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#4249: LeGrace Benson reviews OUR LADY OF CLASS STRUGGLE

Our Lady of Class Struggle
Terry Rey.
Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, Inc. 1999. 
$21.95.(pb) ISBN 0-86543-695-9 

Review by LeGrace Benson

Imagine the Athenian army paying homage to their patron, Athena Parthemos 
then, fortified by her favor, going out to meet the Persians. Imagine 
their consternation when they discover the Persians marching forward 
under the banner of Pallas Athena. This is somewhat the scene Terry Rey 
presents in Our Lady of Class Struggle.  Columbus invaded the Caribbean 
under the protection of Nuestra Seqora and the Spanish royalty, arriving 
in the flagship, Santa Maria.  Nearly two centuries later captives from 
Africa would be baptized as Christians in an act Rey, using Pierre 
Bourdieu's telling phrase, calls "symbolic violence."  The primary icon 
of "New World" Christianity then and into the present is the Virgin Mary 
in the various honorific personae devised for her by the faithful.  
Drawing upon a wide-ranging scholarship and several years of carefully 
designed and conducted field research, Rey uses his eight chapters to 
unfold the details that structuring a paradoxical fact: The Blessed 
Virgin is patron, protectress, advocate and comforter of both sides in 
the struggle between the Haitian elite and  poor. Not only is Mary Queen 
of Heaven for Christians rich and indigent, she also walks with the 
powerful West African-Kreyol female spirit, Ezuli. Rey concludes, "...one 
can read the story of Haiti's epic class struggle in the history of its 
cult of the Virgin Mary."  He adds, "...the sincerity of their devotion 
is unquestionable, and certain Haitian expressions of devotion to Mary 
are ...beautiful and moving..."

Impressed though he may be, Rey keeps a distance from his research, 
basing his investigations and conclusions on theory developed out of 
Gramsci, Weber and Bourdieu.  It is the latter's notions of  "symbolic 
violence," "field," (of religion in this case), and "habitus," (which 
Bourdieu calls, "...durable, transposable dispositions, structured 
structures predisposed to function as structuring structures...") that 
Rey skillfully utilizes as his primary intellectual tools to create a 
descriptive analysis of certain Haitian religious beliefs and practices. 
His insights into the perduring class struggles hint imply a possibility 
that the religious habitus may even be the source of factors with as much 
or more determining force than the well-known economic and political 

Rey makes a poignant comparison between two of his informants, one 
impoverished, the other from a family of great wealth, selecting them for 
exemplification because he twice had opportunities to observe  both at 
the same Marian feast. To return to our initial analogue, it is as though 
the Athenians and  the Persians had stopped together at the same temple 
to Athena in advance of proceeding with their battle.  In Haiti during 
the period of the Cidras coup, Rey observed poor individuals who prayed 
to the Virgin of Perpetual Help for the return of President Aristide. 
Some of them saw the hand of the Virgin in the visit of Pope John Paul II 
with his admonishment to the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier to make 
changes in favor of the destitute population.  They were sure the Virgin 
of Perpetual Help would intervene again to save them.  In barbed 
contrast,  General Cidras, a Protestant, exhorted the people while 
standing on a balcony over the unfurled banner of Our Lady of Perpetual 
Help. Catholics of the elite were sure that the Virgin would save the 
country from democracy and show the poor how much better off they were 
under Duvalier. Our Lady would teach the poor "...not to hate the 
bourgeois..." and "...bring them peace and calm." Rey reports the 
extraordinary apparitions of the Virgin to Sister Altagrbce, a Haitian 
nun, who reported that the Virgin pronounced in visions the evil of the 
American (US) intervention to return Aristide, and gave instruction to  
the elite to fast and pray diligently against this eventuality.  

