1804 and Its Afterlives (Part Two)
January 5, 2013
This is the second of a three-part summary of the excellent 1804 and Its Afterlives conference that took place at Nottingham Contemporary on December 7th and 8th 2012 as part of the events program accompanying the Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou exhibition. Video recordings of the sessions can be found on the above link. The focus here is on salient points from the talks that touch upon issues of direct relevance for the Zombi Diaspora narrative and the Ghetto Biennale.
Saturday 8th (Day Two, Morning Session)
This session was introduced by Philip Kaisary, assistant professor of Law at the University of Warwick who has written about representations of the Haitian Revolution in the work of Aimé Cesaire and C.L.R. James from the perspectives of human rights discourse and historiography. He spoke briefly about “the extraordinary diversity of the Haitian revolutions afterlives” not only in literature but also in film, music and dance, these latter being the focus of the morning’s papers.
The first speaker was Michael Largey, Professor and Chair of Musicology at the University of Michigan and author of Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism (2006) whose paper – ‘1804 and Musical Memory: Occide Jeanty and Recombinant Mythology in Haiti’ – explored how Haitian art music has been used to underscore concepts of nationalism there. In Vodou Nation he claimed that elite Haitian composers employed “modes of cultural memory to engage issues from Haitian history as a way to make significant claims about Haiti’s place in the world”. Today he spoke about one such mode, “recombinant mythology”, to show how “mythological ideas” have a powerful shaping influence on how Haitians understand their political realities. He focussed on Haitian military band director Occide Jeanty (1860 – 1936) who was seen by Haitian audiences as a defender of the Haitian nation during the 1915-1934 US military occupation. In order to understand the importance of Jeanty it is necessary to develop a historical model that examines “legendary accounts of his life that have been infused with Haitian myths”. “Myth and history” he says “are elements of larger discursive processes that forge relationships with the past”.
Jeanty’s career began when Haitian politicians were actively cultivating connections with the deceased heroes of the Haitian revolutionary war, in particular Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Late 19th century Haitian intellectuals identified rhetorically with Dessaline’s “bravery, courage and industry” while lower class Haitians had begun incorporating his legends into the practices of Vodou focusing less on his heroism than on his death and dismemberment at the hands of political rivals in 1806. The figure of Ogoun Dessalines fuses two contradictory ideas: a powerful general and national protector, and a dismembered corpse torn apart by his enemies. Despite differences between the elite and lower class embrace of Dessalines, both connected contemporary Haitians with the “rhetorical power of politics and myth”, and through such rhetoric Haitian politicians have often found themselves incorporated into the myths they sought to exploit. Such is the case with Jeanty, whose mythic narratives draw on the recombinant myths of Dessalines and Ogoun. Although it is not a substitute for formal historical methodologies, in regions like the Caribbean, where written history has privileged colonialist perspectives, the analysis of recombinant myths forms an important part of the “construction of historical consciousness”. Largey quotes Dayan who has coined the term “Vodou history” as a corollary for the combination of mythical and historical narratives in Haiti, calling them “sinkholes of excess…crystalizations of unwritten history [that] force us acknowledge the inventions of mind and memory that destroy the illusions of mastery, that circumvent and confound any master narrative”.
Largey recounts the story of Florvil Hyppolite, Haitian president from 1889-1896, who died of a heart attack on the way to confront a civil revolt in Jacmel. Popular songs that record this event fuse myths about Dessalines and Hyppolite, the most famous being ‘Panama M’ Tombé’, a merengue whose lyrics tell of how, at a crossroads on the way to Jacmel, “my hat fell down”, a metaphor for impending fate and a reference to the “pays san chapeau” (“land without hats”), the Haitian land of the dead. Philome Obin’s 1954 painting Les Cacos de Leconte (The Cacos Rebels of Leconte), exhibited in Kafou, makes reference to Dessaline’s untimely death on Pont Rouge (Red Bridge), Florvil Hyppolite is seen carrying his hat in his hand.
Largey defines recombinant mythology as “the process whereby people in the present use mythologically orientated language to highlight praiseworthy characteristics of cultural heroes”, a process which makes “historical events more culturally saturated and hence more subject to interpretation by culturally competent audiences”. Ogoun is a particularly effective “point of connection” for recombinant mythology in Haiti. Known primarily as a soldier he wears the sash of a Haitian military officer and brandishes a machete during possession rituals. He is also, Largey adds, the patron of taxi drivers. Both Dessallines and Ogoun are identified as brave and selfless soldiers “willing to put themselves in physical danger despite the risks”.
Recombinant myths exist in what Homi Bhahba calls “the third space”, combining present and past, where they are “available for use” in multiple and at times contradictory ways. In Haiti Vodou loa are often used as sources of recombinant myths, and can act as “moral exemplars” (Karen McCarthy Brown). Recombinant myths are not arbitrary but rely on “the alignment of salient traits between appropriate subjects”, made to work between ideas that are “good to think together”. Ogoun, for example, combines with Haitian generals and presidents whose power eventually overcame them. Louverture and Christoph are rarely depicted as having Ogoun characteristics. Commenting on the previous day’s discussion about the difference between the revolutionary afterlives of Louverture and Dessalines, Largey notes that, for many Haitians and black artists outside of Haiti, Dessalines promotes a view of black agency that does not try to flatter white audiences. “The final stage of recombinant mythology is transformation” Largey continues ”the emergence of a recombinant myth in a specific place and time”. When this happens the myth becomes part of a “concatenated chain of narratives, each of which is simultaneously linked to specific historical and mythological antecedents”.
Following Rolph Trouillout’s description of Haitian intellectuals from the upper echelons of Haitian society, who participate in the creation of Haitian historical consciousness through the recounting of mythological Haitian events, as “alchemists of memory” – “proud guardians of a past they neither lived nor wished to have shared” – Largey suggests this same name could be used for those members of Haitian society who use Vodou mythology as part of their cultural vocabulary despite personally repudiating Haitian traditional religion. As such they use Vodou as a cultural resource to enliven their writing and “saturate their prose with culturally resonant ideas”. Some of the works of painters in the Kafou exhibition, like that of Salnave Philippe-Auguste featured in Jørgen Leth’s Dreamers documentary (2000), who repudiate Vodou, are still informed by its cultural practices, which they use as a shared resource.
For elite audiences, Largey claims, Vodou spirits are “too volatile for use in their competing and contradictory forms” and must be “diluted into forms” that stir the patriotic passions of Haitian audiences and “connect them to salient cultural images”. Occide Jeanty’s importance has to do with what VèVè Clark, co-editor of The Legend of Maya Deren (1985) and Anti-Feminism in the Academy (1996), has called “milieux de mémoire”, “discrete regional remembrance beyond the pale of official Haitian history, so insignificant as to be known only to practitioners, a living chronology, revealed to members only”. These include myths about Jeanty, personal narratives by colleagues which amplified his traits through heroic rhetoric, poems written about him and “experiential programs”, Largey’s term for personal interpretative statements made by audience members after listening to his works. During his fieldwork in Haiti in the 1980’s Largey documented many such anecdotes.
