Re-reading Post-independence Haiti from the Kongo

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:30 AM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Christina Mobley, University of Virginia
Scholars have long noted that Haitian Revolution produced not one nation, but two. The society that emerged from the revolution was not defined by European-style governance, religion, or land tenure. Rather, post-independence Haitian society was characterized by three cultural creations, all of which played a crucial role in the Revolution’s success: the Kreyòl language, the Vodou religion, and the lakou system of land tenure. In this paper, I use sociolinguistics to analyze the Kongo contribution to these three cultural creations and to post-independence Haitian society more broadly. I argue that the widespread existence of the lakou and practice of Vodou in the early nineteenth century Haiti suggests that, during the Revolution, a large number of Africans and their descendants created a new life outside of the plantation system. This strategy is recalled in a refrain found in many Kongo Vodou songs: “Christian, not Christian anymore, I’m going into the woods, zila moyo” begins one such Vodou song from the Kongo-Petwo rite of Haitian Vodou, which uses the kikongo phrase nzila moyo to describe the woods as the path of the soul. Using linguistics, I offer a re-reading of the history of the lakou as both deeply rooted in Kongo understandings of the world and a reaction against the economic exploitation of the plantation world, what Jean Casimir has rightly termed a “counter-plantation system.” I argue that Kongo used knowledge and practices as tools to recreate autonomous communities of belonging in the aftermath of slavery and that they constituted the building blocks of independent Haitian society. These cultural creations were, however, neither discretely Kongo nor wholly new. Instead, they were both – what one Vodou song describes as “Creole-Kongo.”
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