When you’re a smiling Haitian-American, a by-product of colonization, the sound of the battered black luggage slipping off the conveyor belt is a subtle reminder of the unlifted burden you’ve strapped across your chest. A trip to Port-au-Prince or Jérémie isn’t just travel. It’s an undying journey– a quest to force the world to recognize and correct a distorted Haitian history, a narrative unfairly summed up by the socio-economic problems that beset Haitians. The montage overplaying in your mind, before exiting the airport, is a white collage of neoliberal and conservative pundits, pontificating, wrongly, about why Haiti is the “poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.” It’s a cinematic catchphrase now, from a black zombie film trailer, where the moviegoers (the general public) accept an ahistorical story filled with logical fallacies and incriminating facts that are rendered as mere footnotes.
There is apparently no space for humanization in the free market. The empathy gap allows Western apathy to roam freely; the commentators understate the residual effects of imperial policies, an active, bloody heritage, which has sequestered social mobility for millions of Haitians. But stating this fact certainly doesn’t absolve culpability from the foreign-backed Haitian elite. You hop on the moto-taxi and immediately see Haiti’s sad physiognomy, the effects of a crippling 200 year-old economic embargo by France and the USA. Again, the social, economic, and psychological residual effects of this are a mere footnote in the analysis from major publications, the Christian community, and the mainstream consciousness in developed nations.
The Western world’s historical amnesia is a trauma induced by widespread indifference. It is now apparent, more than ever, that the exploitation that undergirds Haiti’s quasi-sovereignty and financial solvency is a story far more brutal and savage than the downtrodden, heroic resistance of these black zombies. This imagined film fades with a closing shot of a very real small Haitian boy named Kiki Joachin, the miracle boy who was rescued from beneath the 2010 earthquake rubble—his outstretched arms clutching the night sky and his bright smile spanning the Atlantic. Joachin, after being asked how he survived, said “God held us,” a remarkable statement which contradicted televangelist Pat Robertson’s false assertion that Haitians were being perpetually punished by God because they made a pack with the devil during 1791’s Bois Caïman, a freedom covenant made during a vodou ceremony which culminated into the successful Haitian revolution in 1804.
Robertson’s rhetoric is merely one harsh example of the erasure of the nuanced black story, stripped of its explanatory power. “Haiti suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences,” said David Brooks, in his despised New York Times op-ed, “The Underlying Tragedy” written just a few days after the 2010 earthquake. He wrote that Haiti needed “intrusive paternalism,” his code word for more foreign intervention, a one-size-fitsall answer that reeked of disaster capitalism and colonialism.
And those who ignore the historic making of a failed state conveniently ignore the fetishization of the poverty-stricken black body and how false narratives help thwart Haitian liberation. Kaiama L. Glover, a professor of francophone literature, challenged Brooks’ victim blaming rant in her public talk “Flesh Like Our Own: On Poverty & Other Contagions,” with this salient point: “Both Robertson’s and Brook’s degrading mediatization of Haiti refer to or rely on a casting of Afro spiritual practices in the North American context in the way that implicitly and explicitly links Haiti’s social, political, economic dysfunction to its supposed afro nature.”
Robertson, Brooks, and other “intrusive paternalism” advocates aren’t simply suffering from a special kind of historical amnesia. No. Whether intentional or not, since the black African body is already othered and dehumanized, it’s quite easy and beneficial to undermine the Haitian story– a means to turn a consistent profit for the American economy. “By 1915, the Americans were also afraid that an ongoing debt Haiti was forced to pay to France tied the country too closely to its former colonizer; Germany’s growing commercial interests in Haiti were another major concern,” Edwidge Danticat writes in, “The Long History of Occupation in Haiti.” “So one of the first actions carried out by the U.S. at the start of the occupation was to move Haiti’s financial reserves to the United States and then rewrite its Constitution to give foreigners land-owning rights.”
Human greed certainly allows money to circulate in unexpected places, usually at gunpoint. There is a history of elites and dictators within the black diaspora who were quite culpable. But “Anti-Haitianism is a racist ideology,” Junot Diaz observed, during an interview with Americas Quarterly, “whether it’s practiced by France, the U.S., the Dominican Republic, or Haitian elites.” And those who ignore the historic making of a failed state conveniently ignore the fetishization of the poverty-stricken black body and how false narratives help thwart Haitian liberation. The Japanese were not rendered the sums of the their trauma after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, just a year after Haiti’s earthquake. Haiti, on the other hand, is perpetually rendered the sum of their socio-economic weaknesses and failures, despite a persistent effort of destabilization by foreign powers.