Between 1922 and the end of the US occupation in 1934 Jeanty composed works that “contributed to the rhetorical resistance toward the US occupation”. His most famous composition, 1804, though written to celebrate the centennial of Haitian independence, became an unofficial anthem of resistance and Haitian political autonomy. Haitian audiences heard in it a connection between the presence of the US occupying forces and the period of colonial slavery. It became an anthem of anti-American resistance and continues to have revolutionary connotations for Haitian audiences. There are various accounts of such audiences spontaneously rioting in Port-au-Prince when 1804 was played by the presidential band with Jeanty directing. This urban response to 1804 was particularly significant because most previous resistance to the US occupation was restricted to rural areas where bands of Cacos engaged US marines in small skirmishes. Towards the end of the US occupation Jeanty was forbidden to play 1804 during the band’s popular Sunday concerts in Port-au-Prince’s Champs de Mars. Several authors have tried to account for the power of 1804. One journalist, Felix Erisay (?) wrote a program for a performance of 1804 that linked the musical gestures of the march to the struggles of Dessalines against the French army, climaxing in the general’s battle cry “Dessalines pa vlé wè Blan” (“Dessalines doesn’t want to see whites”), which unites the two Haitian heroes in their call for the expulsion of the white invader.
Largey played an early recording of 1804 pointing out the section with which Dessaline’s battle cry has been associated (this can be heard at 24.00 in the video documentation of the talk). When heard by Haitian audiences today 1804 can illicit “dramatic visceral reactions”, one listener describing the feeling as like having all the hair on one’s head and arms stand up with the message “we are not going to accept an invasion that will return us to slavery”. Such sensitivity however had to be learned. What Haitian audiences hear, Largey claims, has been conditioned by the social and political contexts in which 1804 has been played. He quotes ethno-musicologist Tom Turino, author of Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (2008), who wrote: “the affective potential of music is constantly utilized and in some cases manipulated for a variety of highly significant social ends including the mobilization of collectivities to create or defend a nation”.
“Even during a military occupation of their country” Largey continues “Haitian audiences were able imagine themselves resisting political oppression, the wild shouts of contemporary listeners connect them with cultural values of independence, rejection of colonialism and resistance to the re-imposition of slavery”. Haitian performative genres send messages, or “throw points”, of insider cultural knowledge to their audiences when direct communication would be too dangerous. In the case of 1804 “Haitians could symbolically re-enact the struggle for independence as long as their enthusiasm remained within the bounds of acceptable behavior for the US marines”. 1804 was rumored to contain quotations referencing different regiments from the Haitian army with their own identifying themes, quotations that had the power to excite local crowds.
In conclusion Largey argues that Jeanty’s music continues to be a focus for Haitian nationalist sentiments and that his invocation of the Emporer Dessalines allowed Haitian audiences to enjoy the thrill of Haitian nationalist resistance without having to resort to combat. An image has been created of him that combines historical and folkloric ideas that place him in the historic past, while equating him with the heroes of Haitian independence, “in his own time a defender of the Haitian state, and in the present as a symbol of resistance against oppression”.
The next speaker was Martin Munro, Professor of Francophone Caribbean literature and culture at Florida State University, author of Shaping and Reshaping the Caribbean: The Work of Aimé Césaire and René Depestre (2000), Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature: Alexis, Depestre, Ollivier, Laferrière, Danticat (2007) and co-editor of Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and its Cultural Aftershocks (2006) and Echoes of the Haitian Revolution (2008). His talk ‘The Revolution’s Ghosts: Dessalines, The Chimères and Apocalyptic Creolization’ explored the idea of “the hybrid Creolized subject in Haiti as a kind of living phantom”. He moves forward in time 200 years from 1804 to just before the bicentenary “a time which seemed to usher back into Haitian society figures that appear to echo…the figure of the Creole Dessalines in their ambiguous, contradictory values, actions and relations to broader Haitian society”.
I must admit to having an instant reflex reaction to the opening gambit, sensing in it one of those structures that implicitly denies agency to the very subjects it assumes to be speaking about or for. Any subject assumed to be “a kind of living phantom” by one who is, presumably, not such a thing immediately places the burden of the phantasmatic onto the other, a function which the term chimères and the film Ghosts of Cité Soleil, which Munro discusses, both perform. The issue boils down to something like this: “Who gets to speak of others as if they were phantoms?” I was also concerned in this introduction by the use of so many spectral figures of speech (‘seems’, ‘appears’, ‘ambiguous’, ‘echoes’ and indeed ‘figure’ itself), semantically structuring them ‘as if’ being real, endowing them with active, if “contradictory”, values and actions. An extension of the first question would therefore be “On what kind of entity is agency being conferred here, the actual subjects identified as chimères, or the phantasmatic figures of mythic speech?” Through Munro’s exogenous ‘chimerical optic‘, actual people labelled as chimères are made to coincide with the mythical properties of fantasies about them in ways that occlude the structural and political dimensions of the literary and cinematic media through which ‘they’ are depicted. In this way Munro’s ‘literary’ analysis of the chimères had discomforting, and presumably unconscious, parallels with the explicitly repressive function the term was generated to serve i.e. a justification for military intervention in Haiti during the planned removal from office of the democratically elected, but publicly demonized, President Aristide.
In his article ‘Epithets Without Borders’ Richard Sanders traces the history of the term chimères in Haiti, relating it to similar names like “gook” or “slant” used during the Vietnam war to dehumanize and vilify members of the Viet Cong. “Such verbal abuse is also valuable in preparing the general public for the cognitive dissonance that will arise with the growing awareness of their fiscal and electoral complicity in the crimes of war”. In the case of chimères, Sanders claims, it was the aspersion of choice used by all those who opposed President Aristide to describe his supporters during the 2004 coup. Traditionally referring to a violent monster, ghoul or ghost, and often used by the elites as a class slur against the poor, the term was mobilized specifically in statements by Haiti’s former military, the armed rebels, police, judges, businessmen, journalists and “all other anti-Aristide proponents of regime change”. It also gained unquestioned currency within “Elite-owned Haitian media and their foreign counterparts, Haiti’s corporate-backed politicians and their Canadian and U.S. mentors and Anti-Aristide “NGOs” in Haiti and their government-funded partners abroad”. Sanders quotes an interview with Haitian human rights lawyer and activist Mario Joseph who said “Since the kidnapping of Aristide, the process of legal accusation has been reduced to name calling: the word “chimère” is used like a death sentence. This is how all the political prisoners, members of Lavalas, were rounded up during the coup”. By not acknowledging the historical and political context of the term’s emergence one comes dangerously close to complicity with the violence it was created to mask.
Although Munro later acknowledges that those labelled with the term chimères neither chose nor accepted it, that they recognized it as a label invented by the opposition to demonize them, he still claims that “perhaps fittingly the genesis of the chimères is difficult to trace and is tied up in the intimate history of street gangs and their political affiliations”. The genesis is not actually so difficult to trace, and it is not primarily “tied to the intimate history of street gangs” as far as I know. Perhaps Munro has other information. But it was not forthcoming. He then defines the term as referring to “the gangs from the shanty towns of Port-au-Prince who were used at times in the service of Jean Bertrand Aristides’ government and who gained a reputation for extreme violence used against the anti-government popular movement”, explicitly placing himself on the side of the ‘demonic’ naming powers identified by Sanders. Not only does Munro propose that the genesis of the term/identity lies with the people labelled by others with it, but by associating the phantom-like figure of the chimères with that of the “Creole Dessalines”, he makes the term transition seamlessly between the registers of the fantastical and mythical to the historically and socially concrete, and in so doing unwittingly reveals a key mechanism of the demonizing-naming operation described above, one that was fundamental to the propaganda machine used against the supporters of Lavalas, and an operation that has been used repeatedly against various Haitian revolutionary insurgencies since the colonial era, through terms like ‘cannibal’, ‘fetish worshiper’, ‘Voudouist’ and ‘bandit’.
