Chapo Ba: Jean Price-Mars, Ethnologist

Written by Kat with 3 Comments

Most people would dub him the father of Haitian Ethnology, but to most in his lifetime, he was Dr. Jean Price-Mars. Dr. Price Mars saw the light of day on October 1876 (some records have listed 1875), in Grand Rivière du Nord to Mr. Jean Eleomont Mars and the former Miss Fortuna Delcour Michel. It has been indicated that he adopted the name Price, in honor of the Haitian poet Hannibal Price. He left Haiti in the late 1890s to go to Paris to study medicine. In addition to being a medical doctor, Dr. Price Mars eventually became a senator (and unsuccessfully ran for president in 1930).

While still in his 20’s, Dr. Price Mars was selected by the Haitian government to be an ambassador to Germany, the United States, France (during the Duvalier government), the Dominican Republic, and the United Nations and at one point, was even Haiti’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1901, he was Booker T. Washington’s special guest, during a visit to Tuskeegee, Washington’s famed institution for people of color in the United States. In the mid-1910s, Dr. Price Mars called on his fellow Haitians to oppose the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. The Occupation lasted for three decades, and changed Dr. Price Mars’ outlook, and intensified his already deeply-felt nationalism.

In 1928, he published what was to become one of his most influential pieces of work: Ainsi parla l’oncle. Many have compared it to as Haiti’s answer to W.E.B Dubois black awareness tome The Soul of Black Folk. In his book, Price-Mars encouraged his fellow Haitians to embrace the African roots, he felt they were rejecting too arduously in favor of European culture. To the dismay of many, Dr. Price Mars labeled voodoo as a religion on the same level of Catholicism.

In the book, the ethnologist also blasted the elite Haitians, condemning them not only for their artificial emulation of European society, but also for encouraging a sort of rigid class structure in not educating poorer Haitians. He had already condemned the elite in his previous book La Vocation de l’elite, nearly a decade earlier, but Ainsi parla l’oncle (And So Spoke the Uncle) took things to the next level.

In the early 1940s, Dr. Price Mars established what was to be a first in Haiti, L’Institue d’Ethnologie along with a a couple of his fellow scholars. The overall purpose of the institute was to study Haitian history, folklore, and life.

He died in March of 1969, leaving a hefty legacy for his part in the Negritude movement (he was honored by, among other people, the Senegalese leader Leopold Senghor). Decades after his death, Jean Price Mars fascinates scholars, in particular Shannon Magdaline (who also did an English translation of Ainsi parla l’oncle) published a study of the diplomat-writer-medical doctor entitled Jean Price-Mars, the Haitian Elite and the American Occupation, 1915-1935. Jacques Carmeleau Antoine also wrote a tome dedicated to him: Jean Price-Mars and Haiti.

This has been Chapo Ba, in which we learn about someone who has made an impact on Haitian culture.

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