Haiti’s story began in the 1600s after French explorers landed on the island of Hispianola— repaying the hospitality of the Taino natives with slavery, murder, and enough disease to pretty much wipe them out. With few Taino slaves left to work the plantations, west and central Africans were imported (in chains) to pick up the slack. But these Africans had something more powerful than labor. They had identity.
For centuries, tribes from Benin, Congo, Nigeria, and Angola had practiced variations of Vodou. More than just a religion, Vodou was a way of life centering around the existence of one Supreme God. It was also an oral tradition passed through generations of families and communities. Because this Supreme God didn’t micromanage the day to day stuff, spirits (aka “loa
”) ruled over affairs from family, love, and happiness to justice, wealth, and revenge. With every loa
responsible for a particular aspect of life, the primary goal and activity of Vodou practitioners was to serve these spirits through prayers, offerings, and performing devotional rites in return for health, protection, and good favor.
According to King Louis XIV’s slavery handbook (yep, it was thing
), however, not only were all African religions outlawed, slaveholders were required to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival. Or else.
But when it comes to forcing identity on others, rules are begging to be broken. The more the Europeans tried to suppress African identity and tradition, the more this melting pot of slaves united. They pooled their religious knowledge, and by including spirits from many different African— even native Taino— nations, they inadvertently created a religious amalgamation that centered around a core belief: the flat out, unequivocal, total rejection of the Africans' status as slaves.
While they may have been physically restrained, mentally they resisted. They ingeniously disguised their loa
spirits as Roman Catholic saints, creating a stealth worshiping platform right under their captors’ noses. By utilizing their oral storytelling traditions, they became increasingly culturally unified. Secret, late-night Vodou ceremonies offered more than just resistance against white domination, they strengthened bonds between people from vastly different ethnic groups and provided a space for organizing within the community. In 1791, Vodou’s most famous “resistance rendezvous” was a secret gathering in a forest called Bois Caïman where participants planned the revolution that would ultimately free the Haitian people from French colonial rule.
celebrations— with their kompa
music-blaring, rum drinking, dirty dancing energy— are annual reminders that Haitian identity cannot be stopped or suppressed. And the sexually suggestive dancing, profanity-filled plays, and music lyrics mocking authority are a way to cut loose, celebrate freedom— and have a little ‘fun’ with a capital FU.
And while the arrival of Lent may bring the festivities to an end everywhere else in the world, Haitian rara picks up where the party leaves off. Often referred to as "Vodou taken on the road,” rara is a series of music festivals, processions, and parades that continue to flow through the streets of Haiti during the Lenten period. Vodou priests perform religious ceremonies, musicians play drums and horns, and rum-drinking crowds sing, dance, and celebrate their Afro-Haitian ancestry.
From slavery and political oppression to earthquakes and hurricanes, one thing is for sure. The life force within the Haitian identity cannot and will not be suppressed, controlled, or contained because the people of Haiti do more than just endure.
They thrive. They invent. They party on.