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a397: Re: Dash's [iso-8859-1] "Culture and Customs of [iso-8859-1]Haiti" : Corbett adds at bottom

From: Laura McPhee <llmcphee@iupui.edu>

For the past week or so I have been stewing over Bob’s comments
about  J. Michael Dash’s recently published book “Culture and
Customs of Haiti” (Greenwood Press).

I have had the book for several months now; and I continue to be
incensed that such an inaccurate and biased text pass would pass for
“scholarship.”  Initially, I was quite hopeful that I could use
Dash’s book as a definitive resource for my students and myself.
However, descriptions of  “human wretchedness” and an
“uncontaminated primitive culture” found in the preface are echoed
throughout the text and continue to impose the smug superiority of
non-Haitian “experts” writing about the country.  The back of the
book claims it is a “much needed resource” giving “students and
other readers a balanced picture” of Haiti.  Yet nothing could be
further from the truth.

Perhaps the most erroneous and offensive part of Dash’s book is
Chapter 3: Religion.  In the first paragraph of this chapter, Dash

“the practice of vaudou is not only pervasive but interchangeable
with Catholicism” (51).

Where do I begin in pointing out the problems with such a statement?

1.  Dash uses the French term vaudou.  Even though orthography
continues to be a source of debate (including among the members of
this list), this choice strikes me as more than dated.

2.  Catholicism (obviously a “legitimate” religion) is denoted
with a capital letter.  Further in the same chapter, Protestantism is
also used as a “proper noun”.

3.  vaudou (apparently not as “legitimate”) is denoted with a
lower case letter throughout the text.


Lest anyone accuse me of extrapolating a single sentence to denounce
the book, the implicit degradation of Vodou found throughout is made
explicit in the first paragraph of the section devoted to

     “Vaudou is the word used to designate popular religion in
Haiti.  It is a Afro-Haitian religion with a system of beliefs that
explain the links between natural and supernatural worlds.  For the
elite, vaudou is an embarrassment.  The various established churches
in Haiti anxiously await its demise.  It has been embraced since the
1920’s as Haiti’s true culture by radical intellectuals.  The only
Haitian president who gave it a special place of honor in his regime
ruthlessly exploited it to remain in power.  The grassroots Ti Legliz
movement has all but eclipsed vaudou in recent times. In the period of
violent dechoukaj that followed 1986, hundreds of vaudou priests were
denounced as supports of Duvalierism and killed.  Yet vaudou
stubbornly persists, hardly changed from the early days of the Haitian
nation.  Conservative in nature, led by priests who are at best
half-literate, vaudou knows neither formal orthodoxy nor monotheistic
creed, nor is it averse to borrowing liberally from the rituals of a
church that has sworn to destroy it” (65).

Dash may have his "facts" straight, yet I am offended by his tone and
his choice of what constitutes relevant information in furthering an
understanding of the most popular religion in Haiti.  While I am in no
way attempting to equate my own experiences defending Vodou to my
family, friends, colleagues, and students with the harsh realities of
what Haitian Vodouisants have and continue to endure -- I am furious
that a "scholarly" text published in the year 2000  would continue to
implicitly and explictly belittle Vodou.

In my opinion, the book does nothing more than perpetuate the
ignorance and stereotypes of Haiti that have existed for centuries.
As an instructor, I would no more use this text in my classrooms than
I would Wm. Seabrook’s “Magic Island” – except perhaps as
illustration of the ethnocentrism that continues to pervade Diasporic
Studies, particularly in the case of Haiti and Vodou.

Laura McPhee


Corbett adds:  After I posted my comments about the book to the
mailing list, I did find some notes in which I had a major reservation
about his treatment of Voodoo.  When I posted my review to my web site
I added this paragraph:

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.

Bob Corbett