of France who argued that Europeans and Africans are very different. He liked the idea that Africans had despotic societies — tended to thrive not under liberal democracies — so you can see where this is going. In other words, he sort of picked and chose a certain vision of what being in touch with Haitian culture would be, to make it something where the critical thing was to have a black leader, defining the culture in a certain way that ultimately helped to buttress his own authoritarian power. And the influences of that on Haitian intellectual debates are enormous. So when we think about contemporary debates about Haitian culture, obviously Duvalier left a very profound imprint through that regime and that intellectual armature around it.
NS: How did he use Vodou and its images in consolidating or holding his power?
LD: François Duvalier [“Papa Doc”] was in many ways part of a long tradition in Haitian statecraft of using the symbolism of Haitian Vodou as a form of communication. Obviously, in a context where that was such an important religion, that was vital. We have lots of indications that many state leaders in the nineteenth century would go see powerful priests.
Duvalier tried to occupy all the institutions in Haitian society. He managed to take control of and Haitianize the Catholic church, which was one site of opposition to his regime. He got rid of the army and replaced it with his Volontaires de la Securité National, known in the vernacular as Tontons Makouts. In other words, he replaced institutions, and he tried to do the same thing with Haitian Vodou: he made alliances with, and kind of used, certain powerful Vodou priests. In all those spheres it’s important to recognize that there continued to be resistance, so there’s also anti-Duvalierist spaces within Haitian Vodou.
I say that because people often understand it as if Vodou and Duvalier were almost completely combined. But I think it needs to be seen alongside the way he occupied the other important institutions in Haitian society. In certain areas, Vodou preists were part of his security apparatus, which then led after the dechoukaj – the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier [“Baby Doc”] in 1986 — to attacks against Vodou priests as well. Which was a trigger for a more modern movement of Vodou practitioners organizing more politically, and trying to defend their right to religious practice in Haiti.
NS: Duvalier cultivated this image of himself as Bawon Samdi, no? . . .
LD: Some of this was external. Duvalier hired a kind of media consultant in the U.S. I think he really wanted people in the U.S. to see him as an occult figure who was keeping the Haitian masses in check through occult behavior. The more Duvalier could delegitimize the idea of Haitian democracy as a real possibility, the more he could encourage outsiders to say, “Well, that’s just the kind of leadership Haiti needs.” Which is basically what the U.S. did. With the exception of Kennedy briefly, he was heavily supported, as was Jean-Claude Duvalier, by the U.S. And, you know, one stayed in power with that support. Of course, with Castro in Cuba right across the way, he could say he was defending the region against communism. He was quite successful. He manipulated the Haitian population, and he also manipulated the international community.
I think by projecting a certain self image, he also projected a certain image of Haiti that served his purposes. In combination with the image of Haiti that was inherited from the U.S. occupation into which Duvalier tapped, that whole trajectory is responsible also for the extremely negative and problematic visions of Haiti in the U.S. that continue to this day.
NS: When we talk about the image of Haiti that was projected during the U.S. occupation, are you referring to William Seabrook, that kind of thing?
LD: Yeah, one of the things that happened during the U.S. occupation was that many Marines as well as journalists who visited from America began to write accounts of Haiti. Some of these accounts began more as critiques of the occupation from within and became local-color books, or books that were about evoking Haiti as an exotic space, right?
I would argue that in a big sense the U.S. culture replaced actual historical memory of the fact that we occupied Haiti for 20 years with a broad set of vague visions of a Haiti as a land of zombies and Vodou and so forth. So we inherited a set of cultural stereotypes that are actually incredibly widespread in our culture. Everyone kind of thinks they know about Haiti. If you say Haiti, people say Vodou and zombies. But without actually recognizing the historical reasons that we have that image, and the reasons we have that image are that quite literally that someone like Seabrook wrote a story about, for instance, zombies in Haiti that was then picked up by a Broadway play that then became the first zombie film in the United States. So it was a literal, cultural trace between depictions of Haiti during that period, and I tell this story in the book.
Interestingly, the stories of zombies that Seabrook tells and the ones that find their way into the first zombie movies are the tales that arose around a place called HASCO, which is the Haitian-American Sugar Company, which was a company that moved in to rebuild a sugar-cane economy, which was of course the old economy of the slave plantation. And residents around that area that had lost land sometimes to this new company started describing the Haitian employees who worked for the sugar companies as zombies, which is of course a symbolic way of describing people as slaves, right? And the zombie in Haitian culture is nothing if not essentially a reference to enslavement, and it’s – although zombification as an actual practice is a quite marginal phenomenon, but the symbol of the zombie is everywhere in Haitian culture.