Munro focussed on three representations of the chimères in popular culture: Asger Leth and Milos Loncarevic’s 2006 film Ghosts of Cité Soleil (discussed briefly in the previous 1804 and Its Afterlives post), Charles Najman’s 2004 documentary film Haïti: La Fin des Chimères? and Lyonel Trouillot’s 2004 novel Bicentenaire. In each case he looked only at the figure of the chimères as depicted in the texts, paying no attention to either the politics of cultural production intrinsic to the works themselves or to the broader social and cultural networks in which they operate. In short he treated the chimères ostensibly as “literal fictions” with actual human/cinematic embodiments. He points out that both films discussed feature the same pair of chimère brothers, James Petit-Frere and Winston Jean-Bart, aka “Billy” and “2Pac” which, Munro suggests, “allows one to move from general conceptions of the chimères to the particular realities of these individual lives”. But does it really? This seems like a naively “realist” assertion, as if somehow being represented in film confers upon a figure the status of concrete actuality. Cinema is a notoriously spectral medium and those who get to be captured by it acquire an explicitly phantasmatic immortality. To assume that one moves from the general (mythic) to the particular (concrete) through the medium of film seems to occlude the fundamentally phantasmatic and constructed nature of cinematic works. In the case of documentary films we have to be even more vigilant in this regard than with overtly fictional forms. Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a particularly problematic choice of film given its overtly voyeuristic and sensationalist tendencies and explicitly anti-Aristide message. It is in many ways an important component of the propaganda machine described by Sanders and as such really ought not to be taken on face-value as an in any way objective representation of the so-called chimères. In fact, I would argue, Ghosts of Cité Soleil constitutes the most important international vehicle for the damning of Aristide and his supporters, and the subsequent justification for international military intervention and occupation of Haiti, that has yet been made. This ought really to be born in mind before discussing its representations of people who do not call themselves chimères. Even if this were not the case, that both films should use the same two characters to represent a highly contested social identity, raises fairly obvious questions about the politics of representation at play in this selection of works.
Munro explained his notion of the “Creole Dessalines” by making reference to a recent article by Deborah Jenson – ‘Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the African Character of the Haitian Revolution’ – which questions the standard historiography (such as Dayan’s) that claims he was “literally Creole” but “performatively and ideologically African”. Having heard the talk several times now I still can’t understand why he does this or its relevance for the representation of the chimères. But I will re-state the argument as he puts it. Maybe readers will understand this better than I.
In the standard narrative Dessalines is an island-born Creole, brutally treated by a white master, who would “gesturally” become African in order to relate to the majority African-born population. Jenson however points to contemporary accounts of Dessalines’ life that suggest he was born in Africa and “became Creole” only in later historiography. Different accounts of his birth, Jenson argues, have shaped interpretations of the Haitian revolution. If Dessalines was taken as a slave from Africa to Haiti, where he used his knowledge of African social groups for the revolution, he would represent “a critical suppressed link, if an endlessly oblique one, in our understanding of how these experiences informed African revolutionary agency in colonial Saint Domingue” (Jenson). This is an interesting proposition. But unfortunately the theme of African revolutionary agency, which was also discussed in the previous day’s talks, is not developed here and falls away almost completely when Munro discusses representations of the chimères.
If Dessalines was African, Munro argues, his story would be simplified. Dessalines the Creole, on the other hand, “is a chameleon that comes into being through metamorphosis…a shapeshifter of unverifiable origins and contradictory motivations, unknowable and ambiguous, a kind of ghost, even as he lived”. Once again this seems like a stretch. Are we speaking here about Dessalines the concrete ‘living’ individual, the contested historiographic Dessaline’s or Dessalines the myth? Clarity is essential here if were are not to fall into a self-fulfilling phantasmatic loop. Would an African Dessalines really be so much more simple to narrate? Surely not. What Munro seems to be suggesting here is something mysterious and capricious about the label “Creole”. Once again we need to ask what kind of thing this ‘Creole’ is? Who is using the term, how specifically and for what reasons? Munro seems to be reading it through the same chimerical optic as he does the word chimères. “The very name chimères” he claims later in the talk, implies an “apocalyptic form of Creolization in its suggestion of a being made up of composite parts…a monster that is only in part human, or indeed a ghost, a phantom that is aware that it is not fully alive, existing somewhere between life and death, existence and oblivion”. In short, for Munro it seems to be primarily a mythic literary figure, secondly a term of cultural abuse in the context of Haitian society and thirdly a term used to identify the militant, slum-dwelling supporters of President Aristide in 2003-4. But what does this have to do with Dessalines or “Creolization”?
Munro invites us to fast forward 200 years from 1804, with this contradictory, ghost-like chameleon spirit of the “Creole Dessalines” in mind, to the cinematic and literary chimères of 21st century Port-au-Prince who appear as “apocalyptic figures, grotesque, nihilistic refigurations of the Creolized anti-hero”. Here we can see how the “Creole Dessalines” operates as an historical filter for Munro’s exogenous chimerical lens, giving a mythical Haitian revolutionary form to the so-called chimères. But why “apocalyptic”, “grotesque” and “nihilistic”? Whose optic is this? Whose judgement?
Speaking of the characters Billy and 2Pac, “two of the most notorious chimères”, Munro proposes that the paradoxes of Haitian politics complicate the question of ethics “so that it’s difficult to judge if the anti-hero is completely on the right side”. But in what political situation is it ever possible to judge an anti-hero on “the right side”? And what would that be in this situation? When we look in more detail at the actual political situation on the ground in Haiti during the ousting/departure of President Aristide, it seems clear that Billy and 2Pac were in a highly compromised, volatile, chaotic and violently unstable situation, not the kind in which “the right side” is likely to be found for any length of time. Perhaps Munro is suggesting that Haitian politics are particularly paradoxical. But then what politics aren’t, especially in a militant slum area during a para-military coup d’état?
Munro explains that Billy and 2Pac are said to have been alumni of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi institute for street children, founded in the mid 1980’s, and centred on an orphanage for street boys in the La Saline district of Port-au-Prince. The claim is supported by Michael Diebert, an ardent critique of Fanmi Lavalas and author of the Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (2005), who knew Billy personally. 2Pac and Billy, orphaned through the politically motivated killings of their parents (their mother, according to Diebert, was a community activist killed in Cité Soleil shortly after the coup against Aristide in 1991, their father killed during a FRAPH paramilitary raid on Cité Soleil in December 1993) had become, according to Munro, “children of Aristide”. “Guided by a philosophy of education that developed a radically politicized child identity” Lafanmi Selavi “held a unique ambition of not only feeding street children but also creating…citizen children”. Forcibly closed by government paramilitaries in 1999 Lafanmi still produced “cohorts of young men for whom street violence had been a means of survival” and who allied that defensive instinct “to the political sensibility that the education program had fostered”. Although “there appears to be no evidence that all those attached to Lafanmi became chimères” its links to 2Pac and Billy suggest to Munro that it was a “training ground” for its “most prominent figures”, an argument also made by those involved in the vilification campaign against Fanmi Lavalas in 2003.
