The Aftermath by Myriam J.A. Chancy

Une minute…Les gens parlent de près d’une minute! Je n’ai pas perçu le temps…Je n’étais pas là! Non, je n’ai rien vu à Port-au-Prince!  Non, je n’ai rien vu à Port-au-Prince!

 [One minute…The people say it lasted almost a minute! I had no sense of time….I was not there! No, I saw nothing in Port-au-Prince!]

 — from the testimony of Olivier Dournon, Nancy, Haïti, le 1er février 2010

It doesn’t feel like a year ago that I was sitting in a cramped, walk-up apartment in a city unknown to me and in which I was unknown, unable to leave the walls behind to walk out of doors, unable to leave my computer screen on which I was streaming Radio Canada International (RCI) live, unable to commit myself to preparing classes or writing a word about anything else that might matter in the world. The year, has been heavy, ponderous, all the more so for the one and half million still without shelter in the destroyed capital of Port-au-Prince, for all those who have had to bear the weight of the disappearance of relatives and loved ones beneath debris that so many months later, in many places, remains unmoved. Then there are those who survived but whose lives will never be the same again, with untold family members vanished, friends gone, or, a missing, phantom limb an eternal reminder of what has been endured and cannot be repaired..

A year later. A year later. A phrase that should be followed with an enumeration of those people, things and sites that might have been saved and salvaged, those things that might still be in the process of repair. But even eleven months on, not even the rolls at the ballot boxes can enumerate the living, crammed as most were with the names of the unclaimed dead. A year later, we still do not have a death roll or a death toll.

The number of dead due to the 7.1 Richter scale earthquake has risen from a quarter million to some tens of thousands more than the three hundred thousand mark that was reported mid-year.  Still, there has been no accounting since January 12, 2010 of those who, beyond the ravages of the earthquake itself died as a result of crush injuries or unattended guillotine amputations, or of hunger and despair, or of violence in a displaced person’s camp.  Only because of an epidemic which could affect NGO and aid workers, as well as neighboring nation-states, do we know that over four thousand have died as a result of the cholera outbreak which began in November 2010, reputedly brought into Haiti by a South Asian contingent of the MINUSTAH, the UN peace-keeping forces in Haiti.  A year on, relatives burying the dead in Haiti mention that official numbers from the Haitian state should always be tripled.  Perhaps this might be an exaggeration but a year on, we do not know very much about the true depth of the casualties, only that things are worse than they could have been imagined when international aid started to flow into the small Caribbean country as if the sound of tectonic plates breaking beneath Haiti’s surface had split a barrier between first and third worlds, between north and south, and the international community had suddenly awakened to remember this forgotten, proud nation, the first Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere.

A year later, it is as if Haiti stands two hundred years in the past on the brink of hope or disaster, its inhabitants trying to fight for their independence with little more than the strength of their hearts and will of spirit.  A year later, it is difficult to have to reconcile that the difference between this year and the years of battle for freedom in the late eighteenth century are slim.  Yet, this year, what seems clear is that Haitians have been stripped of all resources to claim as their own and that the fight is only of the spirit, when it can survive, and spaces of survival are slim to none.   Two hundred years ago, with no citizenship to claim, no passports, no world wide web, only the riches of the land and rudimentary arms for battle, the mass of formerly enslaved Africans, and their allies, had more options for survival then their descendants do today.  One would think that the revolutionaries had been inculcated in a world in which the sum of their humanity was a sum zero, or even less than that, a world in which to be a ‘slave’ was to have no juridical presence, no human attributes, in short, no recognized social or legal rights as other than a beast of burden.  Indeed, the fact that the historical rupture represented by the Haitian revolution has only recently become a feature of discourses of modernity, alterity, postcoloniality and philosophy, underscore the degree to which the Revolution appeared to be implausible and impossible, even as it unfolded over a ten-year period.  And some two hundred years later, in the midst of post-industrial, post-modern, developments, in the era of ‘globalization,’ we might argue that revolutionary acts should be the more possible.