If Haiti is indeed cursed, then we must admit that God’s devine intervention must have allowed the 2010 earthquake to be man-made. Every avenue that would have allowed Haitians to head north on social mobility were already eradicated before the buildings crumbled those fickle hopes and dreams—from basic sustenance, physical infrastructure, and literacy. “Predictably, the IMF cure for Haiti’s desperate poverty involved further reductions in wages that had already sunk to starvation levels, privatization of the state sector, reorientation of domestic production in favour of cash crops popular in North American supermarkets and the elimination of import tariffs,” Peter Hallward writes in, “Option Zero in Haiti.”
“With the tariff on rice cut from 50 percent to the IMF-decreed 3 percent, Haiti—previously self-sufficient in the crop—was flooded with subsidized American grain, and rice imports rose from just 7,000 tonnes in 1985 to 220,000 tonnes in 2002.” Six years after the 2010 earthquake, foreign powers and the Haitian government has ineffectually allocated $13.5 billions in aid, and the American Red Cross can’t seem to find an answer for the missing
$500 million it raised for Haiti’s relief. David Brook’s “intrusive paternalism” was already an established cash cow that dates back even further. There is a laundry list of “democratic” actions by US and France that have perpetually destabilized Haiti and punished it– cursed it, for its mere free existence.
This cognitive dissonance by Western governments, commentators, and the general public is rivaled by absolutely no other country It was intrusive paternalism that forced Haiti to pay reparations, 90 million ($21billion USD) gold francs to France for Haiti’s successful 1804 slave revolt, which also resulted in several decades of isolation and economic exclusion, similar to that of Cuba. It allowed Woodrow Wilson and the United States to occupy for 19 years, which
resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Haitians. It supported US-backed “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc,” who both contributed to the brain drain that stripped the country of its capacity for innovation and eradicated small farmers through paramilitary coercion. It supported Canada’s effort to undermine Haiti’s sovereignty and allowed Bill Clinton’s foundation carte blanche to
Intrusive paternalism is a type of parenting that has always created dying subordinates. A change in the global narrative of Haiti certainly comes with a price. Cuba and Haiti, separated by the Caribbean’s Windward Passage, share a similar story of historic resistance and revolutionary self-assertion. Both suffer from outside forces simplifying their Latin American existence: the Cuban narrative is summed up, completely, by their Communist ideology, and Haitians for their black “culturally resistant” inadequacies. On the other hand, for Haiti’s major role in liberating Latin America–namely for helping Simón Bolívar–Venezuela wants to “repay its debt” to Haiti. Despite Euro and North American apathy, there is an ever-growing movement to add nuance to the Haitian story. The fight for freedom still continues.
And when you’re a smiling Haitian-American, a byproduct of colonization, the sound of the battered black luggage slipping off the conveyor belt is a subtle reminder that traveling to Port-au-Prince and Jérémie is a tangible way of simply loosening the burden—it is still difficult to identify, equally, to both nationalities. Haitians are not the sums of their perceived failures, nor are they black film zombies exercising heroic resistance to psychological pain and foreign encroachment. Edwidge Danticat, again, captured the ways in which the act of “othering” disavows genuine empathy from contemporary observations of Haiti and blackness—a warning to the world that by propagating false narratives, we run the risk of suffering from historical amnesia.
“Call it gunboat diplomacy or a banana war, but this occupation was never meant—as the Americans professed—to spread democracy, especially given that certain democratic freedoms were not even available to the United States’ own black citizens at the time. “Think of it!” said 1915 Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan of Haitians. “Niggers speaking French.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Haitian-American writer, event host, and YouTube partner with over 13,500 subscribers and 2.5million total views, Wilkine Brutus, is also the Content Director for the multimedia platform, OogeeWoogee. He is also founder and editor-in-chief of Te Vanguard Element, a cross-cultural website curating thought-provoking content: social commentary, short flms & interviews. Interviews include the likes of Nikki Giovanni and Taylor Mali. You can follow Wilkine at VanguardElement.com, OogeeWoogee.com, or on Youtube at wbrutus22.