On January 12 Haiti was struck by a powerful and devastating earthquake. It is the latest blow to a country that has long struggled, and its aftershocks will continue reach far across space and time. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television news have been vigilant in keeping us updated on this tragedy. By now most of us know that basic story, but how much do you know about Haitian culture and society?
Did you know that Haiti's ancestors were the first slave society to emancipate themselves? As a result of their revolution, Haiti was established: the first republic in the New World ruled by people of African descent. If you're interested in brushing up on Haiti's harrowing but inspiring history, I would recommend checking out Avengers of the New World: the Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois and The Black Jacobins : Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James. In these excellent books, you will find the historical roots of Haitian society and politics of today.
Haitian Vodou, often misrepresented, is a well-known thread in our cultural fabric. Popular culture has teased out an arguably perverse caricature from the Afro-Caribbean tradition, convenient for children's cartoons and hundreds of zombie movies. (That's not to say Zombie movies aren't totally entertaining; check out the classic I Walked With a Zombie. If nothing else, it is a revealing peek at American culture, circa 1943.) But what is the true nature of Vodou, or Voodoo, as it is more commonly called? Zora Neale Hurston's good research in this field is enhanced by her beautiful writing; see "Tell My Horse," which is in Folklore, Memoirs and Other Writings by Hurston. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown is not owned by AADL, but it is warm, enlightening and one of my favorites. You can get it through MEL. If you're feeling a little less ambitious, you can take a look at a cool DVD that we do have, Divine Horsemen, a ground-breaking (at the time) documentary about Vodou ritual.
On the lighter side, I would recommend Putomayo Presents: French Caribbean, which features music from the French-speaking islands of Guadeloupe, Haiti and Martinique. Putomayo can be counted on to put out a good mix, and this album holds true.
I am amazed by the extent to which people are getting involved in the Crisis in Haiti. Americans have broken records by contributing over $500 million to the relief effort in Haiti. Incredible, right? This is a practical, tangible way to get involved. Another important way to honor Haiti is by learning more about its rich culture and history. You can find the tools to do so here at the AADL.