For those who do not know their, or Haiti’s, history, Haiti’s lot today, in 2011, appears inconceivable and the poverty and abject state of Haitians so destitute as to appear a natural consequence of years of under-development blamed on the Haitian State’s ineptitude or corruption, as if the mere fact of Haiti’s independence, belatedly recognized, could somehow, on its own, have created the morass of Haiti’s post-earthquake maelstrom.  Ideologically, such a (mis)understanding or distortion of the two hundred years leading up to our present moment, extends from the prior (and continued) disavowal of the Revolution’s success; since “Africans” were thought not to have the “reason” to govern themselves and took back their freedom without having it handed to them by the European powers from which they unshackled themselves with a force equal to that turned against their humanity under slavery, today’s poverty and inhumane living conditions for Haitians is read as a result of lack of “preparedness” for self-rule.  Never mind that ever since that moment of exacted freedom, those European powers and the neo-colonial ones to follow in their footsteps, have done everything politically, economically and diplomatically conceivable to undermine the newly-born state, and everything to discursively ‘naturalize’ the condition of marginality and abject alterity foisted upon her.  Knowing all this, however, does nothing to soothe the reality of abjection, material and discursive, that all Haitians are forced to inhabit, consciously or unwittingly.

A year ago today, I waited in sleep-deprived anxiety for news of relatives still residing in the city of my birth, Port-au-Prince, Haïti.  That day, a teaching heavy day for me at a university whose faculty I had just joined, I was needled at the back of my mind by a feeling of presentiment.  Somewhere, I felt, something was going wrong and I sent off emails to close friends and wondered about my parents in Canada.  All messages came back with no result; everyone claimed that all was well except for the usual daily inconveniences.  My parents were out celebrating my father’s seventy-fifth birthday.  Shortly after five pm, I received an email from one of the friends I had emailed earlier that something was happening in Haiti and to check the internet.  I had a graduate seminar to go teach and had to wait until the break to roam the internet and find the words “earthquake” connected to Haiti.  There was no information to find.  I left a message on my parents’ answering machine and went back to complete teaching my class.  That early evening, we would find out that a massive earthquake had toppled the capital and other sites as far as Jacmel and Léogane.  But the worse was to come.  All the telephone lines were down and like millions of Haitians in exile or in the diaspora, we tried in vain to get in touch with relatives.  That first night, and for days to come, I could not eat; I was paralyzed in front of my television screen which provided to few images; they too were having trouble connecting to Haiti, especially to the capital, and could not provide images or reports of the disaster for those of us waiting, afraid to exhale, for news of relatives and home.  CNN indulged in fanciful technological effects, explaining for what seemed like an hour the science of earthquakes and what had likely occurred beneath the earth’s surface.  I found the news reportage intolerable in light of the deafening silence that stretched between Haiti and all its descendants outside of the island as the distance between us all proved unbreachable.  My parents called relatives in other parts of Canada and the US for news; we could not find anyone.  And then came the images of the Presidential palace broken into two as if it were only a mere stage set; the palace that despite its years of infamy, stood as a visible iconic structure of our capital, with the “Nègre Marron,” or statue of the maroon sounding the conch of liberty before it in the circle of the champ de Mars, lay in ruins.  And then the cable feeds went out and those of us on the outside were plunged into darkness once again, at least if seeking coverage through US sources, not knowing that thousands upon thousands of our family members and compatriots would not see the light of the following day.

It was a white night of waiting and longing for home; a white night of dread and hope; of shock as well as of despair.  It was a night devoid of speech and yet filled with a history of crowded, unspoken thoughts and disturbances, of prior moments in time of waiting beside a phone for news of home because of an incarceration, a death, a disappearance, a kidnapping.  Lost in the not-knowing but realizing that there would be untold dead, the night became one of communal prayer even as we, the dubbed diasporics, lay dispersed across a continent and many other sites around the world, in Canada, the US, and France, and elsewhere.   It may also have become one of collective remembrance though I do no know if, like mine, other minds recollected other moments in their personal history when the death, disappearance, torture or exile of a friend, loved-one, or acquaintance, sent us to bide our time by phones on which we could barely speak even when they rang.  I remembered a childhood in which phone calls to and from Haiti were happy occasions cloaked in hyperbole and euphemism, in which we were glad to hear the familiar voices of love and home but could not identify our deepest fears, sorrow, and regrets.  The lines were tapped and we all knew them to be.  It was enough that contact could be restored even though the ‘whole story’ would have to wait for a letter for those amongst us who braved the authorities’ notorious penchant for opening and disposing of ‘suspicious’ missives, sometimes only to retrieve the funds sent within them, or for in-person meetings that often took years to plan, at which the stories never completely unwound themselves from the tight spools of the bearer’s heart because we were so full of being able to see ourselves face to face, or because it was too painful to share the burden of the past survived.  Survival was often enough and laughter more important than tears, tears we were taught to share privately, if at all.

