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A cultural dialogue with Felix Augustin, Consul General, Haitian Consulate in NYC

Misani | 4/12/2011, 4:47 p.m.
Felix Augustin, Consul General, Consulate General of Haiti in NY and Geoffrey Holder, choreographer, composer and costume designer of “The Prodigal Prince,” produced by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Misani photo)

With the dawn of the new year, as we approach the one-year memorial of the devastating earthquake that ravaged Haiti on January 12, 2010, The Honorable Mr. Felix Augustin, Consul General of the Consulate General of Haiti in NY recently granted me a series of interviews focusing on his country, the first independent Black nation in the Americas. Mr. Augustin shared his insights in several areas including Haitian culture, history, religion, politics and the state of the country one year after the earthquake.

Focusing on culture, Mr. Augustin, who over the holidays took in one of the dynamic productions of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre's exceptional 2010 season, Geoffrey Holder's outstanding ballet, "The Prodigal Prince," commented on several aspects of Mr. Holder's work. "The Prodigal Prince" a marvelous tour de force, which bubbles delightfully and sparkles opulently like Geoffrey Holder's Rum Champagne Punch centers on Hector Hyppolite, the Haitian houngan (Vodou high priest) and renowned artist.

In discussing the Vodou religion practiced by Hyppolite, an ordained high priest, Augustin said, "You will have to look at that dialogue in the terms of the prejudging." He pointed out, "When you look at the culture of the Caribbean or Africa, the only way to dominate the people was to denigrate our culture."

In terms of religion, this was done through the oppressive Code Noir (Black Codes), a decisive set of laws devised by France's finance minister Jean Baptiste Colbert and passed by Louis XIV in 1685 that denied the practice of any African faith by the enslaved Africans in France's colonies, mandating them to embrace Catholicism.

"In Haiti, we are the victim of it, [the suppression of African culture] because first of all, Haiti became the first independent country in the region. But it has survived. That is what makes culture superlative because no matter what you do, as long as it is strong enough, it will survive and Haiti's culture has survived."

Expounding on the subject of Haitian survival (i.e. Hyppolite painting with a feather because he did not have paintbrushes), a commonplace topic in Holder's conversation along with a focus on the instincts and strengths of the Haitians, Mr. Augustin seized upon the subject from a historical perspective. "We are a survival people, and you can see it for example, in a man like W.E.B. Du Bois, the son of a Haitian," he said, referring to the Black U.S. educator, author and champion, who helped transform the Negro perspective of the role of the Black man in America.

"When you see people like Du Bois who are larger than life, you tend not to think Haitian; you tend to think of European or American, but the fact remains that a lot of Haitians left Haiti to go to Cuba, to go to the Caribbean, and most of them brought with them their culture, their history, their art, and they have developed...even in France, for example. Haitians are known all over the world in terms of culture. It is because of the 'rarefied' way for the Haitians striving for excellence that is what makes us what/who we are." Summing up this theme, Augustin comments, "although Haiti is a very poor country, what keeps us together is our history. Most people may not understand that."