Gina Athena UlysseBack to OpinionGina Athena Ulysse

The Haiti story you won’t read

As reporting of the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated our birth country continue to fill the airwaves, many of us at home and abroad cringe as television screens and newspapers are satiated with standard-formula media representations of Haiti.

Others like myself and die-hard Haitiphiles have been preparing for the bombardment of “the poorest nation in the western hemisphere” taglines that accompany every segment. We know that the misery of those dying of cholera and of the homeless in tent cities is being further exposed in aggressive zooming shots to offer a more human side of the tragedy. As expected, features shied away from history, favoring sound bites focusing on the Haitian government’s failures since January 12, 2010. Unsurprisingly, not enough attention is being paid to the role that foreign nations and international institutions have and continue to play in our predicament.

These rhetorical and visual blows dehumanize us — Haitians on both sides of the water — who are still living with trauma that had to be put aside to deal with the immediate. It remains unprocessed. Moreover, we have yet to truly mourn or to hold an appropriate requiem for those whose lives were lost in those 30 seconds.

You see, if there is one thing we know for certain, without destitution, sensationalism and violence there is no Haiti story. As an editor of a news magazine told me months ago after the fouled-up elections, we’re doing an AIDS story right now, so let’s wait for the next big moment for you to pitch me something. The expectation is that there will be more tragedies. After all, it is Haiti.

The heaviness of that perception so distressed me as a young immigrant in this country during the ‘80s that, at the ripe age of 12, I vowed never to return to Haiti until things changed. With little command of the English language, I had simply grown tired of explaining to inquiring minds that there is much more to us. No, we are not responsible for the AIDS virus. Yes, we are poor and have a history of political strife, but it’s not innate. And hell no, it’s not because we are mostly black. We are not reducible to our conditions.

Still, as insiders, we have intimate knowledge of Haiti yet we are hardly ever presented as experts. Rather, we are usually positioned as informants. According to University of Miami medical anthropologist Herns Louis Marcelin, “for too long, the predominant discourse [on Haitians] has been framed within a humanitarian condescending characterization: victims of our passion, excesses and lack of rationality. Because of the premise that we have been blindfolded by excesses, the assumption is that we cannot have a rational/objective analysis of our own condition.”

Fabienne Doucet, New York University professor and co-founder of Haiti Corps (an organization that focuses on capacity building to strengthen Haiti’s workforce since the quake) more or less concurs, “we have always been depicted as desperate, pathetic and needy.” Moreover, she added, “I don’t think we are being represented any differently than we have been represented my entire life.”

Haitian-born Mario, a taxi driver in Manhattan told me, “They never show you what is functioning in the country. Even before the earthquake, all you ever see is what doesn’t work. Even before the earthquake, you never see the provinces. You never see Jacmel or Labadie.” Both are tourist destinations that used to draw visitors, especially from Canada and Europe.

Labadie, Haiti

Indeed, the slew of one-year-later documentaries that have been shown this week have mainly focused on the capital, Port-au-Prince. These reified singular notions of Haiti. As a result, we actually know less about the state of things in the other eight departments of the country. Equally important, they have rendered the capital synonymous with Haiti. As NYU’s Sibylle Fischer, author of “Modernity Disavowed,” a study of the impact of the Haitian Revolution in Latin America says, “It’s like the earthquake hijacked the entire country.”

As an anthropologist, I have been a critical observer of such portrayals. For the last decade, I have taught a seminar entitled “Haiti: Myths and Realities.” I use an interdisciplinary approach grounded in history to trace the origins of the most popularly held beliefs including notions of Haiti as a “nightmare republic” or how Vaudoux became “Voodoo” among other views. In the process, I not only debunk some myths but also discern them from the realities they purport to represent. In the end, I make a strong case for the different ways the past occupies the present.

Outside of academe, we tend to be less inclined to deal with history especially since stories are restricted to word count. The mainstream depictions of Haiti that we continually see are actually reproductions of narratives and stereotypes dating back to the 19th century when in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, the new free black republic that ended slavery and disrupted the order of things in the world, became a geopolitical pariah and our humanity was disavowed.

For Brunine David of Coconut Creek, Fla., even when portrayals attempt to give our humanity, they are usually skewed. “When they dare to talk about our courage and strength or perseverance, they change the meaning and take all the good from it and leave us with resilience; a kind of people who accept any unacceptable situation, people who can live anywhere in any bad condition that no one else would actually accept.”

As far as I am concerned, at 4:53:10 p.m., last year when the earth cracked open, Haiti once again was being asked to cause changes in the world. What’s at stake this time is the unfinished business of the revolution: reclamation of the humanity we have been denied.

Watch. After the anniversary coverage, the cameras will retract and journalists will depart even before filing their bylines. And you won’t hear about Haiti again unless or until, there’s another big disaster. And given the current state of things, I must admit, there will surely be more man-made disasters. There will be new Haiti stories, albeit not in our voices and certainly not from our perspectives.