He describes in some detail the representations of 2Pac and Billy in Ghosts of Cité Soleil, which, he adds, without further explanation, doesn’t represent the political situation during the departure of Aristide in a particularly balanced way. “The powers that the gangsters have is itself chimerical” he claims as he describes the breakdown of the brother’s relationship in the vacuum of power left in Aristide’s wake. “2Pac represents himself from the outset, perhaps unintentionally, as an apocalyptic figure, “existing rather than living” in the present, apparently unable to conceive of the future which is only “a void, a blackness to which he returns when he closes his eyes”. Munro fails to mention however, that in a scene shortly after this (which can be seen here at 1.04), 2Pac explains that, when the opposition see that “they can no longer fuck with Aristide” because of his popular support, “they make us hot. They give us the name chimères and make everybody scared of us”. Regardless of this explicit rejection of the label Munro feels able to say that “true to his chimerical chameleon-like identity 2Pac plays many different roles…a benign gangster, a sensitive orphan poet, and attentive father or a vulnerable lover…But he is also at times merciless” (emphasis added). While coming across at times like a “real gangster”, Munro continues, at others he sees himself as a “false being”, made up other people “a kind of actor whose identity is as unknowable and elusive to himself as it is to the viewer”.
Billy, unlike 2Pac, seems to have a social and political conscience Munro claims. “He wants to be president of Haiti” 2Pac says. The brothers appear to Munro as “two halves of a full being, their identities in some senses cut in two dualistic parts, but also sharing the fundamental emptiness and despair that is the lot of the apocalyptic creolized subject” (emphasis added). 2Pac appears “most human” to Munro when he expresses “human emotions” usually suppressed “as a chimère” (emphasis added) becoming “less ghost-like” the more his life is threatened.
Billy also appears in Charles Najman’s documentary film Haïti: La Fin des Chimères? which was shot around the same time as Ghosts. Although with 2Pac absent Billy seems more muted and uncertain of his future, he is still “ready to die for his political beliefs”. He is filmed “apparently” (emphasis added) taking a call from Aristide and is told that “the opposition will invade the palace and that the chimères [not the term actually used by Billy, who simply says ‘we’] are the president’s only hope”. When reflecting on the term chimère Billy “appears to resent the tag as it is used as an insult by the opposition” (emphasis added). Billy suggests they are “not a breed apart” but a “creation of the circumstances in which they live”, their criminality something that is “in everyones blood”. Although Monro focusses only on what Billy says, as you can see from the clip linked above, one of his friends tells the interviewers that a chimère is “often someone who has nothing, an unfortunate who is hungry” and Billy adds “a person who always has problems”.
Munro acknowledges that Billy’s disenchantment is a political and ethical one. “The great paradox” here, Munro suggests, is that “Billy the gangster holds the government to account for its lack of ethics”, decrying the Haitian police force for being involved in drug dealing and saying that “there is no truth in justice, everything is about money”. Munro paraphrases Billy’s critique which I think is worth quoting in full to get a more rounded picture of his awareness of the contradictions he and his friends face in their embattled slum. When asked by a friend, who, between all the organizations struggling for power, is going to put Haiti on the right track, Billy says:
It’s a question of conscience. If there is a true awareness, even if it’s only 50% of the truth, it will be what wins. The police don’t work properly, they’re drug dealers, the government lies, the police lie, the deputies lie, the senators lie. Justice doesn’t speak the truth. It’s only money that counts. It’s complete chaos. The schools don’t work. A bad schoolgirl can buy a diploma. For this country the only solution is a second US occupation. The situation is catastrophic. Nothing works. It’s overwhelmed with sadness and misery. It’s grave.
When asked why he hopes for an american occupation Billy says “I just want people to be able live”.
According to Munro Billy’s politics and ethics seem to parallel those of the intellectuals interviewed in the same film, notably Gary Victor “who also tends to deflate the perceived glories of Haitian history” and notes that consecutive governments have “denied existence to the masses”. Unlike Victor however, who can detach himself from the political situation, Billy “the gangster intellectual” is trapped by his economic circumstances and political affiliations, caught in the paradox of having only violence as a means to make his plea for justice and truth. “Were their situations reversed” Munro claims “Billy would be as eloquent as Victor and Victor might act as Billy does”, reinforcing Billy’s belief “that he and every individual are the product of their circumstances, the political and economic forces that impact everyday lives with the force of destiny”.
According to Munro even with 2Pac absent the film sets up “doubled relationships between radically different characters that reveal themselves to be fundamentally alike”, a tendency which recurs in contemporary fictional representations of the chimères such as Lyonel Trouillot’s Bicentenaire where this double-relationship occurs between the student Lucien and his younger chimère brother, Little Joe, who is also represented as a “hybrid Creolized being”, having the face of “a displaced angel” which fits uncomfortable on a body covered in American tattoos, “contradictory signs that suggest the conflicts that determine his every paradoxical act”. Joe’s real name is Ezekiel, after the apocalyptic biblical prophet of the end times, whose “life and actions were living prophesies”. Like his namesake, Little Joe enacts the future in the present with the chimères constituting “an apocalyptic army”. The prophetic apocalyptic figure of Little Joe recalls for Munro Dessalines “the illiterate tyrant, the most unregenerate of Haitian leaders (Dayan) and the unsettling antithesis to the rational Touissaint”. Like Dessalines, having retained “the memory of the mysteries”, Little Joe practices Vodou, “the creolized religion”, placing on his bed a red neckerchief, a pin, three leaves of artemisia and an image of Saint Jacques le Majeur before setting off for battle.
Although the chimères are part of a concrete, historical and social reality they also partake, according to Munro, of “a post-plantation world that remains haunted by its past”, by what Dayan has called “the enchanted wreckage that was transatlantic slavery”, a history in which “the dead do not die” and where “the codes and sanctions of slavery always resurface and find new places to inhabit”. For Dayan and Trouilout’s Little Joe, Munro asserts, “the body is a kind of historical repository” and, in what Dayan calls “the cult of the residue”, it is the body that remains, containing in itself a sense of history and constituting a form of prophesy. Dayan has written that throughout the Americas “the concept of ‘personhood’ could be eliminated for ‘the enslaved’, who are condemned to live in and through the body”. In the landscape of death, she writes, nothing ever dies, “not oppression nor the disfiguring of people placed outside the haunt of human empathy”. Here “old forms of terror maintain themselves as they find new content”. I can only assume, given the context, that the terror Munro is referring to here is not so much that of plantation slavery but the ghost of the “Creole Dessalines”.
Creolization, Munro claims, is generally understood “as a dialectical process that leads to a synthesis”, the product of which is “a hybrid creolized being or culture”.
What the example of the chimères and the Creole Dessalines seem to show is that hybridity does not necessarily equate with harmony, on the contrary hybrid composite being may tear an individual and a community apart, particularly when history, politics and economics conspire to exacerbate the contradictions that make up the Creole subject and society. Far from a harmonious fusion of their constituent parts Creole subjects and communities may be fatally riven by contradiction.
Terms like creolization and hybridity, Munro claims, allow academics to “embrace the other, cultivate the magic of the hybrid and to forget the history and politics which such words masked”. In the historical example of the Creole Dessalines – “the shape-shifting chameleon” – and the contemporary case of the chimères, “in many ways the living ghosts of Dessalines”, Munro concludes, “one senses that in contrast to certain utopian ideals of cultural hybridity, creolization is just as likely to have a dystopian, even apocalyptic outcome and one must finally ask, how it could be otherwise, given the historical conditions in which Caribbean creolization came into being and the ongoing, unresolved effects of that history”.
