Why Haiti needs new narratives now more than ever

On Feb 3 at 6pm, BHR hosts a book launch at Harvard's Starr Auditorium - 79 JFK st in CambridgeOn Feb 3 at 6pm, BHR hosts a book launch at Harvard's Starr Auditorium - 79 JFK st in CambridgeAn excerpt from "Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake", edited by Mark Schuller and Pablo Morales

...I realize that in focusing on this issue of representation, I am in a sense actually doing Haiti a disservice. After all, the emphasis on deconstructing symbols only reinscribes the dominant narrative, which already gets lots of airplay. So here my activist and academic goals clash. A deconstructive exercise alone cannot fill the lacuna of stories from Haitian perspectives with counternarratives about the earthquake and its aftermath.

Those of us who study Haiti know this conundrum only too well. As scholars, advocates, or just plain concerned witnesses, we know, to put it crudely and in layman’s terms, that historically speaking, Haiti has an image problem. That remains Haiti’s burden. Sometimes I joke that when the first free black republic made its debut on the world stage, Haiti lacked proper representation.

A point of clarification: It’s not that Haiti did not have a good agent, but that its representation at the time—newly freed blacks and people of color—and even still today was not considered legitimate and powerful. Indeed, we know that few colonists or metropolitans considered the idea of a Haitian insurrection even possible.

In a chapter titled “An Unthinkable History,” in his Silencing the Past, Haitian anthropologist Michel Rolph-Trouillot writes, In 1790, just a few months before the beginning of the insurrection that shook the French colony of Saint-Domingue and brought about the revolutionary birth of independent Haiti, colonist La Barre reassured his metropolitan wife of the peaceful state of life in the tropics.

“There is no movement among our Negroes. . . . They don’t even think of it,” he wrote. “They are very tranquil and obedient. A revolt among them is impossible.” And again: “We have nothing to fear on the part of the Negroes, they are tranquil and obedient.” And again: “The Negroes are very obedient and always will be. We sleep with doors and windows wide open. Freedom for them is a chimera.

Chimera: A figment of the imagination, for example, a wildly unrealistic idea or hope or completely impractical plan or perhaps an underestimation. Both before and after the publication of Trouillot’s book, numerous scholars, including C.L.R. James, Mimi Sheller, Sibylle Fischer, and others, have addressed the inconceivability of black freedom in the white imagination during the nineteenth century.

One of the most notable examples was On the Equality of the Human Races (1885) by Joseph-Anténor Firmin, a Haitian anthropologist, journalist, and politician. Firmin wrote his tome as a riposte to An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855), a founding text in scientific racism by Count Arthur de Gobineau. Firmin sought to debunk the dominant racist ideology of his time using a positivist approach, launching an argument that would be silenced for more than a century in France and the United States.

In the section of his book titled “The Role of the Black Race in the History of Civilization,” Firmin recounts the role that newly independent Haiti, which he called “the small nation made up of descendants of Africans,” played in the liberation of Latin America through its support of Simón Bolívar.

“Besides this example,” he wrote, “which is one of the most beautiful actions for which the Black republic deserves the whole world’s esteem and admiration, we can say that the declaration of independence of Haiti has positively influenced the entire Ethiopian race living outside Africa.”

He went on and on. We could read Firmin’s work as exemplary of nationalist pride, or perhaps as a call for recognition that, indeed, Tous les hommes sont l’homme—roughly, All men are man, as Victor Hugo put it, quoted in the epigraph of Firmin’s final chapter. Or Tout moun se moun, as we would say in Kreyòl.

In considering the issue of representation and the meaning of symbols, I believe it is imperative that we begin with a simple question: How did the enfant terrible of the region become its bête noire?

Enfant terrible. Yes. Many of us we were taught that Haiti was an avant-garde in the region, second only to the United States, which had ousted the British. This small territory where enslaved Africans outnumbered their European masters dared to successfully defend itself against three European armies to claim its independence at a time when other nations in the region still trafficked in slaves. Freedom came at a price, the hefty sum of 150 millions francs and 60 subsequent years of international isolation. The seclusion fermented cultural practices in ways that rendered aspects of life in Haiti the most recognizably African
in the hemisphere.

Haiti’s history would be silenced, disavowed, reconstrued, and rewritten as the “Haytian fear”—code for an unruly and barbaric blackness that threatened to export black revolution to neighboring islands and disrupt colonial power.

Reading this moment, literary critic J. Michael Dash observes,“It is not surprising that Haiti’s symbolic presence in the Caribbean
imagination has never been understood in terms of radical universalism [which it actually represented and sought to embody]. Rather, the ‘island disappears’ under images of racial revenge, mysterious singularity, and heroic uniqueness.”

The distortions that emerged in the aftermath of the successful revolution would have impact for years to come. black freedom, and the stereotypes of savagery that go with it, to this day remain central to how we talk about Haiti, represent Haiti, understand and explicate Haiti and Haitians. This, of course, begs us to ask a bigger question concerning the role that these narratives play in more practical matters, in policy papers and so on. For indeed, there are certain narratives that allow us to remain impervious to each other by the way they reinforce the mechanics of Othering. Or as Trouillot puts it, “The more Haiti appears weird, the easier it is to forget that it represents the longest neocolonial experiment in the history of the West.”

The book "Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake" is the latest release from renown anthropologist Mark Schuller and NACLA editor Pablo Morales, is a collection of on-the-ground accounts and in-depth essays which seeks to help readers understand “not only the tectonic fault lines running beneath Haiti but also the deep economic, political, social, and historical cleavages within and surrounding the country.” The above essay is an excerpt from the concluding chapter: "Shifting the Terrain".

Gina Athena Ulysse is associate professor of anthropology, African-American studies, and gender, sexuality studies at Wesleyan University. Ulysse is also a performance artist with a signature piece "Because When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, Me and The WORLD."