Gina Athena Ulysse is an associate professor of anthropology, African-American studies, and feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

 

Comments

  • CurlingRiver

    Isn’t most of the delay in rebuilding in Haiti due to overly cumbersome property laws that demand deeds to demolished houses where none exist? I’ve seen reports that because Haitians claimed their freedom, there was no one to issue them title to their houses. After the earthquake this is a problem. Why can’t these laws be set aside? A chance to change bureaucracy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=718172580 Tammy Haynes-Robinson

    You and other Haitians are the voice that needs to speak loudly. everyday with pictures and history. You are the victors so write it the way you know it and publish it for the world:)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=718172580 Tammy Haynes-Robinson

    You and other Haitians are the voice that needs to speak loudly. everyday with pictures and history. You are the victors so write it the way you know it and publish it for the world:)

  • Underthewyrdtree

    As far as I’ve seen most of the problems that Haiti has comes from the fact that developed nations such as America would rather keep the country in poverty. This allows them to exploit conditions there for cheap goods and boosts to their own economy.

  • Muslim

    HAVE YOU REPORTED ON THE HISTORY OF HAITI, THE YEARS OF DEBT SLAVERY TO FRANCE?
    WHAT ABOUT THE YEARS OF DEBT SLAVERY TO THE IMF AND WORLD BANK?
    HOW ABOUT THE FACT THAT THE USA WAS A FOE TO HAITI BECAUSE IT WAS A NATION FOUNDED BY SLAVES WHO REBELLED AGAINST THE COLONISTS SUCCESSFULLY, WHICH THREATENED THE us IN REGARDS TO GIVING SLAVES IN THE US IMPETUS TO DO THE SAME?

  • Muslim

    HAVE YOU REPORTED ON THE HISTORY OF HAITI, THE YEARS OF DEBT SLAVERY TO FRANCE?
    WHAT ABOUT THE YEARS OF DEBT SLAVERY TO THE IMF AND WORLD BANK?
    HOW ABOUT THE FACT THAT THE USA WAS A FOE TO HAITI BECAUSE IT WAS A NATION FOUNDED BY SLAVES WHO REBELLED AGAINST THE COLONISTS SUCCESSFULLY, WHICH THREATENED THE us IN REGARDS TO GIVING SLAVES IN THE US IMPETUS TO DO THE SAME?

  • Muslim

    Why is there no scroll bar in the preliminary comment? Is there a limit imposed or being suggested for words in commentary?

  • Muslim

    How be it when a nation pays most of the GDP to creditor institutions like the IMF and World Bank? Shall that nations have enough money to finance projects that improve the daily lives of the indigenous? Nay!

    Do you now see the source of the suffering of the Haitians and “Third World Nations”?

  • Lgjoseph

    I have read and reread this article and must confess that I am still entirely ignorant of the writer’s specific complaint. I, for one, would like very much to know about “the Haiti story” to which she alludes but which she has not identified in plain and concrete language.

  • Hwh1100

    I read the article with great interest and feel it is honest and worthy of attention. I get what the complaint is, however, I was very hopeful that before the story ended that I would know the story of the rest of the real Haiti from the writer’s perspective. I am ready to listen…

  • http://twitter.com/Al_Zhiemer Doug McKay

    Where is the rest of the story? I am aware of what the most of this article says. I was looking for the part that I do not see on TV or read about in the news every other day.

  • Freedog70

    I understand to some extend what she is saying – however, does she really wnat us to ignore poverty and tragedy? not just recent, but what has been imposed on them by the french Gvernment – we get that! – but u cannot show people lounging on the beach when citizens are eating DIRT!

  • Carlos Hernandez Soto

    Hello, Gina. I would like to know how vaudou has been transfom into voodoo. Is ther a link. Thank you in advance.

    Carlos

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chantal-Laurent/1432326649 Chantal Laurent

    “…for too long, the predominant discourse [on Haitians] has been framed within a humanitarian condescending characterization: victims of our passion, excesses and lack of rationality. Because of the premise that we have been blindfolded by excesses, the assumption is that we cannot have a rational/objective analysis of our own condition.”

    Actually, when I read that paragraph, it reminded me of a chance meeting I had a while back with an American lawyer. When he learned I was of Haitian heritage, he told me about his vacations in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship. He described the fun he had with the Haitian women and tried to pick me up (I declined). I imaged there was a lot of debauchery available to foreigners with a little money to spend in a country with such an extreme gap between the rich and the poor… so in that sense Haitians should not be viewed as being “victims of their passions.” In my opinion, it’s the people who get their rocks off poverty pimping (Douglas Perliz; for an extreme example) and exploiting Haiti that are indulging their passions.

    I image that some Americans must also mourn the loss of Cuba as their vacation paradise. It must have been a hell for the Cuban people who had to deal with not only the depravity of poverty, but also the rampant prostitution and criminal enterprises, not only from the sugar cane industry U.S. monopoly (http://bit.ly/fncIP6), but also the American gangsters who made Cuba their base.

    This is the goal for Haiti. The Clinton plan is for Haitians to be the work horses who supply cheap goods at cheap slave wages to the U.S. An article reported last week that Korea is to become the largest employer in Haiti… sweatshop heaven. Haitians do not want sweatshop slavery, colonialism, or neocolonialism. What’s so hard to understand about that?

    Before Papa Doc’s dictatorship, which was supported by the elitist rich class and their allies in the West, Daniel Fignolé was removed by the Haitian military [a Haitian military trained and identified with the U.S. military]. For the U.S. Fignolé represented something they have declared a secret war on in the global south– a socialist democracy.

    Interestingly, Scandanavia’s socialist democracies are never victims of the same demagoguery and violence that the global south is subjected to for choosing that form of government.

  • Charla

    Who is helping in Haiti? What model of rebuilding is most effective? I want to know if there is anyone who is making progress toward the homelessness in Port Au Prince and I cannot find and information about it.