University of Miami Associate Professor Kate Ramsey's The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti has been awarded the 2011-2012 Association of Caribbean Historians Elsa Goveia Prize; this book prize is awarded once every two years. The book examines the history and legacies of penal and ecclesiastical laws against popular ritual practices in Haiti and has also received the Berkshire Conference Book Prize and has been reviewed on The Huffington Post.
Vodou has often served as a scapegoat for Haiti’s problems, from political upheavals to natural disasters. This tradition of scapegoating stretches back to the nation’s founding and forms part of a contest over the legitimacy of the religion, both beyond and within Haiti’s borders. The Spirits and the Lawexamines that vexed history, asking why, from 1835 to 1987, Haiti banned many popular ritual practices.
To find out, Ramsey begins with the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. Fearful of an independent black nation inspiring similar revolts, the United States, France, and the rest of Europe ostracized Haiti. Successive Haitian governments, seeking to counter the image of Haiti as primitive as well as contain popular organization and leadership, outlawed “spells” and, later, “superstitious practices.” While not often strictly enforced, these laws were at times the basis for attacks on Vodou by the Haitian state, the Catholic Church, and occupying U.S. forces. Beyond such offensives, Ramsey argues that in prohibiting practices considered essential for maintaining relations with the spirits, anti-Vodou laws reinforced the political marginalization, social stigmatization, and economic exploitation of the Haitian majority. At the same time, she examines the ways communities across Haiti evaded, subverted, redirected, and shaped enforcement of the laws. Analyzing the long genealogy of anti-Vodou rhetoric, Ramsey thoroughly dissects claims that the religion has impeded Haiti’s development.
Profesor Ramsey works on Caribbean history and culture with a particular focus on Haiti. Her research and teaching interests include the politics of law, religion, and performance in the Caribbean; the genealogy of the concept of “magic” under colonialism; Caribbean intellectual history and social movements; histories of health and healing; and the relationship between anthropology and history. Ramsey is co-coordinator of the Haiti Research Group through the Miami Consortium for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Prior to arriving at UM, she was the recipient of postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania’s Humanities Forum and Yale University’s Center for Religion and American Life.
This item was reprinted with permission from the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences website.