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Haiti’s story is one of improbabilities and imponderables. Strategically located in global history at the flashpoint of modernity, this tiny island nation has long had an outsized impact, a staggering load of troubles, and an incomparable capacity for cultural production. Kate Ramsey’s book is not about dance, per se, but the truth that there is no understanding Haitian dance without understanding Haitian lwa, which is to say, Haitian dancing is inevitably tied to both Haitian spirits and Haitian law. “Lwa” in Kreyol is a word whose meaning is double: both law and spirit are encompassed in this term, and both are mutually implicated whenever one of them is invoked. To serve the spirits in Haiti is to be vodouizan, a participant in the world and worldview of Vodou. As Ramsey deftly demonstrates, a great deal of Haitian law has been, either overtly or covertly, tied up with an attempt to regulate or eliminate Vodou; simultaneously, government, through the law, has often utilized Vodou imagery and invocation to its own purposes. Ramsey’s research, which is stunning, draws upon an exhaustive survey of colonial documents. Her work is made poignant in light of the damage done to the national archives in the 2010 earthquake that savaged the Port au Prince area and killed nearly a quarter million people; it is likely that much of the material she consulted is now lost.
Since the colonial era, Vodou has been positioned as an unparalleled symbol of primitivity and backwardness. That tired trope, it seems, cannot be put to rest, and continues to roam the landscape of popular discourse like a zombie. For example, in a New York Times op-ed piece written in the aftermath of the earthquake, columnist David Brooks blamed Haiti’s ongoing ills specifically on the persistence of “Voodoo” (2010). Ramsey counters such claims, showing with precision and power how Haiti’s panoply of problems has arisen not from Vodou, but from global politics and pressures: France, which demanded a king’s ransom from the newly independent nation, blamed Haitian poverty not on its own avariciousness but on Vodou. Similarly, under the nineteen-year-long U.S. Occupation (1915–1934), Vodou was consistently invoked as a justification for military intervention, and the grotesque violence visited upon rebels was explained as a necessary response to native barbarity (142) (such violence included the public display of the bodies of rebel leaders). It is worth noting that Ramsey, herself, was instrumental in intervening in the ongoing process of denigration of Haitian religious belief. She helped lead the now successful effort to convince the Library of Congress to eliminate the term “Voodooism” as a reference to Haitian religious practice. Thanks largely to her efforts, the current preferred usage is now officially “Vodou,” which more closely reflects Kreyol orthography and pronunciation; in addition the word Vodou carries something of a different ideological load than the former term.
Haiti has never been a land of Cartesian dichotomies; just as lwa is both spirit and law, dance is both belief and body. To serve the lwa is to sing and to dance. Dancing, for its part, is a form of worship. Vodou itself is multiple and diverse (7), and while Euro-American analysis tends to identify Vodou as a discrete and consistent thing, in practice this is not so. Moreover, as Ramsey writes, Euro-American concepts of “voodoo” do not conform to Haitian distinctions between such practices as drumming, herbal healing, and spiritual engagement: “In Haiti the word Vodou has traditionally referred to a particular mode of dance and drumming, and has generally not been figured as an inclusive term for the entire range of spiritual and healing practices undertaken with extended families and through relationships with male and female religious leaders, called, respectively, oungan and manmbo” (7). This slippage is demonstrated throughout Ramsey’s analysis in the ways that, under successive legal and governmental regimes, dance and dancing...