Solidarity & Sustainability: An Interview with Sokari Ekine

Sokari Ekine is a social activist, educator, editor, and journalist whose work and writing is engaged with queer, feminist, pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist, and environmental politics — in both Haiti and Nigeria. She has written for publications including Pambazuka News, Feminist Africa and New Internationalist and she is the editor of Blood and Oil: Testimonies of Violence from Women of the Niger Delta, SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa, and with Firoze Manji, African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions. Most recently, Ekine and Hakima Abbas edited the Queer Africa Reader, a path-breaking collection of essays, testimonies, statements, and stories by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex contributors from across the continent. Currently teaching in Port-au-Prince, Ekine edited the blog Black Looks from 2004 to 2014. She tweets at @blacklooks and her tumblr can be found here.

What first brought you to Haiti? What kind of work have you been doing there?

I first visited Haiti in 2007 under the auspices of Pambazuka News, I was the online editor at the time. The aim of the trip was to meet with women’s groups and present on gender and militarization in the Niger Delta. Rea Dol, founder and director of SOPUDEP (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Pétion-Ville), and her family were my hosts and we have remained good friends and I continued to visit over the years.  With the encouragement of Rea and other friends, I have been trying to move to Port-au-Prince for an extended period since early 2012 and finally this was made possible in January 2013 after I received a year long new media fellowship from the John Hopkins International Reporting Project.  So my time has been spent between reporting on health issues, teaching, and working in solidarity with activists/organizers on a range of issues and projects and really just living my life.

In one of your “occasional musings” on Haiti on Black Looks, you point out that two criticisms of the deliverance of aid and charitable support to countries like Haiti are the introduction of inappropriate technologies without local consultation or participation and the other the long-term sustainability of projects. What have you seen in Haiti over the past couple of years in regards to both? How would you assess the implementation of foreign aid projects as we pass the four-anniversary of the earthquake?

Volumes have been written on the ineffectiveness and lack of sustainability of development aid but the issues   can be broken down according to two factors: waste and dependence.  In addition to the usual governmental and non-governmental aid agencies, there are hundreds of faith based groups and churches in Haiti. With the right connections and a few photos of starving black children, a US based charity or church can raise thousands over a weekend, employ x number of people and arrive in rural Haiti with free food, medicines, clothes and religion. I contend that we don’t know what many religious groups and other charities are really doing in Haiti. There are few regulations, no visas requirements and no monitoring of projects or churches. Every flight I have taken to or from Port-au-Prince, there has been at least one mission and some I have spoken too have been coming for years. They tell you this with pride completely unaware or maybe not, that they are contributing to a culture of dependency which keeps them in jobs and Haitians in poverty.

In many cases the technology might be appropriate but because consultation is minimal — in the sense that insufficient research takes place of local resources available, local needs and local infrastructure — projects fail or soon become unsustainable. Take for example a water purification project of considerable cost, was to provide clean water to a number of internally displaced camps and poor neighborhoods. The project organizers insisted that the water be provided free of charge, which is a laudable but not practical without considerable ongoing funding to pay for a water truck, drivers and maintenance.  I understand wanting to provide free water but even if there was funding for free delivery, how long could this be sustained? The cost would be thousands every year and we need to ask is there another way? Can this money be used to create jobs so people can become financially independent? I don’t know the answer but meanwhile the purifier lies idle and no one gets water free or otherwise which is rather sad.

We can compare this with another project/enterprise for a group of 20 women living on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The women have received a small amount of funding to build a water storage tank for wash water and a small water purifier for drinking water.  Once completed the women will have low cost water for themselves plus be able to sell the surplus and at the very least they will break even.

There are so many examples like this where the technology sounds great but quite often the actual application is not thought through. Another problem is that NGOs arrive, offer services or technology, make all kinds of promises but fail to follow up with the necessary support.  This has happened to SOPUDEP who were provided with compost toilets but promises of support never materialized. The system became too expensive to maintain and this summer they reverted to traditional ‘deep hole’ latrines.  The school was also offered ‘solar’ cookers but they refused them because they were totally unpractical.  You cannot prepare daily food for 700 children with solar cookers!

