“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Benjamin Hebblethwaite

Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series

“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Benjamin Hebblethwaite

Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph

August 1, 2020

*** This interview with Professor Benjamin Hebblethwaite was conducted in (Haitian) Creole. Since Dr. Hebblethwaite is a Creolist, we thought we would speak with him in the language he instructs students at the University of Florida. Also, the interview was done (orally) via zoom; thus, it is not a written conversation, as we traditional do as part of “Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series”. Nonetheless, I reproduce in English the questions I asked Professor Hebblethwaite to benefit our English-speaking audience.

  1. Tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Benjamin Hebblethwaite? “Dr. Hebblethwaite is a Creolist trained at the Indiana University Creole Institute where he contributed as an editorial assistant to the magisterial Haitian Creole-English Bilingual Dictionary (Valdman et al 2007). Holding a BA in Religious Studies, an MA in French Literature, and an MA and Ph.D. in French Linguistics, he thrives engaging in interdisciplinary research. As a Haitian Creolist, he is focused on the study and development of the Haitian Creole language and its culture, employing methods in Haitian Creole language documentation, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, linguistic ethnomusicology, language contact, and language policy and planning.

Dr. Ben Hebblethwaite researches the intersections of language, culture and songs in the nations of Haiti, Jamaica, France, Germany and the Netherlands. This study of the language and meaning of songs includes research in linguistics, history, literature and society.

Ben has two forthcoming books, including the sole-authored, A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou (University Press of Mississippi, 2021) and the co-edited and translated volume with Mariana Past, Stirring up the Pot of Haitian History (Liverpool University Press, 2021). The latter is a translation of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s 1976 Haitian Creole book, Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti.

At the present time Ben is working on several projects, including, Spirit-based Traditions of the Americas (with Silke Jansen), a U.S. Department of Education-funded introductory Haitian Creole textbook (with David Tezil, Nick André and William Blanc), a book manuscript on Arabesque rap in France and Germany, plus studies on Gullah Creole and Rotterdam Dutch.

Ben has won two national grants, one from the National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research grant (2012-2015) with co-PI Laurent Dubois at Duke University and another from the National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship (2013) with PI Mariana Past at Dickinson College.” (Source: https://languages.ufl.edu/people/faculty-alpha/benjamin-hebblethwaite-ph-d/)

2. You’re currently serving as an Associate Professor in Haitian Creole, Haitian and Francophone Studies at the University of Florida (Gainesville, FL). Your academic trainings are in religion, literature, and linguistics. In particular, your academic research and teaching interests include the study of the Haitian culture, the Vodou religion, and the Creole language. You have written prolifically on Vodou and Creole. Please tell us how did you get interested in Haitian Studies? By training, you are a linguist, a Haitian Creolist, how did you get interested in the Creole language? Where did you learn Creole?

3. In your various academic publications, you analyze the relationship between Creole, education, and literary in Haiti (for further details, see “French and underdevelopment, Haitian Creole and development: Educational language policy problems and solutions in Haiti” [2012]); “Le problème de l’usage scolaire d’une langue qui n’est pas parlée à la maison : le créole haïtien et la langue française dans l’enseignement haïtien” [2012]). You also establish connections between Vodou and Creole in the Haitian experience and history (See “Historical linguistic approaches to Haitian Creole: Vodou rites, spirit names and songs: the founders’ contributions to Asogwe Vodou” (2015); “Sik salitasyon nan Rit Rada a: Patwon fondalnatal ak eleman patikilye nan salitasyon lwa Rada yo” [2017]).  Can you discuss the role of Haitian creole in education and literacy in Haiti? Is there a correlation between language and development, as many linguists and economists have argued? Can you relate this matter to the problem of (economic) development and inadequate literacy (in Creole) in Haiti?

4. Thanks for this excellent and informative response! Many scholars, both Haitian and non-Haitian, see a connection between Creole and Vodou in the Haitian experience. Some have even described Vodou as essentially Haitian culture and essentially Haitian identity, concurrently. Others have even made a correlation between Haitian nationalism and the Vodou religion. First of all, is there a historic connection between Vodou and Creole in Haitian History?  Since you often teach a course called “Haitian Culture and Society” to students at the University of Florida, how do you define Haitian culture? In your perspective, what are the fundamental elements that constitute Haitian identity and nationalism?

5. Next, I want us to tell our audience about the “Vodou Archive” at the University of Florida. I believe it was in 2012 that you and other individuals have received an important grant: The National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research (2012-2015) that would allow you and your collaborators to create one of the largest and most consulted archives on Haitian Religion and Culture in the United States. The Vodou Archive is among the top online database in North America to learn about Vodou historiography (Please see the link to access the website: https://www.dloc.com/vodou). Please tell us about the process you went through to create this important Vodou archive? Tell us about its content such as the ethnographic work you have conducted on Haitian Vodou? In other words, those of us who are interested in studying Haitian culture, especially the Vodou religion, what is there for us to find?

6. In 2011, you published a seminal book on the “Haitian Religion” Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English with Temple University Press. That was an enormous and historic achievement, my friend; Congratulations again! You offered the first comprehensive collection of Vodou sacred literature in bilingual edition in the English and Creole languages. Please inform us about the process by which you underwent to collect those sacred songs? Was this part of the ethnographic project you conducted in Haiti?  What is the importance and relevance of these songs for our understanding of contemporary Haitian society and the Haitian past? In other words, what could these songs teach Haitians and others about Haitian history, memory, tradition, and legacy?

7. Excellent! In 2016, you and your colleague Michel Weber coauthored a groundbreaking essay, offering a theological, structural, critical, and historical comparative analysis on three religious traditions: the Arabian religion, Islam, and Vodou (See “Arabian Religion, Islam, and Haitian Vodou: The “Recent African Single-Origin Hypothesis” and the Comparison of World Religions” [2016]). This important essay was published as a book chapter in Vodou in the Haitian Experience: A Black Atlantic Perspective (Lexington Books, 2016), which Dr. Nixon S. Cleophat and I had the pleasure to coedit.  If my memory is correct, I believe your argument is built upon what has been phrased in academia the “African-single origin hypothesis” to contend for the African genesis of human civilization; consequently, you employed this same theory to argue for the African (cultural, structural, and historiographical) antecedents of Islam, the Arabian religion, and by implications for other world’s religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity).

First of all, how did pre-migratory African religious structures and traditions influence those other religious traditions you discussed in your essay? Second, can you discuss the linkages and parallels between African Vodun and Haitian Vodou through the lens of the “African-single origin hypothesis”?

8. Next, I would love us to talk about an important project you and Mariana Past have been working on for many years. It is the translation of Michel Rolph-Trouillot’s masterpiece, Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti, which he published in 1977. (To read a sample translation in English, click on this link: https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00013260/00001). Can you tell our readers about the significance of this work for Haitian history and literature? Why is an English translation of this book necessary for the Anglophone audience?

9. Should you allow me to do so, some of us who have known you for many years know that you are a big fan of music (i.e. Reggae, mizik rasin), can you tell us your favorite Haitian band? Do you dance Komp at home? Can you name your top three songs in Creole?

10. Finally, please tell our readers what do you do for hobbies and the current project you’re currently working on?

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