The presentation concludes in a similar paradoxical way that it began, making claims against the very thing it seems to doing, but in reverse, using Dessalines as a negative counter-myth to optimistic utopian claims made for creolization. The configuration of a “historical” Creole Dessalines as a shape-shifting, chameleon-like archetype for contemporary “nihilistic” and “dystopian”, “hybridized Creole subjects” like the so-called chimères (who like their prophetic apocalyptic ancestor practice the inferentially irrational, “creolized religion” of Vodou) seems to have been constructed, ultimately, to undermine positive, utopian constructions of hybridity and Creolization. But who or what is making these claims for either Creolization or the chimères except the author. Moreover, rather than making anything like a convincing argument for the survival in some ancestral form of the “Creole Dessalines” in the figure of the contemporary chimère, what Munro seems to do is project the extreme conditions of severely traumatized and violently demonized contemporary Haitian subjectivities, who themselves make no reference to either Dessalines or Creolization, back onto an historical figure whose complex legacy, as we have already heard on several occasions, has been marked by deep-rooted, highly contested and conflictual ideologies of race, religion, nation, ethics, politics and history, which have, on the whole, represented him as a divisive figure for post-revolutionary Haitian society. Munro’s paper seems to be a sophisticated example of contemporary literary/cultural theory/interpretation that applies a received political myth of the chimères to a category of Haitian subjects, in the most violent meaning of that term, as if they were the agents of their own fatal, figural and mythic destiny: the living ghosts of the doomed “Creole Dessalines” forever haunting the fractious and barbarous trauma-scape of Haitian society and politics.
The final speaker of the morning was Barbara Browning, author of the brilliant Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture (1998) which was one of the founding inspirations for the essay that gave rise to Zombi Diaspora. She began by picking up on some of the things already discussed, explaining that she shares with Colin Dayan an interest in what it might mean to look at the uncomfortable places where self and other, human and inhuman, begin to blur, Haiti often having been seen as a “limit case” in this regard. She shares with Martin Munro an interest in particularly fearful images, in her case “metaphors of disease”, and with Michael Largey an interest in the cultural forms, both musical and choreographic, through which such figures are “raised and worked through”.
Her paper was made up of two non-chronological sections, the first – ‘Fluid Bodies’ – began with a quotation from the African American dancer and postmodern choreographer Ralph Lemon’s Geography: Art, Race, Exile (2000):
I’m lying at the bottom of the ocean. Other bodies swim by and eat bits of me. I watch with horror the pieces collapsing, waterlogged. What happened to the blood? Every time I’m touched I take on another layer of filth, ancient bacteria, hatred. I’m obsessed with washing my body. Even now I’m taking a vast shower, holding my breath and almost passing out. The next time I’ll use a wide, transparent yellow tape to cover my lips.
Browning suggests that the dream was very possibly induced by the Larium Lemon was taking to stave off malaria, it being the “prophylactic of choice” for many travelers from industrialized nations to Haiti and the Ivory Coast, where Lemon had his dream, despite the fact that Larium’s side-effects, which range from “vivid dreams” to “paranoid psychosis”, are a cause for concern amongst medical practitioners. At the time of writing Lemon was in Abidjan researching the first part of the project that would become Geography, a section called ‘Africa, Race’, for which he would visit Haiti too. It involved a “dialogical exchange of movement vocabularies between an African American choreographer with, in his own words, a Eurocentric postmodern dance aesthetic…a group of…‘traditional’ dancers from West Africa as well as another African American dance troupe with an ‘urban’…movement style”, and Black sound artists from Cuba, Haiti and the US.
The dream, “not so much Lamarial…as Lariumal” Browning suggests, was really “a submerged, blurry vision of bodily disintegration evoked by a fear of contagion”. She asks through Lemon how a fear of contagion “might become a productive force for thinking about the global relationships between Black bodies and Black arts”. Her reading is not an attempt to organize or contain these relationships but instead an attempt to think “anti-navigationally through murky waters, flotsam and jetsam, perhaps even disintegrating body parts that litter the work of global artists who have turned to Haiti for both political and aesthetic inspiration”. To do this her talk focusses on the work of two highly influential African American choreographers: Ralph Lemon and Katherine Dunham, pioneer of African American dance and dance anthropology and author of Island Possessed (1969).
Lemon’s Geography Browning tells us, was not concerned so much with “mapping his identity in relation to his collaborators” as “watching it disintegrate”. Although there is something “freeing” about non-objective, disintegrative performance, she proposes that “un-moored identity and seemingly free-floating collaborations isn’t always simply liberating”. Lemon’s anxieties about collaboration, Browning tells us, were “distilled in a dream”. Before retiring that night Lemon ate a dish of Poulet Creole, drank a Flag beer, worried about the insects eating his left-overs and then, after going to bed, got up and took another Larium, “because of my discipline and without a belief in this season of mosquitoes”. Why Browning asks does the Larium inspire less faith than fear? and why does the fear express itself in dreams where the membrane holding the body intact dissolves and other bodies start to absorb one’s own?
Lemon ponders malaria throughout Geography, which he thinks might be causing the fever and wasting of one of his dancer-collaborators as they tour the US. Another of Lemon’s Black Brooklyn-based dancer-collaborators “assumes, being African, malaria is part of his cultural inheritance”. Another of the dancers, who had contracted a “social disease” in New Haven, retains symptoms of some other disease long after treatment. Watching his dancers struggle through their symptoms Lemon reflects “if you were American I would think he had some disease, by the way his eyes do not focus and because he’s so skinny. I think this because his magic has turned my seeing backward and anyway, there’s very little that I understand about being African”.
The premise of the collaboration, Browning argues, is to “find a dialogical space, through performance, to understand across diasporic identities”. Perhaps the anxiety about bodily breakdown has to do with this kind of permeability rather than malaria. She then reads a passage from John Edgar Wideman’s Fever, a story about an 18th century outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia “carried through the vector of the Aedes aegypti mosquito”.
Curled in the black hold of a ship, he wonders why his life on solid green earth had to end, why the gods had chosen this new habitation for him, floating, chained to other captives, no air, no light, the wooden walls shuddering, battered, as if some madman is determined to destroy even this last, pitiful refuge where he skids in foul puddles of waste, bumping other bodies, skinning himself on splintery beams and planks, always moving, shaken and spilled, like palm nuts in the diviner’s fist, and a shoe casts his fate, constant motion, tethered to an iron ring. In the darkness he can’t see her, barely feels her light touch on his fevered skin, sweat thick as oil. But she doesn’t mind, straddles him, settles down to do her work. She enters him and draws his blood up into her belly. When she’s full she pauses, dreamy, heavy. He could kill her then, she wouldn’t care. But he doesn’t, listens to the whine of her wings lifting till the whimper is lost in the roar and crash of the waves, creaking wood, prisoners groaning. If she returns tomorrow and carries away another drop of him, and the next day, and the next, a drop each day, in enough days he’ll be gone, shrink to nothing, slip out of this iron noose and disappear.
Wideman recounts an epidemiological rumour circulating at the time that yellow fever had come from Frenchmen, fleeing the Haitian revolution “with their infectious African slaves”. Fever suggests “spreadings of other kinds”:
Membranes that preserve the integrity of substances and shapes, kept each in its proper place, were worn thin. What should be separated was running together.
