Haitian history is shaped by racism and genocide. That history is sometimes difficult to tell, because it exists athwart a history we think we know, in which the forces of revolution are automatically identified with the history of the struggle against racism. But in the revolutions in the New World, this was not so – one of the British strategies against the Americans was to promise the slaves freedom. It was a cynical strategy, God knows, but it certainly complicates the epic idea of the American Revolution. And, as Benedict Anderson pointed out in Imagined Communities, the Spanish Court employed the same tactics:
“The Liberator Bolivar himself once opined that a Negro revolt was ‘a thousand times worse than a Spanish invasion.’ … It is instructive that one reason why Madrid made a successful come-back in Venezuala from 1814-1816 and held remote Quito until 1820 was that she won the support of slaves in the former and Indians in the latter, in the struggle against the insurgent creoles.”
Bolivar did change his mind – because Haiti gave him refuge. And so it was that Haiti sailed into the nineteenth century as a successful slave revolt state just as the forces of republicanism and a new form of racism – one that broke with the 18th century Enlightenment – began their long negotiation, their baleful synergy.
To get out ourselves from under these earthquakes took all of the last century.
It is, and must be, the work of intellectuals of good faith to remind us of these facts.
Yet these facts shouldn’t lead us to a dream of anger that is really an escape from present reality. And by present reality, I mean what is happening today, what happened yesterday, in Haiti – I mean the rescue effort that, as ought to be clear, reflects this past in its organizational soul. Sow when I read this story in the NYT, I wonder not about the racism of the twentieth century or the shock doctrine of tomorrow, but about the blindness of today, this hour, this minute.
“LÉOGÂNE, Haiti — The Marine helicopters began landing just before noon on Tuesday in a cow pasture here in this heavily damaged farming town about nine miles south of Port-au-Prince, kicking up strong winds and drawing crowds of the curious and hopeful.
About 125 Marines eventually landed here and planned to stay about 24 hours to unload initial shipments of water and food. They expected to spend the night camped out in the pasture.
The Marines passed the food they brought to the United Nations, which sent it by truck to a nearby stadium to be distributed. Corporal Sajous and other company translators filtered into the crowd to explain where the aid was going. But the message wasn’t getting out to everyone.
“Yes, they are going to give it to us,” said Son Son Maurice, 25, as he stood waiting. Asked if he was sure, he said “Yes, I am sure.”
The Marines did not leave the cow pasture on Tuesday, and what they witnessed of the damage in the area they saw from the sky as their helicopters flew in.”
Notice, again, again, notice until your eyes are bloody that this rescue treats the rescued merely as a bureaucratic problem in placement. Shall we distribute our stuff to them in X spot, or tell them to go to the stadium? Never is it a question of asking the people of Léogâne themselves to help in the distribution, to use their own wits and their own skills to set up diverse centers of rescue – to humanize those who have been shown, by the world’s plates, that it is laughable to speak of humans ‘dominating’ the world. Works of love have to be done by way of a leap of faith – that in fact human beings can love. These works of love, however, are done with such a lack of faith – such a suspicion that somewhere, someone will steal something – and such a curious unawareness that actually, the cognitive hierarchy in this situation between those who know and those who don’t puts the rescued over the rescuers – that the casualties, emotional and physical, will go up in this rescue.
I was heartened to see that certain rescuers do know this. The group lead by Paul Farmer, Partners in Health, has made it part of their mission in Haiti to use Haitians as rescuers. Farmer supposedly is close to Bill Clinton, and Clinton, frankly, is the man upon whom, at the moment, Haiti’s future really rests – depending on how vociferous he is, how much noise he makes, Haiti will swim or drown - although it has drowned and come back to life before. Drowning is how Haiti has survived.
Use your influence, Mr. Farmer.
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