Of Mindless Men

by by Doreen St. Félix

illustration by by Katy Windemuth

She has no photograph, but when Marie Jane recalls the morning the zombi broke down the side door of her home, this is how she pictures him: wearing sun-bleached denim jeans, his dark sunglasses teetering on the bridge of his nose, a straw hat, the smell of frying pork and shallots sneaking through the open doorway, a fresh boot-print on the floor, her dying brother on the floor, a finely-pressed denim shirt with very little blood on it and standing in the zombi’s hand like a flowering stalk of sugarcane, a machete.

In 1965, she fled from her home in the southwestern pocket of the Artibonite Valley in central Haiti to an apartment on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn—two days, four hours and fifteen minutes after her brother was killed. This was eight years after Dr. Francois Duvalier assumed the oath of office and declared himself “Papa Doc” of the Caribbean nation. In her late forties with three children, Marie Jane was a woman. When the henchman decapitated her ten-year old brother, he was just a boy. His murderer was one of the 25,000 paramilitary forces formally called the Milice de Voluntaires de la Sécurité Nationale (MVSN) who terrorized the island country from 1957 to 1986, spanning the regimes of both Papa Doc and his son Jean Claude Duvalier, called “Baby Doc.” To the Haitians who survived the reign of terror—and the estimated 60,000 that did not—Papa Doc’s unofficial nickname for the goon squad, Ton Ton Macoutes, struck nerves in their bones.

The story of the Ton Ton Macoute, Haitian Creole for Uncle Gunnysack, is said to be as old as the mountains. Haiti Noir, a 2010 anthology of 18 stories edited by Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat, has a traditional telling of the Ton Ton Macoute fable. Like Santa Claus, Ton Ton Macoute is a giant who lugs a large, burlap gunnysack over his shoulders. But this Old Man with the Bag is the antithesis of the crimson-cheeked St. Nick—his cheeks are sallow, his voice sharp like rocks and his gunnysack is full of obstreperous children he will eat for breakfast. When he comes for you, he comes for you in the night. Uncle Gunnysack’s legs are two floors high and he smells like goat entrails. He abducts whining children during the night and leaves peace for their parents in the morning. Parents worldwide have been frightening their children into finger-laced submission with variants of the Boogeyman tale for centuries.

In the Haitian version of the story, Uncle Gunnysack is also a zombi, forced into the labor of abducting children by an absent yet omnipresent Vodou god. African Vodou, the religious tradition slaves brought with them when they were shipped to the island of Hispaniola in the 17th century, conceives of two parts to the human: the husk of the body, and glittering within it, the divine particle called the ti bon anj, Haitian Creole for “little good angel.” Because the slave master views the body as the commodity, the slave recognizes true value in the soul. The zombi is dislocated from his good little angel by his master, and acts without agency, without soul. Thus, he can be a slave.

Uncle Gunnysack was born in the sugar fields. Uncle Gunnysack springs from a warped reconciliation of traditional African beliefs towards the soul and the soulless brutality slavery wrought upon the Haitian body. His story is the etiological tale of Haiti, a country whose roots are born out of the peculiar institution.


The story, my aunt Marie Jane tells me, is said to be as old as the mountains. Her skin is not quite the color of mahogany, it is milkier than that, less flat than that. But the darkest powder foundation she can ever find at the pharmacy two blocks down, on the corner of Pitkin and Atlantic, is mahogany. So when my aunt tells me the story, which she has countless times throughout my life, I always notice the way the makeup discolors her, especially around the thin skin on her eyelids.

“Men can smell sugar anywhere.” She explains the big issues to me in terms of sugar. It’s what gives you Type II diabetes, which you would get at 75 years old (like she did) if you ate too many sweets. Sugar is the secret to perfectly fried pork. If it spills in the dark corners of your pantry, sugar is what attracts ants. It is in our blood. “White gold,” is how she describes sugarcane.

