Call and Response (Il)literacy

There's the rest of the world, and then there's Haiti.  

Admit it: we think this way in the U.S., despite sympathy for earthquake victims and despite knowing that globalization produced the overcrowding, poverty, and lack of infrastructure that account for the massive death toll and destruction. Something ugly gnaws at our sentiments -- the nagging suspicion that the country might actually be suffering from the curse of its own, well, evil; could Haiti somehow be doomed by its legacy of voodoo?  And like, what about those flesh eating zombies?  Indeed, Vodou in Haiti -- an offshoot of Vodun, the indigenous African faith at the core of the many African Diaspora religions that fortified resistance to New World slavery and genocide -- has been reviled by Americans as the antithesis of religion, the ultimate expression of collective amorality, and an express ticket to Hell.   

It's unsurprising that despite heroic intentions, problems arise when aid workers, health agencies, employers, media, and the general public fear and dismiss Afro-Haitian religion. This stance forces Haitians to reject their heritage if it stands between them and shelter, food, water, jobs, or medical help. Yet it was Vodou that kept their ancestors' humanity intact -- and fueled the only successful revolt against colonization, ever, in the Western hemisphere.  

Why imagine that Vodou causes Haiti's torment? It's a trap set by pop culture and the habit of equating earth-oriented religions with savagery, chaos, and malice, through common phrases like "voodoo economics," "witch doctor," and "Black magic," to decades of movies since the 1920s like Revenge of the Zombies (1943), The Princess and the Frog, and the post-Katrina horror romp, Voodoo Cowboys.  None of these fictions reflect the core values and practices of Vodou, which focus on honoring nature, ancestors, and iwa rere, "good character."  But they do succeed in perpetuating stigmas and racial stereotypes. Think about it: if someone suggested that the recent U.S. financial meltdown was tied to "Christian economics," more than a few Christians would be hysterical over the persecution.   

The suspicion that Haiti, while pitiable, is ultimately irredeemable, is of course unspeakable.  Good people do not blame the victim.  But the uncertainty persists even when we're opposed to thinking it: a country willingly immersed in superstition and barbarity may be simply unsalvageable. 

We need to get over it. 

To that end, Gina Athena Ulysse's spoken word project, "Because When God Is Too Busy," clearly proclaims that it is imperative to avoid writing Haiti off as if it is unworthy of our resolve.  By putting a human face on Vodou, and calling our fear and ignorance about it into question, Ulysse's piece counters stereotypes.  The show recently had its West Coast debut at Pomona College in Southern California. In it, Ulysse, an anthropologist on the faculty at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, admits that although she is Haitian she had to work through her own biases. This candor underwrites Ulysse's antidote to irrational attitudes about Afro-Haitian religion.  Her performance is revelatory; a robust education in cultural literacy.

Ulysse began from a position of invisibility. We heard a woman chanting melodically in Haitian Creole, turning to find her seated in the audience.  Her harmonies shook the rafters. We were silent, reverent. She sang louder.

"bonjou manman...bonjou pitit kay mwen..."

She got up and stomped, clapped, kept singing.  After maybe ten minutes, she took the podium and shifted seamlessly from song to spoken word. 

It didn't dawn on us until afterward that we, the audience, blew it. Ulysse had offered a call and response song, a form with origins in West African Vodun that spread with slavery to become a well-known feature of Black sacred and secular cultures worldwide.  She later remarked that the chant is the traditional way of opening a Vodou ceremony, a salute to ancestors, spirits, and elders; when the celebrant calls, someone in the yard/house/circle answers, thereby establishing the community that makes the space sacred, intentional, and creative.  Many of us there that night were students and professors of the African Diaspora. Many were raised in Black communities, knowing that when someone calls a listener must respond. Still, we somehow failed to heed that opening appeal to balance. 

That momentary dissonance sheds light on the larger crisis.  We must draw on vernacular knowledge in seeking solutions, engaging a range of cultural resources, including Vodou, in healing Haiti's trauma.  As Danielle Warren, president of One Village Planet-Women's Development Initiative, which supports sustainable development projects for women in Haiti, observes ("Helping Haiti: Stop the Handouts," Reuters, 11/11/10), "we need to be investing in sustainable agricultural education and development projects in partnership with leadership at all levels, especially local leadership in impoverished rural areas, that take both people and the environment into account."    We have to modify our assumptions, and address the needs of Haitians on their terms -- not just ours.  

Ulysse reminds us that Haiti is calling, and we can still respond.

Upcoming performances:
LaMaMa in NYC Dec 13
, University of Chicago Jan 24, 
NYU Feb 16