“The sound rose up and spread across the rooftops of the old city, a deep, guttural, Biblical sound—the sound of souls wailing by the thousands.” This is not a description of post-earthquake Haiti, but a piece of adrenaline-infused reporting from New Orleans after its Super Bowl victory. It trumpets faith in redemptive suffering, the fulfillment of victory over tragedy, the ability to forget, at least for a time, the horrors of Katrina’s destructive power and the propensity of visual spectacle to paper over differences in wealth, health, and opportunity. It also reminds us of the emotive and mysterious, if not primitive, force of religious imagery—guttural Biblicism and wailing souls.
I rooted for the Saints, too, at least on the occasional moments when I walked by the TV set. But the juxtaposition of a victory credited with the power to lift up a people and landscape wracked by tragedy with the ongoing, even greater tragedy of another people and landscape nearby leads me to reflect on how our narratives of normalcy and tragedy are created and disrupted. The magnitude of Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti shattered, or at least suspended, our entrenched narratives about these places and people, but what fills the void? And what is the place of religion in our narratives, and in the lacunae that remain when they are disrupted?
Haiti has long provided an icon of desperation in the Northern imaginary. The resulting narrative tells us that Haiti, like much of Africa, is impossibly corrupt, and the vast majority of Haitians desperately poor. Haiti will never change; this is its normal state. A similar narrative obtained about much of Africa until Nelson Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid twenty years ago transformed South Africa and celebrities homed in to save the rest of the continent. Haiti, however, remained bleak, without hope. Syncretic religious practices melding Christianity and Vodou added to the fatalism about Haiti from the outside, as David Brooks’s recent column, asserting that “the influence of the voodoo religion” has helped to make Haitian culture “progress-resistant,” demonstrates so well. Not only could Haiti not change for the better; it was mysterious and ultimately anti-modern. Haiti had gone its own way from its 1791 slave rebellion to its revolution and eventual declaration of independence in 1804, showing the world that slavery was immoral, while frightening the US founding fathers among others. Its refusal to buckle under pressures from Europe and then the US, its corruption (aided and abetted by Europe and the US, as Elizabeth McAlister, and Jean Casimir and Laurent Dubois show in their contributions to the SSRC’s essay forum Haiti, Now and Next) and violent regimes, and the persistence of strange religious practices presumably showed that Haiti was different. This inability to align itself with Europe and the US, along with its history as a pariah in the Caribbean intimated that either the Haitians were responsible for their own hopeless condition, or that history and lack of opportunity conspired to prevent them from doing anything about it. In a sense, Pat Robertson merely added an apocalyptic gloss to a long-standing secular story.
The earthquake destroyed not only lives and livelihoods in Haiti itself; it also upended these narratives from the outside. Haiti was hopeless, but the suffering caused by the earthquake was unimaginable, thus rendering aid—and new solutions—necessary. Bill Clinton had already made Haiti the new centerpiece of his foundation’s development efforts, and Paul Farmer, Catholic aid groups, and the Episcopal Church had long been involved in efforts to improve the daily lives of poor Haitians. Haiti, already a major center of church and NGO activity, is now the focus of innumerable new efforts to help.
The narrative void is not absolute, however. News reports have found both hope and hopelessness in daily coverage of rescues and newfound destruction, as the Northern imagination wobbles through alternating tendencies to create new narratives and reinforce old ones. Headlines a few days after the quake announced fears of conflict and vandalism, a common expectation for behavior by the poor and destitute in violent societies, only to be chastened soon thereafter with reports of Haitians coming together to pray and mourn. We were told that the Haitian government was completely non-functional, and that its President, René Préval, could be seen wandering aimlessly through the streets of the capital, yet somehow the Haitian justice minister managed to indict ten US missionaries on charges of child abduction. And the Haitian ambassador to the US (interviewed the day after the earthquake on the Rachel Maddow show) pointedly refuted Pat Robertson’s thesis (that Haiti had brought about its own troubles through a pact with the devil made when it revolted against France) with a history lesson: not only had Haitian independence provided a potent example of freedom to Simon Bolivar and all of Latin America, but Haiti’s revolution against the French had paved the way for the United States to negotiate the entire Louisiana Purchase for a song.
The magnitude of the destruction and the upending of narratives also leave open the possibility, like Noah’s ark, of a completely new start in Haiti, on the part of both religious and secular external observers and aid-givers. Aid to Haiti is indisputably necessary, but to what assumptions and expectations does it come attached? Now the narrative of hopelessness competes with the idea of Haiti as a tabula rasa for NGOs, donors, religious groups, and observers, opening the door to all sorts of new (and old) salvific projects.
Perhaps this is the reason why the Baptist missionaries, like the French Noah’s Ark in Chad before them, thought they could take Haitian children across the border to the Dominican Republic (and possibly eventually to the United States). If God was calling them to help and Haiti had turned into an anarchic void teeming with suffering children, whatever they could think of doing would be better for the children they found than their current, post-apocalyptic state.
Similarly, donor agencies and academic gurus also dream up plans to reconstruct Haiti anew, based on pet projects or examples of what has “worked” (and more often what has not) in other cases. I do not wish to disparage these efforts, and I have also contributed to them. Yet, as Elizabeth McAlister points out in her post, some of these plans—and, I would add, the ones most likely to attract the largest amounts of funding—encompass huge silences regarding the history of Haiti and the succession of “private deal-making” between Haitian elites and foreign governments and corporations. Uncovering these silences renders David Brooks’s call for the Haitian poor to be held to “an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands” as well as the promotion of “locally led paternalism” silly and uninformed at best.
At worst, however, both the “rational aid” projects and the naïve schemes to save children by spiriting them away follow from assumptions that can rush in all too easily to fill the narrative void and influence subsequent aid initiatives. Debates about religion in the Northern imaginary are central to filling this space with preconceived ideas about Haiti and Haitians. In both of these instances, the ideas of external actors about religion—both Haiti’s and their own—form part of the incipient story. In both, Haiti’s actual religiosity is mostly ignored. Some—like Brooks, but also many others—do not wish to understand more about the Haitian religious landscape, which is rich and dynamic and intertwined with political maneuvering as well as social possibilities, as the transition from Duvalier to Aristide demonstrates. Others want to reinscribe Haitian religious practices within their own. Still others question how the always-suffering Haitian majority can even believe in a God, given the force of the destruction.
But Haiti is not a tabula rasa, in either its religious identities or its political, social, and economic configurations. René Préval demonstrated this with his apparently carefully orchestrated ecumenical day of mourning on the earthquake’s one month anniversary, when the head of the Vodou priests shared a podium with a Catholic Bishop, Protestant leaders, and the President himself, acknowledging the role of spiritual practices in both mourning and reconstruction. And those who question the power and rationality of Haitian religious experiences from the outside might reflect on the fact that even the most well-heeled donors have not been able to resolve problems of coordination and distribution to get enormous amounts of aid to people a month after the earthquake struck.
In New Orleans, not much has been done since Katrina to reconstruct the city for the majority of its inhabitants, despite the flood of good intentions after the hurricane. The Saints’ Super Bowl win and the religious imagery used to describe it represent merely a momentary catharsis in the face of ongoing desperation. If we can begin to understand religious and spiritual experiences as something other than a momentary catharsis in Haiti, we might be able to help in ways that incorporate its rich cultural landscape, rather than try to create it anew. Perhaps we need to keep the narratives about Haiti today, including the role of religion there, disrupted, at least on the part of those of us who are acting and rushing in from the outside, so that we can learn more from Haitians about their own desires, histories, and hopes for the future.
Visit the SSRC’s essay forum “Haiti, Now and Next” here.—ed.