The Spirits and the Law
Vodou and Power in Haiti
Vodou has often served as a scapegoat for Haiti’s problems, from political upheavals to natural disasters. This tradition of scapegoating stretches back to the nation’s founding and forms part of a contest over the legitimacy of the religion, both beyond and within Haiti’s borders. The Spirits and the Law examines that vexed history, asking why, from 1835 to 1987, Haiti banned many popular ritual practices.
To find out, Kate Ramsey begins with the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. Fearful of an independent black nation inspiring similar revolts, the United States, France, and the rest of Europe ostracized Haiti. Successive Haitian governments, seeking to counter the image of Haiti as primitive as well as contain popular organization and leadership, outlawed “spells” and, later, “superstitious practices.” While not often strictly enforced, these laws were at times the basis for attacks on Vodou by the Haitian state, the Catholic Church, and occupying U.S. forces. Beyond such offensives, Ramsey argues that in prohibiting practices considered essential for maintaining relations with the spirits, anti-Vodou laws reinforced the political marginalization, social stigmatization, and economic exploitation of the Haitian majority. At the same time, she examines the ways communities across Haiti evaded, subverted, redirected, and shaped enforcement of the laws. Analyzing the long genealogy of anti-Vodou rhetoric, Ramsey thoroughly dissects claims that the religion has impeded Haiti’s development.
Berkshire Conference of Women Historians: Berkshire Conference First Book Prize - Women Historians
Association of Caribbean Historians: Elsa Goveia Prize
“A tour de force of research and interpretation, this book offers a spellbinding history of the relationship between popular spiritual practice and the rule of law in Haiti. With fine-grained detail and theoretical sophistication, Kate Ramsey shows law to be a fickle spirit—a powerful but capricious force, having the capacity to lie dormant for long periods and then form suddenly into a dangerous weapon of church, state, and imperial oppression, while remaining susceptible to popular efforts to harness legal powers for beneficial ends. Can great scholarship work like medicinal magic? If, as Ramsey argues, popular religion is a vital resource sustaining Haiti’s people, then perhaps The Spirits and the Law can cure the toxic pathologies afflicting so much of the ill-informed commentary on Vodou’s role in Haitian life.”
“In The Spirits and the Law Kate Ramsey explores the links between the construction of Vodou as malicious magic or a progress-impeding force and the penalizing of superstitious practices by the Haitian state. This brilliantly argued and exhaustively researched study examines questions of prohibition and denial that are omitted by other works on Haitian popular religion. It is as much a formidable feat of scholarship as a much needed argument against seeing Vodou as responsible for Haiti’s underdevelopment.”
“Kate Ramsey is a gifted, sophisticated, passionate, and objective student of Haitian life and history. In The Spirits and the Law she has left no stone unturned. She sees Vodou as a modern invention of the Haitian genius, and the book is a platform for analyzing all the big issues—from imperialism, to slavery, neocolonialism, and US exceptionalism expressed as racial paternalism—that have made Haiti what it has become. This is a very big book.”
“In this compelling study of anti-superstition legislation in Haiti, Kate Ramsey culls a remarkable set of materials to bring to bear on the topic, ranging from colonial travel accounts, memoirs, State Department records, and U.N. sorcery reports. The richness of her account is a testament to indefatigable research, and she develops fresh insights into the related literature as well. This fascinating book adds much to our knowledge of modern Haiti as well as religion and cultural politics in Latin America and the Caribbean in general.”
List of Illustrations
Note on the Spelling and Use of Terms in Kreyòl
1. Crimes of Ritual Assembly and Assemblage in Colonial and Revolutionary Saint-Domingue
2. Popular Spirituality and National Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Haiti
3. Penalizing Vodou and Promoting “Voodoo” in U.S.-Occupied Haiti, 1915–1934
4. Cultural Nationalist Policy and the Pursuit of “Superstition” in Post-Occupation Haiti