An interview with Bertin M. Louis, author of My Soul Is in Haiti

Below is an interview with Bertin M. Louis, Vice Chair of Africana Studies and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and author of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the BahamasThis interview, conducted by Celucien L. Joseph, editor of Haiti: Then and Now, is the first interview in a series on Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space.

My Soul Is in Haiti offers a greater understanding of the spread of Protestant Christianity, both regionally and globally, by studying local transformations in the Haitian diaspora of the Bahamas. You can read the full interview on Haiti: Then and Now.

Dr. Joseph: You are an anthropologist by training, a scholar-activist, and a popular social media intellectual and cultural critic of American anti-black racism and white supremacy. How did you get interested in Haitian (Diaspora) studies as a scholarly interest and field of research?

Dr. Louis: Before I discuss how I became interested in Haitian (Diaspora) studies, let me explain how I came to be an outspoken critic of American race relations.  My research interests in race and racism are an extension of my experiences growing up in Staten Island, New York and in the household of Haitians who migrated to the United States in the mid-1960s.  Growing up in Annadale which is in the South Shore of Staten Island was very challenging.  At the time the South Shore consisted primarily of families of working class whites of Italian, Irish, Jewish and Polish descent to name a few.  While I grew up on a block that was more racially diverse (White, Filipino, Latino, African-American) than other neighborhoods in the surrounding area, I was the only black kid in many of my classes and, in some cases, sometimes my whole grade.

And I was subjected to racist white bigotry on a daily basis.  I was regularly called “Nigger,” “Blackbird,” and “Spear Chucker.”  I remember white girls in elementary school being revolted because my gums were darker than theirs, being picked on because I was black.  One day on my way home from school a bus with mostly white and Filipino kids from around my neighborhood chanted “Bertin is a Nigger.” I remember fighting with a white Italian kid after Intermediate school literally feet from my house and a car pulled up beside us and teenagers jumped out with baseball bats and threatened to beat me up and told me “Go home, nigger.”  So I literally felt like an alien growing up in Staten Island, New York as well as feeling terrorized, at times.  I felt like that I did not belong where I grew up and that I was actually inferior to the white people around me. Even though I would go on to attend a racially diverse high-school (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), I still felt like I was inferior to white people until I went off to Syracuse University and took classes my ideas about race, Haiti, Haitians and the African Diaspora.

The second semester of my sophomore year at Syracuse University I did not know what I wanted to major in and by the end of my sophomore year I had to declare a major.  A friend in my dorm recommended that I take an “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” class. I took the course and enjoyed it immensely.  The most provocative idea that stuck with me from the course was that race, that outward appearances determined inward characteristics, was not rooted in biology and was actually a social construction with real-world implications.  After that class I declared Anthropology as my major.  The following semester (first semester of my Junior year) I took a course called “Caribbean Society since Independence” with a quirky, Jamaican political scientist by the name of Dr. Horace Campbell who opened a world of critical thinking to me through Africana Studies.  The first book we read was “The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution” by Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James.  Li frape m fo (Haitian Creole for “It hit me hard!”)It had a deep and indelible impact on me and to know that I was descended from enslaved Africans who led the world’s only successful slave revolt filled me with a lot of pride to combat my previous inferiority complex.  It also gave me a thirst to learn more about Haitian history and culture and to understand what was wrong with the white people I grew up around and the place I grew up in.  From Syracuse University (B.A. in Anthropology), The New School (M.A in Anthropology), Washington University in Saint Louis (PhD in Anthropology) and teaching Africana Studies and Anthropology courses at the University of Tennessee, my ongoing education has helped me realize that racism (raw bigotry and institutional forms of racism) was part of everyday life in Staten Island – from raw bigotry on an almost daily basis (i.e. it was normal for me to be called “nigger”) to it being an intrinsic part of the curriculum at the schools I went to (white supremacist interpretations of history and the world, the introduction of blacks in the curriculum as slaves without any explanation of the lives of Africans before that) and how racial hierarchy operates in the place I grew up in and elsewhere in the United States and the world.

