In the introduction to an interview with Robert A Hill, “archeologist of Black memory‘ David Scott raises the importance of ‘memory, community and criticism’ as a form of linkage and the role of criticism as a way of remembering – putting back together that which has been broken over time. From here we can begin to grasp and ‘re-imagine’ the present. Of course there are different kinds of memory. Sara Ahmed writes that feminist work is often memory work – the kind of work to remember what ‘sometimes we wish would or could just recede’. Memory is not necessarily about the forgotten, rather its about bringing to the forefront that which has been hidden possibly as a way of surviving. But it could also be a way of erasure as in the case of institutional or nation memory.
In the town of Kazal, some 45 minutes from Port-au-Prince, there are layers of memory. National memories, personal memories, body memories. Memories that traveled through Europe and Africa, TransAtlantic memories, death memories, memories of joy and living, revolutionary memories, enslaved memories.
I received the call to visit Kazal from a Haitian friend on a short visit to Port-au-Prince asking if I would like to go to Cabaret / Kazal to meet friends of hers and to show me some land she had. She said it was about an hour’s drive outside the city and it would be an opportunity to meet another friend of hers who would travel with us. I had not heard of Kazal so had no idea what to expect. The drive off road from Rte National 1 was treacherous for my back and seemed to go on forever. We stopped a couple of times to take photos of ‘Bawon’ guarding the numerous cemeteries along the way but the journey was otherwise uneventful. My friend explained she had first visited the town in 1986 with her aunt and they decided to purchase some land and build a small house. Later they spent time there with her children but eventually she gave the house to the family of Yayoute who we would visit.
On our arrival she was greeted warmly by a young woman and some minutes later they disappeared round the corner. Three days previously I had fallen and cut my right toe so was walking with a very slow limp and it took me a while to catch up. The first memory I witnessed was the memorial to the people of Kazal who were murdered by François [Papa Doc] Duvalier – a memory of death and collective pain. It is pointless to ask why because terror does not come with reasoning!
Two more layers of memory. That Yayoute immediately recognized his African ancestry became all the more powerful given that in another place, another person, he might have ignored or even denied Africa and claimed only Europe. His Polish ancestry can be traced back to Napoleon who recruited Polish men and other Europeans to fight in his campaign against Russia. On their return to France Napoleon decided to send them to fight the Haitian revolutionaries. However once arriving on the island, the majority of the Polish did not want to fight and though stories vary, it is generally believed that many of them turned on the French and fought on the side of the Haitians.
Most of the 5,000 plus men died and the people of Kazal are the descendants of those who survived and who were given Haitian citizenship by Haiti’s first president, Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1804. Narratives of the Polish descendants in Haiti emphasize the European but Yayoute contradicted this in his own personal reality. For a few moments we became joined through the passage of time and space, together in an historical reality, the memory a mix of presence and absence . Yayoute and I were both part of an archive of living visible bodies as well as dead invisible bodies, those who did not survive the crossing.
In her book “The Time of Slavery” *, Saidiya Hartman writes
“the bridge between Africa and the Americas is articulated negatively in terms of separation, the unremembered dead, and the second-class status of African Americans in the United States”.
Her emphasis on the United States is important when we consider that in the Caribbean people of African descent are part of independent Black nation states although the level of independence and dependence differs in complex ways. Hartman goes on to suggest that
The past interrupts the present not by virtue of cultural affinity or the status of Africa as ‘authentic cultural origin of the diaspora’ but because of the extant legacy of this captivity and displacement
I suggest that, contrary to the US, Haiti’s history and cultural affinity has always been intimately and positively connected to “the past called Africa” [Hartman]. A successful Black revolution [1791-1804] and an indigenous belief system, Vodou in which the Lwa, many of whom originate in West and central Africa [Yoruba, Fon, Igbo, Kongo to name a few] has meant that Africa is a continued presence and it is Ginen [Africa] to which we all return through dreams and ultimately death.
This is not a nostalgic relationship built upon fantasy and longing. Rather Vodou’s relationship with Africa is a real and practical one that is expressed through a trans-linguality of naming and song as well as dance, drums and possession.
Of course there are many in Haiti and elsewhere who have demonized Vodou and tried to eradicate it culturally but for many who may or may not practice Vodou, Africa remains an historical reality. As we pass the waters of our ancestors, we are, as my friend Donald Molosi writes
approaching a totality of self through trans-linguality since history scattered the bones of our ancestors all over the world. Now we are collecting all these bones into a basket, into a consciousness.
*The Time of Slavery, Saidiya Hartman, – The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol 101, Fall 2002