The earthquake in Haiti was recently blamed on a ‘pact with the devil’. Anthropologists say the claim has a long history, going back to centuries-old misrepresentations of Haitian Vodou, in which the practised religion transformed into ‘voodoo’. And they say the currency of such ideas will make a difference to Haiti’s future, too. The World’s Alex Gallafent reports.
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MARCO WERMAN: Shortly after the earthquake struck Haiti last week, televangelist Pat Robertson made news with a quote. He said Haiti’s troubles could be traced to a centuries old pact with the Devil. Robertson was widely criticized for his comment. But he wasn’t the only observer to somehow connect the quake to the stereotype of Haiti as the land of ‘Voodoo’ or the occult. The World’s Alex Gallafent looked into where that stereotype came from.
ALEX GALLAFENT: The pact with the Devil Robertson was referring to was supposedly struck on August 14, 1791.
SIBYLLE FISCHER: There is supposed to have been a ceremony which would have looked similar to what we now know as a Vodou ceremony.
GALLAFENT: And according to NYU Professor Sibylle Fischer, the story goes that that Vodou ceremony was the spark that ignited the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolution in history.
FISCHER: All the empires and the United States were slave holding countries. So a successful slave revolution was not supposed to happen. It was the worst nightmare for the Colonial powers.
GALLAFENT: The idea that black slaves could take their own freedom by force scared white slave owners in the American South, so says Robert Lawless. He’s the author of Haiti’s Bad Press.
ROBERT LAWLESS: It started a notion of looking at ways to integrate Haitians and Vodou as obviously one of the ways that they could used to integrate Haitians.
GALLAFENT: That’s because Vodou is easy to portray as alien, and most Americans back then just couldn’t fathom it.
LAWLESS: Couldn’t understand, couldn’t accept, couldn’t believe.
GALLAFENT: Vodou incorporates traditions and rituals originating in West Africa, such as the channeling of spirits by possession. Possessed people are known as Divine Horsemen. Gina Ulysse, an Anthropologist at Wesleyan University, says that kind of thing played into white people’s worst fears.
GINA ULYSSE: Vodou is blackness in its worst form. It’s bestial, it’s African, it’s the counter to the European rational. It’s animalistic and it doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t make sense any more than speaking in tongues make sense.
GALLAFENT: Indeed, that’s a common element in some forms of Christianity, such as Pentecostalism. Ulysse was born in Haiti and spent her early years there. She grew up a Vodouist. Rather than being formally defined like Christianity, Ulysse sees Vodou as a neighborhood religion, something that closely binds a community together. And she points out that Vodou isn’t even in conflict with Christianity. Indeed, it mixes West African traditions with elements of Roman Catholicism.
ULYSSE: So God is still the Supreme Being. So what you have are angels and spirits that humans now interact with because God is too busy for your daily, mortal little issues.
GALLAFENT: That’s a long way from the Hollywood idea of ‘Voodoo’, you know, voodoo dolls and the like. That frightening version of Vodou emerged early in the 20th Century. Between 1915 and 1934, the United States occupied Haiti. A book from that period, “The Magic Island,” included descriptions of, quote “leaping, screaming, writhing black bodies, white teeth and eyeballs gleaming.” And it didn’t take long for Hollywood to pick up the thread.
ANNOUNCER: From Haiti, Land of the Voodoo… From the most infamous cult of all…
GALLAFENT: That’s the trailer for White Zombie, a Bella Lugosi flick from 1932.
ANNOUNCER: Master of the undead damned…
GALLAFENT: It and other movies helped fix Haiti in the U.S. popular imagination as an island of strange and horrifying irrationality. That image hasn’t fully gone away. Gina Ulysse says that conveniently absolves former colonizers and occupiers of any responsibility for Haiti’s ongoing troubles.
ULYSSE: It maintains these unruly black Haitians as just that, unruly black Haitians who after over 200 and something years are still incapable of governing themselves and are still incapable of being quote, unquote “a modern state.”
FISCHER: Now if that becomes the dominant narrative in the context of this earthquake, it would be catastrophic.
GALLAFENT: For Sibylle Fischer that’s why this isn’t simply an academic story about getting the history right.
FISCHER: When we start reproducing historical stereotypes of this sort we are also preparing for the future. We are setting the stage for six months from now when the effort will not be on saving lives but on rebuilding. So who is going to do the rebuilding and who is going to have a say and who is going to run the show?
GALLAFENT: Fischer acknowledges that Haiti desperately needs outside help now and in the future. And that Haiti’s leaders and institutions have been a long way from ideal. But she argues distorted ideas about Vodou make it all too easy for outsiders to believe they alone know what’s best for the country. For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent.
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