But it’s not just with technology that interventions are whimsical.  In a recent article on Restaveks, Nicholas Kristof concludes that “free and accessible birth control” is one way to fight trafficking in Haiti and presumably globally since this is a global problem.  The idea of providing birth control to Haitian women is highly problematic, ending poverty by ending the birth of poor children to poor mothers is not a solution but a depopulation strategy. It does not tackle the structural causes of poverty.

You’ve also written on the environmental costs of “reconstruction.” What have you seen and what are the major issues in Haiti concerning development, sustainability, and eco-system preservation?

The piece you refer to concerns the degradation of the riverbed in Pernier. In the period after the earthquake, particularly in the past two years there has been this massive building boom largely fueled by government projects and Haitian-American monies. In the past year alone parts of Port-au-Prince such as the rich neighbourhood of Petion-Ville have been completely transformed. It’s great that rebuilding is taking place but it’s only in the richer neighborhoods and it comes at a high price to the environment. Haiti is a mountainous and hilly country and right now some of those hills are disappearing.  For example on the outskirts of the Port-au-Prince along Route Nationale 1 huge chunks of hillside are being cut out to provide building materials. The same goes for river beds which are being excavated for the gravel. The photos I took only show the present and I am sorry I didn’t take photos three years ago so people could see the difference. Imagine 24/7 removing the gravel from the riverbed? First the trees were destroyed now the hillsides and the rivers are going the same way. It’s an unregulated paradise for business and the government, which collects taxes for destroying the environment.

In years to come Haitians will again be blamed for destroying their rivers and hills much in the same way they are blamed for destroying the trees. But when you investigate, it is not the people but big business and corrupt governments who are to blame. In her trilogy Love Anger, Madness, first published in 1968, the Haitian novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet, described how foreigners forced Haitian peasants to cut down their trees for sale or starve. We don’t hear this story. Rather, it is always poor Haitians cutting trees for firewood whereas thousands of trees were cut by corporate greed and government corruption. The farmers knew this would destroy their land and tried to protest, but their lives were worth less than the trees! Then charities arrive with food, clothing, and the bible to save those whose land and livelihood were destroyed.

You introduce your first post in the Haiti – Feminist Series on Black Looks by noting: “One of the stories least reported has been the one about Haitians organizing for themselves, particularly stories presented within a framework of feminist organizing and movement building.” Can you say a little about the different types of feminist organizing and movement building that you’ve encountered in Haiti?

What stands out for me are the everyday acts of solidarity and mutual support.  Support networks are crucial as in Haiti there is always a crisis but just the energy needed to live and work through the week is tremendous and sometimes overwhelming. The violence of poverty is overwhelming – we of the privileged speak about it, write about it, and stare at it through tinted or even open windows but really we don’t know.

This is not to say there are not differences, but one’s religious beliefs or sexual orientation are not determining factors for coming together. I’m not talking about grand campaigns but rather small, focused actions that respond to the practical needs of women and children in poor communities. Secondly, building relationships within and between neighborhoods and communities, between issues and creating support networks where women are at the center. What this means is that the possibility of change becomes real, not a dream – though dreaming is good too.

Most recently I have noticed there is a growing focus and concern over sustainability – how to integrate movement building and organizing with income generation that is viable, possible over the long-term, and that does not force people to have to rely on donors even if the donors themselves are working in solidarity. However these are small pockets of organizing. Overall when I look at Haiti in the present, it is hard to see how the majority of lives have improved. Some people made a lot of money in the aftermath of the earthquake and a small few are still making money but the poor are being erased. I think they are in a fight for their lives.

You’ve also worked with queer communities on both sides of Atlantic – in both Haiti and West Africa. Can you speak on some of the similarities and differences in the struggles and strategies of both communities? Are their structural parallels in terms of the relationship to local states and to the international NGO community? Is there a parallel problem in the Caribbean of what you’ve termed the “spectacularizing of African homophobia” and, accompanying it, the emergence of a white savior complex through the “Gay International”?