The author prepares a road to enable the reader to comprehend this 
antilogy of Marianisms of the elite and of the poor equally under the 
presumed guidance and assistance of the same national patroness. In 
addition to the familiar historical writings and documents, he often 
brings forward material from little-used Haitian documents to provide 
support for his investigations into theological and sociological 
interpretations, the history of Haitian Marianism, and the detailing of 
the important relationships between ideas and images of the Virgin and 
those associated  with Ezuli.  He examines these latter relationships and 
their interpretations as conflation, of dissimulation, syncretism and of 
assimilation, going beyond each to agree with Desmangles (in The Faces of 
the Gods) that Ezili and the Virgin exist in "symbiosis," as do many 
other features of Haitian religious practice and belief. To use a Haitian 
phrase (that Rey does not employ) Mary and Ezili "walk with" one 
another.  "...Mary has been adopted and welcomed by Haitians as an 
important spiritual force, operating side-by-side with Ezuli-each 
functioning in a complex mosaic among the many lwas and saints who may be 
invoked in the daily struggle to survive and the quest for health and the 
fullness of life." The twinned fabulous feminine powers flank the 
otherwise unbearable reality of many Haitian's daily lives. Rey's 
discussion shows a familiarity with the works of such scholars as Karen 
M. Brown, Leslie Desmangles, Laennec Hurbon, Michel Laguerre, Alfred 
Metraux and Maya Deren; moreover exhibits the fruits of extensive 
experience with the life of churches and Vodou communities of several 
locations in Haiti.  

Our Lady of Class Struggle takes on the task of making sense of the 
conditions of the Haitian religious field and habitus which are 
everywhere and throughout Haitian history complex, subtle and frequently 
contradictory.  Theoretical positions proposed by Pierre Bourdieu provide 
Rey with the major part of his heuristic tools. (Rey would probably 
prefer the word "framework.") This capacious but rigorous  instrumentum 
affords inclusion of ideas from the early writings of Karl Marx, of 
Antonio Gramsci before and during his imprisonment, and of Max Weber's 
proposals in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and The 
Sociology of Religion. No ideologue, Rey wisely reminds us that Marx 
claimed for himself that he was "no Marxist." By including Gramsci's 
personal endurance of several kinds of painful physical and social 
marginalization, he ties a validating understanding of the underpinnings 
of the theory to insights into Haitian religious sensibilities. The 
results of Rey's comprehensive field work show how Weber's otherwise 
invaluable work cannot, however, be used to explain Haitian elite 
devotion. Whereas Weber firmly posits that for the ruling classes the 
"...need for salvation is remote and alien," the reports Rey  includes in 
this book indicate that this cannot be true for Haiti.  

There are important components of the larger Haitian religious field 
which make but scant appearance here.  Protestants, who vigorously 
exclude any devotion to Mary or any personage other than the members of 
the Trinity, are understandably out of sight. Perhaps there will be a 
book to follow in which the iconic use of Jesus Christ as a political, 
economic, and religious figure can be detailed. There is the diverse 
religious habitus of the small but growing Haitian "middle" which needs 
much research and analysis to be better understood. There is the large 
question of Haitians of every corner of the field and from every possible 
habitus who are in diaspora. It would be both instructive and fascinating 
to read results of Rey's instruments of research and analysis as applied 
to these populations. That is another piece of work for another several 
years; perhaps with a team of collaborating researchers. It would be a 
huge undertaking.

Those who study the arts of Haiti would certainly find interesting what 
more Rey might  have to say about the visual images of Haitian Marianisms 
coupled necessarily with images of Ezuli.  The book's only  illustration 
is that on the cover.  Rey mentions this as an example of works that 
"...enrich her [Our Lady's] image with characteristics of Ezuli..."  The 
work in question is a Virgin and Child by the late Ishmail, an artist 
working mostly in and near Deschapelles.  Ishmail, according to his 
testimony to Rey, whom he trusted, was an houngan.  Yet according to a 
blan researcher (whom the artist had just met) discussing some similar 
works with the artist at an upscale gallery in Pitionville, when asked to 
discuss the relationship between the images of the Virgin and those of 
Ezuli, protested strongly: "No, no. I am a Catholic Christian. The works 
have nothing to do with Ezuli or Vodou."  Reading Rey's book reveals how 
both of Ishmail's assertions can be true. 