I switched CNN off that night and followed the news on Radio Canada International’s live television feed on my computer.  I was astounded and dumbstruck as the French-Canadian, white anchors, one male and one female, uttered the words, “Tonight, we are all Haitians.”  It was a unique moment of solidarity that I had never heard before given to Haiti and to Haitians.  Montréal, of course, has one of the largest expatriate populations in Québec and Haitians have become a vocal, visible, and politically viable minority group within the province.  Indeed, that strength was represented in the person of the Right Honourable Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean, whose statements in the days to follow would enact grace under pressure, a moving sensitivity paired with a rigorous, unflinching approach to moving forward in a time of disruption and disquiet.  “It was like an atom-bomb exploded on Port-au-Prince,” she would come to say.  Having traveled to Hiroshima in the fall of 2009, I could see what she meant.  If perhaps the destruction was not as far-reaching in terms of the environmental devastation of the H-Bomb in addition to the manner in which citizens were vaporized to ashes or suffered immediate blindness and other, then unimaginable violence falling from the sky, the effects of the earthquake on an already dispossessed citizenry was eerily similar, as was the effect on all of us waiting for news: it was as if the time-bomb we had been waiting all of our lives to be set off had finally exploded and all of our lives fell in disrepair in various ways in the ensuing hours and days.  Waiting with held breaths, closed eyes, suspended sentences and thoughts, those of us on the margins and on the outside experienced collateral damage.  Every piece of news, every image, every announced death, personal or second hand, every loss, registered like shrapnel.  As expressed in the testimony of Olivier Dournon in the epigraph which opens this introduction, a testimony whose form is inspired by the dialogue of the traumatized war survivors of Marguerite Dura’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, in which two traumatized war survivors come to be lovers and recognize the other’s scars and memories in the mirror of their respective trauma, we saw nothing in Port-au-Prince, nothing of the trauma, the bodies, the twisted shape of the buildings, the death.  Dournon, of course, was present on the ground, but his ability to convey the singularity of the trauma, the seeing and not-seeing, the agony of survival in the midst of death, the joy of finding the living while all around moans and groans, in this the words of his testimony rings true for those of us who remain tied to Haiti as it to a mother by an umbilical cord.

No, I was not there.  No, I saw nothing in Port-au-Prince.  I was lost in the dark.  I moaned and I cried.  I was afraid and I trembled.  There was no time, no yesterday and no tomorrow.  There was only broken time, severed time, a pain as long as life, as short as a breath.  No, I was not there.  I saw nothing of Port-au-Prince.

We saw nothing and yet we saw, in the gap between the impossible and the plausible, as we waited, life taken and destroyed, as we survived, guiltily, to see another day, to speak Haiti, to remember our loved ones and our losses, to remember what we had tried to forget while living so far from home that home had become a word without an etymology, without meaning, until that moment when home called from the belly of the earth and the phone lines went dead.  When we remembered home and all those we cherish there and home could not call back.  Had it been this way all the years of waiting and forgetting; all the years of wanting to forget and remembering; all those years of wanting to hatch a plan for return while return ebbed away with so many broken promises and vanishing roads?  In that one moment when the news spread across the globe and night enveloped Port-au-Prince and the broken palace while all around the cries of death and pain rose into the sky, past and present merged and there seemed to be no way to measure the beginning and end of one’s life, all that was lost and hoped.  There was only the desire to reconnect to that place of all beginning, the only home one knew even though that home would never be quite the same again.

