Most people in Haiti live on less than two dollars a day. Hundreds of thousands have been living in tent cities without sanitation since a 2010 hurricane rattled the tiny island nation. Then, a cholera epidemic killed thousands more. They have lived under vicious dictators and political chaos. And yet, as bad as those things are, even worse, argues Amy Wilentz in her fierce history and polemic Farewell Fred Voodoo, are the confused attempts by Europeans and North Americans to “help” Haiti without taking the time or effort to understand it. (“Fred Voodoo” is a condescending term used by some foreign journalists for the Haitian “man on the street.”)
It would seem appropriate to read a book about Haiti outside in the hot blazing sun. To sweat in empathy with the poor, suffering Haitians. Instead, I lie in my cool, comfortable, air-conditioned room with an ice cold Diet Coke. Why? Because I can. And, because Wilentz points out, that sweat would mean nothing.
Because she has a strong understanding of Haiti’s history, Wilentz feels free to cut back and forth in time from Haiti’s independence (1804) to today, with little explanation of the connections between various events. To put the events, names, dates, and issues in an order I could understand, I had to use own personal War and Peace technique. That is, I made my own timeline. I wrote down names of important people. I made a list of words I didn’t know, like tap-tap for buses and loup-garou for werewolves. In other words, I deconstructed it before I reconstructed it. It was definitely worth the effort.
I learned that after Haiti’s original inhabitants, the Taino, were defeated, France used Haiti as a colony of sugar plantations served by African slaves. From 1791–1804, the slaves rebelled, and France lost. Yet, although it was ostensibly a free and independent country, France demanded–and got–reparations, starting in 1825. In the twentieth century, the United States kept a heavy hand on Haiti, with Marines controlling the provinces. The U.S. government controlled who got to be president of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. From 1957 to 1986, Haiti was under the control of “Papa Doc” and then “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose vicious police squad known as the Tonton Macoutes terrorized the population. After several years of crisis, a priest, Jean-Bertrande Aristide became president after winning an election. He was ousted less than a year later, but the U.S. had him forcibly reinstated in 2003. This move was unsuccessful, however, and he was ousted again. Now it is run by a former pop star. That’s not the biggest news, however.
In recent years, Haiti has been hit by crisis after crisis. They have suffered from hurricanes: there were four in 2008. In 2010, a massive earthquake brought much world attention to Haiti’s impoverished people. After the earthquake, as many as a million people were forced out of their homes and into tent cities that lacked simple resources such as running water. Massive amounts of money were raised to help Haiti. But only a relative trickle has reached the shattered country.
In some ways, Haiti’s situation seems completely hopeless. And yet, Haiti exists. Every day, people get up and live their lives there, with energy, resilience, humor, love, and courage. That means that there is an urgency to find a way to make life better, to find an answer–or answers. Yet, the difficulties of doing good in a deeply corrupt society are so multilayered that one approach after another of well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) outsiders fails miserably. Why? Often, Amy Wilentz suggests, it is because of a kind of soft imperialism by outsiders.
She weaves in many references to the exoticization of Haiti by westerners. I applaud her bravery–she must be pissing off a lot of powerful people who could otherwise be useful resources in the future, such as Sean Penn. She has clear contempt for “mobile sovereigns”–members of the UN, anthropologists, charity workers, etc. who travel around in big white SUVs to avoid mixing with the locals. “Haiti has to be understood on Haitian terms,” she says.
“No one should co-opt someone else’s pain,” she writes. “My rule is, don’t be full of pity and charity. Don’t feel sorry for them, that’s rule number one. Be glad you’re not in their situation. but don’t pity. Their pain is theirs–don’t colonize their victimization.” That struck me deeply. Because if you colonize someone else’s suffering, it means that you are the story. You are the eyes. They are no longer the central beings in their own narrative. They no longer have agency to act in the crazy, upside down situation they’ve been doing.
She writes about those she believes get it wrong and who get it right–it is a book that is largely how to think about a place, a place that is suffering. How to find that place between condescension and indifference. The place where you respect the agency of others and submit to seeing life through their eyes instead of trying to force them to see it through yours.
I don’t know what to do for Haiti, as I sip my icy drink and curl up in my cozy bed. Amy Wilentz herself ultimately doesn’t know. But I know a little more how to treat anyone, anywhere, who is suffering. Don’t pity. See them with respect for their individuality and above all their agency. If you want to help them, listen first. Let them lead the dance. Only then can real change begin.