So oddly enough, a Haitian reaction to the U.S. occupation — which was to express a worry about being put back into slavery by evoking the spectre of the zombie — that, picked up by Seabrook, ended up becoming a kind of core image within an American popular culture of the zombie. It is true that in one of the key, early zombie movies, you see the zombies are crushing cane in a cane mill, that’s what they’re doing. So they really are figures of slaves. That’s all to say that the U.S. occupation has huge impact on American popular culture in all kinds of ways and that then continues to burden how we think of about Haiti.
NS: What about the transition from Francois Duvalier to Jean-Claude Duvalier, from Papa Doc to Baby Doc? What was different about Baby Doc?
LD: Well, that was a shift in a lot of ways. In some ways it was seamless, in the sense that the big security apparatus and oppression continued. There had been some tension with the U.S. in the early 1960s, but after 1968 with Nixon there was an increasing rapprochement. Jean-Claude continues and built on that in the early 1970s. More investment started coming in. There was a whole vision in the 70’s and 80’s not unlike some of the visions today in which the future of Haiti was to go into light assembly. People talked about it as the “Taiwan of the Caribbean.” This would be a place where companies could go and use low-wage labor. That was one of the big projects of Jean-Claude Duvalier. And a bunch of investment did go in in the 1970s. So you had that kind of shift, which made Haiti and the U.S. link up a little bit more.
It’s also the moment when the current aid configuration that we have in Haiti emerges. Because while the U.S. and other countries wanted the Duvalier regime to stay in place, they also didn’t want to give money directly to it because of concerns about corruption. So there’s more and more of funneling money into what were then called PVO’s, private voluntary organizations, basically what we know as NGOS today. So you get a kind of multiplication of money going to Haiti, going around the government. And that is kind of the foundation of this intensive configuration of fragmented and multiple NGOS working in Haiti that we have today. That’s a pretty important legacy too.
NS: What were the dynamics of the end of the Baby Doc regime?
FD: Gage Averill talked about the liberated territory, which was the Haitian diaspora outside of the U.S. People had fled Duvalier. In New York, in Montreal, in other places, you have very intensive criticism of the regime, a building critique. And of course there’s resistance in Haiti, more and more in the late 1970’s. By the early 80’s, that resistance is growing restive in rural areas as well as in the urban context. There are various triggers. You have the visit of the pope that’s famously evoked where he said, “things must change in Haiti,” a critical voice from outside.
There was a moment when the Duvalier regime, with USAID, allowed for the massacre of the black creole pigs that many Haitian peasants had because of a fear of swine flu. So there was a huge campaign where they went around and took the pigs, which were for many farmers a major investment, a critical part of their infrastructure, and killed them, and were supposed to replace them, symbolically enough, with white pigs, many of which weren’t delivered and anyway when they were often died. So you have this kind of intense attack on the rural context that stirs up a lot of resentment. These are things that generate more and more opposition. The immediate trigger is then a demonstration in Gonaïves, during which several highschoolers are shot by the police, and that then sets in motion this national revolution and uprising that overthrows Duvalier in 1986, and then sets in motion a long and very complicated process of political turmoil, military power, elections and so forth and that eventually leads to Aristide’s election in ’90. But that post ‘86 moment is the foundation for this next period of Haitian history.
NS: What are the difficulties we find looking from a historical perspective at the whole Aristide experience? What are the problems that we encounter in talking about it?
LD: Well, as you know, today both Duvalier and Aristide are in Haiti. There’s talk of trials, there’s been some beginnings of a trial for Duvalier, both of those regimes are kind of the critical engagement of civil society with the regimes is still kind of up in the air. Obviously, these are two very different regimes; I’m not saying that they are the same kind of problem. But that in some ways all this recent history is very close, very vexed, people have all kinds of visions of it, both inside and outside Haiti, and the basic facts are constantly in dispute. So if you go into Haiti and discuss almost any part of, especially the recent history with Aristide, you’ll often find different accounts, whether it’s about his removal in 2004, or other issues.
So I say in the book that the key is the details. The personalities and particular actions are vital, but we also have to understand that the bigger structural context in which all this stuff unfolded, which again is the result of this very long history, is ultimately the most important issue. What kinds of structural constraints and structural contexts made it incredibly difficult, if not even perhaps impossible, for deeper changes to take root, even after the Duvalier overthrow in ‘86? A new Haitian constitution was written, which is a very progressive constitution. It’s also a bilingual constitution, interestingly, in French and Creole, which concretely means there’s almost two constitutions. But there’s a lot of political foundation for a really, truly democratic regime, the sort of institutions that people sought to put in place. But as we well know, the last twenty-five years have seen a regular cycle of political conflict, and a real difficulty in setting and putting into place a kind of Haitian state that can do what it needs to do in the present. The Haitian state, of course, has also been consistently undermined in many ways by foreign actors, and that’s a kind of cycle that we’re very much in after the earthquake as well.
