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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 7-42

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Without One Ritual Note:
Folklore Performance and the Haitian State, 1935-1946

Kate Ramsey


During a roundtable discussion focused on the early history of Haitian staged folklore performance that took place in Port-au-Prince in April 1997, one panelist noted that the so-called mouvement folklorique had "really begun" under the post-U.S. occupation presidency of Elie Lescot (1941-46). Another then observed that "paradoxically, you also had under Lescot the kanpay rejete," the Roman Catholic Church's violent crusade against "superstition," which the state backed in 1941-42 with military force. 1 This article focuses on the logic of that historical conjunction, examining official cultural nationalist policy in Haiti during the late 1930s and early 1940s in relation to the postoccupation legal regime against les pratiques superstitieuses (superstitious practices).

The latter was a new penal category, instituted by Lescot's predecessor, Sténio Vincent, a year after the end of the nineteen-year U.S. military occupation of Haiti in the summer of 1934. Repealing the longstanding legal prohibition against les sortilèges (spells), Vincent's government tightened the official interdiction of particular forms of popular ritual, but also, for the first time, affirmed the right of peasants to organize "popular dances." The article will consider the implications of this legal formulation in light of the Haitian state's support for the church's "antisuperstition" campaign and its simultaneous construction and promotion of ritual dance as an [End Page 7] official national sign. I would like to suggest that there was more complementarity than contradiction to these policies, and that, in fact, the postoccupation state's assertion of modern national identity even seemed, at times, to depend on their simultaneity. Through their conversion to "national folklore," popular cultures long figured in the West as evidence of Haiti's primitivism could be constructed as official indices of national identity, but only, it seemed, on the condition that they were figured as "revivals" of a transcended cultural past.

Throughout the article, I will also consider how practitioners of the religious complex known as Vodou negotiated their own participation in the codification and performance of folklore at a moment when popular religious practices were subject to violent repression on the part of both state authorities and the Catholic Church in Haiti. 2 My research on what became collectively known as the mouvement folklorique in the early 1940s suggests that a number of sèvitè ("servants" of the spirits) were instrumentally involved in the construction of the folk, whether working as informants to ethnologists and theater directors, drumming for official presentations of music and dance folklore, or performing in independent folklore events in Port-au-Prince. How certain sèvitè used their involvement in the production of folklore to protest persecution by the church and state during these years will be a key focus of the pages that follow.

"Better Than the Laws Which Can Only Be Borrowed Finery"

Imperial myths of peasant ritualism had never been so highly charged as on the eve of the U.S. military departure from Haiti in August 1934. However, neither had Haitian popular cultures ever been so forcefully figured as the matrix for Haitian national identity. During the occupation, an intense nationalist concern for the ethnological study and literary representation of the folk developed in Haiti among young urban intellectuals and writers. 3 Carl Brouard, a poet and one of the cofounders of the short-lived landmark literary journal, La revue indigène, introduced the iconoclastic "new school" as a reaction against the "too servile imitation" of European models that, he and others charged, had stunted the development of Haitian arts and letters up until that time. 4 The proponents of what became known as indigénisme defined their break with the past by figuring popular cultures as the proper source and subject for the building of a national literature. Michel Buteau notes that while there had been earlier efforts to establish a national literary school based on popular themes, most significantly that advanced...


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