Wednesday, October 1, 2014
AINSI PARLA L’ONCLE AND THE CONSTRUCTION
OF THE HAITIAN IDEOLOGY
Despite some residual postcolonial ambivalence about such collective identity markers as race consciousness, religion, and language, particularly among the educated middle-class and bourgeois elites, Haitians today adhere consensually to a common narrative of identity, the tropes of which are routinely evoked in quotidian public and private discourse. According to this narrative, Haitians are the proud descendents of the sublime barefoot Africans who waged a victorious twelve-year war of liberation against the most powerful military of the day, the army of Napoleonic France, and in 1804 founded the first independent Black Republic on the ashes of the colonial slave plantation system. This collective experience has molded these self-styled pitit Ginen, these children of Africa, into a people fiercely jealous of their nation’s independence and not a little proud of their distinctive cultural achievements—the Creole language, the Vodou religion, an impressive literary canon, and a rich tradition in music, dance, and the visual arts. While the nation’s many failings may cause Haitians considerable disquiet, they have developed over the two centuries of their existence as a people an exceptionalist world view, seeing themselves, through the lens of their exceptional history, as unique exemplars of upright negritude .
Often echoing the sentiment if not the language of such foundational texts as the famous pronouncements of early revolutionary leaders like Boukman and Toussaint Louverture, the 1804 Proclamation de Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and the Acte de l’Indépendance, the Haitian narrative of identity is thus partly grounded in the collective historical memory. On the other hand, if this standard self-description as a New World African people resonates ethnologically as a truism today, this is due in large part to the pervasive influence of a later essential text, Ainsi parla l’Oncle (1928), on Haitian self-perception and self-representation . Indeed, Jean Price-Mars’ ethnological disquisition on the country’s folk traditions remains a most instrumental text in the construction of the Haitian ideology. In a way that is yet to be fully appreciated, in mapping the contours of the Haitian psychoscape and identifying its thematic axes—history, the land, the gods, the language, popular traditions--, Ainsi parla l’Oncle has lastingly shaped the way Haitians define themselves and understand their place in the world, and provided much of the lexicon of the national discourse of identity and collective agency. The transcending significance of Ainsi parla l’Oncle as a paradigm-shifting and consciousness-molding text becomes indubitable once the work is placed in the historical context of the evolution of the Haitian ideology since the founding of the nation.
A nation, as Benedict Anderson argues, is “an imagined community,” “because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” . It is, in other words, an entity traversed by atomizing realities but held together by an ideology, a consensual adherence to a shared sense of being in the world and reason for being together. This common ideology effectively ensures a nation’s cohesion only to the extent that it incorporates organically what George Santayana refers to as “a myth of a common origin” and “a myth of a collective mission” . As a coherent narrative of identity built around a myth of a common origin and a vision of a collective raison d’être by means of which the real tensions and contradictions within the collectivity can be transcended and an imagined national community built and sustained, the Haitian ideology evolved in three distinct historical stages.
The first stage in the evolution of the Haitian ideology encompasses the war of liberation and the first two decades of the nation’s existence. The struggle to overturn the slave plantation colonial system and create an independent nation, the collective mission in other words, was successful thanks to the unifying and motivating power of an ideology based on race and class consciousness.. Such well known texts as the Serment du Bois Caiman, Toussaint’s letter to Napoléon Bonaparte(“Le Premier des Noirs au Premier des Blancs”), and the 1804 Acte de l’Indépendance exhibit an awareness of the bonds of solidarity among the freedom fighters by virtue of their Black identity and their objective situation within the colonial slave system. The country’s 1805 Constitution, which declared all Haitians Negroes and affirmed the intention of the former colonial subjects of Saint-Domingue “to form themselves into a free state sovereign and independent of any other power in the universe,” is another text that shows a consciousness of identity based on race and a sense of a collective mission—the liberation of the race and the creation of a sovereign nation. In the first decades of independence as well, historians and poets produced a variety of texts intended to foster patriotic pride in the exploits of the heroes of the war of liberation and to impart a sense of nationhood based on the shared awareness of the new country’s recent history.
