Reading Haiti; Acquiring History Through Text

This weekend, while listening to this story about Haiti’s recovery on NPR’s Weekend Edition, I recalled a particular submission to Changing Lives, Changing Minds. As I listened, contemplating the correlation, I realized that a few months from now the world will observe the one-year anniversary of the ruinous earthquake that destroyed Haiti’s capital in January of this year, and many will likely have forgotten it until then. An impoverished and over-populated city, Port-au-Prince’s recovery is a continued struggle; efforts to replenish, rebuild, and reconstruct are still underway – eight months after the 7.0 earthquake hit.

In this essay, author Christopher Garland recalls how he became acquainted with Port-au-Prince, one year before the earthquake; with the sound of gunshots resonating in the air and a stack of books – the written histories of a country in crisis.  I believe Christopher’s recollection highlights a powerful social concept: a country embodied in text, dismantled in person, and struggling to establish an opportunity for a future.

Christopher Garland is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Florida whose current research focuses on recent literature and film depicting life in the slums of the Global South.

On my first night in Port-au-Prince, I set up my bed outside on the upstairs porch of Hospice St. Joseph’s, a hostel and valuable medical clinic that served the local community, and began to read. I continued reading through the night; I read about Haiti in an attempt — a mad scramble, really — to learn as much about the country’s history as I could.

I was a first year graduate student at the University of Florida, but I was in Haiti for a different purpose than most of the other students and academics – or, as we foreigners were referred to, the blanc – in Port-au-Prince. I was there as a writer, not a student, penning my first assignment as a freelance journalist for a New York-based magazine.

The more I read to understand Haiti, the more elusive the answers became. These weren’t gaps in knowledge, but rather spaces that shifted, expanded and contracted. I wondered: What were the conditions under which Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, left office during his second term? And, how did the Tonton Macoutes – Papa Doc’s gruesome network of thugs and informants – gain such a pervasive foothold in Haitian society?

That night, sustained reading of sociological and historical texts was a difficult exercise. The loud pops coming from the streets below me were gunshots, signaling the end of a party somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood of Christ Roi. After reading for some time in the warm December night air, I felt compelled to put the books down. The reading seemed like a diversion from the real work, a way of checking out the past to disconnect from what was a very critical state of “now.” Here in Haiti, the streets of Port-au-Prince faced levels of impoverishment equal to those of any in the world.

This was one year before a catastrophic earthquake drew global media focus upon Port-au-Prince – an over-populated, under-resourced, beguiling, and bewildering city. It is the capital of a nation that emerged from of one of history’s most astonishing and inspiring achievements: a bravely stubborn and incredibly revolutionary force, made up of slaves and ex-slaves, overthrew the French colonists of Saint-Domingue.

My trip to Haiti was precipitated by a more subtle, earlier movement – one that has forever altered life in Haiti’s major cities. One of the books I read on that warm December night was entitled Planet of Slums (2006). In it, author Mike Davis calls attention to the fact that, by 2008, for “the first time [in human history] the urban population will outnumber the rural” (1). Davis describes in some length that the greatest proportion of this rural-urban shift has centered on the uber-cities of the Global South, where population growth over the last twenty years in places like Port-au-Prince (as well as Kinshasha, Sao Paulo, and Manila) constitutes what Davis calls “a watershed in human history” (1).

Davis argues that the human who moved from any village to any city in the world — perhaps for work, for further education, for love, or just the allure of the city — thereby tipping the balance of the world’s population spread towards urban areas, would not be specifically noted. However, now that that movement has occurred somewhere in the world — perhaps in Haiti — it does signal a significant moment in human history.

As Walter Benjamin argues, articulating the past historically “does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger . . . Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it” (396). In the case of Haiti, conformism has prevailed many times: crises have been used to justify intervention, both foreign and domestic, whether with the U.S. military’s occupation from 1915 to 1934 or through Haiti’s own brutal dictators, who lined their pockets at the expense of the Haitian people. These actions served to foreclose the possibilities of the future offered 200 years ago by the Haitian Revolution.

And the residual effect of reading to understand Haiti while in Haiti? The reading was the first step that came before interviewing anyone or making descriptive notes about what I saw “on the ground.” Not only had Haiti’s history been written as a history of crisis, but I recognized that these crises were moments of contestation over the writing of the past for the openness and possibilities of the future. The latest crisis for Haiti is not only the aftermath of the earthquake but also the future of the mega-slums, particularly Port-au-Prince’s Cite Soleil, the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere. Needless to say, the contestation over this latest “moment of danger” is well underway.

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3 thoughts on “Reading Haiti; Acquiring History Through Text

  1. Toussaint L’Ouverture is an integral part of Haiti’s history, not to be forgotten. If you want to inform yourself, “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” – a short film – chronicled his last moments in fighting against the French oppressors. Clip here http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/

  2. I think that it’s important to read about a place before you dive in and interview people from that place. It gives you a better understanding of those people even if you gain the most from the actual interviews. Many aspects of a society are not immediately shown when you visit that society. For example, racism or classism aren’t shown externally, but many books would uncover that topic. It also helps in terms of knowing the right questions to ask when interviewing somebody. If you know that a specific country has certain issues, you can focus on those issues in the interview to find out a more personal opinion of them.
    Thanks for the wonderful insight on the crisis in Haiti and I think the work you are doing is extremely important.

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