Predicted by Haiti’s seismologist yet unexpected, the earthquake dubbed by some in Kreyol “goulougoulou,” took with her more than a quarter million lives, injured an equal number of survivors, while close to two million individuals lost their homes across divisions of class, gender and age, though the poorest of the poor with the most unstable structures were disproportionately represented both in death tolls and loss of habitat.  Still, no Haitian remain untouched as the news of the seemingly implausible and impossible opening up of the earth reached those of us beyond the island only minutes after 4:53 pm, January 12, 2010, a date which will forever be inscribed in memory for all Haitians.  In no more than 33 seconds countless were entombed beneath the debris of fallen structures, unnatural tombs where many remain still, a year later.  Simultaneously, and especially for those of us who had learned to live our lives abroad, at a distance, memories of what had already been lost in previous moments of Haitian history, public and personal, bubbled to the surface, repressed like the lava of an active volcano finally pushed to erupt by unknown, subterranean forces.

Like others who’ve written publicly about the shock of the news and of the days that followed without adequate sleep or food as we waited, alone or in groups for news from home ground, the chasm the earth had opened forced buried emotions of loss and disrepair to resurface.  I remembered childhood moments when, in Canada, speaking over the telephone to relatives was a cautious, coded affair; conversations were filled with euphemisms for what was and was not going. In some cases, we waited for news, feared the worse — torture or death, until the call came announcing a release, a resignation, home free.  I remembered the déchoukaj and the thought that scurried through my mind as I dropped to the floor of my parent’s living room, both horrified at the violence I witnessed on our television screen, and liberated by the dawn of a freedom, a possibility of return that I did not yet know could not be actualized.  I thought of the kidnappings of younger family members in recent years, those attached to gainful businesses; again, the same round of calls and worry, dreading the worse, and then, finally, release.

There was the simple reality, as we waited to hear from those still in Haiti, those we thought of only as distant but in some ways that we’d abandoned by accident or by design, this simple truth, without blame or cause, an accumulation of history: we never returned.  Oh, we came back for vacations and visits, but we did not stay.  It wasn’t as if we didn’t try.  We did.  My birth was the occasion of an attempted but aborted return, otherwise, I might have been born, like a brother, in Paris, or in Canada, where we eventually ended up, where, at age five, my Haitian citizenship was remanded and Canadian citizenship acquired.  My citizenship papers still record me as somewhat less than four feet tall with brown eyes and black hair, no distinguishable marks.  But what distinguished me was hidden, it was this longing for a return that would not die until I was in my late twenties or very early thirties and felt a calling to know other worlds, to detach from this land of origin that others would deny me.  What distinguished me was my own

self-definition as a Haitian, and the yearning for a return that would never materialize, that existed only when I lived in Haiti as a child or came back on summer holidays or breaks to visit family, to sit in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her create foods that made me feel that, yes, home was still possible — it was right there between her hands.

Waiting, I searched for my photo albums of those early days in Haiti, then of visits over the years.  How everyone had changed, so far from one another.  Circumstance had driven us apart, across many lands; time had made strangers of family even though the love remained, the care, the hope, the loss of it all.

I don’t know if others did the same but that first night seemed to me to be spent in trying to simultaneously forget what was happening in the present while remembering the past, while hoping all the while that the future, the very next hours and days, would not be as dreadful as anything already traversed.  I remembered years of the coup and writing about women’s situation under militarization; we traveled less and less into Haiti as a result.  My grandparents died a few years apart.  There were the ravages of hurricanes and mudslides and the same chains of calls, and waiting, but none so dreadful as this.

In the middle of the night, photographs of the Cathedral in ruins were emitted, then of the Palais National in front of which stands the statue of the “Nègre Marron,” a mainstay of my childhood, but also cultural and political landmarks for all Haitians.  The Palais National had broken in two from the strength of the earthquake, thrown off of its foundation and torn as if a toy building.  Seeing those images, I knew nothing would be the same again.  No other images had yet made their way out to the world, no death tolls had been announced.  There were only these symbolic yet irrevocable images of a plight we wouldn’t be able to recover from, at least, not in the short term, and the way things look today, perhaps never.  That was the last moment of true hope for the future, even as news came of survivors.  Days later, I would wonder what became of the Nègre Marron, symbol of Haitian independence; somehow, it survived unscathed; there seems, to me, to be a message in this.

