Haiti has always suffered from a plight of representation: “Black France” for Jules Michelet, “a tropical dog-kennel” for Thomas Carlyle, Haiti forced imagination high and low. For V.S. Naipaul, a later connoisseur of caricature, the “desert of Haiti” is the source of the “nothing” that he claims as a West Indian legacy.

In their coverage of the earthquake, the media represented Haiti as a passive, neutered object of disaster, with no history, no culture, nothing except images of rubble, pain, dirt, and misery. How did the news dare to show piles of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves after the earthquake? To talk about the smell of urine? To focus on women in postures that could only be called abject? What do the representations of Haiti tell us about the force of metaphor? And why are these metaphors so crucial to North Americans? What is a metaphor a metaphor for?

Showing images when dealing with a country alternately sentimentalized and brutalized is a dangerous business. It risks succumbing to what Michel Rolph Trouillot called the language of Haitian exceptionalism. That is, Haiti as radically unlike any other place, as grotesquely unique. But we must remember that both processes, whether idealization or degradation, displace the human element. We face a process of sublimation, up or down. Amid evocations of a desperate people and festering landscape, the media and the “humanitarian” community continue to ignore the history and culture of Haiti.

Through stereotypes and sensationalism, the media have created an image of Haiti that suits powerful outside states and their financial interests. Generalizations about criminality and barbarism have always been a good way to avoid the particulars of history. Whenever the repression of the peasantry becomes more violent than usual, due to the necessities of export, the appropriation of lands, or the use of captive wage labor in multinational assembly industries, Vodou practices are described as superstition and black magic. A mythologized Haiti of zombies, sorcery, and witchdoctors screens the ongoing economic greed, color prejudice, political guile, and sheer weight of military force.

Every text about Haiti has a context, as well as a subtext and a pretext. With Haiti, it has always been about representation: how Haiti is perceived and written about has shaped the destiny of the nation. Representation has a dual meaning: to depict and to present again. People usually depict and re-present things for more or less specific purposes—literary, political, historical. On the one hand, representation is necessary to think and talk about what is real, what already exists, as well as to act on it—as with cultural constructs such as race, class, or gender. On the other hand, representation is contestable. All representations are partial; they only depict and present again parts of those meaningful units and relations that are the building blocks of reality. Clearly, representation, literal or metaphorical, involves appropriation.

Representations of Haiti are largely negative; they entail violation of the integrity of the thing represented. The facts of history disappear in fantasies of the unspeakable: the unthinkable revolution of slaves and the threatening spectacle of Vodou, which is most often used by outsiders to signal the backwardness and indolence that they feel best describe Haitian history.

What is the relationship between dead bodies, haunting spirits, and political authority? To serve the gods is to be obsessed with details and fragments, inspired by the very things that might seem to hinder belief. This sense of invention, goaded by thought working itself through terror, leads me to emphasize that Vodou practices should be viewed as ritual reenactments of Haitian history—a recasting of the customs, laws, and tortures of a brute neo-colonial world. Never static, but adapting itself to the quirks of history and the drive of capital, Vodou combines African belief, Catholic practices, and the newest objects of consumption into its subversive mixture. The appearance of the gods—even the cult of the ancestors—guarantees a political history that is rigorous and visible.

How political, then, is the continued deformation of Haitian culture, the maligning of this distinctive practice? In Haiti, material dispossession has always gone hand in hand with cultural domination. A crucial reciprocity exists between Vodou and the working of the land. The participatory nature of the religion is paralleled in the coumbite, the traditional shared harvesting—and the kind of communal effort and grassroots successes seen after the earthquake, though not visible in our media representations. The land and the lwa (spirits, or gods, of Vodou) give the majority of Haitians their identity: the coumbite and Vodou alike operate as support networks of beliefs, ceremonies, and friends. So oppression has always proceeded as a double deprivation of property and psyche.