Notwithstanding these concerted attempts to forge a unifying ideology, many tensions and contradictions threatened to rend the imagined community first of the revolutionaries joined in the war of liberation and later that of the citizens of the new nation. The outlook and agenda, that is, the ideologies, that animated the diverse groups in presence first during the war then in the first decades of independence, often diverged. There were fault lines, for example, between the Africa-born nèg bosal and Creole slaves, between the Maroon bands and the armée indigène, between Blacks and Mulattoes, between the new peasant class of former slaves and the new elites. And at the ideological level, historian John K. Thornton makes the convincing case that while European Enlightenment ideas and values may well have motivated the actions of the revolutionary army leaders and the ruling elites of the young nation, the praxis of the Black masses in the enterprise of liberation was motivated by an outlook and value system that were recognizably African . Gérarde Magloire-Danton similarly draws attention to the contradictions that inhered in the very conceptual framework within which the early elites endeavored to construct a national ideology, pointing out that “much of Haitian social thought and theories of social organization were based on the European liberalism dominant in the nineteenth century” . And always underlying these early efforts to forge a national ideology was a concern with Western opinion, a psychological need to prove the new nation’s worthiness and potential for civilization. This of course meant the elites’ ability to build a polity on the Western model, whether Henry Christophe’s northern kingdom or Alexandre Pétion’s western republic. The worldview and mode of social organization of the Black masses, historic adaptations of Africans transplanted to the New World, generally clashed with the elites’ ideological agenda. Ultimately, the imperatives of nation building made it possible to transcend these tensions and contradictions and to rally the collectivity around an overarching ideology pithily summarized in the slogan “Liberté ou la mort” during the war of liberation and in the new country’s twin mottos “L’union fait la force” and “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. The unifying ideology thus formulated appealed to a sense of a common identity and an awareness of a collective mission—the founding, survival and progress of the first independent Black nation.
A momentous shift occurred in this early version of the Haitian ideology with the passing of the founders and the tapering off of the revolutionary generation. This historic reorientation of the Haitian ideology was signaled by President Jean-Pierre Boyer’s acquiescence, in 1825, to France’s demand of an onerous indemnity for the lost properties of the French former slave and plantation owners. Boyer’s signing of that treaty amounted to a betrayal of the very foundation of the Haitian ideology—the non-negotiability of the nation’s independence. It was in a way an abrogation of the founding myth. In thus symbolically opening the door for the return of the defeated Other, of the former master, Boyer ushered in an era of ideological incoherence that would last for the better part of the nineteenth century, until the American Occupation (1915-1934). The nationalist plank of the Haitian ideology, resting as it did on the founding myth, would be unable to sustain the nation against the forces of disintegration represented by the European imperialist powers (France, Germany, and England) and the United States. Throughout this period, these powers would intervene at will in the affairs of the country, pitting faction against faction and exacting tribute, while maintaining a racist campaign of denigration of the Black republic and its citizens. In addition to the subversion of the Haitian ideology by Western imperialism, one particular measure taken by the ruling elites of this chaotic period would further erode the integrity and coherence of the national ideology. The Concordat signed by President Fabre Geffrard with the Vatican in 1860 was to become a most effective vector of cultural alienation, embedding resilient centrifugal contradictions within the Haitian ideology. The Concordat made Catholicism the official religion, legitimizing the social repression of Vodou and other manifestations of traditional beliefs, while the wholesale importation of the French educational system, the management of which was entrusted to French clerical teachers, would ensure the further alienation and colonization of the Haitian mind for generations.
In this period of pervasive ideological deliquescence and concomitant political anomie, nationalist members of the intellectual elites endeavored to rearticulate the Haitian ideology and restore to it its function as the glue of the nation. Playwrights and poets such as the members of the Cénacle group Ignace Nau (1808-1845) and Coriolan Ardouin (1812-1838), and their successors Oswald Durand ((1840-1906) and Massillon Coicou (1867-1908) mined the tradition of patriotic and committed writings of the early post-independence period and made attempts to connect with the social and cultural realities of the masses. As part of this re-envisioning of Haiti and Haitians, the school of theorists, which included such polymaths as Louis-Joseph Janvier, Hannibal Price, and Anténor Firmin, revisited the myth of origin and sought to rearticulate the myth of collective mission, all in an effort to put forth a coherent ideology that would take Haiti out of the historical doldrums and propel the nation forward. In works such as Janvier’s Haiti aux Haitiens (1884) and L’égalité des races (1884); Hannibal Price’s De la Réhabilitation de la Race Noire par la République d'Haïti (1893), and Firmin’s De l’Egalité des races humaines (1885) the theorists, uncompromising nationalists to the last man, challenged the Western racist notion of Black inferiority, refuted the Hegelian relegation of Africa and Africans to history’s no man’s land, offered Haiti’s history as a defense and illustration of Blacks’ potential for progress, and articulated the nation’s collective mission as a historic obligation to uphold the principle of self-determination per fas et nefas and to rehabilitate the Black race through her achievements.