Even political identities, “one’s notion of what makes one what one is”, could be disintegrating. Wideman’s dream-like picture of the middle passage, “the oceanic voyage through which Africans became Americans”, resonates uncannily with Ralph Lemon’s dream. Lemon wrote:
‘Geography, Africa’ was in part a performance but it was equally an anthropological collaboration about being American, African, Brown, Black, Blue Black, Male and artist.
“Intercultural performance” Browning contends “is inevitably about the cross-cultural pedagogical exchange” that “teaches us not only about the particular cultures in question but also about pedagogy itself”. In anthropological literature, she tells us, pedagogy is often linked to notions of contagion or infection. She recalls a famous section from Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, ‘A Writing Lesson’, in which a non-literate Nambikwara chief turns the pedagogical tables on Levi-Strauss by teaching him the lesson of the violence of the letter. “There is a weird and anxious dénouement” Browning explains “in which Levi-Strauss’s wife must be evacuated because she has contracted from the locals an eye infection which is “gonorrheal in origin”. “The excessive, almost obscene intimacy implied in ethnographic observation” Browning proposes “in which one sees oneself and one’s own violence played back across a cultural divide, seems to manifest itself in the pathology of the anthropological gaze”. She assumes this is what is behind Lemon’s comment that his dancer-collaborator’s magic had turned his seeing backwards.
Browning asks whether the pathology of the anthropological gaze means one should look away? “What would it mean to accept the figure, to deal with the dis-ease of inter-cultural work as we force ourselves to deal with the anxieties over cultural contagion?” The notion of fluid bodies/bodilly fluids that disturb fixed notions of identity, Browning asserts, can be a productive model for ethically engaged and collaborative work and performance but it requires a degree of historical self-consciousness regarding the figure.
On the subject of “self-consciousness” Browning apologizes personally for talking about the figure of African diasporic culture, particularly that which passes through Haiti, as contagion, and for returning to an argument she has been making for some time. She speaks about the strange fate of Infectious Rhythm, published so many years ago, yet being one of the principle reasons for her invitation to this conference. She used to describe Infectious Rhythm as “a message in a bottle” because when the book came out it immediately seemed to disappear. Part of the problem seemed to be where to locate a book which was neither ethnomusicology, dance ethnography, nor epidemiology, it couldn’t be mapped by any “bookstore rubric” or “area studies”, being neither Caribbean nor African studies. When she re-read the dream passage from Lemon’s text she realized that it was a fitting image for the dis-solution of her ideas “from the page to apparent oblivion” which compels her to keep repeating the figure of her “pathological pre-occupations”.
“The metaphor of culture as a contagious or infectious disease, passing through bodily fluids or fluid bodies” she explains “has a lengthy and complex history” which she had mapped through Infectious Rhythm. The figure often takes the seemingly benign form of a “dispersal of joy, the spread of vitality associated with African diasporic music and dance”, a metaphor frequently evoked, notably in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) which depicts African American expressive culture as a “life-giving plague”. But the figure can also cause hostile and violent reactions when people literalize the metaphor to seek out connections between cultural practices and the literal spread of disease. Epidemiological hypotheses of yellow fever’s origins in Haiti, for instance, came at the same time as the violent suppression of the dancing and drumming of former Haitian slaves transported to the US. The confluence of a migrational flow precipitated by the revolution and the yellow fever epidemic generated an intense anxiety over cultural flows which culminated in cultural repression. “In retrospect” she proposes “it seems all too clear that the underlying anxiety on the part of European American is towards the fear of another kind of contagion: the spread of insurgency amongst African Americans”.
Similar anxieties were expressed during the US occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934 along with many sensationalistic and racist accounts of Vodou, when the popular press was filled with references to infectious diseases including yellow fever, malaria and syphilis. The US marines established “hygienic regimens” in Haiti involved in the prohibition of Haitian music and dance, which were understood as posing a risk of both cultural and epidemiological contagion. Browning notes that no-one articulated the possibility of political contamination.
HIV emerged as a pathogen during a period of intensified cultural exchange between Haiti and the US and was quickly associated with metaphors of cultural contagion. In Haiti shortly before he began his project of “inventing Africa” in 1996, Lemon made the following notes in his journal: “Looking at the moist skin of these blacks, I need to comprehend some layer of waterless grime I think, because there’s so much poverty here. But it’s only sweat, and ultimately my disease”. How is their sweat his disease Browning asks? She concludes the first section by asking:
How does the fluid passing out of another’s body evoke the sense of one’s own identity and does that pathological identification in any way mitigate or redeem the desire to other, to anthropologize, to contain, hygienically control, appropriate, choreograph, understand. Could it be that the epidemic model for thinking about cultural transmission and exchange might actually help us to have a fuller sense of the fluidity of identity and identification that performance makes possible?
The next section of Browning’s talk was called ‘What Talcum Won’t Cover’. It begins in 1936 when Katherine Dunham was awarded a fellowship to study “primitive dance and ritual in the West Indies and Brazil”. Dunham eventually bought a property in Haiti and dedicated her life to promoting the country’s culture and fighting “the political indignities suffered by its people”. Her entry to Haiti, which has “uncanny resonances” with Melon’s, was recounted in Island Possessed thirty years later. There she described how, arriving on the heels of the US occupation, her nationality “raised some hackles”. She recalls the lush palm grove by the bay of entry “the true beauty of which sheltered ordure, yaws, skin syphilis, infested parents and babies”. The “specter of disease” was on the face of the coast guard official who checked her documents whom she described as:
a seedy, almost mulatto type, who would be a gryphon, with spots on his face, artlessly covered by talcum powder. This only accentuated the spots which were so placed and of such a texture as to be unmistakably of yaws. That much I knew, but I tried to disguise the fact that I was aware of, or had heard of, this particularly Caribbean skin disorder. I had no reason to be ill at ease but I knew that if I were to have trouble this particular petty officer would be the one to cause it, and joyfully. Condescending, resentful, suspicious, sadistic, he took minutes to settle in a chair at one of the dining saloon tables, minutes to adjust his pince-nez glasses, minutes to dawdle through the passport of a perspiring student of “dance and anthropology” wondering what to do next. Then, obviously, just to be confusing, he began speaking in French. I hadn’t expected to be called on to speak French without thinking it over first and was so taken by surprise that I answered in kind, imperfect though it must have been, without thinking. I have some gods who come rushing in at unexpected moments for big things but mostly for niggling little things like this. Everything changed, My interrogator managed to smile, not too wide because of his sores, replaced my letters in his folders, held out his hand in farewell as he rose to leave, and pressed mine harder than was necessary. Removing his pince-nez he looked deeply into my eyes and hoped to see me in town at the immigration office for further “formalities” within a day or two. At the same time, if it were toward evening, he could show me something of the scenery surrounding the capital. I made a mental note never to be without hygienic handshaking protection when in foreign territory. In my purse at this moment there is a bottle of slightly scented surgical alcohol for rinsing after long handshaking sessions which I have become so accustomed to as a precautionary measure, that it is always with me.
