Thinking with Haiti

In 2004, I published a history of the Haitian Revolution called Avengers of the New World. It told the story of how, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, enslaved people organized to overthrow the slave regime, and in the process transformed the history of the world. I hoped that it would be a humane history, one that rendered this swirling epic comprehensible without relying on simple categories, and that would give multiple actors a kind of voice. It seemed like the right moment to publish the book: the 200 year anniversary of the revolution was to be celebrated with fanfare in Haiti and its diaspora.

Instead, of course, 2004 was the year of the overthrow of Haiti’s president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which triggered a new moment of political conflict and violence in Haiti. It was a remarkable year, both within the historical profession – for several months, the scattered group of us who worked on Haiti suddenly saw one another nearly every week, and shared and pushed forward our collective projects – and for Haiti itself.

I had the good fortune during that year to meet Jean Casimir, who arranged for Avengers to be published in Haiti. This past May, when I visited for the release of the book, I was reminded of the way that Haiti constantly challenges the stories, categories, and certainties that govern so much thinking and talk about the current global order. While some consider Haiti to be trapped in the past, a historian of the Atlantic world might argue that, since the eighteenth century, there has been no place more “modern” than Haiti. A thriving plantation colony, covered with technologically advanced sugar processing machinery, populated by exiled and brutalized workers, Haiti’s plantation system helped to produce France and Europe, not to mention North America. A nation born of slave revolution, it was a foundational pioneer in expanding and concretizing the language of universal rights, outrunning the American and French Revolutions by insisting that if all are born free and equal than none should be a slave. Haiti was never outside of “modernity,” but rather at the center of it all.

What the Haitian Revolution represented, more than anything, was a refusal, on the part of the most brutalized victims of the nascent world order, to be human capital. Of course, it quickly contained, and the colonial order was never fully defeated, for it shaped both Haiti’s struggle for diplomatic recognition and helped produced some of the competing visions of freedom and autonomy that have shaped the nation’s history ever since. But if the promise of that revolution has never been completely fulfilled, it remains a powerful beacon of what is possible when people insist on their right to free.

Today, in a country born two hundred years ago out of the defeat of the armies of the Spanish, English and then French empires, you might find yourself in traffic jams populated largely, it seemed, by the trucks of the United Nations and NGOs. Jean Casimir jokes that living in the country has pushed him to imagine a new index of “under-development”: experts per inhabitant. By this measure, Haiti might well be the world leader. There was, already in May, a number of projects underway that were carried out by deeply committed individuals from around the world. Now, in the wake of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, a new wave of aid has commenced . In the next months, indeed years, a massive wave of intervention and assistance will land in Haiti. What will it produce? Where will it end?

For much of the 20th century, particularly since the time of the United States Occupation from 1915-1934, outsiders have been working hard to “repair” Haiti. They have done so in many ways, and with heavy involvement and collaboration from a range of actors in different parts of the society. Whether the sentiment is accurate or not, many people conclude that these efforts have been largely fruitless, or worse: that they have in many cases actually deepened economic and political difficulties in Haiti. The country, you might even say, has consistently deconstructed various certainties about “development,” though the response is often simply to conclude that Haiti is a hopeless case, an incurable patient.

I have great admiration and respect for the work of a range of groups committed to improving quality access to core social institutions in Haiti. At the same time, I sometimes worry about what these powerful commitments to change and progress lead us to believe about Haiti. On a recent flights, I sat next to a first-time visitor headed to her first mission trip, who exclaimed: “My god, there are trees!” She had been told that the island was entirely deforested, and had seen the famous pictures of barren land on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. That, above Port-au-Prince, there are misty and forested hills with beautiful terraced gardens producing food for the city, might surprise many outsiders.

I often find myself, perhaps oddly, advocating for a more banal analysis of the country, one which allows for its diversity of experience, its ups and downs, its simultaneous capacity for absurdity and corruption, and for grace and brilliance. I occasionally have to tell my students as a counter-point the newspaper articles about political killings and people eating mud pies, people in Haiti don’t usually wake up in the morning screaming: “Oh my God, I’m in Haiti!” They get up, say good morning, and enter the day. If too many do so burdened with hunger or sickness or want, they also do so with whatever mix of hope, fear, and faith that many people carry with them. What is striking about talking about Haiti is that one actually does have to remind people that this is, in fact, just a place, with people who work, eat, sleep, and dream, like us.

That said, it is of course a very special place. It has a complex and layered history, multi-national in both form and content, full of contradictions and uncertainties. A friend whose family lives in Martissant told me that even as news channels around the world trafficked in images of aid workers arriving to assist Haitians in desperate circumstances in the days following the January 12th earthquake, his mother didn’t even know that any foreigners had landed in Haiti. No aid workers of any kind had surfaced in her neighborhood. People were finding their own ways of dealing with the catastrophe, drawing on their own forms of organization and solidarity. This raises one question, above all others, for us to ponder in the weeks to come. How will these diverse aims and organizations interact. Will they meet, dialogue, and come to an understanding? Will they ignore one another? Will they come into conflict? If so, how?

What we all need to do now, those of us who are or hope to be involved in Haiti in one way or another, is to stop and think–and think hard. We have to try, in the midst of the shock, horror, and devastation we feel, to find a space of reflection that might allow us to figure out what it means to think, and therefore act, with Haiti, rather than simply on its behalf.

Laurent Dubois is Professor of History and Romance Studies at Duke University, and author of
Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004). He has recently completed Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, which will be published this Spring by University of California Press.

laurent dubois