Louis, Bertin M. My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas. New York: New York University Press, 2014. Hardcover. [There are also Kindle and paperback editions available.] 200 pp.
I despise the word “voodoo.” It has pejorative connotations and unfairly stereotypes the often-Catholic people who practice a peaceful religion that is accurately called vodou. The word “voodoo” has been thrown around in Boston media recently, as at least two people have claimed “voodoo” made them commit crimes against children. The word “voodoo” also draws often-false images of blood, cloth dolls with pins in them, and even sex orgies. Hence, I generally ignore this word and get a little angry when hearing or reading it — especially in a stereotyping manner.
However, hundreds of news media reports have used “voodoo” and/or discussed AIDS as synonyms with Haiti and Haitians. After my life-changing learning experiences in Harvard University Sociology Professor Orlando Patterson’s class on the Caribbean last semester (and also because I know multiple people of Haitian descent in Boston and beyond); I feel it is important to broadcast works such as My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas that debunk the myths often associated with Haitian identity. I am not “initiated” in any African diasporic or traditional religion, and most people call me white or Hispanic. However, I feel it is essential that I also do my part as a writer to debunk dangerous myths about all people of color throughout the world.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bertin M. Louis Jr.’s book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas. In all my formal and informal studies, I had never thought of Haiti and the Bahamas simultaneously. Obviously, they share a common membership in the Caribbean. Beyond that, I did not know of any connection.
I also often avoid books that promote Protestantism. However, I was curious about the connection between Haiti and the Bahamas. I was also sure vodou would come up. Hence, I ordered a review copy of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas. Louis is an anthropologist; consequently, I hoped he would provide a balanced report and not throw more garbage into the fires lit by the people who would like to return to the days of the Salem Witch Trials. I was not disappointed.
Louis and his family are Christians of Haitian descent, but he tries to provide a fair and balanced account of religious memberships in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora. He discusses how Haitians in the Bahamas left their homeland in hopes of prosperity and more human rights. Many of the Haitian Christians discussed in Louis’ book converted from Catholicism and/or vodou before emigrating. However, a few Haitians converted after they sneaked into the Bahamas.
My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas shows the sometimes-dramatic situations that arise as a result of Haitian-Bahamian Christianity. Early in Louis’ fieldwork, many of the people he wants to study harshly judge his character because of his dreadlocks. (As I learned in Professor Patterson’s class last semester, dreadlocks were invented by Jamaican Rastafarians. Besides promoting a view of the now-deceased Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as the second coming of Jesus Christ, Rastafarians consider marijuana — better known as ganja in Jamaica — a sacrament. Hence, dreadlocks are associated with drugs and blasphemy in the minds of many Caribbean Protestants.) Louis ends up cutting his dreadlocks to fit in better. Fortunately, several of his late relatives were revered church leaders in the Bahamas. Hence, Louis appears to get a little more forgiveness from parishioners for some of his initial gaffes.
Appearances (physical and social) permeate all aspects of life for Haitians living in the Bahamas, as discussed in Louis’ book. Like the stereotypical Mexican immigrant in the United States, the average Haitian immigrant in the Bahamas illegally entered the country. Like many Latin American immigrants in the United States, Haitians in the Bahamas often perform “under the table” menial jobs such as gardening, landscaping, and washing dishes in restaurants. Some women work as nannies or housekeepers for wealthier Bahamians, though this seems rare in the segment of Haitian-Bahamian society that Louis discusses. Due to fear of being turned in to immigration authorities as well as general social mores that “real” Bahamians should stick with “their own kind,” the Haitians-Bahamians Louis studies generally socialize among themselves.
Louis is careful not to inject his own feelings about vodou into the mix, though some of his interviewees complain about so-called Christians who call a relative in Haiti or go to their homeland to use vodou to “fix” someone. These people then appear in church on Sunday and profess they are Christians and do not practice “voodoo.” However, since Louis uses quotes from his subjects (quotes that were almost certainly translated from Haitian Creole into English), he acts like a responsible anthropologist or a responsible journalist. He’s reporting, not editorializing. (I admit I am in this article, but I acknowledged this bias from the beginning!)
My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas is a fast read. I read it on two fairly short airplane flights. The book provides a glimpse into the lives of Haitian members of three Protestant churches in the Bahamas and shows that inner-church drama, gossip, and hypocrisy — along with friendship, service, and faith — are truly universal concepts. It also proves my initial point that not every person of Haitian descent is into “voodoo” dolls, blood, orgies, and the like.
About the author: Stephanie Mojica is a HES graduate student with over twenty years of professional writing and editing experience. She is the Interim Editor of the annual peer-reviewed journal Student Anthropologist and a member of the academic journal Encuentro Latinoamericano‘s Editorial Board.