By MADISON SMARTT BELL
Today is a good day to remember that in Haiti, nobody ever really dies. The many thousands who've had the breath crushed out of their bodies in the earthquake, and the thousands more who will not physically survive the aftermath, will undergo instead a translation of state, according to the precepts of Haitian Vodou, some form of which is practiced by much of the population. Spirits of the Haitian dead — sa nou pa we yo, those we don’t see — do not depart as in other religions but remain extremely close to the living, invisible but tangible, inhabiting a parallel universe on the other side of any mirror, beneath the surface of all water, just behind the veil that divides us from our dreams.
That extraordinary spiritual reservoir is the source of the Haitian religious view of the world — as powerful as any today. As often as it is misunderstood and misrepresented, Haitian Vodou, with all it carries out of the cradle of humankind’s birth in Africa and combines with Roman Catholicism, has enabled Haitians to laugh at death, as they have too often needed to do.
During the decade-long Haitian revolution that began in 1791 — the only event in human history where African slaves won freedom for themselves by force of arms — a prisoner of the French was awaiting execution by burning. Come, he is supposed to have said to his companions, let us show these people how to die. He climbed onto the pyre himself and stayed there, without uttering another sound, until the fire consumed him.
The energy of souls not lost springs back into the living world, not only through one of the few surviving religions that allow believers to converse face to face with the gods, but also in an extraordinarily rich, fertile and (in spite of everything) optimistic culture. Haiti offers, keeps on offering, a shimmering panorama of visual art and a wealth of seductive and hypnotic music, much of it rooted in the rhythms of ceremonial drumming. For the past 50 years a remarkably vivid and sophisticated Haitian literature has been flowing out of Creole, an ever-evolving language as fecund as the English of Shakespeare’s time. The Haitian world is not all suffering; it is full of treasure. Here are a few of the many voices, native and not, inspired by Haiti. —Madison Smartt Bell
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