This is the second in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. How do Americans perceive blacks of the international community? Does U.S. popular culture reveal deep-seated prejudice against countries like Haiti? What does this mean for those of African and Afro-Caribbean descent living in the U.S.?
Julio Capó, Jr., Assistant Professor, Department of History and Commonwealth Honors College
We went to the movies the other night, where I let my partner choose the film. After all, the real entertainment for me would be eating a whole tub of popcorn in the comforting and seemingly non-judgmental darkness of the theater. Buttery kernel goodness in hand, we sat down to watch Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The movie, starring Will Ferrell, is a comedic sequel about the life and times of an incompetent — but often well-intentioned — news anchor ignorant to the real news happening around him and throughout the world. A mildly enjoyable film, one scene in particular left me feeling icky. At one point, protagonist Ron Burgundy tells his son that the only thing he has to fear in life is Haitian vodou. “That…will mess you up,” he warned. To avoid danger, steer clear from Haiti.
Fast forward a week or so to when I saw the season finale of the highly popular cable show, American Horror Story: Coven. The plot features a coven of witches struggling to both survive and assimilate in modern-day New Orleans. Most of the coven seemed to trace its ancestry to the witch trials of 17th-century Salem. A subplot, however, introduced viewers to the world of black Creole vodou. Actress Angela Bassett, who hasn’t seemed to age at all since she got her groove back as Stella in the 1990s, plays the notorious historical figure Marie Laveau. Today, Laveau’s story is more myth than reality. Her 1881 obituary, for example, called her the “Queen of the Voudou” and she immediately became the stuff of legend. On the show, Bassett’s character struck a deal with the devil, so to speak, to make her immortal. Except it wasn’t the devil. It was a frightening manifestation of the vodou crossroads spirit, Papa Legba. In exchange for the “gift” of immortality, Legba requires that Laveau make a human sacrifice: an “innocent,” most often found in the uncorrupted souls of children.
Surely, Hollywood can do better. Admittedly, no one expects Ron Burgundy to offer particularly sage advice. And horror stories are nothing if not the exploitation and staging of our biggest — often irrational — fears.
But how did representations of vodou become the stuff of horror? This is what your nightmares should look like, we’re told. In Christian traditions, no one reads the resurrections of Lazarus or even Jesus Christ as zombies summoned from beyond the grave. Hollywood hatched the modern-day incarnation of the flesh-eating zombie in the 1930s from horrid tales of the so-called barbaric traditions of Haiti. So, then, why Haiti?
The incredible history of the first Black Republic has been riddled with “mystery” from the very start. In 1791, slaves in France’s most prized colony of Saint-Domingue turned their machetes against their masters to fight for their freedom. Competing visions of “liberté, egalité, et fraternité” resulted in several coalitions and, at times, unholy unions. By 1804, both emancipation and independence had been secured. Haiti was born.
Throughout the nineteenth century, western European and North American sources wrote countless tales of savagery, barbarism, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sorcery in Haiti. Oftentimes, they cited vodou as evidence of this. After all, there had to be a “reasonable” explanation for Haiti’s founding. How did former slaves, free people of color, maroons, and others successfully defeat the powerful French, British, and Spanish forces? These stigmas were, in part, a product of Haiti’s revolutionary history. Haiti’s radical history was rendered, in Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s words, “unthinkable in the west.” That is, the supernatural could then explain what no colonial white mind dare dream to comprehend.
These misconceptions also served to justify future imperialist ventures. Most notably, the United States occupied Haiti in 1915 to secure political and economic stability; at least as defined by the invaders. By the time U.S. Marines ended the near-two-decade occupation in 1934 — 80 years ago — North Americans had been fed revitalized stories of the “savage.” These fantastical tales of savagery and the supernatural were further naturalized in the American imagination. Even just a brief glimpse of occupation-era works, such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) or director Victor Halperin’s film White Zombie (1932), demonstrate the rich archive in U.S. popular culture that has systematically worked to dominate, subdue, and disenfranchise Haiti.
Last semester, following a lecture I gave on the occupation, one of my students directed me to a clip from the game show Family Feud. In it, a contestant is asked to name something she knows about zombies. She immediately buzzes in and replies: “Black!”
My earlier reference to Angela Bassett as Stella was not just meant as easy praise or flattery. Rather, when the 1998 film How Stella Got Her Groove Back hit theaters, audiences were introduced to a new manifestation of “mysterious” Haiti. When the busy Stella decides to take a much-needed respite in Jamaica (she ultimately finds her “groove” upon meeting Taye Diggs, of course), her sister warns her to use protection “because those people have a history of AIDS.” Another character “corrects” her, of course: “No, that’s Haiti.” Indeed, following its “discovery” in 1981, Haitians were erroneously thought to be inherent carriers of the deadly disease. So much so, they became part of the often-cited “4-H” club of “high-risk” groups for the disease: homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians.
These caricatures and mistruths are clumsily and carelessly reproduced all the time in our popular culture. While Anchorman 2 and American Horror Story: Coven now seem like yesterday’s news, these perceptions have not been laid to rest. AMC’s hit show about a post-apocalyptic world controlled by flesh-eating zombies, The Walking Dead, resumed its season this past weekend. While its plot and content do not reference vodou or Haiti, its subject matter is the very product of this history. It is so far removed from the legacy of slavery and imperialism that it is easy to forget.