As the phone lines came alive again with information after a long, dreadful white night, one of my Aunts told the story of a dream she’d had a week to the day prior to the earthquake.  She had dreamed that she was standing in front of her father’s (my grandfather’s) mortuary business looking at a little girl playing there.  She’d asked the little girl what she was doing playing in front of a mortuary and the girl had stopped her activity, looked up, and said, your mother is dead but your brother can’t be found.  By that point, we had had found most of our relatives but, only a day later, maybe four days after earthquake, one person was found dead, her home collapsed on her – my Aunt’s mother – while one was missing, her brother.  Another day later, he had been found.  He was the one to lay their mother’s body to rest, without a funeral, without ceremony, and we mourned a family loss while others mourned theirs, as we collectively took stock of what was left, if anything.

Over 250,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.5 million homeless.

Once family members and friends were located, alive, the tensions eased somewhat but only so that every energy could be poured into necessary outreach.  In a frenzied attempt to do something in the absence of emergency or life saving skills, I fielded emails left and right requesting contacts or information.  I linked people as I could.  A request came in from an engineering program wanted to take part in rebuilding: any suggestions?  Of course there were.  Ignoring phone calls from concerned friends, I embarked that first weekend on drafting and redrafting a proposal that would entail refining a temporary shelter that had been created and invented by a young engineer out of Indiana, who, coincidently, had emailed an acquaintance the day before the earthquake to announce his project which had been cited the year prior as a New York Times “bright idea.” (UberShelter by Rafael Smith is currently being tested on site in Haiti, one shelter at a time).  It felt like I was making a difference.  Days later, the proposal was turned down in favor or bilateral organizing with larger institutions launching their own, long-term rather than short-term reconstruction initiatives in Haiti, bids that had monetary value and that would unfortunately leave the unsheltered in the same post-earthquake morass of insecure camps and inadequate living conditions.  It was to be the first of many disappointments; the first lesson in understanding that numbers with dollar signs have more importance than numbers attached to human bodies.  That same week, I was told of a “teach-in” on Haiti that would be held on my campus; I was not asked to assist in the organizing even when I asked whether or not the symposium could be delayed until such time that those of us with ties with Haiti could both recover from the shock and also have a better idea of what was needed on the ground to convey vital information with long-term effect adequately.  The symposium would go on without my participation. At that point, I realized that Haitian voices would not be heeded.

At the same time as all this was going on, I fell ill; it was the middle of winter where I was and the weather unbearable.  I was hoarse from trying to explain to others in my midst what the earthquake meant, hoarse from trying to explain what those who had been working in Haiti wanted from us, those on the outside – financial assistance and please stay out.  I was hoarse from trying to explain the grief, the devastation, how all this was tied to an endless string of losses.  There were those who wanted to compete for attention, to receive “credit” for their attention to Haitian matters, while others wanted to discount the grief, the way in which nothing, at that moment, really mattered; I had no tolerance for debates about the American educational system, about healthcare, about electoral processes – at least the US had such systems, even though it was clear that they were class-based, privileging some while disenfranchising others.  When I could sleep, which was not often, my dreams carried me into worlds where buildings and the beds I slept in shook.  Nothing was stable.  At the end of that second week, then, I lost my voice to “sublingual laryngitis,” the result of an inadequately performed tonsillectomy when I was about four or five, those years when we still lived between Haiti and Québec.  I fell silent for a week and a half, relieved of the burden of having to explain and counter-explain, time enough to recollect myself and where I had come from, thinking about when I was four or five and the world I lived in, contained in Haiti, seemed whole, working my contacts across space through the computer, and realizing that I could do what I could without having to account for myself.  In hindsight, I wish I had realized this sooner — that I had not become entangled in institutional bids for that piece of pie every crisis brings as an opportunity to better an image rather than truly care for people.  I wish I had spoken to the friends who called, concerned, at length, rather than drafted a proposal that would lead nowhere with people I hardly knew.  One of my relatives was dead, others had nervous breakdowns, while others suffered PTSD that would never go away but which they said felt ‘normal’ if they stayed in Haiti where everyone else had PTSD as well.  In those days, living on the outside felt like a bitter luxury.  We were feeling the pain, the disarray, but, for Haitians like myself, far from any Haitian community or family, there was little to hold onto, little solace.

