Category Archives: Religion

Youssou N’Dour’s musical travels: West Africa and Senegal as Black Atlantic crucibles

By Andy Cabot

Youssou N'Dour

Listening to the song “4-4-44” by Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour is a mysteriously peculiar experience. The sound and rhythm enters swiftly into your ear, and, at the end, as the distant drums and piano fade out, you realize that your body has quietly turned into a state of near total appeasement. Honestly, only one thought circles into your mind as the song comes to a closing stage: I need to play it again.

What’s so mysterious about that Youssou N’Dour piece? At first, I felt it could perfectly fit in as a fade out song for a Mad Men episode as the credit rolls in and Don Draper meditates on an empty Hawaiian beach about why he has cheated on his wife for the gazillion time this year. After further listening, another picture popped in my head. It felt like this could have been a reinterpretation of a famous popular folk song, or also an adaptation of a child’s song melody. All in all, there was one dominant feeling: this song was a masterpiece of quietness, the quintessence of what peaceful joy and harmony could sound like.


“4-4-44”: N’Dour’s tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence

During the long career of Youssou N’Dour, “4-4-44” is probably an epiphenomenon. His duet “Seven Minutes” with Neneh Cherry and other songs he recorded with his band in the 1990s were more significant in bringing the Senegalese artist to international stardom. At that moment, western media music industries considered N’Dour as the synonym for benevolent feelings of fraternity, loose passion for human rights and more vague sentimental attributes like advocates of world peace trough music. For a long time, it seems like he had his image and personality completely appropriated by the dominant expectations of Western audiences.

Arguably, Youssou N’Dour was not in the best position to develop a radical critique of the West or become an apologist of Afrocentrism when he rose to fame in the late 1980s. Indeed, he never felt any hatred or extreme passion neither towards Africa nor towards either of the two dominant ideological camps of the Cold war era during his early musical career.  N’Dour was a quite discreet character, far from the strong political opinions and eccentricities of other Afro-artists of the same era like Fela Kuti. His politics were almost void, still, his musical interests were immense.

Interestingly, retracing N’Dour’s crooked musical path leads us almost inevitably to interrogate his country’s history. For centuries, the present-day territory of Senegal had been nurtured and shaped by the movements and intersections of different civilizations. Even before the Ghana and Mali empires rose to continental preeminence around the fifteenth century, the major linguistic groups who now constitutes the Senegalese community –Wolof, Serer, Lebu, Tukolor, Mandinka, Diola- had already established strong commercial relations with the Abbasid Caliphates. By the 11th century, these groups were thus already fully integrated to the circuits of trade, knowledge and diplomacy of the Transaharian world economy. Contacts with European kingdoms erupted later on and were mainly directed at improving the plantation economies of Euro-American colonies. Indeed, despite intense resistance on the part of different linguistic groups, the great majority of Senegambia kingdoms were turned into large-scale suppliers of African slaves in the 18th century. The demographic and cultural legacies of the slaves-trade are still largely observable nowadays. All in all, at the beginning of the 20th century, one can see the modern Senegalese state as shaped over centuries of intercontinental and inter-religious relations. The salience of these multifarious cultural influences was decisive in creating one among the most vibrant musical traditions of West Africa.

“Senegal’s geography has brought its people into close contact with North Africa and the West and made Senegal a crossroads where Black African, Islamic, and European civilizations have met, clashed, and [1] blended”. Though this statement might appear un-original to many regards, its importance does not singly lie in the significance of the historical identity the author seeks to demonstrate but also in its relevancy if considered under a musical perspective. Indeed, Youssou N’Dour came to music as History came to Senegal: by the passage of caravans. In the late 1980s, while his family held doubts about his musical potential, N’Dour relied on the financial aid of the French-Senegalese community to launch his career. In 1983, Senegalese cab drivers working in Paris helped him raising funds so he could produce his first title. The latter was released shortly after the fund raising campaign and became an instant hit in France. Its title was “Immigrants” and certainly left no doubt about the intentions of N’Dour who sought to express his gratitude and support to migrants all over the world and especially to Senegalese ones.

