It can fairly be said that the place called Haiti, and the people called Haitians, have been raped, looted and pillaged by my “civilized” world for the entire 518 year history since Christopher Columbus and his men landed there (in the vicinity of today’s Cap Haitien) in 1492. An excellent primer on this history for me was Dr. Paul Farmer’s book, “The Uses of Haiti*“. (I initially thought that this book was still in print. Apparently it is not. The link provided here is to a discussion and critique of the book by someone I early became acquainted with and respect. Take a look, and read the review* all the way through.)
(Today, Dr. Paul Farmer is the most prominent “point person” for the U.S. and the United Nations on Haiti. He was appointed some months before the earthquake; and he has a long history in Haiti and among the Haitians. His Partners in Health is easily considered one of the very best destinations for donations to Haiti. His more recent book, Pathologies of Power remains available, and worth a look.)
It can be fairly said, I believe, that everyone of us in the developed West have grown up with an official and almost exclusively negative narrative about why Haiti is so poor. The essence of the narrative is that Haitians are incapable of running their own affairs: that their problems are their own fault, and that we in the developed world need to rescue them from their own incompetence. We are “the Great White Fathers”.
Historical narratives are developed and shared by people of influence, like leaders, or academics, who are in a position to convey their influence down to the commoners who are the pawns of history. The official story is the story written by the one in Power**. We are told what to believe, and tend to believe what we are told by people more “important” than we are. That is an elemental fact of life. Even Black Americans and Native Americans have absorbed a negative story about Haitians. It is a fiction which has come to be accepted as reality.
When my friend Paul Miller finally convinced me to travel with him to Haiti in 2003, I knew almost nothing about the place and its people. I came back committed to learn about the geopolitical relationship between the U.S. and Haiti. It has been an eye-opening and troubling experience.
Today, January 23, 2010, I feel for the first time since I darkened Haiti’s door December 6, 2003, that hope is truly on the way for Haiti, and along with the hope, some potential for long-term justice for the Haitian people.
There are a boat-load of serious problems beyond the earthquake: I read about them every day in commentaries never seen by the ordinary news consumer in this country. And you don’t undo over 500 years of exploitation overnight.
To those who look only backward at the abuse of a beautiful country and its beautiful, determined and tenacious people, I urge: don’t turn your back on the future and in effect walk only backwards with your eyes only on the awful past.
To those of my country men and women, especially those who share my whiteness, who believe only the official narrative, consider the possibility that you’ve been lied to, deliberately, and often, by most everybody. Crucial information has been tampered with, or left out of, the stories you’ve heard. Open your eyes as you walk forward, trying to help.
To both, consider the possibility of true dialogue, and a willingness to understand the other. Without such an intersection, all of the huge outpouring of money and caring and good intentions engendered by the earthquake of January 12, 2010, will be for naught…and we’ll slide back into the dismal reality that has prevailed over Haiti’s entire history.
Post note: Within the last few days the Twin Cities Daily Planet published a post of mine about the current situation in Haiti.
I have a website concerning Haiti which includes a comparative map and a timeline of significant historical events.
* The review relates to the original edition of the book, 1994; the book I read was the 2003 revised version which very likely dealt with some of the concerns Bob Corbett had with the first edition. To my knowledge, neither edition remains available.
** Quite by accident I was able to document one such occurrence with Haiti. Click on “Anatomy of an Official Lie” here .