The British anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard stated that, “missionaries have battled hard and with great sincerity to overcome great difficulties, but in my experience much of what they teach natives is quite unintelligible to those among whom they labor.”[1] While it is clear that the difficulties Pritchard wrote about are linguistic, and even scientific, it is less clear where this great sincerity intersected with the personhood or morality of the European writer. What does sincerity mean when held up to the light of Hubert Fichte’s own moral realism, consisting of an analytical (fictional) prose, and thus, his orientation and imagination of the world? European writers have often assumed that their own experience was universal. Evans-Pritchard also wrote that, “one can only interpret what one sees in terms of one’s own experience, and of what one is,” and then added, “in this sense his account must express moral judgement, especially where it touches matters on which he feels strongly.”[2] In Belize, what does the écrivain engagé do now that there is suddenly no running tap water? Reading at the German embassy in Belize, the narrator in The Research Report (Forschungsbericht) points out the weakness or fallibility of German translations of local newspaper articles. This reflection on bad translations shows that Fichte is not ignorant of how poor translations may skew the meaning of events. Ugandan writer Okot p’Bitek rejects such mistranslations, which tend to foreground western ideas instead arguing for the particularity of African languages.[3] In his realist prose, Fichte tends to portray a universal image of the proletariat in Belize, Port au Prince, and New York while resisting the claims to difference made by his interviewees.



Regarding the Vodou spiritual practice, and its priests, Fichte says, “there are Vodou priests who are rich and who advise the rich, heads of state and greedy sovereigns not ready to abdicate, and there are Vodou priests for the poor.”[4] Thus the ideas presented about politics in Haiti, as well as within the Haitian diaspora, are funneled through this materialist lens, revealing a universalized proletariat. However, we can say that the European proletariat has its own way of life, or belief systems, which are not the same as the Haitian proletariat.

The ethics of Vodou should not have to relate to material poverty alone. There seems to be some sort of equation of the poor across the world—this idea that all the poor are the same and that poverty is experienced in the same way in Europe and across the world, can be understood as a fantasy. In Fichte’s narrative, readers are located in New York, learning of the poverty among the Haitian diaspora in the Bronx, when suddenly he introduces into the narrative the political stratosphere of François Duvalier’s dictatorship in the real Haiti. The narrator shapes our understanding of the ethics in relation to this by writing about the rituals and practices of the Vodou priests in New York who serve the Haitian proletariat. It is unclear what, if any, are the connections between Vodou, François Duvalier’s Haiti of 1957–71, and the fires burning in the Bronx of the 1970s. Conflating these contexts, and attempting to universalize the poor of the world, while describing Afro-religions as such, can appear to reinforce these markers of his background and his own moral compass. The appropriate method to study African religions is to enter them neither into Marxian nor Hellenic faith.



In an essay on Belgian missionary Placide Tempels, Okot p’Bitek asks the crucial question: What are the aims of the student of African thought systems?[5] Many writers and écrivains engagés have “interviewed” African and Afro-descendant people only to arrive at major misunderstandings. To anthropologists it seems that conducting interviews and making logical judgements based on linguistic and ethnological knowledge ought to be sufficient in the task of conducting such studies of African thought systems. For Okot p’Bitek as well as Evans-Pritchard, there are great moral and ethical challenges to overcome. The nature of the anthropological interview is not necessarily dialogical, but rather monological, and the questions posed are neither without the analytical tools particular to the discipline nor devoid of the means required for “successful” translation.