At the turn of the decade, N’Dour had achieved a near status of world-music icon. Similarly to Alpha Blondy or Fela Kuti, his Afro-rhythm pop was now commercially successful not only in Senegal and Europe but also in North America. He had recorded songs and toured with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman while being held as a proud symbol of success in his native land. Still, by the mid-1990s, his commercial success declined along with financial funds from North American record companies. The artist was not too surprised by that situation. Surely, he felt disheartened by the neo-imperial logics that controlled and influenced the relation between world markets and access to music. To illustrate that idea, N’Dour did declare after the release of his LP Wommat (The Guide) in 1994 “It’s a matter of pride for me to have produced this album from A to Z in my own studio”[2] .

Shaped by various cultures ethnically divided by colonialism, Senegal and N’Dour entered the post-1991 world in a state of indecision about their destinies. In 1980, its leader Léopold Senghar Senghor- educated in the French métropole in the 1930s and strong advocate of pro-French views in foreign and domestic policies during his twenty years long presidency between 1960 and 1980- left the country in a state of strong democratic stability while domestic oppositions vilified its “reign” as favorable to neo-colonial nepotism and discriminatory against Muslim and traditional communities. During the subsequent decades, this divide between pro-French elites centered on Dakar and other demographically dominant communities in Senegal would not cease. By the end of the Cold War, Senegalese people recognized that distance from the Atlantic powers –especially France- would revitalize the country’s culture and economic dynamism.

The song “Immigrés” was a turning in point in that larger process. For N’Dour, it represented an early effort at creating music blending eclectic influences for Western audiences. The piece associated different styles of drumming and rhythms forged into Western African culture mixed with various musical tempos from Latin America (Tango), North America (Jazz) and the Caribbean (Reggae).  Known as mbalax, this genre would later being largely identified with Youssou N’Dour, whom while not inventing it transformed it into an extremely popular music in West Africa.

For a long time, this almost unavoidable association of Mbalax with N’Dour went unnoticed even by the artist. By the 1990s however, as the country’s faced economic difficulties and many of its African neighbors descended into full fledged civil wars, discontents towards this association emerged. As explained earlier, though N’Dour expressed few political stances while he experienced international fame, the backslash of the Western industry against its more traditional orientation in the late 1990s had left him disheartened. Within the space of a decade, N’Dour and Senegal once again followed an intimately related path. Faced with economic pressures from the West and internal pressures from inside, a certain return to tradition accompanied by a slight De-Westernization of the elites occurred.

Concerning N’Dour, this process achieved its maturity in 2004 when he released his album Rokku Mi Rokka. It came into the form of “4-4-44”. During the first part of the song, N’Dour proposes a blending of the joyful and celebration-like Mbalax sound that made him famous. Still, midway through the song, this rather fragile pop aesthetic turns into a denser atmosphere. As a son of a griot– central figure of Western African traditional societies transmitting communities history and legacy through songs and stories- N’Dour always remained close to the ancestral music of Muslim and animist communities of Senegambia. In “4-4-44”, this feeling of tradition is present in the most manifest way. Indeed, as the initial upbeat structure progressively fades when the song enters its second part, the Western ego of N’Dour relinquishes and its African self reappears as xalam strings make their way into the harmony.

Short video documentary on the tradition and influence of Xalam in West Africa

Music scholar Ronald Radano once argued that Black music in the US shared a strong sense of remembrance borne “directly out of the depths of social tragedy only to rise up miraculously in the voice of racial uplift”. In a recent article, Laurent Dubois attempted to go beyond this type of analysis centered on the Anglophone Atlantic by arguing that, by expanding the chronological and geographical frames of the Black Atlantic, one could easily seize the broader historical implications of Black music “Some songs also offer broader historical narratives, tracing the History of Haiti’s population from Africa through struggles in the new world”. Largely, Dubois’s analysis tends not to decenter the traditional questions of Black music scholars but rather to connect the often forgotten parts of the Black Atlantic to the dominant black Anglophone world. Indeed, while he focuses on traditional Vodou songs in 18th century Haiti, Dubois emphasizes on the contained metaphors and images evoking the slave-trade in the creole culture : “But that layers onto another set of symbols: the Atlantic ocean as giant graveyard for those lost on the Middle passage, as a site of ancestral death and memory. In this song, though, an origin in the depths of the water doesn’t preclude a soaring present, [3] uncaptured”.

