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Vodou and Valency

UF Haitian Creole specialist Ben Hebblethwaite unearths African and Haitian history from the mythology of Vodou songs and rituals.

By Rachel Wayne

The tiny island nation of Haiti holds centuries of history from another continent. Sung in Creole, the sacred songs of Haitian Vodou impart the rich spirituality and diverse languages of West African cultures in a long-running oral tradition. Benjamin Hebblethwaite, associate professor of Haitian Creole, Haitian, and Francophone Studies, has devoted his career to capturing Haitian Creole text and documenting Vodou rites — especially the lyrically and socially rich songs that permeate the rites.

Hebblethwaite’s research shows that this body of work entails one of the best-preserved oral traditions, with thousands of years of songs, words, and figures embedded in Haitian culture through Vodou. “For linguists, it’s a vast resource that reveals the layers of history that formed Haiti, through the African-Haitian community brought across in the slave trade,” says Hebblethwaite.

Not to be confused with New Orleans Voodoo, Haitian Vodou is a complex religion with several million adherents, derived from Dahomian Vodun and incorporating several additional West African traditions. It emerged among slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). As is often the case in conquest and slavery, the active suppression of African culture and religion led to newly coded forms of expression. Hebblethwaite explains that despite the French’s strict slave regime in Haiti that also forced conversion to Catholicism, their laissez-faire attitude toward slaves’ evening activities allowed the Africans to share and codify their homeland songs and myths into Vodou with a new common language: Haitian Creole. “I’m fascinated by the way the Vodou community uses Haitian Creole and by the memory that lives in that community,” Hebblethwaite says. “Vodou preserves African history better than any other institution in Haitian life, including professional Haitian historians.”

Robust religious traditions such as Vodou entail a multifaceted package of cultural expression, the hinge point of Hebblethwaite’s ethnographic inquiry. He explains that the highly personal and intimate nature of religious oral tradition has enormous potential to capture history that’s often forgotten in post-colonial societies. In the case of Haiti, Vodou allowed for a “pristine preservation of pre-colonial history,” he says. Moreover, Haiti’s relatively short time as a colony before its independence in 1804 helped stay the cultural execution, allowing Vodou to flourish before the resurgence in the 20th century.

“Vodou preserves African history better than any other institution in Haitian life, including professional Haitian historians.”

Yet, both Haitian Creole and Vodou retain an unfortunate mystery, vibrantly pulsing under centuries of suppression and stereotyping, with little official representation. Until the late 1980s, the practice of Vodou was still prohibited. Still, Haitian Creole is slowly enjoying broader official usage in both Haiti and the U.S., through more political functions and services in the language. In what Hebblethwaite calls a promising development, the state officially recognized the Akademi Kreyòl, organized to promote and standardize Haitian Creole, which “adds weight to the momentum of the Creole movement,” he says.

To that end, Hebblethwaite has also published — with some resistance by journal editors — a paper in Haitian Creole, which has 9.6 million speakers, to show that the language is “a worthy vehicle for science.” Haitian classrooms are predominantly taught in French, although the first language of almost all students, and indeed Haitians in general, is Haitian Creole. In that sense, the French influence is still palpable, and this incongruity can be harmful. Hebblethwaite seeks to increase the body of Creole work by doing it himself as much as possible. “It’s practicing what I preach,” he says.

Hebblethwaite’s passion for his area of expertise stems from a year of study in his birth nation of South Africa, where Dutch creolized into Afrikaans. Afrikaans spread widely through its use in schools, broadcasts, and Bible translations. Hebblethwaite was intrigued by how this creolization and the expansion of the functions of Afrikaans had occurred. His studies focused on French, in which he is fluent. “I wondered what a Creole would look like evolving in a French colony.” To wit, he picked up a Haitian Creole Bible, and his fascination took hold, he said. “Some things are serendipitous,” he says. Now, he is “one of a long line of preservationists” working to form a “synchronic snapshot of Vodou as it exists today.”

Further in support of the vanguard for Haitian Creole, Hebblethwaite has video recorded dozens of Vodou ceremonies. Although no one part can stand alone, the videos provide opportunity for researchers in anthropology, linguistics, and religion. In his new book, Hebblethwaite is working toward an in-depth history of Vodou’s Dahomian aspects.

Vodou is a highly systematic and codified tradition. For a full understanding, a Creolist must move beyond linguistics and embrace anthropological and historical investigation. The book focuses on three rites — the Rada, the Gede, and the Nago — and all three originate in the Yoruba and Aja–Fon cultures tied to the kingdoms of Dahomey, Allada, Whydah, Oyo, and others. No stranger to intensive study, Hebblethwaite picked up on West African history. “To finish the last chapter, I had to become conversant in the history of the Yoruba-Aja Commonwealth,” he says matter-of-factly.

UF students need not feel left out. A comprehensive Haitian Creole Studies program offers language instruction from beginner to advanced levels, as well as four interdisciplinary courses on Haiti culture, society, and history.

Now, another creole is coming to class schedules as well: Hebblethwaite has proposed an undergraduate course covering Jamaican language and culture to be called “Jamaican Creole, Reggae, and Rastafari.” UF will become only the second university in the U.S. to offer instruction in Jamaican Patois, improving academic representation for Florida’s significant Patois-speaking population and further expanding the curriculum on Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs). “I love to teach about languages and cultures that I find inspiring,” Hebblethwaite says.

For the past two decades, Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education has supported instruction in LCTLs, including the Haitian Creole Studies program at UF, but that funding source has ceased. To find out how you can support the program, email the Office of Advancement or call 352-294-1971.

Richard Freeman, whose photo appears on the opposite page, passed away unexpectedly on Oct. 23, 2017, before this issue went to print. We mourn his passing and appreciate his incredible work for UF.