Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Haiti, the Archive, and the Historical Imagination

Haiti, the Archive, and the Historical Imagination



John Mercer Langston, then a professor at Howard University
John Mercer Langston

In the fall of 1877, John Mercer Langston laid on his bed on board the British steamer “Andes.” He was sea-sick and could not leave his cabin. Again. The new U.S. minister and consul general to Haiti was three days into his first trip at sea and so far the voyage from New York City to Cap Haïtien had been miserable.

But the tide would turn. After passing Cape Hatteras, the admitted “novice in sea-faring life” recovered. Langston “enjoyed the trip thereafter with a zest and pleasure real and inspiriting.” He became filled with a thrilling realization: soon he would land in Haiti. In a few short days, he would “behold now for the first time . . . negro nationality in harmonious, honored activity.”
Childhood lessons about Toussaint Louverture did not prepare Langston for his arrival in Haiti. They could not. One week after leaving New York, Langston was stunned when the British captain obeyed orders from Haitian men who came on board the “Andes” to direct it into the harbor. Put simply, he “had never seen up to that time men of their complexion holding such positions and performing such duties.”

As the captain explained, though, Langston was now “in a negro country.” That fact finally hit the U.S. diplomat when he went on shore. A vibrant port city filled with black people conducting their own affairs, controlling their own institutions, and operating (seemingly) outside of the confines of white supremacy was “a new revelation” to Langston. He had only “seen the negro . . . at home, in nominal freedom and dependence. Now he [beheld] him the owner of a great country, the founder and builder of a great government, with a national sovereignty and power respected and honored by all the great Christian civilized powers of the earth.”1

Skyline of Cap Haïtien
Skyline of Cap Haïtien

I arrived in Cap Haïtien two days ago. Stepping off American Airlines Flight 3603, I quickly took in the cool ocean breeze then made a beeline towards customs. I smiled as I approached the waiting agent. “Where are you from,” she asked kindly. “Etazini,” I admitted, my smile turning sheepish. “Ameriken.” She already knew. And I was already moving towards the line for tourists.
I found the only other black person in the tourist line. I gave him the nod. He looked down. My reluctant companion was no more than thirteen or fourteen years old and appeared to be on a school trip along with ten or so classmates. I imagined it was his first time abroad. I imagined he was trying to process what it meant for us to move to the left while every other black person on our flight moved to the right. I imagined that he was trying to understand what it meant to be a blan.

That teen has likely never heard of John Mercer Langston. I had not at his age. I would be surprised if he’s thought in great depth about black political self-determination to the same extent that Langston did. That’s understandable. He has beheld Barack Obama, the president of a great country. He has always seen men of his complexion holding significant positions and performing important duties.
Still, I could not help but think of me, him, and John Mercer Langston as intimately connected. Two arrived in Haiti at a moment when the prospect of replacing the first black president with a white supremacist one looms large. The other disembarked in Cap Haïtien shortly after Reconstruction collapsed under the weight of southern vigilantism and northern indifference. All left the United States not knowing what they might find when they returned.

John Mercer Langston did not publish his recollections of his time in Haiti until a decade after the end of his diplomatic tenure there. By then, black people in the United States were fortifying themselves and their communities against the violent realities of Jim Crow. Still, Langston assumed a tone of optimism and patriotism befitting a staunch advocate of integrationism and a veteran of the abolitionist movement. Indeed, he dedicated his work to
The young, aspiring American, who, by manly and self-reliant effort, would gain standing and influence, serving his day and generation by such personal accomplishment and useful, heroic achievement, as show him worthy of his citizenship . . . He [had] only, therefore, to be true, brave and faithful, to win the highest rewards of dignified life, as bestowed in honors and emoluments by his fellow-citizens.2
Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean Jacques Dessalines

That passage and others like it have forced me to grapple with the complexity of Langston’s thought in his final years. The heady days of Reconstruction were long over. A new fight for black freedom had begun and Langston felt obligated to inspire a new generation in those trying times. He told young men like Arthur Dessalines Langston—his son and the namesake of Jean Jacques Dessalines—to know the value of self-improvement but never forget the importance of black self-determination. He left them with his own longings for full inclusion in U.S. public life and his simultaneous sense of belonging to a much larger Afro-diasporic family.

In that respect, his words have also forced me to imagine. After passing through customs and leaving the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel. All the while, I pictured Langston talking to me and the black teen in the customs line. I imagined us together; three travelers linked by their blackness, their passports and the challenge of grasping what it all means.
  1. Quotations from John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, or The First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1894), 358-363. 
  2. Ibid., dedication page. 

Vodou and Other Religions: Religion, Religious Affiliation, and Haitian National Identity

Vodou and Other Religions:
Religion, Religious Affiliation, and Haitian National Identity
by Celucien L. Joseph, PhD
In this brief post, I would like to communicate a few ideas about three important issues that are intertwined and closely related to each other: religion, religious affiliation, and the construction of self and collective national identity based on certain religious tradition or system. The emphasis of this brief reflection will be on Haitian Vodou and Haitian (national) identity. Here are my 13 propositions:

1. Religious experience could be both personal and collective.

2. Religious piety is not spirituality.

3. Religious affiliation is a choice–at least in most Western societies and nation-states. (I understand it may not be a personal choice in certain countries where religious freedom is limited or not prized!) It is also observed that some countries in the Middle East, for example, have adopted a state religion such as Islam.