As I would argue here, N’Dour cannot be easily connects to “traditional” themes of the Black Atlantic: loss, displacement and painful remembrance. Indeed, as Saidiya Hartman beautifully explained in her book Lose Your Mother, though it is possible to draw an emotional connection between the African diaspora and African people, recent years have shown the historical gap increasing between the two continents in their relations to the slave-trade and its legacy. When the author retraces her journey through different iconic locations of slave-trade history in Ghana, she insists on the impossibility for native Africans to feel to what extent the wound of displacement is deep for those who were captured and deported “Love longed for an object, but the slaves were gone. In the dungeon, missing the dead was as close to them as I would come. And all that stood between artifice and oblivion was the muck on the [4] floor”. N’Dour explicitly tackles that issue in “4-4-44”. As first and foremost a tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence achieved on April 4th, 2004, one can perceive N’Dour words as expressing a distinct –perhaps even new- feature of the modern Black Atlantic: namely the notion of a purely prideful remembrance of the Black past not rooted in the history of a “social drama” but rather in the mental overcoming of that trauma.

During his early musical career, N’Dour often took his distance with politics. In January 2012, while still recording albums and touring West Africa, he decided to present a bid for the coming Senegal’s presidential election. One of his first statement as a candidate epitomized N’Dour and Senegal’s intertwined historical fate “C’est vrai, je n’ai pas fait d’études supérieures, mais la présidence est une fonction et non un métier. J’ai fait preuve de compétence, d’engagement, de rigueur et d’efficience à maintes reprises. A l’école du monde, j’ai appris, j’ai beaucoup appris. Le voyage instruit autant que les livres »[5]  (I admit it, I have not attended higher education, but the presidency is a duty and not a job. I have proved that I’m skilled, that I’m hardworking and rigorous on many occasions. The world has been my classroom, and he taught me a lot, so many things. Traveling teaches you as much as books). The artist did not won the election and that was no surprise, it was a detail. As he contemplated his past experiences in relation to those of his country, N’Dour once again proved how personal histories can change you and thus History can be change if you stay faithful to your past. In Senegal as in other West African countries, N’Dour knew perfectly how to achieve just that: by not missing the next caravan.

 [1]Gellar Sheldom, Senegal: An African Nation between Islam and the West, Westview Press, 1982.

 [2]Frank Tenaille, Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African popular music, Lawrence Hill books, 2002, 232.

 [3]Dubois Laurent, Afro-Atlantic Music as Archive, 2013, [Online],Available <> [Accessed: 19 April 2014 , 15.]

[4]Hartman Saidiya, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Farra Strauss, 2007, 135.

 [5]Aude Lasjaunias, Youssou N’Dour croit en son étoile présidentielle, January 2012, [Online], Available <>, [Accessed: 19 April 2014].


The Spiritual as Complex Space for Historical Engagement

It is apparent from this blog thread that concerns about the way history accumulates[1] and continues to vivify the present are of great importance to the study and engagement of the Black Atlantic. The past is not something left behind in some progressive march of history, nor is it a nostalgia that obscures the present with uncritical adoration of a past age. Navigating between these two streams seems to be the difficult, and perhaps even dangerous, work of those interested in the Black Atlantic. There seems to be in pop-history a narration of the Black Atlantic as a progressive march from the low point of enslavement towards this liberated present that has somehow left behind the problems of the past. In this way, engagement of the spiritual in the Black Atlantic can provide a significant voice that interrupts certain dominant narratives, and draws together the past and present in a movement more reminiscent of a dance than an upward march. This is not a dance just for the sake of dancing either, but it allows for the continued protest to the violence and destruction of enslavement, and an interruption of the continuing grammar of racial and class divides so embedded in the experience of the Black Atlantic.

The challenge with approaching the spiritual in this way is how to do so without reducing it to merely a tool of the historian. It is necessary to move into a more concrete situation to avoid such an abstraction. Thus it may be helpful to draw upon the Haitian musical group Boukman Eksperyans. “Drawing upon traditional vodou rhythms, compas, rock, and R & B to create the Haitian Musical movement dubbed mizik rasin (root music)”[2] the band has maintained its bold message of hope and survival throughout the political turmoil of the 1980-90’s and continuing in the post-earthquake challenges of Haiti. Boukman Eksperyans has “let their music be shaped by vodou”[3] both in content and style. The spiritual—which is not to be read as non-political or disembodied—enables this group to engage the complexity of Haiti’s past and present, which is bound with their own experiences. As their bio states, “For all its celebratory color on stage, the Boukman Eksperyans’ message is serious and spiritual. The band’s songs have long served as rallying cries against all manner of ills imposed upon the Haitian people.”[4]