I cannot speak to the Caribbean and my experience of queer organizing in Haiti is limited. I have met and attended various events and meetings as a guest as well as holding formal, individual and group interviews in PAP. However, two factors stand out in Haiti. First homosexuality is not criminalized, and secondly homosexuality is not excluded or denigrated within vodou (some Hougans for example are openly gay and lesbian) though this is not to say there is no homophobia amongst vodou practitioners. Having said that, there is considerable homophobia in the wider populace, especially among evangelical and fundamentalist churches.

This year saw the first organized anti-gay march that was organized by an all faith coalition of homophobic haters called The Haitian Coalition of Religious and Moral Organizations. The consequence of this march of hate was the death of two gay men and the injury of forty-seven others who were attacked with machetes, stones, and sticks. The attacks continued the following weekend. Since then there has been an attack on a private party when an organized gang tried to burn down the house; and two separate attacks on the leaders of Kouraj a LGBT group, and Fascidis, a lesbian advocacy organization. It’s not clear who is behind the “anti-gay” protests and violence and I wonder if there is a connection between faith-based homophobia and the growing demonization of vodou, particularly by foreign missionaries.

I can only speak generally and, yes, there is a relationship with the international NGO community, the US, Canada, and France. But I am not in a position to speak critically of what is taking place. The spectacular in Haiti is a spectacular poverty as in “the poorest country in the western hemisphere” and spectacular disasters and humanitarian aid. The LGBTQ community has not yet been singled out for the ‘worst place to be gay’ story!

In terms of the state itself, I understand the President has spoken against the homophobic attacks but he has done nothing to protect queers by ensuring prosecution of homophobic crimes. It has taken years of hard work from human rights activists to prosecute rape crimes and unless a similar campaign is structured around homophobia it is doubtful the government will do more than mouth empty words.

How are the effects and impacts of the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill similar to that of the US Patriot Act?

Through a number of interrelated and contesting laws and social mechanisms. Both are underpinned by a heteronormative nationalist project marked by exclusions.  Like the Nigerian same-sex marriage bill, the Patriot Act does not allow for difference –  for example, in terms of religious beliefs or the multiplicities of gender. Citizens are assembled as homogenous with a frightening expectation of a uniformity in belief systems, behaviour and willingness to act as agents of the state.  Both require surveillance in the public and private spheres and both require citizen vigilantes to snitch on neighbours, friends and family.

The impact is to create fear — and to create an environment where the power of the state to infiltrate the domestic private sphere is encouraged and accepted.  Citizens are told that their actions and those of the state are there to protect them from the chaos of deviants and terrorists, those “those who seek to destroy our way of life.” This may be the phantom known as the “American way of life” or the phantom of the normative heterosexual family or the nostalgia of an imaginary Africaness and African past which we are told does not include homosexuality. Queer Africans like Queer Americans – gender non-conforming, transgender and all the dykes, bulldaggers and sexual punks who challenge normative mores – are viewed as ‘incompletecitizens, expendable, and chaotic.

This is very similar to the poor in Haiti and other parts of the world who are also seen as expendable and deviant, what Ananya Roy calls the “bottom billion.” But in the case of Nigeria, the poor expendables are set against the queer expendables and its really only when the two can come together that we can begin to tear down these nationalist exclusionary projects.

In the introduction to the Queer Africa Reader, you and your co-editor, Hakima Abbas, write that the immediate impetus for the book was the 2010 charges against a Malawaian transgender woman, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, and her male partner, Steven Monjeza, for “gross indecency and unnatural acts,” and the eruption into the public of what had previously been muted discussions among queer African activists, intellectuals, and artists as a result. But can the Reader be placed within a longer genealogy of underground – or muted — queer literature and print culture from the continent and the Africa diaspora? What are its antecedents in terms of zines, special issues, collections, collectives, or individual writers?

The impetus for the book was it had become imperative that we speak for ourselves and about our world as we see it which is variegated and complicated. This not to say we are the first Africans to write about queer Africans. There is a genealogy. At the same time, all too often our words had gotten lost or placed on the margins of the work of big NGOs or foreign academics and activists. The few years preceding 2010, LGBTIQ communities across the continent had become increasingly caught up between African patriarchy, religious fascism and western imperialism. The charges against Twonge Chimalanga and Steven Monjeza were the most glaring example of the kind of disruption and tension brought about when these three meet at a particular juncture. When we started in 2010 the movement was at a crossroads. People were becoming more conscious of the controlling restrictiveness of NGOs and interventions by western activists and there was a real push away from these towards self-determination and a collective Pan-Africanism.  There was also an increased feminist and queer analysis amongst the community leading to a greater self-awareness and confidence. These are important changes.

