Note to our readers: This post marks a new feature for Tande in 2012 in which we profile a Haitian writer, scholar, performer or artist. These profiles will vary from focused reviews of the person’s work and contribution to the field to actual interviews that we conduct with them.
As the years have gone on, I have come to admire the way she gracefully and powerfully inhabits her roles as a scholar, feminist, performer, and activist. A professor of anthropology at Wesleyan College (where she has the good company of two other scholars working on Haiti, Alex Dupuy and Elizabeth McAllister), Gina is by trade an anthropologist. In a field where the relationship between "native" and "other" is often charged and problematic, Dr. Ulysse has transformed her field through critical ethnographic approaches that refuse to maintain the distance between scholar and practitioner, or between the object of analysis and the one conducting the analysis. As an anthropologist she is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Reporters, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica which takes an innovative ethnographic approach to exploring questions about gender, sexuality, nation and belonging.
Dr. Ulyssse's impact is not only for Haitian Studies, her interventions in the fields of anthropology and women’s studies are also well known. A public intellectual, she writes regularly for venues such as Ms. Blog and the Huffington Post. She effectively inhabits the roles of scholar, feminist, Haitianist, and activist with unfailing ease, creativity and commitment. As the quote beginning this post attests to (it is by Audre Lorde, the original feminist poet warrior who figures in and is conjured in Ulysse's work) self-definition is a central theme that preoccupies Dr. Ulysse. Coming from a culture that has been defined to the point of exhaustion, she looks at Haiti through a lens that begins from the ground up and attempts to account for voices that are not often heard. Or, as she puts it on her website, "Haiti needs new narratives" and her work is committed to creating some. Rather than focus on Ulysse’s contributions to the academy, I want to look at her most recent CD: I Am A Storm, which is a stirring collection of poems, chants, and songs that display the breadth of her artistic work.
she begins singing a chant in a an alto voice full of gravitas "Ezili si nou tranble ankò, pran nou, tranble, kenbe pitit nan kay, tranble nap tranble...Sove pitit lakay nou sot tranble..." this piece transitions into the next poem "Skin Castles," which she begins singing "In the castle of my skin" to the same tanbou beat.
The poem begins as a rumination on racial categorizations and classification based on the mixing of black and white blood, going from the one drop rule back into another chant in Kreyòl and ending with a prayer "Saint Philomène Vierge martyre rendez-nous miséricorde" moving seamlessly between languages and forms and cultural traditions. After announcing that "the strong black woman is dead" the poem goes on to tell the story of a woman who was a street vendor who serves the spirits and smokes a pipe. Mentioning examples of women contained and defined in "Skin Castles" she ultimately concludes, "I exist as I am and that is enough". She ends with a final chant to Papa Gede. The sentiments expressed in the final part of the poem about the importance of self definition expresses a theme that recurs in Ulysse's scholarship and social commentary.
The second poem "Athena's Rant" takes the audience through the history of foreign invasion and occupation in Haiti by setting up a parallel between two neighbors at odds. "Imagine that you are living your life...now imagine that the neighbor next door decided to come into your yard and tell you how to run your affairs..." The neighbors are of course Haiti and the USA, and as she goes on to explain, "If you ask me not enough has been written about the respect and politeness of a nation that has been invaded and penetrated by its biggest and baddest neighbor... Haiti, like another nation is just another small symbol on a global monopoly board...no one has talked enough about the disrespect of all kinds that Haiti has endured over the years by the most powerful nations in the world...." She then cites a number of dates, "1849, 1851, 1857, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1869, 1876, 1888, 1891, 1892, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1915.... during every single year US navy fleets either invaded Haiti or threatened to come on our shores to protect their interests." Combining history with sharp political analysis and insight into the impact of globalization in Haiti, Ulysse brings the listener through the complicated history. The sound effects of planes landing, bombs blasting, and the sound of helicopters adds to this military history which Ulysse relates in a stern, ironic tone. Ulysse concludes on a salient point about this past and others meddling in Haitian politics, "In Haiti, we've been living with terror alerts of one kind or another since before the day we were born."
These comments on the first two track from the CD are just to give you a taste of the scope of Dr. Ulysse's work. I encourage all of our readers to pick up I Am A Storm or check out one of her live performances to hear what else Gina Ulysse has to say about Haitian representation, culture, history and politics for a real eye-opening, entertaining and thought-provoking treat!