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 12.50.02 PM

     The band’s name in and of itself is a clear message, connecting to the slave revolt of 1791, which sparked the revolution, to their experience today. Boukman was considered to be the one who presided over the religious ceremony of Bwa Kyimon (Bois Caiman) that began the revolt, and he continued as a leader of the revolt; though he was killed early on.[5]

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 12.48.54 PM

The Band’s choice of the name Boukman Eksperyans has been interpreted as the continuation of the work of Boukman as they use their spiritually laden music to “spark real change in Haiti.” For the band, this work has included encouraging uprisings against the Baby Doc Duvalier regime at great risk to themselves, and encouraging protests in 1991 with the lyrics of their song ‘my heart will not bleed [skip]’[6] (ke m’ pa sote).


The music of Boukman Eksperyans embodies the complex space of the spiritual that animates the survival, hope and resistance of the Haitian people, which is the story of the history of Haiti. Groups such as Boukman Eksperyans, with their explicit invocation of the past as revivified in the present provide a space to engage the accumulating history of the Black Atlantic. Furthermore, their seamless connection of the spiritual and the political enables the listener/participant to avoid a potential false dichotomy. Significantly, this work is constructive, bringing together fragments of the history of Haiti, and the Black Atlantic more broadly, to engage in the possibilities of life that emerges.


[1] For this I believe our blog is indebted to: Ian Baucom. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

[5] Laurent Dubois. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004, pp101-104.

Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound

After watching Lupita Nyong’o win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the film itself, 12 Years a Slave, win Best Picture a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but return to the film for a second viewing. I happened to find the time on a 11 hour transatlantic flight, and while somewhere over that big open expanse of water, I watched and listened to the now famous scene where Chiwetal Ejiofor, playing Solomon Northup, first seems to embrace his fate, joining in song with his co-enslaved peers. The scene is haunting, and I recommend watching it here.

Topsy Chapman – (feat. Chiwetel Ejiofor and moviecast) “Roll Jordan Roll” From the movie “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

(Adapted by Nicholas Britell)

The lyrics themselves are simple, and the chorus repeated numerous times.

Went down to the river Jordan,
where John baptized three.
Well I woke the devil in hell
sayin John ain’t baptise me
I say;
Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll
My soul arise in heaven, Lord
for the year when Jordan roll

Well some say John was a baptist
some say John was a Jew
But I say John was a preacher of God
and my bible says so too.

A quick google search for the song provides the viewer/listener with some historical context. The song was originally written by an English Methodist preacher, Charles Wesley sometime in the 1700s. The song became popular in the United States sometime during the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s, and eventually reached Black slaves as a means to Christianize them, in the hopes that doing so would make them more cooperative in their slaved condition. (1) But the song ultimately had the opposite effect. Ann Powers described the song as “a primary example of slaves’ claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages…Songs like this one, speaking of rivers, often sent coded messages about the hope for escape – passing over the Mississippi or the Ohio and northward.” (2) Powers claims that the song, and Northup’s joining in during the middle of a chorus, is further affirmation of Northup’s statement upon being captured, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live.”

I can’t help but question that conclusion, or at the very least, to read more depth into the simple claim that Northup is asserting his intention to “live” rather than “survive.” Though I’m far from an academic film critic, I think the scene warrants a closer reading, and that through just such a reading, it becomes clear that while Northup (and the director McQueen) may be signaling rebellion, the lyrics along with the setting of the song signify a community dynamic that is both hopeful and resigned. Northup’s joining is then more complicated, and demonstrates both a joining to that community, and one can’t help but hear his hopelessness as well.

The setting of the funeral is key to this reading. The man who died was another slave, one who simply dropped dead in the middle of the cotton fields, assumedly from exhaustion. While the song may have been meant to signal a hope that those enslaved singers would find some freedom, the freedom in this scene is not to another land where they are no longer enslaved, but to death and perhaps an afterlife. There is a certain macabre rebellion even if one reads this as a hopeful escape through death; in a way the dead man himself has robbed his owner of something by making further labour an impossibility. One can’t help but hear the respect for the man in the voices of the other singers; there is a resolution in their expression and the generally upbeat nature of the song that would seem to signify their standing proudly at this man’s graveside, saluting his ability to leave the fields.

