Kate Ramsey

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20032004 Forum on Belief

Kate Ramsey

Anthropology (Socioculture)


Penal laws in the Caribbean republic of Haiti prohibited popular religious practices from 1835-1987 as a means of enforcing “civilized” modernity. Over this period of time, these laws were imposed to inconsistently – a continuum from indifference to violence. Nonetheless, even today these laws maintain a spectral force on the country’s religious politics. Despite their impact, they have received little scholarly attention.

Dr. Ramsey’s concerns are twofold. First, how has this penal regime constrained, and thereby shaped, the religious beliefs and practices of the Haitian peasantry for nearly 170 years? And, reciprocally, how has popular belief critically shaped the nature and application of this penal regime?

To answer these questions, Dr. Ramsey focuses on Haitian peasant and urban working class communities’ interpretation of these laws, as well as their practice of popular religious beliefs often glossed as “Vodou.” The criminalization of popular ritual practices as “spells” and “superstitious practices” contributed to the political marginalization, social stigmatization, and everyday economic exploitation of the subaltern majority in Haiti. However, Dr. Ramsey asserts that practitioners of Vodou have by no means always opposed the existence and perpetuation of these penal laws. Instead, there has been popular support for their enforcement against those believed to harness supernatural powers towards malevolent ends. Thus, laws that were intended to function as a sign of political modernity have been, and continue to be, applied in ways that ultimately reinforce belief in “sorcery.”