All those attempts to renew the Haitian ideology by reconnecting with a myth of origin that locates the collective identity in both Africa, going back to Egypt, and the revolution, and by formulating a clear collective mission that involved the imperative of progress for the rehabilitation of the Black race, were fraught with a number of inherent contradictions. The formulation of the Haitian ideology by these progressive and nationalist intellectuals, including the most coherent and rigorous Anténor Firmin, paradoxically remained “largely dependent on colonial forms of knowledge” . It was implicitly undergirded by a hankering for westernization, a will to shoe in the nation in a European template while eliding the social, cultural, and historical reality of the peuple profond. Ultimately, among progressive thinkers as among conservative intellectuals, France and Europe remained the ideological filter through which they envisioned the reality of the country, sometimes unconsciously and rather often consciously. Toward the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, the dominant discourse of identity conveyed the ideological perspectives of conservative intellectuals such as the members of the La Ronde School, poets like Etzer Vilaire and Georges Sylvain, and the patriotic yet excessively Francophile scholar Dantès Bellegarde. In a flagrant case of cognitive dissonance, these men conceived of a Haiti that was in essence, as the clichés of the day proclaimed “la fille aînée de la France”, “une province culturelle de la France”, in brief, an Afro-Latin enclave in the Caribbean.
Such cognitive dissonance and ideological incoherence translated into political deliquescence. Anténor Firmin, scholar and nationalist statesman, was particularly conscious of the possible consequences of this state of affairs and in 1910, from his exile on the island of Saint-Thomas, warned his countrymen that the absence of a coherent ideology and concomitant praxis around a common project would lead to the loss of the nation’s independence . As prophesied by Firmin, the American invasion and occupation of Haiti in 1915 would bring into relief the inconsistencies and general ineffectuality of the dominant elite ideology. The revolutionary narrative became moot in the face of the loss of independence and the reality of recolonization and even in some instances reinstitution of forms of slavery, such as the corvée or legally mandated forced labor, by the occupiers. Claims to Latinity and Frenchness became irrelevant in the face of the domination of the Anglo-Saxon conqueror for whom all Haitians were “gooks”, notwithstanding the elites’ wish to distance themselves from the resolutely New World African, Creole speaking, and Vodou practicing masses. The trauma of the occupation, expressed emblematically in Léon Laleau’s evocatively titled novel Le Choc (1932), left the ruling elites helpless, without a mobilizing coherent ideology, even though the patriotic indignation of the younger intellectual generation did find expression in such militant journals as La Revue de la ligue de la jeunesse haitienne (1916), La Nouvelle Ronde (1925), and La Revue indigene (1927). In contrast, the masses on the ground, more in tune with the more authentic collective ideology, resisted the American occupier both through armed action such as that of Caco guerilla led by Charlemagne Péralte and the 1919 peasant uprising at Marchaterre repressed in blood by the U. S. marines.
It is at this tipping point, at this moment of historical crisis that brought into relief the gap between popular and elite ideologies, that Jean Price-Mars intervened to provide the intellectual and political elites with a coherent ideological framework likely to foster a more accurate understanding of the country’s social and cultural reality. Within such a framework it became possible to construct a truer collective self-image and a clearer sense of the mandate of history, the collective mission of independence and progress of the nation as a whole. Where there was cognitive dissonance and false consciousness among the elites, what Price-Mars called “bovarysme collectif, c’est-à-dire la faculté que s’attribue une société de se concevoir autre qu’elle n’est” , Ainsi parla l’Oncle provided a clarity that emanates from the dispassionate scientific observation of the people’s history, cultural practices, and world view. Brushing aside elite delusions of Latinity and Frenchness, Price-Mars asked, “Who and what are we, Haitians?” The answer came loud and clear: Certainly not “des Français colorés”, but “..des Hommes nés en des conditions historiques déterminées, ayant ramassé dans leurs âmes, comme tous les autres groupements humains, un complexe psychologique qui donne à la communauté haitienne sa physionomie spécifique ” . By simply demarcating the key axes of the Haitian ideology—the African origin of the people, the land, history, the language, the religion, popular traditions--, Price-Mars reconfigured the Haitian psychospace, provided a sociologically sound framework for the construction of a collective identity and self-representation, and constructed an ethical framework legitimizing the place of the masses at the center of the national ideology.
