“Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series
“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith
Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph
April 29, 2020
HTN: Tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith?
PBS: What a complicated question! How can I do justice to a life which, in some respects, has followed “une ligne droite,” the title of Dantes Bellegarde’s autobiography that was never written. I was raised by a Haitian feminist family in central Port-au-Prince, a lower-middle class neighborhood, in Lalue at the crossroads of Post-Marchand and ruelle Piquant. I also lived in Saint-Marc, Petion-Ville (at many addresses), Bourdon, and as a child, spent my summers throughout the republic. I attended school at Saint-Martial, then was transferred to the school of Ulrick Duvivier (fils), essentially for private lessons as it were. I was cognizant of Haitian geography, having memorized hundreds of cours d’eau, and my best field was Haitian history learned at the knee of my grandfather, Dantes Bellegarde. His aunt, Argentine Bellegarde, was an early feminist. Two of his daughters, Marie and Fernande Bellegarde, graduate of the Ecole Normale, were founding mothers of the Ligue Feminine d’Actions Sociales (1934). My great-grandmother, Marie Boisson, (1855-1952) helped raised me. I was surrounding by my grandfather’s library which could have had perhaps 10,000 books in my child’s mind. I read voraciously, constantly, everything. My meager stipend went to La Pleiade (Madame Boncy), La Caravelle (Madeleine Sylvain), and all the other bookstores in Port-au-Prince. I still have in my possession all the Livres de Poche purchased in the 1950s and 1960s. I was a rebellious child, distressed by my observations of the social milieu, angry, refusing to conform. I also hated to wear shoes, and did not like the corn flakes given to me, but craved akasan, mayi moulin. My family was concerned that, as an adolescent, I had hour-long conversations with the “domestics.” I enjoyed their conversations, and they were my teachers about life itself.
HTN: You are a prominent scholar of Haitian Vodou and African religions in the Diaspora, and an accomplished historian of Haiti. Your scholarship on Haitian Studies—such as Haiti: The Breached Citadel—has contributed enormously to our collective understanding of the Haitian culture, social thought, and Haiti’s ambivalent rapport with the International community and the country’s ancestral link with Mother Africa. For example, in the two volume work, Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, & Reality (Indiana University Press, 2006), and Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), which you coedited with Prof. Claudine Michel (for many years, both texts have been regarded by experts as the standard reference on Haitian Vodou), you articulated a panoramic view about the experience of the Haitian people through this particular religious tradition. The methodology is interdisciplinary in scope, and its contours are quite ambitious, covering a number of important and relevant topics in the Haitian life—both theoretical and practical.
What is the Vodouist vision of the world? Do you believe Haitian Vodou has a future in Haiti as Protestant Christianity continues to blossom in Haiti and expands its influence substantially in every sector of the Haitian life and experience–as Vodou has done in Haiti for many generations? In other words, since many scholars of religion such as Lewis Ampidu Clormeus, Terry Rey, and others have estimated 46 to 50 % of the Haitian population have embraced Protestant Evangelical Christianity, should Haitians in general and Vodou practitioners in particular fear the progressive decline of their ancestral faith in Haiti?
PBS: You flatter me. I have never felt “prominent,” and I do not feel “accomplished.” I have done my duty for a country that has provided me with the tools, the morals, the capacity to endure. And as I traveled the world, I was always reminded that I did not “fit,” that I had an “accent.” Hence the lengthy explanations in which my life became a geography lesson, and a rapid course in Haitian history. Some of my acquaintances would call me derisible, “Mister Haiti.” My thoughts were always distinct from the monotony, the herd mentality of Americans.
I establish a distinction between spirituality and religion. I am quite uncertain that Haitians have “abandoned” their ancestral African systems for a “better,” more rewarding one that promises earthly rewards and other-worldly heaven. What Haitians have done, like other subaltern populations, is to “layer” the religious domain, by accepting their own disadvantaged position for better conditions. This is about material necessity. At another level, African systems have recognized, in their adaptability, that there is value in all religions. One also recognized that the powers-that-be, internationally. France has lost its pre-eminence, replaced by the United States as the hegemonic power. Hence Catholicism has been replaced by non-mainline Protestantism that promises heaven to hapless masses.