“The Black Jacobins” and those two classes put on the path that I am on today to understand as much as I can about Haiti, to produce new knowledge about Haiti and its diaspora as well as offer analysis on the nature of race and racism.  The study of Haiti and its diaspora and race and racism, in my opinion, go hand-in-hand because you need to understand race and racism when you are looking for answers as to why Haiti has been treated poorly by the United States, France and other countries as well as why Haitians continue to be treated by the international community as cultural and social pariahs.  As a Haitian you also need to draw on your culture and history of resistance to combat the everyday racism that you face whether you are living the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, or the United States.

Dr. Joseph: In your excellent and well-received book, My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas published by New York University in 2015, you studied the intersection of Protestant Haitian Christianity and the Haitian experience in the Bahamas. How did you become interested in this fascinating and yet neglected area of study in Haitian scholarship?

Dr. Louis: I was interested in studying Haitian Protestantism for a couple of reasons.  As a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at Washington University in Saint Louis, I wanted to study Haitians and focus on an under-researched area of Haitian culture.  I decided to focus on Haitian Protestantism.  Traditionally, anthropologists and other religious studies scholars who study the religions Haitians practice pay more attention to Vodou and Catholicism and pay less attention to Protestant Christianity.   Seminal texts such as Mama Lola (Karen McCarthy Brown) and The Faces of the Gods (Leslie Desmangles) arose to challenge Western stereotypes about the practice of New World African religions such as Vodou.  But continued research focus on Catholicism and Vodou tends to misrepresent contemporary Haitian religious practice because more Haitians are practicing Protestant forms of Christianity like the Adventist and Baptist faiths in locales like Montreal and South Florida.

The practice of Protestant forms of Christianity among Haitians in its diaspora throughout the United States is rising, and Haitian Protestants have begun to outnumber Haitian Catholics in some US locales. In New York City, for example, Haitian Protestant churches—which were estimated to number more than one hundred in 2006— outnumber Haitian Catholic churches, suggesting that the number of Haitians who attend Protestant churches is rising and that Haitian Protestants may be a new religious majority among Haitians in the New York City area. This trend may be repeating itself in the American locales in which we find significant Haitian populations, such as Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I also became interested in studying Protestantism because it is part of my family background.  My mother was raised in a Baptist household and imparted many of her religious traditions with me and my siblings while growing up in Staten Island.  As a family we would go to Haitian Baptist churches in Brooklyn, attend family gatherings where impromptu church services would take place in someone’s home which we called “Actions de Grâce â L’Éternel.”  So I started to formally study Protestantism among Haitian migrants in the greater St. Louis, Missouri area.  Then I became interested in the transnational dimensions of the practice of Protestant forms of Haitian Christianity when I attended Truth and Grace Haitian Christian Church in Saint Peters, Missouri because they created a microloan program and their pastor at the time, Rev. Jean Lesly Paillan, had the vision of figuring out what contributions that Haitian Protestantism in the diaspora could make on positively impacting Haiti’s development.

I was awarded a Fulbright to study Protestantism in Haiti as part of a larger transnational study of Haitian Baptists living in the U.S. who returned to Haiti to conduct missionary work.  Unfortunately, I was unable to go to Haiti at that time because it was the 2nd time that then President Aristide was removed from the country.  My Fulbright officer informed me that I would have to find another place to conduct my research by March 2005 or I would have to return my award.    Fulbright made an exception for me and allowed me to study in the Bahamas, a country where they did not have a program in at the time. I picked the Bahamas because 1) a survey I had conducted with Haitian Baptist churches in the U.S. mentioned the Bahamas as a place where pastors and congregants participated in evangelization and crusades for a large Haitian Protestant community and 2) I had contacts in the religious community through Rev. Dr. Soliny Védrine, head pastor of Boston Missionary Baptist Church and my uncle. So that’s why I was able to study Haitian Protestantism in the Bahamas and contribute to drawing attention to its rapid growth in Haiti (40-40 percent of Haiti is Protestant and possibly the majority of Haitians in the United States are Protestants).

And I am glad that I was able to.  Many people believe that, through advertising and marketing, that the Bahamas is a paradise.  They also don’t realize that there are gross forms of discrimination that are happening to Haitians there.  So I am glad that I have the privilege of being able to work on issues affecting the Haitian Diaspora in the Bahamas.

Dr. Joseph: Did you have any particular goals or objectives in mind before embarking on this important study?  What were you hoping to find about the relationship between Protestant Haitian Christianity and the Haitian life in the Bahamas?