And while the song is lead by the more elderly woman, the sense of community is not a hierarchical one. There is no preacher standing in a position of power, and the men and women are scattered equally through the small group. They clap in unison, bound together by the repetitive sound of flesh meeting flesh, perhaps ironically reversing what would usually be a violent contact of master-slave and turning it into one of community. All these factors might suggest a sort of egalitarianism worthy of praise; even in an enslaved state these African-Americans are able to preserve human dignity and respect for one another by coming together in a way that shows no more respect for one over another. But the rest of the movie itself provides a different reading. We do not know any of these other slaves standing around Northup. They haven’t been introduced to us, and we don’t know their life stories at all. The community has at the most basic level only one thing in common, their enslaved state. They did not choose to come together, there is not sense of family units within the crowd. They are simply together because there is no one else with whom they could be. The community then is forced, in much the same way as others have stated that the creation of African American culture in the early slave period was simply an amalgam of all the different cultures the Africans brought with them, so too are these individuals struggling to find connection, and triumph, in horrible circumstances.

And perhaps therein lies the beauty, and satisfaction, present in this scene. Though Northup is joining that community through his singing, he is not just joining the hopelessness (though he certainly seems to be accepting that as well). He joins a tragic community, one bound by circumstances yes, but also through their combined dignity of rebelling, at least through song and sound, against their oppressor. The repetition of the lyric, “roll, Jordan roll,” itself suggests the unstoppable power of water, and eventual freedom, as a force. Though traveling over that water first enslaved them, so will it free them, whether in crossing over a physical river to freedom, or perhaps, as the dead slave, passing over the river Styx into death. Again, though it may be rooted in the dark hope that freedom must come eventually, even in death, Northup’s joining is a signal that he finally identifies with those enslaved around him, no longer differentiated by his previously free state. The scene is haunting, and Chiwetal Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup, joining in song with a look of triumphant defeat, warrants the more complicated reading of rebellion. And while McConaughey doubtless gave a great performance, Ejiofor could just as easily have won for this scene alone.

  1.  See Calt, Stephen (2008). I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  2. Ann Powers (2013). ’12 Years a Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music. NPR.

What’s “Religion” Got to Do With It?: Religion and Revolution in Haiti

By Lenny Lowe

The now mythic ceremony of Bwa Kayiman that is supposed to have initiated the first stage of the Haitian Revolution in 1791 serves as a sort of gravitational center for thinking about both Haiti and religion in Haiti. And yet, the connection between religion and revolution is most often underdeveloped in at least two ways. First, rare is the text that can actually make much sense of what it means to demonstrate the centrality of “religion” to the Haitian Revolution. Is it supposed to change the way that we understand the mode of revolution, the inspiration for revolution, the agents of revolution, or the significance of the revolution? Most often, the coincidence is cited, but explanatory priority is granted to other kinds of forces. Secondly, the extent to which the events that took place at Bwa Kayiman should be characterized as “religion” or “religious” is, to my knowledge, nowhere critically interrogated. Why ought we call these events “religious” in the first place? What makes dance, music, utterances, and animal sacrifice “religion”? To understand the difference it might make, one has only to consider the way that Haiti’s history might have been different if the slave uprising has been planned on a Sunday afternoon at a meeting of a Catholic confraternity rather than at night around a mapou tree. What if the meeting were led by a young Toussaint Louverture rather than Boukman the “papaloi”, or if the insurrection had been voted upon by an assembly rather than made in a blood pact over the slain body of a black pig? What difference does it make that it was “religion” that was at work at the Bwa Kayiman ceremony and not some other European social category like “politics”, “culture” or “economy”? I suspect it makes a rather significant difference, and thus the combination of these two scholarly oversights concerning this politically potent bit of lore seems even more serious.