Over 250,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.5 million homeless.

The numbers bear repeating, if only because this is Haiti, if only because recovery in a country neglected, oppressed and demonized for having had the temerity to self-liberate at a time when such acts were violently put down, squelched, then retold as impossible.  Haiti stood as a violation of this law of the impossible for people of African descent, then, paid the price, over decades, hundreds of years, and, now, this.  Somehow, without any proper accounting, the numbers change any given month.  A year and three months later, we are talking of a rough figure of 800,000 homeless though all agree that very few camps have been dismantled or internally displaced people (IDPs) relocated.  Regardless of how numbers are currently being manipulated, at their high or low end, they bespeak a trauma of immeasurable proportion that will affect all Haitians for generations to come.

I have been asked why I have not returned to Haiti since the earthquake (though I am today in the throes of organizing that return).  I have not been back to Haiti in many years due to health challenges and due to numerous deaths in my family; once my grandparents died, there were fewer and fewer ties to Haiti.  I also remembered an interview with Paul Farmer who answered, when asked about what college students could do in the aftermath, “Well, don’t go to be a witness to suffering.”  He then went on to enumerate all the ways in which students and scholars could bear witness to the decades of exploitation, could study why aid has failed in countries like Haiti and how such systems could be improved.  Without life saving skills, I felt that there was little I could do on the ground; and I know Haiti well enough not to have to see with my own eyes the destruction – it’s clear what is going on if we are willing to see, even at a distance.  This is not to say that there was, is not, a yearning to return, to ‘pilgrimage,’ as so many others have in the past months; but I am not of that group which for either political reasons, or reasons of shame, stayed away from Haiti most of their lives; most of my early childhood was spent in Haiti, to the point that even when I was attending grade school in Canada, the frequent trips back made me unaware that we had emigrated.  To me, home was Haiti.  With my grandparents gone, and so many elderly folks in my family having left Haiti to live their old age with their children elsewhere, my human connections in Haiti had dwindled.  But there was something more – the fact that literally all markers of personal importance, from the national ones I’ve already mentioned, to the intimate – the hospital in which I was born in Canapé Vert, the church in which I was baptized, Sacré Coeur (the church which shows up in most photo galleries of Port-au-Prince, post-earthquake, crushed with a lone Christ on a crucifix facing passersby), and the last house I knew in which my grandparents had lived, were all gone.  No, I saw nothing in Port-au-Prince.  For me, there was nothing to return to see.   A return for nostalgic reasons would help no one.  At the same time, I am not one of those who believes that we should not speak of the difficulties, political, economic, social, facing Haiti today; I do not favor looking away from Port-au-Prince to lionize the artistry of Jacmel (however wonderful and laudable the sustenance of the arts in the latter city might be); I do not favor looking away from the deprivation of the lakou-foumi (shantytowns) to the sparkling beaches of our coast-line or of Labadie for tourist exploitation.   I believe that the more we look away, the more things will stay the same and continue to descend.  In the end, ultimately, my interest is to support those Haitians and NGOS who have been in Haiti for long periods of time, for decades, who have begged those concerned with Haiti to send the funds they would spend on themselves were they to visit Haiti, to allow them the space to do their work.  It would be too easy to rationalize that any money circulating in Haiti helps those who are there; that is, that tourist trade helps everyone but we already know that in a country with no egalitarian infrastructures, this cannot be true.  It may be that a handful or a few thousand will have a better opportunity than yesterday, but it will not cause a shift in the ways in which resources are unequally distributed across the population.  What I am interested in focusing on, then, are the ways in which we must reframe discussions on Haiti and challenge our own thinking about the country’s past and future.  It’s difficult not to return and I may yet, but, at the same time, I recognize that the Haiti I once knew is gone and that my role, today, is to find ways to give voice to the future Haiti could have, for the Haitians living in Haiti, to whom Haiti belongs.  I am a writer and a scholar; these are the skills I can best lend to the effort.

