I suspect that many people, like I do, tend to think first of Haiti in terms of its longterm suffering. And somehow the earthquake fits the Jobian narrative we come to expect from that benighted nation. But, it’s easy to lose focus on all the living that goes on among the tales of woe. A writer named Evan Narcisse reminded me of this in something I read yesterday.
I haven’t been to Haiti since I was in college. My dad’s people are from the south, near Port-au-Prince, and my mom’s family is from Port-de-Paix, way up in the north. So, I’m kind of the product of a city folk/country folk relationship, which means family members drove me all up and down the barely paved roads to meet distant relatives. The memories are mostly sensory now: the throbbing of drums in the forest and how that wasn’t scary at all, a lagoon with water so clear I could see the fish swimming around my ankles, the amazing taste of just-picked mangos and avocados.
The most vivid mental snapshot remains the image of the National Palace. I was 11, maybe 12 years old when I first saw it. It’s tough to put into words how symbolically important that was for me. There goes our White House, I thought. A White House for black people. Hell, the first White House for any black people anywhere.
Now it’s a crumbled wreck.
It’s chilling to watch the news reports with their constant mentions about Haiti’s poverty (which ain’t nothing new). That meme-true though it may be-doesn’t do any justice to the island’s cultural significance. From the revolution that made it the first free black republic to the great intellectual and spiritual movements, Haiti represents a vital example of black diasporan will and creativity. It’s a hotbed of fusion and syncretism, a place where art forms, musics and religions go and get mixed up with other things. Arawak and Taino meets West African and European, jazz meets drums, mushrooms meet rice. The results come out in new, nearly unrecognizable forms and that’s what beautiful about Haiti. Haiti’s a shining example of the processes that have enabled black communities all around the world to survive and thrive. We need to remember why it’s important to help Haiti recover.
On top of that, there were many indications, prior to the earthquake that Haiti was beginning to find a political and economic space for development. There also seems to have been little social disorder — knock on wood – and violence in the aftermath, a remarkable cultural achievement considering the Godwaful scope of the disaster.
There’s a very large Haitian community in this county. We should do what we can to support them and the island. But we also simply respect a cultural heritage that consists of much more than simple tragedy.