4. While a person may be born into a particular religious tradition or system–such as Haitian Vodou, Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.–genuine religious affiliation, however, should be a personal choice of the individual.

As we say in Kreyol, “Yo pa achte Lwa” (“One cannot buy a Lwa/Spirit) (Nonetheless, I do understand that Vodou is also a family religion, and the religious heritage can be passed on from one generation to the next. However, that in itself does not qualify a family member to automatically become a Vodouizan, a Hougan or Mambo. Allow me to share a personal example: my grandmother from my mother’s side was a mambo (Vodou priestess), and my grandfather from my mother’s side served many lwa, even married to several of them (Spiritual marriage in Vodou). Nonetheless, my mother never practiced Vodou nor has she inherited the tradition or passed it on to her children. My father’s parents (my grandparents) were not Vodou practitioners). From this vantage point, religious affiliation is certainly not an entitlement.

5. Hence, to be born into a Haitian family does not automatically make one a Vodouizan or Vodouist.

6. Haiti is a country. Haitian is a national identity. Vodouizan is a religious affiliation. These three things are not the same and certainly not synonymous or interchangeable.

7. Haitians, both in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora, have embraced various and competing religious affiliations. Haitians are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Catholic practitioners, Protestants, Agnostics, Atheists, Secular humanists, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, etc. As a result, Haitians are free to embrace any religious worldview or system.

8. Vodou is one among other religions practiced by Haitians both in Haiti and the Diaspora. Our ancestral faith is not monolithic; it is rather pluralistic. (In fact, Vodou itself is not a homogeneous religion.) Our African ancestors who were brought by force to the island of Saint Domingue brought with them various traditions, practices, customs, and competing religious practices and worldviews including Christianity, African Traditional religions, Islam, etc. While living on the island, they also adopted the religions of the Native Americans, and incorporated them into the religion of Vodou; they have also integrated Christian rituals and theology, and Masonic humanist morality and rituals into Vodou. While a large number of the enslaved population practiced what is now labelled as Haitian Vodou, not all of them were Vodou practitioners.

9. To embrace another religion other than Vodou should not be construed as the devalorization of the Haitian culture—since religions and cultures are human inventions and part of the process and theory we call social constructionism. In a true democratic state, the individual is granted the right of religious freedom and preference.

*The ideology in contemporary Haitian scholarship is that to be Haitian is to be a Vodouizan. Many Haitianist scholars have “essentialized Vodou” as the religion of all Haitians, just like certain individuals have “essentialized” race and culture. This tendency among scholars, both in the Anglophone and Francophone worlds, does not do justice to the reality and the lived-experiences of the Haitian people–both in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora. I would suggest that Vodou, Christianity, and Islam had played a pivotal role in the Haitian Revolution since Vodou itself is a syncretized faith which integrates Christian moral theology and ritual into its own brand of practice. Secondly, Francois Makandal, Dutty Boukman, and other important maroon leaders, and revolutionary leaders embraced Islam; they were also Vodouizan. Thirdly, the founding fathers Toussaint Louverture and Alexandre Petion were devout Roman Catholic by confession. In 1816, President Petion had invited Protestant Christianity in Haiti–what is now called today “Evangelical Christianity—only 12 yrs after the founding of the new nation of Haiti ( I do understand there is a great divide between Evangelical Christianity of the 19th century and that of the 21st century, as to their political affiliation and theological confessions). Fourthly, a large number of the enslaved Africans practiced Vodou as a religion; on the other hand, the enslaved Congolese who were brought to Saint-Domingue at the end of the 18th century were equally Catholic Christians as Catholicism became the state religion of Congo in early 15th century– even before Christopher Columbus visited the Americas. A large number of the enslaved Senegalese who were brought to the island were Muslims–an important point Jean Price-Mars affirms in Chapter 3 (L’Afrique, ses races et sa civilisation”) in “Ainsi parla l’Oncle.”

In summary, in Haiti’s contemporary society, there are three major religious practices: Vodou, Protestant/Evangelical Christianity, Vodou, Roman Catholicism. (Islam is growing rapidly in Protestant Christianity is practiced by 45% of the Haitian population. It is probably more in 2016–giving the wide spread of Evangelical Christianity in post-earthquake Haitian society.). While Vodou is among the most practiced religions by Haitians in Haiti, Haiti doe not have “one single religious tradition.” Our ancestral faith is also Vodou, Christianity, and Islam.

10. To be a Haitian Muslim or Christian does not make one an inferior Haitian Patriot.

11. In the same line of thought, the Vodouizan is not a superior Haitian than the Haitian atheist or agnostic.

12. Freedom of religion means the opportunity one has to choose or reject a certain faith among others. Religious freedom means a person who is affiliated with a certain religious tradition is free to share his or faith with another individual of a different religious persuasion or to someone who has no religious affiliation.

13. Since religion like culture is a social construction or human invention, no religion or culture has the monopoly.