In his Discourse on Colonialism, some sixty years ago now, the poet and playwright Aimé Césaire, who died in 2008, opposed the false ideal of modernity to his own awareness of violation. “They talk to me about progress, about ‘achievements,’ illness cured, improved standards of living… I’m talking about societies emptied of their soul, of cultures trampled down, of institutions undermined, of lands seized, of religions crushed, of artistic splendors annihilated, of extraordinary possibilities obliterated.” Césaire was quick to recognize a tradition of colonization that re-natures a country by destroying its past.

How, then, to speak about Haiti? It remains the place where the contradictions of colonialism, the horrors of occupation, and the truths of resistance can be seen clearly, as if under a microscope. Haiti was the earliest testing ground for capitalist power. Saint-Domingue was the richest French colony in the New World, with a trade that far outstripped that of the thirteen North American colonies throughout the eighteenth century. As the anthropologist Sidney Mintz told us nearly thirty years ago, “Haiti was being force-fit into the First World before anything called a Third World ever existed.”

Outside forces have long had something to gain from the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Right before Frederick Douglass took up his post as minister and consul to Haiti in 1889, after a decade of rebellions sustained by New York speculators who gained from the traffic in munitions, the U.S. State Department planned to obtain a naval station at the Môle St. Nicolas. Others in the government hoped to get steamship concessions. Douglass resigned in 1891, after Rear Admiral Bancroft Gherardi tried to force the Haitian government to give up the Môle. Douglass lamented the use of force in his Life and Times as a squadron of large ships of war with a hundred cannon and two thousand men. The pliant New York press reported daily on Haiti’s “relapse toward savagery,” “a reign of terror,” just as they later recited stories of Aristide’s thugs, bloodbaths, and corruption during the recent destabilization.

The story of Haiti must be told by standing with our backs to moral injunction, reasonable consensus, or secular ideals of progress. In a terrain ravaged by greed, and portrayed as pitiable, let us recognize something like grace: the intense art of ritual and survival against the odds, and beyond the laws or rational expectations of humanist culture. When history turns into nothing more than a metaphor, as powerful as it is empty, rationales of violence become a mandate for the subjugation of a population stigmatized as lawless, primitive, and superfluous.

But if Haiti is a metaphor for all kinds of bad things—degradation, demons, destruction, and dirt—all of them representations of what is antithetical to our treasured western notions of culture and civility (or do I really mean “western”? where does Haiti sit, after all?), we have to ask what this metaphor is a metaphor for.

A metaphor is a representation, but it is always and necessarily a representation in the service of something else, something larger than itself. So too with Haiti. Precisely because a metaphor (as distinct from a simile) is a representation, it contains, it represents, it actually is, a falsity. A metaphor is, by definition, not the thing it represents. What it stands for is, by definition, not it. The dirt and the degradation and the destruction—even now—and the demons are not Haiti. If Haiti is a metaphor, then what is it a metaphor for? Not, “what does it represent?” or “what is it a representation of?” but “what does this representation exist for?” What does it exist in order to do? Why does it exist at all?

In good dialectical form, it exists in the service of our cherished ideals of “civilization”—which are, of course, notions of self. Our selfhood is reflected, as in a distorting mirror, in our notions of Haiti. The metaphor exists, as the long, sorry story of its genesis and historical development demonstrates, to serve a purpose. And that purpose is connected with, and deeply rooted in, our notions of self and identity—which means also our notions of the other. Blackness, black freedom, black political independence, black cultural expression and specificity—all of these are fundamental notions, and all are represented—not metaphorically, but really—in Haiti. Yet fear, contempt, and hostility to this blackness all come to expression in the way we formulate our metaphors. If Haiti stands as a metaphor for misery, for helplessness, then outsiders can assume that such a nation needs the United States to save it. Though the particulars of history prove otherwise, the capacious and constantly shifting uses of metaphor bring us to that critical point where compassion becomes pity: taking care of people who cannot take care of themselves. What remains certain here is that narratives of protection are conducted by the free in the name of the bound, or to put it another way, definitions are in the hands of the definers.