 Rey leaves unanswered the question of why the Marian visual images in 
Haiti, including those aggregations which become Mary-as-Ezuli, are 
nearly without exception of European Renaissance or late Byzantine 
derivation. A Marian image even so slightly localized such as Paul 
Gauguin's  "Ia Orana Maria," (Ave, Maria) presenting a woman and child of 
Tahiti with the aureoles of sanctity, is rare in Haitian art. There are 
some exceptional Ezuli's that should be thought of as Haitian 
natif-natal, notably those of Hector Hyppolite, and the "Queen Erzuli 
[sic]" of  Robert St. Brice at Musie d' Art Haotien du Collhge St. 
Pierre, Port-au-Prince. But even St. Brice's may have an Italian 
background: it is entirely likely that the artist would have seen Piero 
della Francesco's  red-robed Madonna-as-Mediatrix-of-Salvation in one of 
the books of  Renaissance art in the library of the Centre d'Art in 
Port-au-Prince. The Byzantine style of the Ismail Virgin and Child on the 
cover of Our Lady of Class Struggle was, according to one 
collector/expert, the result of the artist's developing his signature 
style subsequent to Mrs. Mary Ann  Whitney's suggestions and sharing of a 
book of images at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital compound. It is 
intriguing to speculate as to why a people of such great pride and 
self-awareness, whether poor or elite, have not developed more 
distinctively "Haitian" visual images of either Mary or Ezuli.

Rey does focus on the images as imbricated in the struggles; and who 
would disagree that Haiti was born in struggle and remains locked in 
battle for place, for resources, above all for control.  Yet despite 
combat, there is konbit. Historians, economists and sociologists 
exclusively  attend to the combats, these being what consumes time, 
treasure and souls. But every instance could be shown to have another 
side, the konbit (collective work to complete a community task), the 
lakou (literally the group of closely related or close friends living in 
proximity; figuratively any durable, close-knit group), and fanmi/famille 
(the family, nearly always an extended family). Rey himself mentions the 
TKL, Ti Komonite Legliz (Small Church Communities) describing their 
efforts as (in part) related to the notions of the Mary of the 
Magnificat. This Mary, far from being the subservient role-model of the 
institutional Church, sings a praise song to God that begins with 
reverence followed immediately by the self-confident declaration, "...For 
behold all generations shall call me Blessed!" For Haitian Christians 
outside the elite, the lines following that are profoundly consequential: 
"He [the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob] has brought down the mighty from 
their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry 
with good things, but the rich he has sent empty away." The emphasis is 
on the victory of the meek but with the same breath comfort, support, 
rejoicing that God is present with them.  The Magnificat Mary is 
uniquivocally on the side of the poor in the implied struggle. Clearly 
there is a contest; just as clearly the comfort and collaboration. 
Similarly the konbit functions in the labor of bringing nourishment out 
of the soil. So too the lakou in establishing and maintaining the web of 
familiar and usually comfortable relationships that enable many Haitians 
to survive. So too the family, an institution that in every aspect of 
Haitian life, whether among the poorest or among the richest of the elite 
is a source of assistance, protection, passing along of traditions, 
education at whatever possible level, and, of course, comfort. While Rey 
leaves discussion of such manifestations to one side, it is evident from 
the reports he brings forth that Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Ezuli Freda, 
or Our Lady of Czestochowa/Ezuli Danto moves as easily in the households 
of recycled boards and sheet metal as in the gated grand houses up on the 
hills. Compassion chooses no side. How might a study that systematically 
broadened the focus to include observations of assistance, and even 
participation within and across economic and family class lines affect 
our understanding not only the imageries and their uses, but the 
direction and style of the struggle itself?

Perhaps it is here that a part of the paradox is resolved.  The woman who 
invokes the assistance of Mary to keep a disorderly and unpredictable 
democracy at bay projects her own sense of sympathetic protection. The 
woman of Grand Bassin who lifts her hands to shout at Our Lady of Lourdes 
impels the Mother of Healing All to bring a suffering family out of the 
destitution imposed by the mighty. Both women  are tautly circumscribed 
in their own moves toward clemency, yet each expects boundless grace from 

>From the point of view of studies and experiments by a number of  
researchers over several decades, one might take issue with the 
fundamental assertion Rey uses from Bourdieu: "...since the history of 
the individual is never anything other than a specification of the 
collective history of his group or class, each individual system of 
dispositions may be seen as a structural variation of all other group or 
class habitus." 
Given, both Bourdieu and Rey give more latitude to the individual than 
these words would suggest, and would agree that the statement does not 
exclude the role, sometimes powerful, of individuals. Nevertheless the 
position raises questions. It can be argued  that the "direction of the 
gaze" of an artist or a prophet, hence the production of ideas and images 
even those that are novel, are  fully determined by place and time within 
the social habitus. Perhaps most of what is even apparently unique and 
remarkable can be shown to be anchored in the prevailing attitudes and 
tacit presumptions. Bourdieu claims that this is so much the case that in 
order to understand the ideas and images of a certain time and place, it 
is necessary to understand the codes of the relevant habitus; that 
nothing can be comprehended without this knowledge.  There is such strong 
evidence to support this that contrary data are obscured, especially for 
those who deal primarily with alpha-numeric and iconic codes in the 
course of their investigations.  