Painting of Bwa Kayiman by Ulrick Jean-Pierre

I would like to start with the second issue of naming this “religion,” which, while little more than a series of  reifications, has had a profound impact on our understanding of Haiti and its history. Most people today (excepting, perhaps, Pat Robertson and apparently even the occasional Guardian journalist) would use Antoine Dalmas’ original 1814 account of the Bwa Kayiman to demonstrate the sensationalism of Eurocentric accounts. Still, none have questioned his basic claim that these events are best characterized as “cérémonies religieuses” of “les nègres.” (1:117) For example, in his 1938 The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James confidently asserts that “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” (86) More recently, in his Avengers of the New World (2004), Laurent Dubois tells us that “[t]he story of the Bois-Caïman ceremony symbolizes the place religious practice had in the slave insurrection,” and that it “serves as shorthand for the complex and varied presence of religion in the planning and execution of the insurrection.” (101) Yet, the way that certain practices and utterances came to be named as “religion” in the first place has a very particular history within Enlightenment-Christian Europe and its encounters with its colonial others. For Talal Asad, this history begins most clearly in the seventeenth century, “following the fragmentation of the unity and authority of the Roman Chuch and the consequent wars of religion.” (40) He suggests it was here that the first attempts were made to produce a universal definition of religion, starting with Lord Herbert of Cherbury in De veritae (1624) who formulated a notion of “Natural Religion” in terms of beliefs, practices, and ethics. Extended by Locke and Kant, the idea of “natural religion” was born in an effort to account for difference and to universalize human experience. However, not unlike the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that emerged in the same era, this “universal” definition had at its core an exclusionary process and was inherently unrealizable as “universal.”

Lord Herbert of Cherbury

The first reification was to name the events at Bwa Kayiman as “religion” and thereby to subject it to criteria of evaluation according to its “truthfulness.” What holds these events back from being “true religion” or “right religion” is, of course, not dependent upon prime European notion of belief. For, one does not have to dig too deeply into the African-inspired practices of Haitians to discover what they themselves discovered — a profound affinity between the Catholic cosmos and their own. Rather, the problem of these events as religion (and the problem of what is named Vodou today) has much more to do with the practices — the aesthetics, the material objects deployed, the music played, the dances danced, etc. The second reification, the naming of the practices and utterances as “Voodoo”, is perhaps an even more pernicious one. If the notion of “religion” still allowed the utterances, material objects, dances, and songs of Bwa Kayiman to be particular to this night in 1791, C.L.R. James’ naming of them as “Voodoo” enacts a stabilization and an a-historicity that has rarely worked in favor of Haiti or Haitians. The fact that even today few Haitians would identify their practices as “Vodou” should make this point even clearer. So, perhaps the first step might be to seek a new language by which to describe the events of that night, words that are less burdened with European power and more descriptive of Kongo-inspired power, words like dance, song, rhythm, ancestors, the dead, or the mysteries.

The first issue, however, is perhaps the most vexing. It is easy to identify the co-incidence of these “religious” practices and the meeting of insurrectionist slaves of Limbé. It is, however, far more difficult to determine what this co-incidence might mean. When Laurent Dubois speaks of the centrality of “religious practice” in the insurrection, he seems to mean that religious practices provided both the occasion and the social structures of organization that allowed for the planning and implementation of that first slave uprising. Dubois also shows us that somehow this “religion” provided something of the content of the insurrection; the slaves carried ouanga (fetishes or charms) and danced and sang as they fought. But, here, the problem of “religion” as sui generis presents itself again. For, Dubois must qualify this by noting that “[t]hough religious practices facilitated and spurred on insurrection, it was only their combination with careful political organization that made the 1791 uprising successful.” (101) Because the practices and utterances of Bwa Kayiman are “religious,” they are therefore not political and must be paired with political organization to be effective. While these are undoubtedly strategic and descriptive distinctions for the historian, their separation obscures the reasons that readers should care that Bwa Kayiman was “religious” in the first place. Might we not simply consider Bwa Kayiman to have been primarily a political event in which politics implies power and/or powers or primarily a religious event that implies the same?

Perhaps the most compelling response to my honest questions about what difference it makes that “religion” was present at the inception of the Revolution comes in Kate Ramsey’s The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (2012).  Ramsey’s work seeks to understand why the popular “religious” practices of Haiti have so often and for so much of Haitian history been prohibited by law. She is partly interested in how these laws were used to defend the black republic against Euro-American anti-Haitianism, but also what the “internal politics stakes” have been at different moments. She writes: “This is an especially important problem in light of the role attributed to African-based magico-religious practices, organization, and leadership in unifying enslaved, maroon, and free rebels in northern Saint-Domingue in 1791.” (2-3) She effectively argues that, indeed, the laws against practices such as “sortièges” and “pratique superstitieuses” were designed and maintained throughout much of Haitian history at least in part to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti” — the rural population. (3)

