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.”
Focusing on Haitian folklore, Augustin touched upon Baron Samedi, the god of life and death. One of Holder’s favorite characters, he portrayed this Haitian folkloric figure in Truman Capote’s Broadway production, “House of Flowers” when he first came to New York from Trinidad. Holder subsequently played Baron Samedi thirty years later in the James Bond film “Live and Let Die.”
“Baron Samedi in ancient folklore is near to the religious aspect of the culture,” Augustin reveals. “Every Haitian will tell you Baron Samedi is what I would call one of the gods of our culture. In the cemeteries of Haiti there is a cross and that cross is the signification of Baron Samedi. So when people go to the cemetery or any forms of cultural festivities, they dance Baron Samedi. They adore Baron Samedi because of the uniqueness of his dancing of his presentation. The best dancers of Haiti–they dance Baron Samedi.”
When questioned about the phrase “they dance Baron Samedi” Augustin explains, “When you go to the cemetery, he is the only one you are going to meet there.” To get past that entrance, one must dance. The dance of Baron Samedi is well known in the Haitian Diaspora and in Haiti as a whole,” Augustin says.
Echoing Holder’s observation that “Haitian material is rich in folklore and that it’s like that of the Greeks or ancient Africa,” Augustin heartily agreed: “We have not lost it, and it is exactly like the Greeks or the Romans or the other old civilizations. We are a people that have preserved the African culture in the Caribbean and we have not been ashamed of talking about it.”
This special series of “Caribbean Lingo!” continues as The Honorable Mr. Felix Augustin discusses politics and Haiti one year after the earthquake.
To contact the “Caribbean Lingo!” series, which pays tribute to Caribbean Diaspora artists and art forms of the highest caliber, please email our team at: Caribbeanlingo@gmail.com