In Senegal, I found that pious Muslims went to the Marabou, at night. I have observed Catholic priests and Protestant ministers go into trance for the Lwa. In modern Greece, old pre-Christian traditions somehow survive, and Zeus is now honored as Saint George. In Ireland and Scotland, the old lives through a triumphant Christianity. Zora Neale Hurston spoke of old gods surviving complex international situation in which survival is the objective. Dissimulation has always been a factor in the African Diaspora where we conveniently wear the mask. Our language often speaks in riddles to shield our thoughts.
In a village, near the border with the Dominican Republic, some have said, that Americans were rich because they were white, sons of the white God, but Haitians were the black sons of the black devil. Boukman Dutty understood that process. The U.S. Occupation willfully introduced Protestant missions to Haiti, as it did in Puerto Rico, in Central America and elsewhere, to break the back of the Roman Catholic Church. Religion and statecraft have gone hand in hand in the colonial enterprise. Not so spirituality. So, Haitians “embracing” a new way of life may be a bit strong.
What African, Asian, Native America brought to the world is the denial of binaries in which opposites, Manichean dichotomy prevail, hence are anti-nature, and hence anti-science. Good vs. Evil is untenable in these systems. My students held firm in speaking of the “opposite sex,” and came up with the astonishing idea of blacks being the “opposing race.” Binaries infused, permeates Western civilization in way that it didn’t elsewhere. By the way, the injunction to “spread” the Word and to spread “democracy,” is a peculiar concept. African religions do not make “converts.” I must add again that “nature religions” that are indeed the majority of religions on the planet, have no “beef” with science. They do not seek dominion over the natural world but recognize the vital force of animate and inanimate subject/objects with share DNA with. We share our DNA with all creatures; hence, we are not special.
HTN: Some people have argued that throughout human history, religion has been the antagonist to human reason and progress, as well as a powerful force leading to indoctrination, fear, abuse, and even human genocide. Can you discuss the positive function of religion in general and its contributions to societal progress and transformation in civilizations? What specific role has Vodou played in the Haitian society in improving the human condition?
PBS: Taking the last point first, Vodou was one of the elements that made the Haitian Revolution possible. That revolution was the most far-reaching in that it was the only such revolution that declared the humanity of all. No other revolution before nor since did that. Vodou was created from a West and Central African foundational base, as was Haitian Kreyol. That foundation remains to-date. It shares a similar origin and purpose as Lukumi in Cuba, Candomblé in Brazil, and all other emanations in the African Diaspora that allowed enslaved Africans to be human. One must understand that Islam and Christianity were effective tools in the hand of slave owners. And as we decry colonialism, racism, colorism; one foregoes thorough analyses of the role of languages and religions in the very creation of the contemporary world. This allows most all Americans to declare valid the notion of “American exceptionalism,” and speak of “American values” constantly, as if these were distinct from Yoruba or Haitian values. Our lives are seen as less valuable.
Max Weber and all others who claim religion as a sine qua non of socio-economic development, have been debunked long ago.
Religion’s primary role is not to improve the material condition of a people. Never has been. Rather, it speaks of the intimate, intricate connections that unites us all, as spirits, as chip of the ol’ block, God itself. The way we regulate society is the purview of other institutions. The American founding fathers, some of whom were atheist, agnostic, or deist, understood this; hence their most vaunted position on the separation of church and state.