Previous to the January 12, 2010, earthquake I was already prepared to deliver several talks and readings in campuses across North America and the Caribbean that winter and spring.  After delivering my first keynote (in Puerto Rico) and being asked questions in the Q&A that had little to do with the talk but everything to do with the current situation and the questions that young scholars of the Caribbean were facing both in terms of thinking about how to think, teach and speak of Haiti but also how to situate other parts of the Caribbean with similar infrastructural and economic problems, I shifted all of my talks to focus on the tragedy, even when organizers resisted my calls to do so.  In addition to the pre-scheduled talks, several more were added to my schedule.  By Fall 2010, I had given in the neighborhood of fifteen talks and readings altogether, with a brief six-week reprieve in the summer; I have given all of my stipends over to Haiti Relief funds in this time.

It was in that summer hiatus that I realized that all that had been keeping me glued together all those months of trying to process post-earthquake grief as well as pre-earthquake losses, had been the giving of those talks and the exchanges with audience members afterwards.  I seldom made it through a talk without giving up a show of emotion, sometimes raw, sometimes less so.  And though I often tried to hide the emotional debris wafting through me at all moments, in the end, I found that it was often those moments to which audience members most responded.  On one occasion, in a talk I had adapted to be framed by the events in Haiti, Haitian participants who did not speak English came to me and told me that the moment my voice broke was the moment that they understood everything I had been trying to say, and that my grief was theirs.  In the moment of breaking with speech, allowing the grief to rise up, bridges were formed.

Such accidental meetings and conversations also altered my own thinking regarding what was the “right” outcome for Haiti’s future; I began to reflect on the role of scholars in the melee as Haiti has become a “hot property” – intellectual property – often at the cost of those whom we seek to represent, Haitians striving for their worlds to be right-sided again, for their opportunity to have their voices, at the ballot box and in the very process of rebuilding, every step of the way, count. Gradually, I began to think more about the ways in which the need of scholars to get their words out could impede progress if we did not think in more precise ways about what is at stake in our intellectual work, whether the ideas and ideals we might defend might be empty symbolic gestures.  As Haitians on the ground have asked the US, led by President Obama, to take a more active role in the future of Haiti, in graffiti and demonstrations held in the capital and other major cities, I have wondered at the intellectual positioning of sovereignty.  I have wondered whether or not the future lay elsewhere for Haiti, elsewhere than in its once glorious past. Over the months, Haitians have once again become a faceless, non-differentiated mass defined more by stereotype than through historical facts and individuation.  I wonder if that anonymity has led to diminishing concern about Haitian women’s realities. It has often been said that women are the backbone of Haitian society; if that is the case, then we should all be concerned about its weakening through gendered violence of which we have not seen the likes since the days of the military juntas.  In the end, I do believe that understanding the gendered dimensions of the current situation will be of benefit to all intellectual work on Haiti.  Not doing so brings us back to the days of thinking and speaking monolithically about “Third World” subjects as if agency does not circulate in all societies.

Other disasters have since taken place – the earthquakes in Chile and in Japan, the floods in Pakistan – and there will be more.  There is no doubt that the global community needs to be concerned with all of these.  But, perhaps what makes Haiti a special case is the degree to which the monumental losses of life and property, personal and state-owned, are reflective of global disinterest, marginalization and neglect over a long period of historical time for very clear, ideological reasons.  In many ways, I believe Haiti’s post-earthquake situation is a challenge not only for Haitians struggling to restore their lives on a day-to-day basis but also for the global, humanist community.

If Haiti fails, I am utterly certain that it is not only Haitians who will lose out on the future of their country, we, as a common humanity, will all have failed.


[1] The following essay is abbreviated from the Introduction to a collection of essays on Haiti by the author entitled « Harvesting Haiti : Essays & Reflections in the Aftermath of the Earthquake of January 12, 2010. »