NS: In this program we’re going to be talking to both Richard Morse of RAM and to Lolo and Mimerose Beaubrun of Boukman Eksperyans. Could you talk a little bit about the role of Vodou in the cultural polemic? What has been happening with Vodou in the period since the dechoukaj?
LD: There’s been a real roots movement, and both RAM and Boukman Eksperyans have been very important in that. Partly they’re bringing out a lot of the beautiful music of Haitian Vodou, foregrounding it as a critical aesthetic and musical genre. So that’s changing a cultural foundation of how people think about these things. But they’ve also insisted, along with Max Beauvoir and other leaders, that Vodou has to be respected as a Haitian religion, that it should be protected, that people have the right to practice whatever religion. And that in the face of — well, there have repeatedly been attacks on Vodouisants over the last twenty years, notably after the earthquake, so there is a threat to the religion at times.
The funeral of Azor was a critical moment. A well-known drummer was buried with almost a Vodou funeral in the center of Port-au-Prince, which was a very important marker that things are starting to change in this sort of space of respect granted to the religion, and I think that’s the result of a lot of cultural and political activity on the part of these musical groups as well as others.
NS: Both RAM’s and Boukman’s carnival songs in 2013 were politically charged, not for the first time for either of them. RAM’s song says, “The way they buy spirits is the way they buy people. It’s not their money but they use it to buy people.” Boukman’s song says, “Dessalines is angry”. What role does this have in the public discourse?
LD: Deep within Vodou practice is the sense that spiritual power can be used for bad as well as good, right? Outside people, often Protestants, see the whole Vodou complex as evil in some way, but within Vodou, the whole question of good and evil is of course a central question. And so the idea that people can use power, whether it’s spiritual power or political power, or economic power, to do evil, to buy people in certain ways, is a language of critique that is really embedded within Haitian culture. So what they’re doing is drawing on that kind of potent symbol in order to criticize the current political climate. And, again, if you go back to the discourse about Duvalier in the opposition, people constantly evoke these kinds of symbols as well, calling him the devil and so forth. You do have this longer tradition, and of course Boukman Eksperyans has long been at the forefront of politically charged songs and articulating an alternative vision all the way through the 90’s and all through their work. So I think this is a continuation of that in this new context, where there is a lot of disappointment and concern three years after the earthquake, about what’s happening, what’s not happening, and what the future holds.
NS: How are these longstanding issues of Vodou, of Haitian sovereignty, of culture and politics interacting with each other, how are these playing out in the present sense of on-going disaster?
LD: I think they’re playing out very powerfully. There was a huge hope right after the earthquake expressed by many quarters that this was going to be a new beginning, things were going to be done differently, the international community was going to help sustain new visions for Haiti. Three years on there’s a lot of disappointment, there’s a lot of sense that that is not what happened, that instead the old ways of doing things have been followed. Many Haitians feel that their voices were just not heard in the process, that ideas like industrial parks were at the forefront.
Essentially what we have three years after the earthquake is a new industrial park in the north, some very nice hotels that have been built, Partners in Health has built a great teaching hospital. Those are the three big achievements in terms of infrastructure. Meanwhile the National Palace has recently been torn down, so you have a kind of real problem that the Haitian state — which at the end of the day is the only entity that can really, truly address these problems — has once again been left out of the equation, and the reasons for that are complex. But at the same time there’s a kind of sense that the basic kind of capacities the Haitians have used, that they used afterwards to survive, that they’ve used to rebuild… those kinds of capacities continue to be often sidelined, they’re not sufficiently taken seriously as the real foundation from which things can be rebuilt. Again, there are organizations that are exceptions to this trend. But in the big picture, I think that’s what going on. So people feel like once again they’re having to insist that this deep historically constituted way of doing things and thinking about things, and their desire for autonomy and liberty and independence once again has to struggle against these great odds and a lot of misunderstanding from outside. I think that’s where we’re at.
So there’s a sense that there’s a really long struggle that’s ongoing and unfortunately, rather than having made a kind of push forward that might have been the case after the earthquake, it feels like the same struggle that’s been going on for quite a while is continuing. Within that, of course, all of these resources — musical, spiritual, that kind of historical consciousness — reminds people that there’s another way, the whole point of Haiti from the very beginning was to craft an alternative to what had been offered the people of Haiti before, which was enslavement, marginalization. Those resources are always a reminder of those other possibilities.
Music always reminds people that something else might be possible.
Transcribed by Zach Toporek.
Ned Sublette’s work in Haiti was supported by a Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion, a program of the University of Southern California’s Knight Chair in Media and Religion.