However, interesting consequences derive from the apparent facts of the 
perceptions by humans and other creatures that appear to be genetically 
developed over eons in reciprocity with the niche or usual habitat 
structures, that is, the affordances for survival behaviors that are 
present and require accurate, direct and immediate apprehension. The 
color and sheen of ripe fruits is an example. The edge-phenomena and 
sharp change in textural gradient that specify a dangerous drop in 
terrain is another. Such findings imply that in addition to, perhaps 
undergirding, the socially-determined codes, there is a fundament of 
information available to human perceptions, usable by rulers, artists, 
poets, prophets and housewives anywhere anytime; everywhere and always 
the same.  Our social circumstances do direct our gaze ("attention"). 
They do teach us particular kinds of importance ("detection" and 
"discrimination"); do create and provide the sounds, gestures and marks 
by which we communicate what we have discovered or learned. The 
unspeakably meaningful depiction of Mary with her dead son that 
Michaelangelo found in his block of marble does requires knowing a code 
to know this is the Virgin Mary with the body of the crucified Christ. 
Yet it requires the uncoded experience of being in a mortal body, of 
perceiving/experiencing the state of being mortal related to other 
mortals to be grasped in its depths. It is this fundament that supports 
the code and renders it of interest. Haitian Marianisms provide an 
opportunity to explore such a notion further. 

Given that engagement with some form of feminine elevation to deity seems 
well-nigh universal, dating back some 30,000 years, are there 
survival-information-features that lie beneath the codes used in Haiti, 
and to what extent are they directly apprehended? What would then help 
explain the strong appeal for aspects of Ezuli and other aspects of Vodou 
that seem to fetch and captivate attention of many, unlikely non-Haitian 
beholders? Rey  writes, "...perhaps the symbiotic assimilation of Mary 
and Ezili strikes for Haitians a functional balance that either figure in 
and of herself could neither achieve nor offer." What if this "functional 
balance" occurs at the level of uncodable perceptions? Rey ( and also 
Bourdieu) seems aware of the minute and unique delicacy of the system of 
belief and practice of individuals, and of the exigencies that move such 
individuals to take one or another direction of political belief and 
action. They both present details as though in fact, less determined than 
the conceptual model. A consideration of "genetic" apprehensions of the 
world might well prove compatible with Rey's investigations and analysis.

Our Lady of Class Struggle broaches a conversational opening  about 
politics, religion, and  the uses of imagery in Haiti, all within the 
crucially important frame of class struggle reality. Rey brings many 
voices to this conversation. Unusually for most contemporary 
investigators, he gives a well-described place to elite religious 
practice and belief. Perhaps because many elite men conduct most of their 
lives outside (perhaps even "out of sight of") the church, the 
description is largely limited to women. It is not as clear that this is 
similar among the poor. It would be helpful to see more data and 
rationale regarding gender differentials. In any case, line are open now 
for several directions of inquiry and discussion. 

 It is to be hoped that Haitians and Haitianists of various points of 
view and several relevant disciplines will read and begin to continue the 
discussion. Out Lady of Class Struggle posits a model for the next 
efforts to study, discover and discuss the social structures, the class 
struggles and the religious fervor that characterize Haiti.  While there 
is abundant information for researchers in several fields, Rey's the 
writing is accessible to any reader interested in a fuller understanding 
of Haiti. He defines all technical and theoretic terms, and provides 
detailed documentation to make this contentious subject about contentions 
approachable by readers of whatsoever political or religious stance.  It 
is a work of transparent scholarship, giving due regard and respect to 
Haitians of many sides of class struggle or religious commitment. It is 
"must read" for inhabitants of Corbettland.