Though not without its share of contradictions , Ainsi parla l’Oncle had an immediate transformative impact on the construction of the Haitian ideology by making possible a more consistent representation of Haitian society and culture. It galvanized the intellectual class by offering an ideological space where resistance could be organized on both cultural and political fronts. It provided a sound theoretical foundation for the young nationalist intellectuals, such as the writers of La Revue indigène, advocating a national culture that reflects the realities of the masses. It became the Ur-text from which nationalist and patriotic ideological constructs and literary creations would flow during the Occupation and for the next two decades or so. The work inspired the indigenist movement that produced the core of the literary canon of the 1930s and the 1940s, a body of works characterized by their social and political engagement, their thematics in the popular experience, and their linguistic and formal grounding in the vernacular and popular verbal arts. The creations of such poets and novelists as Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stéphen Alexis, and René Depestre are in many ways the offspring of Ainsi parla l’Oncle. Jean Price-Mars’ work, with its insistence on the African foundation of Haitian folk traditions, its valorization of Blacknesss, and its concern with history as a shaping force, marked out the parameters of a protonegritude that announced, and indeed would midwife, the global Negritude movement. Ainsi parla l’Oncle also ushered in a Haitian Renaissance in the arts by fostering an intellectual and cultural climate that favored the flowering of distinctly Haitian visual art forms, exemplified by the works of such artists as Pétion Savain and Hector Hippolyte, and the development of modern forms of music and dance based on the folk traditions. It bestowed dignity on such aspects of popular culture as the Vodou religion and the Creole language, that were previously regarded with shame or contumely within the elite ideology. A gift that keeps on giving, Ainsi parla l’Oncle may even be considered the point of origin of some of the practices and policies that have made today’s Haiti more true to her socio-cultural self. Thus, if the Creole language today is present in the schools and given official status in the 1987 constitution, and if
Vodou is now openly practiced and can now boast of an officially designated garnd-prêtre or ati in the person of ethnologist Max Beauvoir, in many ways this is all the aboutissement of the ideological revolution launched by Ainsi parla l’Oncle eighty years ago.
Because of this deep, pervasive, and durable influence on Haitian thought, discourse, and praxis, Ainsi parla l’Oncle is the incontrovertible classic of the Haitian canon. A classic is a text that compels us to look at ourselves and our place in the world critically, that makes us examine our individual and collective lives so that they may be worth living. This Ainsi parla l’Oncle has achieved for Haitians in explicit and implicit ways since its 1928 publication. But Price-Mars’ work is also a transnational classic, for its influence, both direct and indirect, from the start reached beyond the borders of Haiti, as an international panoply of commentators repeatedly emphasized in the celebratory volume Témoignages sur la vie et l’Oeuvre du Dr. Jean Price-Mars . It is a foundational text that pioneered the pattern of stances and ideas identified with such later global movements as Negritude and Pan-Africanism, which sought to decolonize African minds, to revalorize the cultures of the African continent and the Diaspora, and to foster the notion that cultural integrity is a basic condition for nation building. At one level, Ainsi parla l’Oncle was a product of the zeitgeist, arriving on the scene at the confluence of a rising anticolonialist movement and ethnological interest in the traditional cultures of non-Western peoples in the period between the two world wars. At the same time, the work was the punctual response of a conscious citizen of the first Black republic to the ideological challenges faced by his society at a critical historical juncture. Thus responding to both national and global concerns Ainsi parla l’Oncle has pride of place next to such ideologically influential contemporary classics of the Black Atlantic as Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz’s Los negros brujos (1903) and African American philosopher Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1928).