Ramsey recognizes that, no doubt, Vodou is the now the “religion” of Haitians. But, that designation tells us very little if it is allowed to remain a first-order category. Vodou as religion is also constituted by the historical events that she aims to narrate. By searching out language that more closely describes the particular practices that have come to be named Vodou, she does what Asad asks all scholars to do — namely, to “[unpack] the comprehensive concept which he or she translates as ‘religion’ into heterogeneous elements according to its historical character.” (54) Vodou has come to reside within the Western category of religion, but it still does so uneasily. It is made to oscillate between being a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans) and the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite). In 2003, it was made to occupy the space of “cultural heritage,” but since the 2010 earthquake, it has been pushed once again into the place of primitivism and anti-progressivism.

So, what difference does it make that Bwa Kayiman was “religious”? It seems to make a crucial difference throughout the history of Haiti, both in terms of its internal and external politics. But, if scholars are to make this difference work for Haiti and for Haitians, then we must do better than simply state the coincidence, and we must find better language than simply “religion” for the power therein.


Works Cited

1. Antoine Dalmas, Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue (Paris, 1814).

2. CLR James, The Black Jacobins : Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2d ed., rev. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

3. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World : The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).

4. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion : Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

5. Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law : Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).




Retirer d’en bas de l’eau: Reclaiming the Dead in Black Atlantic Studies

Lone govi under a tree. Photograph by Aimee Green

By Lenny Lowe

It is often said that writing history is like trying to raise the dead. Nowhere is this miracle more difficult to achieve than in the field that has become known as “the black Atlantic” at the core of which lies the legacy of the transAtlantic slave trade. Its archives are eerily silent in nearly every place that one wishes them to speak. Furthermore, the ethics and politics of remembrance are especially delicate. Search too hard or represent too much, and you are branded a sentimentalist, or worse, a novelist. Remember too little or sound too hopeful, and you risk naiveté and irreverence. The task is supremely difficult, but the enduring presence of so many dead demands that it be tried again and again. In thinking about this struggle, I am reminded of other members of the black Atlantic who set out to reclaim the dead year after year.

In her 1953 Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, filmmaker Maya Deren described a vodou ritual for the reclamation of the dead:

“One of the major Vodoun rituals is the ceremony of retirer d’en bas de l’eau, the reclamation of the soul of the deceased from the waters of the abyss, the world of les Invisibles.”[i]

Deren is here writing about a ceremony that occurs (ideally) one year and a day from the death of an individual. The dead, having been deprived of material form and having gone to rest in the waters of the abyss, are ritually called up from “under the water.” The gros-bon-ange (here understood as the “soul” of the person in contrast to the ti-bon-ange, which is something like a Catholic moral conscience) is placed into a clay jar. This jar, called a govi, becomes its new material form, and it is with this form that the living world will resume its relationship with the dead. The dead individual, once a living and breathing human creature, is reclaimed and reinserted into the social world of the living. This ritual of reclamation is, for those involved, a pressing matter – an obligation.

For Deren’s vodouisants, she suggests that:

“This service for the ancestral dead is not a nostalgia or sentimentality…It is not a moment of return to the past; it is the procedure by which the race reincorporates the fruit of previous life-processes into the contemporary moment, and so retains the past as a ground gained, upon and from which it moves forward to the future. The living do not serve the dead; it is the dead who are made to serve the living.”[ii]

It is not my aim to suggest that this ritual is or is not informed by the memory of the Middle Passage. There is a great deal of evidence from West and Central African cosmologies to suggest that the notion of the watery abyss of the dead is not unique to Africans who survived the crossing. It also seems unthinkable that such imagery would not be, at least, multivalent for the Haitian religious imagination. Still, regardless of how various scholars might assign proper provenance to this ritual practice, I am primarily struck by the ritual’s relevance to the work of the anthropologists and historians of the so-called “Black Atlantic.”