Sweetness was intoxicating enough that, though she could not say it out loud, I think Marie Jane saw how it drove men to enslave other men. How men would work and whip other men mindless because of it. How for hours under a red sun, sweetness forced the other men to bend over, pulling it in stalks from the earth. The sugarcane plantations were no longer there by the time she was born in 1919; by that time, the dirt was dead. And yet in Haiti, the toxic relationship between the master and the slave reproduces itself on more lush, dangerous terrain—that of the mind. The Duvaliers didn’t need whips to be masters, and the Ton Ton Macoutes didn’t need to shuck sugarcane in order to be slaves. In a 1966 televised interview with Miami journalist Ralph Renick, the charming Papa Doc lightly waves away the accusations of terror enacted through the Ton Ton Macoutes. “They are just volunteers. They do not get, what you call, salaries.” In his closet, Duvalier is said to have held the head of Blucher Philogenes, an opponent who attempted a coup against him three years earlier.

Slavery of the mind is what she tries to tell me. It’s too big to see the whole of it, and too sharp to grab it in between her fingers. So she tells me fairytales. Uncle Gunnysack and his burlap bag and the bad children inside. It is not a fable or a story but when she attempts to shape it like that, when she sanitizes the history, we can hold slavery in our hands. She gets to the point in the story where she must reveal that Uncle Gunnysack is a zombi that has been abducting children against his will. I am supposed to gasp. I always do. When she comes in contact with the word zombi, she says it quickly, she shoos it away from her, from us.


Zora Neale Hurston lingers. Her Southern drawl sticks to the second syllable too slowly but she has the pronunciation down almost perfectly. The absence of the “e” in the Creole spelling of zombi is crucial; my aunt lingers over the “zom” in a buzzing hum and strikes the “bi” firmly, like tapping an invisible drum. Twenty years before Duvalier clinched the Presidential election, Hurston—author and amateur anthropologist—won a Guggenheim fellowship to study folklore in Haiti and Jamaica. She took a couple of cheap, cotton dresses and a pearl-handled pistol with her.  She brought back an account of ecstatic encounters with those she called “the living dead,” included in her book Tell My Horse. Hurston was a storyteller and she copes with the concept of zombi by making it literature. During a radio interview on the Mary Margaret McBride Show, with the host and a man named Vincent, on January 25, 1943, Hurston spins her homily on her travels:

McBride: Well I never heard you talk about ‘em [the zombies], did you, Vincent?

Vincent: No, I haven’t.

McBride: Talk about the zombies, just a wee little bit.

Hurston obliges Mary and her friend Vincent:

Hurston: Well, a zombi is supposed to be the living dead. People who die and are resurrected. But without souls. They can take orders and they are never supposed to be tired. They are supposed to do what the masters say without cease. I, uh, naturally it would be futile for me to attempt to explain everything. I do know that people have been resurrected in Haiti but I do not believe they were actually dead. I have met them. I believe that it was suspended animation.

McBride: Hmm, could be.

Hurston: There are too many proven cases of this for it not to be true.

Hurston speaks of the houngan, a vodou high priest, who uses a concoction of potent plant extracts—“probably from Africa”—to arrest his victim’s consciousness and transform him into a mindless zombi, a husk of free factory labor. She is careful to distinguish him from the bokor, a lower priest ordained by the houngan, who can possess humans with spirits, creating a conscious, violent second class of zombi. Here, she is describing—unknowingly, prophetically—Duvalier’s henchmen, the Ton Ton Macoutes. Or she is weaving the contents of Tell My Horse. Often, Vincent chuckles and Mary gasps.

In 1937, Hurston took a photograph of a woman she believed to be a zombi. The woman was called Felicia Felix-Mentor. Her family claimed her soul was removed by a local houngan, trapped in a glass bottle, and that a factory owner had been using her body for labor for over thirty years. In order to verify the family’s claim, the Public Department of Health sent American Dr. Louis P. Mars to a farm in the foothills of the Puyloreau Mountains, where the woman called Felicia lived. He examined her over the course of several months in early 1938. In a paper in the Haitian Record of Anthropological Science, Dr. Mars concluded that the woman was schizophrenic and that the case roused “mass hysteria in the untutored Haitian peasant…who does not understand the scientific basis of many natural events.” He doesn’t mention the zombi. If Hurston romanticized the zombi as a sensational object for her book, Mars dismissed the idea entirely.