It is a sobering commentary on the state of both Haiti and the world that eighty years after its publication Ainsi parla l’Oncle is still of great relevance both nationally and globally. Mutatis mutandi, current social and political conditions are somewhat reminiscent of the context in which Jean Price-Mars published his classic work. In a Haiti presently occupied by foreign forces, there reigns great ideological confusion regarding the nation’s being and being in the world, a confusion manifest in the metastatic proliferation of rudderless political parties, the complacency of an intellectual class eagerly feudalizing itself to French, Canadian, or American interests, and a troubling acquiescence to the presence of foreign troops on the national territory.
In a world buffeted by the unsparing currents of globalization, among a people now consisting in large part of transnational migrants, boundaries of identity are necessarily more fluid than they were in Jean Price-Mars’ time. In the face of an admittedly more complex social and cultural reality, some things have remained the same, however. Thus despite the disappearance of the most egregious instances of false consciousness regarding the collective identity and the collective agenda, the old ideological fault lines between the vision of the masses and that of the middle-class and bourgeois elites persist. Inasmuch as these constitute impediments to national cohesion and progress, it is meet that we revisit Jean Price-Mars’ work to remind ourselves that it is not possible for Haitians to construct an understanding of who they are and a vision of why they exist collectively outside the realities of the peuple profond. Such is the conclusion reached in a recent manifesto by a collective of Haitian intellectuals: “C’est le devoir de notre generation par les temps qui courent de diffuser sa pensée, de prendre le relais, de transmettre les énormes acquis de son oeuvre en continuant son travail de désaliénation de notre histoire et de notre culture” 
Still relevant for Haitians, Ainsi parla l’Oncle has much to offer to today’s global community as well. As long as the ideology that underpins the unequal relations among the peoples of the world is one based on the Huntingtonian notion of a hierarchy of cultures and civilizations , within which hierarchy African peoples occupy the lowest rung, Jean Price-Mars’ scholarly yet passionate assertion of the validity of all human cultures needs to be heard. In the struggle against cultural alienation and Western inferiorization of people of color and for the construction of strong and progressive polities in the Black world, including Haiti of course, Ainsi parla l’Oncle thus remains an irreplaceable Césairian “miraculous weapon” .
1. For a more detailed discussion of exceptionalism in the Haitian ideology see my article, “Haitian
Exceptionalism and Caribbean consciousness,” in Journal of Caribbean Literatures, 3.2
(Spring 2002): 115-130.
2. Jean-Price Mars, Ainsi parla l’Oncle (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimeur II, 1998).
3. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised
edition (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p. 7.
4. George Santayana, Reason in Society, Volume 2 of The Life of Reason (The Gutenberg Project:
eBook #15000, 2005), pp. 160-183.
5. John K. Thornton, “I Am the Subject of the King of Congo”: African Ideology and the Haitian
Revolution,” Journal of World History, 4.2 (1993): 181-214.
6. Gérarde Magloire-Danton, “Anténor Firmin and Jean Price-Mars: Revolution, Memory, Humanism,”
Small Axe, 18 (September 2005): 151-170.
7. Magloire-Danton, p.152.
8. Anténor Firmin, L’effort dans le mal (1911).
9. It appears that the word “gook”, used as a derogatory term for the Vietnamese during the U. S. war
against Vietnam, had originally been coined by the U. S. Marines to refer to Haitians during the Occupation of Haiti. See Irwin Tang, Gook: John McCain’s Racism and Why It Matters (Austin, Texas: The it Works/Paul Revere Books, 2008).
10. Ainsi parla l’Oncle, Préface, p. xxxvii.
11. Ainsi parla l’Oncle, Préface, p. xxxviii.
12. See Magloire-Danton.
13. Témoignages sur la vie et l'œuvre du Dr. Jean Price-Mars, 1876-1956. Port-au-Prince, Haïti:
Imprimerie de l'Etat, 1956.
14. Alix Emera, Eddy Lubin et Ronald C. Paul Simil, “Restaurer la conscience haitienne,”
Le Nouvelliste (26 novembre 2008), read at http://www.lenouvelliste.com/article.php?PubID=1&ArticleID=64512&PubDate=2008-11-26
15. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon
& Schuster, 1998).
16. Aimé Césaire, Les armes miraculeuses (Paris: Gallimard, 1946).