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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.