Although this seems like a similar discomfort to Lemon’s, Dunham also identified profoundly with Haitian people and spent most of her life challenging acts of inhumanity waged against them. In 1992 at the age of 82, for example, she began a 47 day hunger strike in protest of discriminatory practices against Haitian refugees, which she stopped only at the insistence of the recently ousted President Aristide. She converted her residence at Habitation Leclerc into a clinic and her work with dance was always concerned with the welfare of the Haitian people. But it is interesting that her writing, like Lemon’s, is pre-occupied with the “permeability of bodies, with anxieties over contagion and contamination”. “Visceral descriptions of her Vodoun initiation ceremonies” Browning tells us “detail the smells and sensations of bodies pressed up against one another, the scent of commingled sweat, the sensation of another woman’s hot urine hitting her thighs as they lay pressed together on the floor of the hounfor, smell of snake, viscous mouthful of raw egg, granular sensation of cornmeal rubbing against her skin…as well as the selfless sensation of her dancing body moving in concert with others”. But, though this never took Dunham to a place she could justify calling religious transcendence, it was, Browning argues, part of her coming to terms with her political identification with the people of Haiti.
Browning concludes that these two stories tell us something about “the ways that Haiti has worked, and continues to work in the imaginary of artists…most significantly African American choreographers”. “While it is important to attest to clearly racist and xenophibic accounts of Haiti in which the historical fear of the contagiousness of insurrection has translated into both epidemiological narratives and figures of cultural infectiousness, it is equally telling to look at artists sympathetic to both Haitian political history and cultural manifestations”. That both Dunham and Lemon express anxiety about the idea of Haitian infectiousness isn’t just about their susceptibility to “virulent racist narratives” but something they recognize as their own disease: “the pathologizing gaze of anthropology in which the eye can see only it’s own infection”. Neither were immune to “an othering gaze in which each of they themselves were implicated”, but through this recognition they found a place for “honest collaboration”. This is perhaps the most hopeful way “for the membranes of the individual, national and cultural identity to begin to collapse”.
In closing she proposes a site where African American artists have explored their own complicity in the configuration of Haitians as infectious. In 1898 US congress declared war on Spain. At the time an insidious medical theory existed holding that African Americans were more resistant to the tropical diseases that would be encountered in the Caribbean and so were established the so-called “immune regiments”, African American regiments that, ostensibly at least, had an epidemiological advantage. Their immunity however was fictitious and a number of them did succumb to malaria, yellow fever and cholera. They also picked up a reputation for insubordination that would come to be called “the Latin Tinge”. Many members of the immunes came from New Orleans and unsurprisingly they were also steeped in music. They had a military band at the time, also called The Immunes. The polyrythmic tunes they would bring back home went on to profoundly impact the music often referred to as America’s classical music, incipient jazz.
The question, finally, she asks “is not how we can avoid political, aesthetic and biological contagion between Haiti, Africa, America and the rest of the the diaspora but how we can most productively learn to understand its implications”.
The Q&A session was chaired by Philip Kaisary who began by addressing a question to Michael Largey and Martin Munro which repeated the latter’s misidentification of the gang members discussed as chimères: How might parallels be drawn between them and the historical Dessalines? Do they “extract from Dessalines” a violent politics? And how would this compare to Occide Jeanty and the “Black agency” that Dessalines represented? Munro responded by saying that “the chimères themselves” don’t mention Dessalines, but that this is his interpretation of them, but follows from Jenson’s reading of Dessalines as a figure “riven with contradictions” and that he reads into the two figures from Lyonel Trouillot’s Bicentenaire an echo of the Dessalines/Louverture relationship. Largey responded that the question raises the issue of the power of Dessalines, both as a pessimistic and optimistic figure for Haitian history, that Jeanty chose the latter, and that when he was speaking about pwen or points he meant it as “an enactment of an idea” and “an interpretation at the same time”, so that a figure like Dessalines becomes “infinitely interpretable”. It is the interpretive aspects of pwen that is more applicable here. It’s not so much about an authentic idea of Dessalines but that all interpretations are multiple. For a lot of audiences if it were not contradictory, it would be less potent, he suggests. Munro responded that in most contemporary literature “authors work against myth” in an “endless attempt to pull these myths apart”. In support of this he re-quotes Gary Victor who claimed that the revolution 1804 only benefited the propertied class, leaving the rest slaves, a claim which seems to “contradict the glorification of 1804 in a song”. He cites also Dany Laferrière’s Pays Sans Chapeau (1996) which challenges “nationalistic, indigenous-inspired myths of Haiti and its history”. Largey replies that the stories of Jeanty he has presented come from representatives of the elite, not Jeanty himself, and that people “out of power” would have a very different vision of things. However “we are still talking about myth” he says “a discourse that allows us to talk about the conflicts that have been going on in Haiti”.
Kaisary then proposes a question for Browning about the figure of the “unregenerate, illiterate and barbarous” Dessalines as a virulent myth in itself, situating it in the context of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, and the fear of Black insurgency as a kind of medical disease incubating in the slave-holding US south. She responds by making reference to Dayan’s suggestions the previous day that popular histories in Haiti are always multi-valent, something that has to do with Vodou cosmologies in which the loa are not simply positive or negative, but allow for multiple readings. She mentions Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health and author of AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (1992) and The Uses of Haiti (1994), whose work in medical anthropology, inspired by Arthur Kleinman, medical anthropologist and cross-cultural psychiatrist, author of Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine (1995), who has encouraged us to take seriously medical narratives given by people experiencing disease that are not “medically correct”, in the ways that popular stories of Haitian history are not “accurate”. Farmer gives the example of a domestic servant suffering with AIDS in Haiti who thinks she contracted the disease from cold drafts she experienced opening and closing the refrigerator door. What she is telling Farmer, Browning claims, is that under domestic labour conditions, which forced her into precarious sexual relationships in order to survive, “the real pathogen is not HIV…but the social structure which put her into this precarious position in order to survive”. In Haiti, she continues, the relationship between medical or epidemiological narratives and popular histories have a “particular density” whether that has to do with “a cosmological openness to multiple narratives” and a “polyrhythmic music [in which] multiple time lines take place at once”, informs a layered sense of Haitian history “that one is always aware of”.
Munro picked up on Browning’s discussion of yaws, asking if it wasn’t one of François Duvalier’s missions to eliminate the disease form Haiti, suggesting that Papa Doc set himself as a father figure administering various kinds of cures to his children. Browning replies that often modes of social control have an ostensibly hygienic rationale. Largey adds that Duvalier was not only known as a medical doctor and someone steeped in Haitian folklore, having worked at the Bureau of Ethnology in Haiti but that he received a masters in Public Health from the University of Michigan.
I asked the first question from the floor, premising it on anecdotal accounts I heard in Haiti about Habitation Leclerc, the former residence of Katherine Dunham, originally built for Napoleon’s sister Pauline Bonaparte, and leased as a luxury “erotic” hotel from Dunham by the French entrepreneur Olivier Coquelin between 1974 to 1983. I mentioned that the majority of the French troops sent to recapture the island in 1801, led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law General Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc, after whom the residency is named, died of yellow fever, a disease associated in Haitian folklore with the revolutionary figure of Mackandal, the Maroon leader and notorious poisoner, who had the power to transform himself into a mosquito, a story re-told in Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World (1949). Secondly, I pointed out that Coquelin’s hotel had a reputation for sex tourism during the late 70’s, which was directly associated with the myth that AIDS originated in Haiti, and which eventually went bankrupt in the early 80’s because of it. I mentioned a recent article by Frank Degoul, (surely a brilliant nom-de-plume) entitled ‘“We are the mirror of your fears”: Haitian Identity and Zombification’ published in Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human (2011) which deals with endogenous re-appropriations of negative stereotypes of Vodou as strategies in what he has called a “witchcraft arsenal” used by Haitians against would-be invaders. Given the reversible polarities of Vodou cosmology, and I would add now, the reversibility of the metaphors of contagion and Haitian infectiousness discussed by Browning, I asked if there was an epistemic Vodou stratagem that we might be able to utilize to facilitate and aid Vodouists in Haiti in their current struggles ?”
