Comments by Bob Corbett
J. Michael Dash's book is one of the best overviews of Haiti today I have ever read, and the next time I teach a course on Haiti this will be a central text.
Dash's treatment comes in 8 chapters. First is a chapter called "context" in which he lays out the basic history of Haiti. Next he deals with the people and society, emphasizing the dominant class and color split which has dominated Haiti in all periods save the revolution of 1791-1803 and the U.S. occupation of 1915-1934. In those two periods Haitians pulled together putting aside the dominant class and color issues to enter into unity in which nation and race became the central rallying value allowing them to resist outsiders.
In chapters 3 through 8 he tackles such central issues as: religion, social customs, mass media and cinema, literature and language, the performing arts and finally a marvelous chapter on the visual arts and architecture.
In the literature and language chapter Dash gives a clear and fascinating overview of the literary history of Haiti, but says only a few words on language. Similarly, in the last chapter he gives one an essential outline of the dominant schools of art from the 1930s on, but shuffles architecture to a few concluding paragraphs. I doubt it deserves more.
The book is very well written. Clear, not assuming any prior knowledge and providing marvelous sketches and outlines which more serious readers could fill in on their own. This is a book for the neophyte, not for the Haitian scholar. He is not trying to provide new information, but give an overview of Haiti for those who don't know her. The book is part of the "Culture and Customs Of Latin American And The Caribbean" series.
Dash's expertise is in literature and two earlier books, LITERATURE AND IDEOLOGY IN HAITI (1915-1961), and HAITI AND THE UNITED STATES: NATIONAL STEREOTYPES AND THE LITERARY IMAGINATION, would certain account for his ability to do such a clear and useful account in the section on literature. However, his overview history of the contemporary post-1940s art world in Haiti is as good an overview as I've ever seen in print, perhaps the very best one yet. Clear, organized, thorough and informative. One can't get it much better in just 15 pages.
There is one puzzling and curious fact about this book's grammar that does trouble me. Centrally in the religion chapter, but basically all over the whole book Dash uses the word voudou to refer to the religion of Haiti. I am not concerned with which SPELLING he uses. Rather, I am concerned with the lower case "v" for the religion. In several places in the same sentence he will speak of "Protestantism" and "voudou." This is most troubling to me and gives a strong suggestion that he doesn't take Voodoo seriously as a religion. He is a very fine writer and stylist, thus this is not just an oversight on his part, the small "v" with voudou must occur more than 100 times in the book, uniformly unless it is the first word in the sentence. I can't imagine what's going on with that usage.
Despite the fact that I've read virtually all the primary sources which Dash used in writing this book, I found it a wonderful, entertaining and informative read. I would recommend this book for everyone from the learned scholar to the neophyte making his or her first journey to Haiti. It is a job well done.
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