No less than  Deren’s vodouisants, scholars of the Atlantic world are engaged in rituals of reclamation (i.e. the making of monograph-govi, blog post-govi, archive-govi, etc.). Through this work, the dead are reclaimed, revivified and — despite our denials and apologies — they are also put to work for political and professional projects that they did not choose. Certainly, we are justified in our concern over such exploitation of the dead. But, if the long line of figures like Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, and Paul Gilroy have taught us anything at all, it is that the resources for thinking the black Atlantic are to be found in the social worlds of the black Atlantic. Perhaps, then, the govi of Haitian vodou and the ritual of retire d’en bas de l’eau have something to say about our work.

“Heathen” funeral in colonial Jamaica

While it is certainly true that the dead pervade all religious lives, whether as saints, ancestors, or even as the generalized “ambient dead,”[iii] it is also the case that the slave trade generated death on such a scale that it has uniquely structured the worlds of the black Atlantic. Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden has made this fact eminently clear. For both Europeans and Africans living in colonial Jamaica, the near-constant loss of life both in the Middle Passage and in the new land itself meant that the dead came to occupy a prominent position in the social, political, and economic lives of Jamaicans. In both material and immaterial matters, the dead were undeniably agents. The dead spoke. The dead made demands. It is in the negotiation between the demands of the dead and the exigencies of the living that “real life” in Jamaica was made.

As scholars of the black Atlantic, we are no doubt engaged in similar negotiations, and yet we too rarely imagine the situation thus. We seem to be keenly aware of the demands of the dead (i.e. to be remembered, to be honored), but we are less certain of our own exigencies. Or, perhaps, we are less certain of how much we need their service to make sense of our “real life.” In my view, Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic wrestles with precisely this problem. Namely, it is the problem of Hegel, the problem of dialectics — the problem of the negative. He takes as his aid to meditation on the problem of modernity the 1781 Zong massacre, in which one hundred and thirty-two slaves were thrown overboard to collect insurance money on the “lost cargo.” Baucom’s book is, therefore, fundamentally a book about the process of govi-making, modes of reclaiming the dead. It asks us to consider how we might go about reclaiming the dead without also employing the same typifying logic and “theoretical realism”[iv] that lies at the core of finance capitalism and the massacre it underwrote/underwrites. In an act of performative refusal, Baucom never quite reaches a moment of prescription. Instead, we are left with a few examples of counterdiscourse and anti-dialectical (i.e. affirmative rather than negative) thought. Chief among them is Edouard Glissant, whose philosophy of history Baucom describes as “sedimentary” and accumulative. In Glissant’s own words, it is relational. In Baucom’s reading of Glissant, this is a view of the past that is not past in any recognizable way. Rather, history accumulates, it stacks up. Connections are forged on top of existing connections. History is understood as a process of addition rather than sublation. In this version of history, loss is — unavoidably — a ground gained.

It is here that the retirer d’en bas de l’eau begins to appear to me as a resource for thinking the black Atlantic. Concerning the ceremony, Deren continues:

“An undistinguished member of the family may be neglected and the costly ceremony of his reclamation repeatedly postponed, to be accomplished eventually, without much enthusiasm, only because nothing of heredity’s accumulations should be permitted to leak away, to be lost forever.”[v]

Deren describes what looks very much like a sedimentary poetics whereby history is made to accumulate. Whether those who remain loved or hated the departed soul, death is refused as a loss. The soul of the dead must be rematerialized, revivified, and reincorporated into the social world of the living, for indeed they are (genetically and relationally) already and always present. What resources exist for the anthropologist or historian in the making of govi for the dead? How do we refuse the loss of death without sentiment or nostalgia? Can we find a way to reclaim the loved and despised “as a ground gained”? The risks are, as always, very high. Not even Deren’s vodouisants are immune. She suggests that, as memories fade with the loss of generations, the person in the govi becomes depersonalized, and something like a principle. But, that cannot be the ultimate end:

“And yet — what once was so real, so substantial, cannot be permitted to end in such rarefaction, to vanish forever into the far reaches of history. This abstraction, to function in reality, must become reality; the principle must become the person. And so the process of abstraction, as though meeting, finally, the limits of its own extension, curves back towards its origins: those who cannot remember begin to create, building now from the inside outward, as one might be guided by the clues and logic of a skeleton to construct a figure.”[vi]

It sounds like black Atlantic scholarship to me.



[i] Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 27-28. Italics mine.

[iii] Todd Ochoa, Society of the Dead : Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (Berkeley: University of California, 2010).

[iv] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic : Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[v] Deren, 28.

[vi] Ibid., 29. Italics in original.