Indeed, many if not most European wars were based on religion. I am unaware that the vector for conquests in other parts of the world was based on religion, or the desire to “spread” it. Colonization was justified thusly. Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece, with their “nature religions,” did not conquer the so-called “known” universe to spread their religious ideals. And as a feminist, I know that the spread of this particular, peculiar religion in Europe proved a disaster for European women, for their roles, status in some of these societies. Male supremacy was not much of an issue in Celtic cultures, in spiritual terms. And white supremacy came with the imperial baggage in the so-called New World. Vodou does not comprehend neither male nor racial supremacy. Religion qua religion is not to be mistaken for any kind of road to development. It never was. Spirituality, perhaps.
HTN: Your highest academic degree, the Ph.D., is in International Studies from The American University, how did you get interested in religious studies and in Vodou, in particular?
PBS: Because I was “recklame” by the spiritual world. As a pre-teen, I was reading my breviary every day. I knew what my destiny was to be. Long story. But I did not know, at the time, growing up in an irreligious family, that I had to become an oungan asogwe. Soon, I recognized the profundity and the extraordinary logic of African/Ameridian/Asian spiritual system, so my logical mind made the leap. Rituals are “fun,” as the collective celebrates itself, the Lwa, and Ancestorship, but there are always higher truths that transcend ritual. Hence my life’s work. All religions have their mythology, and though necessary at many levels, and all are absolutely incredibly wrong. All. I am more proud of the travails and ordeals of my initiation as a priest than of my PhD.
I also love the direct access one can have with the world of spirit and that of the dead – who are not dead, without priestly intermediaries. This is an aspect that Vodou shares with certain non-mainline Protestant cults, I think. I also appreciate the mysticism, a fleur de peau, easily accessible.
HTN: As an expert in the academic discipline of International Studies, how would you assess the current political situation in Haiti and Haiti’s diplomatic relations with the international community, including countries like the Taiwan, China, United States, France, Canada, etc.?
PBS: These are the new colonial masters. Haiti went seamlessly from colonialism into ne-colonialism, in the 1880s and 1890s when ostracism was lifted, starting in the 1860s with the Concordat with the Vatican, and by a begrudging U.S. recognition. I have detailed this process in my first book, In the Shadow of Powers, which I consider my magnum opus. I came as a dare from my mentor Eugene Davis, then the preeminent scholar on Latin American philosophy who had ignored Haiti in his books. The Haitian elite then, in a counter-revolution in 1806, had hitched their absolute control of Haiti on a Western developmental model based on these binaries I spoke of earlier, French over Kreyol, Catholicism above all others, mulatto above the others. That elite felt Latin American to the core and to the hilarity of Americans steeped in their Anglo-Saxonism which itself was above Latinism. That book has now a second edition from Vanderbilt University Press. This was a peculiar way for the Haitian elite to assert its humanity by itching its wagon to that of colonial masters. Peculiar indeed, when Haitians had rebelled against that system. But upper-class control is a universal feature, in all countries, under capitalism. Brutal.
HTN: What will it take to create a better Haiti that is self-sustained economically and politically independent, and a nation that actualizes its lofty democratic ideals in the life of its citizen and for future generations?
PBS:Jean-Jacques Dessalines signed his death warrant when he declared all Haitians to be equal, those born in wedlock and out of wedlock. When he asserted that, irrespective of color and “race,” we were black, “noirs.” The equality inherent in the Haitian Revolution was abrogated after his death. That binary “moun an deyo,” the rural vs. City birth certificate, the binaries that were in Haiti’s colonial cradle, survived independence, and haunt us to this day. The events surrounding the coming to power of Dumarsais Estime, and later, Francois Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, showed the difficulty for extending res publica to other social classes in Haiti. The U.S. Occupation did all it could to stymie these movements, re-establishing a light skin elite to power. But this what the U.S. does: establishing a clientele elite, not a true national bourgeoisie, where it wants, unimpeded.