Dr. Louis: Initially, I was going to study how migrants chose the churches they attended in the Bahamas.  But in a series of interviews an issue of people referring to differences between devout and sinful church members piqued my interest through the use of the terms Pwotestan (Protestant) and Kretyen (Christian).  So I decided to organize my study around this pattern and to understand why the pattern kept repeating regardless of the church that I attended and people I interviewed.

Dr. Joseph: In the introduction of the book, you articulate this thesis statement: “This book argues that the Haitian Protestant migrants in the Bahamas reflect the growing trend toward Protestantism. For these migrants, a Kretyen, a devout Protestant, serves as a critique of their diasporic compatriots and also showcases their hope of a future reshaping of Haiti into a Protestant Christian nation” (p. 4).  Why is it important for devout Haitian migrant Protestant Christians to reframe Haiti’s religious narrative and to construct a new paradigm based strictly on a Christian worldview, or as the Christians put it in Haiti, “to reclaim Haiti for Christ”?  What is at stake here?

Dr. Louis: In my studies of Haitian Protestantism, I believe that there is an important critique of what it means to be Haitian by devout Haitian Protestants that other Haitians, and people who study the Haitian experience, who negatively critique Haitian Protestants should pay attention to.  This is the critique: the ways of the ancestors have failed the nation of Haiti and the people of Haiti.  Vodou has not solved the country’s problems and the problems that Haiti endure are spiritual problems that can only be rectified through the catalytic action of the Holy Spirit.  So there’s also a critique of what it means to be a Haitian citizen embedded in this world view – that Haitian citizens who are not devoutChristians are delaying the salvation of Haiti from poverty, governmental inefficiency, and corruption.  According to this world view, the way that Haitian citizens appear and comport themselves is the problem (individual problem) – not the indemnity that France forced Haiti to pay after independence.  Not the American occupation of the early 20thcentury.  Not the other instances where the United States has meddled in the affairs of the Haitian people regardless if there was a Republican or Democrat in the office of the American presidency (external problem). So the problem is an issue of moral character and is not the exploitative relationship that the world has with Haiti which I’m trying to bring attention to through my research and work.

This religious world view resonates with American evangelical politics which tend to blame the victim instead of uncovering the complex external and internal reasons that cause Haiti to be in the state that it is in.

Dr. Joseph: Would you call this phenomenon a new movement in Haiti’s religious history?

Dr. Louis: I wouldn’t call this phenomenon a new movement in Haiti’s religious history because I believe that the collective religious world view that I mentioned previously has been slowly and steadily growing throughout Haiti and its diaspora.  The size of the transnational religious movement is growing and that is what I would consider to be “new” if anything.

Dr. Joseph: In your research for this book, did you observe any possible influence of American evangelical missionaries on the Protestant Christian community among Bahamians of Haitian descent (“Haitian-Bahamians”)?

Dr. Louis: During my research in the Bahamas in 2005, I witnessed very little influence from American evangelical missionaries on Haitians in the Bahamas. I recall attending one church where a white American pastor from Nebraska preached at New Haitian Mission Baptist Church (referred to as “New Mission” in English by its congregants) and also some younger white Americans also visited New Mission.  This may or may have not changed since I’ve visited.  I know that from time to time American evangelicals visit the Bahamas and partner with other churches depending on the denomination. I know that as a Nazarene church that Victory Chapel is in contact with American Nazarene churches but I have not researched the depth of that relationship.

Dr. Joseph: Is your book available in paperback, and where can we get a copy?

Dr. Louis:  Yes, “My Soul in Haiti” is available both in hardcover and paperback, and can be purchased on NYU Press, AmazonBarnes and Noble, and any online retail store or bookstore.

Dr. Joseph: Thank you so much for your time and enormous contributions to the disciplines of Anthropology, Black Religion, Black and Africana Studies, and Haitian Studies.

Dr. Louis: Thank you, Dr. Joseph and Haiti: Then and Now, for the opportunity.

*Dr. Celucien L. Joseph (PhD, University of Texas at Dallas; PhD, University of Pretoria) is a Haitian American scholar, educator, religious thinker, and writer. He currently serves as the Curator of Haiti: Then and Now. He is Professor of English at Indian River State of College. His most recent book, Thinking in Public: Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development in Jacques Roumain, is published by Wipf and Stock Publishers (2017).

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