Browning responds in the affirmative with examples from Infectious Rhythm of artists from the African diaspora who take up negative configurations of disease and turn them into something positive, like Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing or Ishmael Reed’s Mumbu Jumbo, in which contagion becomes a spreading of joy and vitality. Lemon and Dunham however, despite their intimate involvement with Haitian people, are much more ambivalent, obviously “freaking out” about contagion, while at the same time honestly acknowledging the dis-ease and ambivalence “they are trying to break through”. Though she is unsure if this is a strategy coming directly from Vodou for Lemon, she thinks it may be the case for Dunham.
Largey adds, in reference to the swine flu epidemic mentioned by Dayan the previous day (and discussed in the last post), that during the eradication, which was also the time of a disease effecting coconut trees and a US embargo of Haiti, he was working with a rara band in Léogâne who had a song called ‘Cochon Creole’ (‘Creole Pig’), which had the lyrics ‘Bondye dirige en le, Ameriken dirije a tè’ (‘God directs the sky, and the Americans direct things on the ground’). In one verse the song combined a local disaster, a national one, and the US embargo, and this for Largey is another example of a pwen, a point being made, which is to say “in order to understand any one of these things you must see them in relationship with each other”. These are people, Largey tells us, who are not participating in the scholarly discourse and yet who can “sandwich these ideas in ways that make local, national and international aspects be in relation with one another”. There are hundreds of songs that do this in even more subtle ways Largey claims.
Millery Polyne addressed the next two questions from the floor, the first to Michael Largey who he asked about Jeanty’s personal statements about 1804 and the second to Barbara Browning who he asked what Dunham and Lemon knew about AIDS, malaria or yaws. Browning responds that both were operating with the popular, generalized knowledge of their times. Largey comments that when he was working in Léogâne with members of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), who were working on a project to eradicate Filariasis, he discovered that non of them take prophylactics, which convinced him to stop taking Larium himself. Returning to Polyne’s question Largey explains that originally he had thought Jeanty’s was the perspective he wanted to get. In interviews with Jeanty’s daughter he found that the narrative the family wanted to affirm was one of “heroism” and “resistance”. Being a native English speaker Largey found it easier to conduct interviews in Kreyol rather than French. Jeanty’s daughter it seemed wanted to give the impression of her father as a person of a “certain social standing” which came through not only in what she was saying but the language she used. It was the only interview he did in French. While he was conducting the interview 1804 was played on the radio causing the whole family to cry in unison. Several people Largey interviewed, and not necessarily those who subscribed to Vodou practice, likened Jeanty’s compositional process to spirit possession. This suggests to Largey that Vodou is part of a common vocabulary that is “uniquely Haitian”.
The next question from the floor asked Barbara Borwning about the important difference between infection and contagion. She responded that in this presentation she was not making a distinction between the two because she was concerned primarily with the way that culture spreads, that the variation was simply to avoid rhetorical redundancy. She asks what the political nuance is behind the question? The audience member says that it has to do with the confusion between “modes of transmission” and “myths of transmission”. She responds that, with any epidemiological narrative, one needs to be very precise about the actual ways that diseases are communicated, through what vectors, while on the other hand you need to take into account careful readings of “incorrect” myths of transmission.
The exhibition’s curator Alex Farquharson asked the next question which concerned the theme of Haiti as “a locus of contagion for the American imaginary” which reminded him of the medical function of Vodou for people who have no recourse to medical institutions in Haiti. He also mentioned the left and right handed paths of Vodou, one associated with disease or poisoning, the other with healing and well-being, which he related to different political strategies of resistance, particularly “invisible” forms like poisoning or contagion. He asked if any of the speakers wanted to pick up on this. In response Largey reminded us of the old saying that the difference between medicine and poison is the dosage and that, as Karen McCarthy Brown has shown, healing happens in social, historical and sexual contexts, and what is uncomfortable about that is that when all these contexts are “simultaneously present and available, and can be invoked by those who know what those contexts are…it turns a notion of history inside out”. He was reminded again of his work with rara in Léogâne. Members of the CDC’s were treating Filariasis, which is even more insidious than malaria, and involves male and female parasitic worms finding each other and mating within the human body, as a purely medical problem, with little success. They engaged Haitian health workers to help carry the medical message about the disease to people in remote regions who couldn’t read or write. One independent group of health workers organized itself in relation to the rara band culture, which operate according to a patron-client relationship where the band offers songs in return for gifts. Setting up a rara reviewing stand in a rural area, one of the health workers would sing different lyrics to the rara songs about the importance of getting vaccinated against Filariasis. Rara became the most effective way to get the word out because it operated in ways that were both culturally acceptable and recognizable. In terms of the client-patron relationship it was understood that the health worker was giving them something to carry with them “along with the flashlights and condoms”. Browning adds that the main instrument in rara is a bamboo trumpet called a vaccine. She also explains that in Brazil Candomblé, despite the role of blood sacrifice and scarification involved in the religion, was used as an important means of getting HIV education and information to a wider and poorer public, its cosmology offering intelligent and locally comprehensible ways, such as the “second skin” of the “closed communal body”, to talk about the transmission and prevention of the disease.
Munro said he was unable to think of images of bodily disease or healing in Haitian literature, but that what it seem to be more concerned with is mental illness, memory and relations to the past. In Gary Victor’s À l’angle des rues parallèles (2000) “a kind of madman, serial killer” represents this interest in distinguishing between who is mentally well and unwell. Vodou is also relatively absent from this literature, probably due to its urban settings. There is more of a concern with protestantism and evangelicalism, which helps create an apocalyptic view of Haiti in which it will be finally dispatched from the perceived wrongs of Vodou. He spoke about two recent works, Lyonel Trouillot’s Yanvalou Pour Charlie (2009) and Dany Lafferiere’s L’Énigme du Retour (2009), which do contain scenes of healing. In the first a cynical lawyer figure, with a constructed identity adopted when he moved from the countryside to the city, returns to the history he has repressed in order to effect a kind of healing. Something similar happens in Lafferiere, in which the central character also returns to the countryside of his origin. Ironically both we published a year before the earthquake, which brought yet more trauma and disease. He reminds the audience of Moreau Saint-Mery – author of one of the first historical accounts of Haiti Déscription de la partie française de Saint-Domingue (1789) – who described whites who were watching Vodou (or Vaudaux) ceremonies “catching the rhythm” and getting “caught-up” in them, “a telling early example of the ways in which music can be felt as something that draws you into another sphere, another culture”, something which was seen as a threat to the self. Largey responds with an anecdote about a US doctor friend who found himself “caught up” with a rara march one night, eventually becoming somewhat “frenzied”. Largey turned to a friend in the band and said “what do you make of that?”. His response, which Largey proposes expressed the flip-side of this fear of Vodou contagion narrative, was “It’s not his fault”. In other words, one person’s fear of losing oneself in possession can be another person’s ecstatic embrace of something.