HTN: At this point in the interview, I would like us to discuss the second edition of your second and most influential work: In the Shadow of Powers: Dantès Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought, which was published in 2019 by Vanderbilt University Press. (I had the pleasure to write a review for H-Haiti and H-Net; interested readers can click on the link below to access it: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54960 ) Who was Louis-Marie Dantès Bellegarde? What is his relevance for contemporary Haitian society and politics? Why is it important for young Haitians to learn about his life and read his works?
Dantes Bellegarde grew up poor, lower middle-class, in today’s parlance, the son of a single mother who, in the words of my aunts, committed the same sin twice, by bearing two sons for Jean-Louis Bellegarde. The Bellegarde family was once upon a time, wealthy, having served Emperor Faustin Soulouque. The Fresnel family, on his mother’s side, had given Haiti its first Grand Juge, minister of justice under President Boyer, and founder of Haitian free-masonry. Dantes went to public schools and received an excellent education. He was teased in his neighborhood of Lalue for being light skinned, as I myself was teased for my complexion, as a blan mannan kase kod blan batiman. Binaries and distinctions based on color instituted by the colonial system. Bellegarde grew up speaking kreyol, not French, his mother being kreyolophone. He rose to become the second most important orator in the French language, after Aristide Briand, a French diplomat. He succumbed to the siren. His success in Haiti was predicated by his success abroad. “Quality” defined in Western terms. But my grandfather was honest, and never stole from the state. He died poor, at home, and his last words seemed to have been, in and out of consciousness, “mais je suis negre.” His life exemplified the course of Haiti’s trajectory. He was proud to state over and over, that was born on flag day, May 18th.
HTN: In this same book, you asserted that the well-respected Haitian intellectual and famed ethnologist Dr. Jean Price-Mars has been your hero. Why not your grandfather, Monsieur Bellegarde, a contemporary of Price-Mars and an influential thinker of great importance as Dr. Price-Mars? Can you clarify this claim for our readers? In what sense have you regarded Price-Mars a hero?
PBS: I had an interesting exchange with Price-Mars’s son, Louis Mars, when I said to him that I loved his father. His response, annoyed, was “oui, je sais.” He was closer to Bellegarde than to his father ideologically. As a physician who became an ethnologist, Price-Mars was open to the idea of Haiti’s african-ness. His color, his status as an “outsider,” a Protestant born in the Dominican Republic, perhaps helped. Bellegarde has his color going for him and need not have rebelled. I refer you to my rebelliousness as a child.
HTN: Through my careful reading of In The Shadow of Powers, I concluded that your grandfather Dantès Bellegarde has played an enormous influence in your upbringing in Haiti and in your intellectual progress as a young person? Can you describe what you have learned from him? What is his legacy in your life?
PBS: His honesty, even as he proved wrong. Living in his lakou, surrounded by aunts, uncle, cousins, and countless others, I conversed with him every single day. He directs me to this day. Seriously.
HTN: Finally, are you currently working on any new book? Should we expect an autobiography very soon?
PBS: If I am granted life, maybe. Autobiographies are kind of an American genre, now adopted elsewhere. Others have raised that issue. I left Haiti at 16 years old to become a student at the University of the Virgin Islands, now an HBCU – historically black college and university – where I found my Caribbean roots, surrounded by black people from Martinique, St. Kitts, Antigua, Dominica, St. Thomas, Tortola, Trinidad, Guyana, and I loved it. I never used the term “Lesser Antilles” again, offensive to these folks, but the preferred “Eastern Caribbean.” I am still in touch with some of these students, now in their 70s. My academic preparation in Port-au-Prince allowed me to excel, not having graduated from secondary school, and I owe it all to Haiti and my Haitian role models.
In all my travels, I carry in my suitcase a Haitian flag, lest I need to appear suddenly on a television program in Benin or Brazil, or as a linceuil in case I die suddenly.
HTN: Thank you, Dr. Bellegarde-Smith, for your time!
*** Dr. Bellegarde-Smith wants us to share with you this handout on ” NATION-BUILDING, NATIONAL IDENTITY, and VODOU.” Click on the link below to access it.