Who Lacks an Ethical Code?

Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); 448 pages; ISBN-13: 978-0226703794 (hardcover).

• December 2011

In February 2010, Lawrence E. Harrison, former USAID director and author of The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (2006) was a guest on The Agenda, with host Steve Paikin. When asked why Latin America is in the state that it is in today, Harrison states that as director of USAID he “started with the assumption that Latin America was in trouble because ‘we’d’ neglected it.” He continues: “I never believed we imperialized it or exploited it. But over the years, as I worked my way through five countries I increasingly got messages that the people that I was trying to help do not see the world the same way I did. I concluded . . . that behind Latin America’s problems principally were a set of values and attitudes that got in the way of democratic governance, social justice and prosperity. Its cultures, values, beliefs and attitudes are powerfully influenced by Vodou.” Finally, he concludes that “Vodou is a religion that has no ethical code, therefore no encouragement to abide by the ethical code.”1 Kate Ramsey’s Vodou and the Spirits (2011) is the perfect response to people like Harrison who do not believe that “we” imperialized or exploited Latin America and that Vodou is the cause of Haiti’s problems. In fact, Ramsey seems to be directly addressing Harrison and those of his ilk who “make assumptions about Haitian popular culture that rationalize disempowering development programs and perpetuate the conditions that, among other ills, give rise to such accusations” (256).

Ramsey’s historical investigation into the intersections between the law of Haiti and the lwa of Haiti is an incredibly well-researched, brilliantly articulated study. She not only researches how the law has historically impacted the lives of the majority peasant population subjected to these laws, but also how the people manipulated the law in the service of their spiritual beliefs. She engages with a wide range of scholars who have worked on Haiti from a number of different disciplines, as well as archival documents and Haiti’s oral culture, to produce a rich delineation of a complex history that goes beyond narrow definitions of the law. Her book also speaks to issues of power and agency, silences and different ways of speaking, subversion and appropriation—all within the realm of violence on multiple fronts.

The book is divided into four chapters, with an introduction that impressively lays the groundwork for what is to follow and an epilogue that brings the reader ostensibly to Vodou’s deployment as sign in 1987, but ultimately comments on its usage in the contemporary moment as demonstrated by ongoing discussions about the religion.

In the introduction, Ramsey traces the genealogy of the term Vodou and its many incarnations, an important feat worthy of praise in itself. Secondly, she establishes from the outset the scholars in whose footsteps she walks: Jean Price-Mars and Laënnec Hurbon. Both of these scholars, each a path-breaker in his own right, have tirelessly argued for a celebration of Haiti’s culture, not just for its richness but also as a tool against the imperial forces that would demonize it as a way of disempowering the people. Chapter 1 covers the period between roughly 1685 to just after the Haitian Revolution. It examines Saint-Domingue’s legislative history, tracing the evolution of the laws in connection with larger political and social forces (25). The debates among the leaders of the fledgling nation of Haiti that she analyzes reflect how they wanted to be seen in the larger international community. This preoccupation with how the nation was perceived internationally became more pressing as Haiti was being forced into a state of isolation due to fears that revolution would spread. The accusation of barbarism was used as a tool to facilitate and maintain their isolation. Vodou was central to the argument that Haiti was filled with barbarous people who practiced cannibalism as part of their religious practices.

This need to counter accusations of barbarism continued and was magnified in the years following the revolution. Thus, chapter 2 discusses “how certain Haitian penal laws were figured by the post-colonial Haitian state as both an index and a force of civilization” in such a hostile climate (55). Here Ramsey examines how vaudoux was constructed and criminalized as a way to contain and marginalize the subaltern rural majority, as well as how local communities ensured that, in general, the laws were not applied to family-based religious practices (55–56). Chapter 3 discusses the fate of Vodou under the first occupation by the US Marines, who sought to “clean up the place” and “establish decency down there because it did not exist” (130). These words, spoken in 1921 by General Eli Cole, who had been stationed in Haiti, ring eerily reminiscent of those spoken by Lawrence Harrison in 2010, illustrating how little has changed in the imperial mindset. Ramsey demonstrates how while the Marines, most of whom were recruited from the southern United States, espoused a desire to stabilize Haiti and free it from its “chronic revolutions,” in reality, the occupation had all the characteristics of a return to slavery embodied in the corvée system that was set up shortly after the Marines’ arrival in the countryside. At the same time she exposes and challenges the fictions that emerged from the occupation, perpetuated by men like Brigadier General Smedley Butler and Faustin Wirkus, the infamous White King of La Gonave, among others.

This chapter is most compelling, since the author resists facile readings of the actors’ motivations. Instead, she delves into individuals’ political backgrounds in order to offer an alternate reading to surface appearances. For example, an interrogation of General George Barnett by Democratic senator William King, on the abuses of Haitians by Marines during the occupation from 1915–34, initially seems to signify that King reverses the issue at hand from that of abuses by Marines to acts of barbarism by Haitians. That is, at first glance, his line of questioning may be seen as a way of defending the occupation. However, Ramsey cautions the reader against taking the exchange at face value by illuminating King’s political leanings and his position on the occupation in particular (135–36), citing his well-known anti-imperialist stance and an amendment to a military appropriations bill in 1922—which stipulated that no more support be given to maintain military forces in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or Nicaragua—that he drafted (136). This is a fine example of good scholarship, one to emulate for others who hope to engage not only with scholarship but with activism.

Finally, chapter 4 examines official cultural nationalist policy in Haiti during the 1930s and early 1940s in relation to the legal regime against what evolved into les pratiques superstitieuse from the initial sortilege of prerevolutionary Saint-Domingue. The government’s prohibition of les pratiques superstitieuse was enacted at the same time that peasants were given the right to organize “popular dances.” So, while the expression of popular culture or folklore was allowed and even encouraged during that period of time, the reality of spiritual belief that was the foundation for much of this culture was strictly prohibited. Here Ramsey invokes the work of Jean Price-Mars, father of indigénisme, as well as the presence and intervention of Americans such as Katherine Dunham, George Eaton Simpson, and Melville Herskovits, and other well-known scholars of Vodou. The author successfully and effectively engages with these diverse scholars’ extensive writings. And though Katherine Dunham’s writings are limited, the author was able to personally interview her, thus adding a rich layer to her scholarship.

The Spirits and the Law is a nuanced and thorough reading of a religious system that has been historically misunderstood, demonized, and criminalized. Ramsey effectively shows how Vodou’s treatment both officially and unofficially is part and parcel of a larger battle for power and self-determination from various agents that is waged locally and internationally. In her quest to reveal truths Ramsey leaves no stone unturned. What she cannot include in the main text she includes in the copious notes that could form another text in themselves. Anyone who seeks to truly “build Haiti [back] better” should make this text part of required reading, because no work will succeed in Haiti if those who go in to help refuse to understand that Haiti’s fraught and complex political history is inextricably woven with its spiritual history, a spiritual history that is not a “hindrance to progress,” as some would have us believe, but one to be respected and honored as a system that has supported and sustained Haiti against impossible odds.


Toni Pressley-Sanon is an assistant professor in the Department of Transnational Studies and the Program of African and African American Studies at the University at Buffalo. She is currently working on her book manuscript on history, memory and cultural production in Haiti.


1Lawrence E. Harrison, “Why Culture Matters When It Comes to a Country’s Success,” The Agenda with Steve Paiken, TVO, 3 February 2010, ww3.tvo.org/video/163259/why-culture-matters-when-it-comes-countrys-success.


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