Fichte says about the fires in the Bronx: “Everyday a child is burned up”; he cites the alarming sound of sirens passing “every five minutes.”[6] He contrasts these realist statements or vignettes with a citation from James Baldwin’s notorious essay, “The Fire Next Time” (1963), the title of which borrows from a biblical passage in the Old Testament. It doesn’t appear that Fichte reads the “fire” in Baldwin’s essay title as anything other than a condemnation of the “real” fire in the Bronx. Using Baldwin—whose “fire” can be a “redemptive,” such as the proverbial “fire of the Holy Ghost,” or the figurative “fire” of a sermon—to justify the perceived apocalyptic scene of fires in the Bronx, Fichte flattens it to a pragmatic and realist, “Today: The Fire This Time.”[7]

When, in the narrative, the dangerousness is ascribed to “gangs,” “murder,” “theft,” and exceptional poverty, this becomes a narrative—a strong realist narrative that identifies greatly with the material conditions and the “exceptional.” Fichte populates his realism with cardboard criminals. What Fichte does well is to negotiate with the fictional existence of cardboard criminals as a show of his solidarity with the poor. His realism is a brutal investigative tool in Black City, and this seems to be at odds with his sense of solidarity with the poor.

Regarding Fichte’s larger question in Black City, it reminded me of the rapid growth in both the legal system and systems of surveillance that were used to counter the growing number of black people from the South migrating to the Northern cities of the United States in the early 20th century. The period of reconstruction after the Civil War pushed the black Southern migrants to develop new urban migrant communities in the Northern US cities. Literary scholar Saidiya Hartman notes how vagrancy laws were drafted specifically targeting black women during the first decade of the 20th century in Harlem.[8] These women were only searching for a means of existing. Despite his professed alliance with Vodou priests and prostitutes, Fichte is not interested per se in the struggle of migrant communities. Yet this struggle persevered despite the rule of law against migrant black people while signifying the early formation of the prison industry in the US during and after reconstruction.



How does Fichte articulate the spiritual models in his work? One indicator used is the census, which helps the author answer the question of scale. Though he is suspicious of ethnographic science, Fichte promptly trusts and appropriates the results of a census of the number of Afro-descendant people in New York. He writes that the US census reported 10,000 Haitians in New York. Similarly, he also appropriates the results of a census of the Cuban, Mexican, and Dominican populations. Of these groups, he applies realist rigor to notating the spiritual practices of the Santería religion among the Cubans, as well as the secret society of the Abakuá. I am interested in the writer’s notations regarding the Santería and Abakuá religions for specific reasons: First, does Fichte recognize these two African religions as a philosophy? Second, does Fichte observe, in either the Abakuá or the Santería, a philosophy of care beyond the self, or that of becoming human, what Okot p’Bitek refers to as Otoko Dano?

My question is: Does the philosophy of care (of self and others) change when practiced by the wealthy? To borrow from the fictional writing of Grace Ogot, who reads ethics in relation to material accumulation,[9] the notion of desiring more and more in the form of land titles, in addition to recklessly abandoning ancestral land, represents a kind of degenerating humanness. In comparison, Fichte’s anthropology of Cuban and Haitian religions seems devoid of any real parameters for becoming human. Instead the religious model, in this case the priesthood, is divided into the proletariat and the aristocracy—in this case the autocracy of the modern dictatorship. Fichte’s conviction that one could read the ethics of Haitian-African religions through the politics of François Duvalier aligns with Lydia Cabrera’s conviction that the African religious systems of Cuba and Haiti shape political rhetoric and political action. Africanists such as Cyril Lionel Robert James held a similar perspective regarding the links between the Haitian revolution and African spiritual practices. In Fichte’s writing, therefore, there is a dilemma at the intersection of Haitian political experience and the anthropology of Haitian religious practices. How suitable to this complex meeting of entanglements is a post-revolutionary approach?

In conclusion, Fichte is highly skeptical of the philosophical immateriality of the African religions he encounters. His opinions on ritual practices do not evoke cycles of time or the seasons, or of the African languages of spirituality. Rather, his outlook resembles the perspective of Europe’s materialist history. The narrative projects a monumental quest for “origin,” but the protagonists of the narrative offer only fake divination tools. He writes: “There are the Cuban ‘Congos,’ with their pot of blood, a Congo priest wired his pot of blood and when the faithful kneeled before it, he flips a switch and the pot of blood starts to hiss and steam.”[10]