Notes from the Field
It was Holy Thursday night in 1993, and Chantal, Phenel, and I were out recording and filming a Rara band in the narrow back streets of Port-au-Prince. We were dancing down the dark hilly streets at a good clip, on our way to a small cemetery to try to get some zonbi to “heat up” the band for the season’s climax on Easter. We stopped while the band paid a musical salute to the invisible guardian of the cemetery gates in Vodou. I looked up and noticed a straw dummy sitting on the roof of the house across the street. It was a Jwif (Jew). He was sitting in a chair in the open air, on top of the one-story tinroofed house. Made of straw and dressed in blue jeans, a shirt, suit jacket, and sneakers, this “Jew” wore a tie and had a pen sticking out of his shirt pocket. His legs were crossed, and over them sat what looked to be a laptop computer fashioned out of cardboard. A cord seemed to run from the computer down into a briefcase that sat by his chair. I asked around for the dummy’s owner. An older man missing a few teeth came forward, offering a callused, muscular handshake that revealed a life of hard physical labor. He was from the countryside in the south of the island, a migrant to Port-au-Prince. I found myself in the ridiculous position of having to compliment him on his work. “Nice Jew ya got there,” I said. “Ou gen yon be` l Jwif la, wi.””Oh yes, we leave it up for the Rara band to pass by. Tomorrow afternoon we’ll burn it,” he said. “Aha…well…great…,”said my research partners and I, flaring our eyes at each other. I guess nobody told the guy that Jean-Claude Duvalier banned the practice in the 1970s, around the time of a rush of tourism and foreign industrial investment. I bet other people still “burn the Jew,” here and there.
The boisterous Rara festivals take place during Lent, when practicing Catholics are quietly meditating on the suffering of Jesus. Vodouists and Rara members do not observe this aspect of Christianity, and so the tension between the two religious bases can bubble to the surface during Rara season.
Rara symbols reveal many fragmented historical memories about religion. Undergirding all of these memories are rituals and references from the Spanish Inquisition. Some churches stage elaborate and melodramatic passion plays, and perform the suffering and death of Jesus. In another tradition, families and villages make straw dummies of “a Jew,” (who is sometimes the apostle Judas,) and drag him through the streets, beat him, and finally burn this “Jew” in effigy.
In still another tradition, some Rara bands have an idea that Rara is a “Jewish festival” that they continue in Haiti order to carry on ancestral Jewish traditions. They see themselves as enacting the role of “the Jews” as they were portrayed in the gospels, and celebrate the crucifixion with music and dance.
What can explain these different ways of celebrating Lent, and of looking at Jews? History. There is a very intense connection between Europeans’ treatment of both Jews and Africans. I argue in my book that many of the negative images of Africans in the colonial Americas draw from and elaborate medieval European images of Jews. The Jews were thought to be servants of Satan, and they were always suspect, even when they converted to Christianity. Europe’s demonization of the Jews became a mythological blueprint for the encounter with Native peoples and Africans in the Americas. When they got to the colony, the French Catholics basically said to the Africans, “You and your religion are evil, like the Jews.”
The seeds of both white supremecy and anti-semitism lay in Medieval European Christianity, particularly in the religious thought of the Spanish Inquisition. The ideologies and practices that developed in this encounter ultimately became a full-blown system of race and process of racialization. We can thus discern a process of domination where Christianity and anti-Judaism gave rise to the racialized capitalism we find in the Americas.
But the subjects of Othering tell their own stories, and build their own identities. The story is never simply about a one-directional process of demonizing a conquered people. So this story is also about the agency of the disenfranchised, in their expressions, reactions and representations. Some in the African diaspora have inherited, used and manipulated European Christian anti-Judaism, to contest their class position in a racialized society. In contemporary Haiti, local dramas re-present the symbolic presence of Judas and of “the Jews” in complicated and ambiguous ways. In the course of Easter week, “Jews” are demonized and burned in effigy by some–but they are also honored and claimed by others as forefathers and founders of the Rara bands. Various Rara leaders embrace the identity of “the Jew” and claim a sort of mystical Jewish ancestry. In accepting the label of “Jew,” these Rara leaders take on a mantle of denigration as a kind of psychic and social resistance. In carving out a symbolic territory as “Jews,” these Black Haitians symbolically oppose the powers that historically have sought to exploit them–the mulatto Haitian Catholic elite. There is a popular saying in Haiti that “If you go in the Rara, you are a Jew.”
Myths, by their nature, create imminent and shifting imaginaries, not easily controlled by orthodoxy. Exploited peoples embraced the image of “the Jew” and creatively performed oppositional dramas in which they critique the morality of Christianity and their own place in a racialized class structure. This is a complicated story, and argument.
You can read the expanded version in Chapter Four of Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002.)