Dehumanization & Fracture: Trauma at Home & Abroad

The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University held a teach-in “Haiti in Context” on Wednesday January 20th to which I was invited to speak. After the panelists presented their perspectives on the current situation, a young Haitian female graduate student who had been there during the earthquake took the mike at the podium. Her account of the event and its immediate aftermath required the audience to be patient. Words crept sluggishly from her mouth as she dissociated frequently between incomplete sentences.

She had solid insights: “rescue efforts are focused on getting American citizens out first. If you are white, you are automatically US Citizen. Those with money make their way to the Dominican Republic to escape. Relief is not going in needed places. Most are being ignored. Efforts that work are grassroots level response that gets to communities.” And so on. What was evident to us when she was done is that she is still in shock and is severely traumatized. Another Haitian faculty member in the audience broke in tears as soon as she began to speak. Those of us with especially deep connections to Haiti (including myself — I was born there and had been on a research trip a month prior) also showed signs of fracture.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, I wrote the following: “Words are especially difficult to come by in a state of numbness. My response to the outpouring of calls and emails from concerned friends has become something of a mantra. No, still no news yet. We have not been able to make contact with anyone. To stay sane, I have resigned myself to accepting that my immediate family will not come out of this without loss. And even if we did, the lives of the already departed and sheer magnitude of the devastation is enough to keep me catatonic.”

A week later, I penned that it was “still difficult to absorb the images. Though I have now heard from family members, I experience symptoms of trauma, mainly dissociation–my mind seeks sporadic distances from my body as this is simply too much for my psyche to bear. Unlike those glued to their screens, I turned off the television. I have that luxury. Yet, I keep thinking of those who cannot. If, with over 1600 miles between us, this is my reaction, then what must it be like for people who are in the thick of it in Haiti?”

Isolated in Middletown, Conn., and desperate for any information, I turned on the major news outlets the morning after the earthquake. One of the first reporters on the scene (a white female whose identity is truly insignificant here) was clearly overwhelmed by what she saw on the ground. She commented on the indifference of those roaming the streets, many of them were still covered in dust. Her explanation for their distressed and expressionless state was that perhaps, it is because they are so used to hardship that they are non-responsive.

This observation — an additional blow to the psyche — discursively reinforced the routine dehumanization of Haitians. As subjects of research and representation, Haitians have often been portrayed as fractures, as fragments — bodies without minds, heads without bodies, or roving spirits. These disembodied beings or visceral fanatics have always been in need of an intermediary. They hardly ever spoke for themselves. In the academy, they are represented by the social scientist. And on January 12 after the quake, enter the uninformed socio-culturally limited journalist.

In media coverage of the quake and its aftermath, some nuances of the dehumanization narrative have emerged that are particularly dangerous especially given their implications. In these, Haitians are either subhuman or superhuman. The sub-humanity stems from the dominant idea in popular imagination that Haitians are irrational-devil-worshipping-progress-resistant-uneducated-accursed-black-natives-overpopulating-this-god-forsaken-land. The superhuman characteristic is usually framed in terms of our resilience. The miraculous discoveries of those found still alive deep in the rubble nine to ten days after being trapped there are framed in such terms. No ordinary human being could withstand so much but for some reason, those Haitians can. There is an underlying subtext here about race. For Haitians are blackness in its worst form because simply put, the enfant terrible of the Americas who defied all European odds had to become its bete noir.

Some hours after the Hope for Haiti fundraiser held on Friday, January 22, (which I could not bear to watch), Anderson Cooper was on the air speaking with a British journalist who was perturbed by the fact that people were not crying. He then told a story of a woman who survived the quake but lost family members including a young child. Reporter was surprised that this woman was forcing her way onto a bus to get out of Port-au-Prince. When he asked her what she had done with the recovered body of her child? She said “Jete” — His interpretation is that she threw him out. The only word he understood was jete (throw, fling, hurl). There was no mention of the prepositions that came before or words that came after. “Why don’t you Haitians cry” the reporter asked those he encountered, stunned. Cooper tried to spark a conversation trauma and mentioned the word “shock.” That angle did not gain any traction.

Yet another rhetorical blow to the psyche.

As I have written elsewhere the body — a reservoir of discursive, physiological, psychological and social memories — functions as an archive. Deposits were made on January 12 just before 5pm that will have impacts for years to come. Those who have experienced this moment at home or abroad will need to be tended to psychologically nurtured and supported because we have been fractured differently in so many brutal ways.

An Update of Sorts:

Two days ago, my nineteen year old cousin who lives on Route Freres, which as of the writing has seen no relief efforts because of security concerns, cited the rapper Nas on his first Facebook post since the quake, which read:

Heart of a king, blood of a slave!!!!!
Thu at 7:11pm · Comment · Like

His friends responded:

thank god ur ok ma dude ..stay up and stay in contact
Thu at 7:55pm

Blessed be the Lord!
Thu at 8:27pm

great to see you again. take care and keep in touch!!!!
Thu at 10:33pm

Really glad 2 know u r still standing brave heart never get away in
vain!!! peace & luv bro !! keep praying
Yesterday at 2:15am

still standing as this famous slave, we’re gonna do it again “BWA KAIMAN”
Yesterday at 4:22pm


A version of this paper was delivered at “Haiti in Context: Perspectives on the Current Crisis” a roundtable/teach-in organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU, January 20, 2010

Gina Athena Ulysse is an Associate Professor of Anthropology,
African-American Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. She is the author of
Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). She is also a poet/performer and multimedia artist.

gina athena ulysse