When I ask my aunt about the infamous photograph of the woman called Felicia, a haunting sepia-tinted thing that was published in Time magazine in 1937, her voice drops. She does not need to look at it. “The eyes are the worst,” she says. “They are the eyes of a slave, the eyes of a dead person who cannot see. That’s why, in a twisted way, we were happy that the Ton Ton Macoutes wore such dark sunglasses.”


From the beginning, papa doc thought he was a god. Baron Samedi, the Vodou god of death and the giver of life, chooses who can return to lan guinée—a green heaven figured in the actual country of Guinea in Africa. Though apples and rivers and birds abound, there is no sugarcane in lan guinée. Duvalier fashioned his appearance exactly after Baron Samedi. He was rarely seen without his dark glasses and sharp tuxedo jacket; what American editors at Vogue headlined as surprisingly “hip,” near-French sartorialism was actually a sign of the leader’s hypnotizing cult of personality. He even wore a silky top hat.

A visionary, Papa Doc and his son after him harnessed the zombi as cultural capital in a way neither Hurston nor Mars could have conceptualized. The zombi is not mystique. The zombi is not psychological defect. Duvalier’s zombi is the perennial slave. Although he may kill, the zombi is also a victim. And Duvalier chose his victims carefully. Reverend David Aponte, a Latino historian, traces Duvalier’s process in his article “The Ton Ton Macoutes: The Central Nervous System of Haiti’s Reign of Terror”: the dictator sent his loyal officers to villages with populations that were illiterate, poor, and Vodouiste. There, the officers culled for potential henchmen.  Some were as young as ten when they were chosen. Officers outfitted forces with denim jeans and denim shirts, shiny sunglasses, the rubber-heeled boots many had never seen before in their lives. In glinting machetes, Duvalier gave them what shined like power. In the heart of the Haitian peasant, Duvalier roused what rang like glory. To the history, to the foundational image of the disempowered slave, Duvalier returned what felt like a soul. Decades after her brother was killed, Marie Jane thinks of both her dead sibling and his murderer as victims. Luckner Cambronne, one of Duvalier’s top henchman, told the British newspaper the Independent, that a “good Duvalierist is prepared to kill his children and expects his children to kill their parents for him.” He said this in October of 2006.

Before the Ton Ton Macoutes went on killing sprees, houngans loyal to Papa Doc huddled them in empty fields to incite spiritual fervor. They delivered what was called Le Catéchisme de la Revolution, or Catechism of the Revolution. Darkly, slowly, the houngans began by recalling the violent oppression Haitian slaves suffered under white masters before the Revolution of 1804, invoking a history none knew but all were born with. The crowd of henchmen, wielding their sharpened machetes, would participate in riotous chants, shouting “Duvalier, oui! Les Etats-Unis, non!” Some would faint from the excitement. The houngan ended the political zombification with the Lord’s Prayer, translated here from the Creole:

“Our Doc who art in the National Palace for life,

Hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations.

Thy will be done at Port-au-Prince and in the provinces.      Give us this day, our New Haiti, and never forget the trespasses     of the anti-patriots who spit every day on our country;

Let them succumb to temptations, and under the weight of their venom,

Deliver them not from any evil.”


Francois Duvalier died in his bed in February of 1971. On January 30, 2013, the Haitian Justice Department formally brought charges against Jean Claude Duvalier, now 60, for human rights violations committed during his 1971-1986 reign. Duvalier missed three trial dates before finally showing up to court in Port au Prince on February 28. If convicted, the son of the visionary behind the Duvalier dictatorship will face up to five years in prison.

Doreen St. Felix b’14 will not die in a bed.