In terms of antecedents, there has been a number of books published in South Africa as well articles and essays in various African feminist journals. In the last two three years African queers have become highly visible in online spaces such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. African Sexualities: A Reader, edited by Slyvia Tamale, was published in 2012. We see the reader as complementary and an integral part of a progressive African feminist project that has grown over the past five or six years, one that embraces our sexual and gender plurality and seeks transformation.

What are you future publishing projects? Can we expect a Queer Haiti Reader?

As a queer Nigerian feminist, I was able to co-edit the QAR. A Queer Haitian Reader will have to be undertaken by Haitian Queers.  I don’t have any publishing projects and honestly I don’t wish to go through the process of editing another collection in the near future.  I look forward to returning to Haiti in a few days for at least a couple of months. And I will continue working in the background with Rea Dol and other friends.

Image:  Leroy Exil, “Water Spirits,” (1992).

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 12, 2010

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Image: Bourmond Bryon (1920?-2004), “Untitled” (Date?). Source: Conservation of Paintings-Smithsonian Institution Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. Also see [pdf].

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The Commander in Chief, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to the People of Hayti, Gonaives, January 1, 1804

The Commander in Chief to the People of Haiti:

Citizens:

It is not enough to have expelled the barbarians who have bloodied our land for two centuries; it is not enough to have restrained those ever-evolving factions that one after another mocked the specter of liberty that France dangled before you. We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth; we must take any hope of re-enslaving us away from the inhuman government that for so long kept us in the most humiliating torpor. In the end we must live independent or die.

Independence or death… let these sacred words unite us and be the signal of battle and of our reunion.

Citizens, my countrymen, on this solemn day I have brought together those courageous soldiers who, as liberty lay dying, spilled their blood to save it; these generals who have guided your efforts against tyranny have not yet done enough for your happiness; the French name still haunts our land.

Everything revives the memories of the cruelties of this barbarous people: our laws, our habits, our towns, everything still carries the stamp of the French. Indeed! There are still French in our island, and you believe yourself free and independent of that Republic which, it is true, has fought all the nations, but which has never defeated those who wanted to be free.

What! Victims of our [own] credulity and indulgence for 14 years; defeated not by French armies, but by the pathetic eloquence of their agents’ proclamations; when will we tire of breathing the air that they breathe? What do we have in common with this nation of executioners? The difference between its cruelty and our patient moderation, its color and ours the great seas that separate us, our avenging climate, all tell us plainly that they are not our brothers, that they never will be, and that if they find refuge among us, they will plot again to trouble and divide us.

Native citizens, men, women, girls, and children, let your gaze extend on all parts of this island: look there for your spouses, your husbands, your brothers, your sisters. Indeed! Look there for your children, your suckling infants, what have they become?… I shudder to say it … the prey of these vultures.

Instead of these dear victims, your alarmed gaze will see only their assassins, these tigers still dripping with their blood, whose terrible presence indicts your lack of feeling and your guilty slowness in avenging them. What are you waiting for before appeasing their spirits? Remember that you had wanted your remains to rest next to those of your fathers, after you defeated tyranny; will you descend into their tombs without having avenged them? No! Their bones would reject yours.

And you, precious men, intrepid generals, who, without concern for your own pain, have revived liberty by shedding all your blood, know that you have done nothing if you do not give the nations a terrible, but just example of the vengeance that must be wrought by a people proud to have recovered its liberty and jealous to maintain it let us frighten all those who would dare try to take it from us again; let us begin with the French. Let them tremble when they approach our coast, if not from the memory of those cruelties they perpetrated here, then from the terrible resolution that we will have made to put to death anyone born French whose profane foot soils the land of liberty.

We have dared to be free, let us be thus by ourselves and for ourselves. Let us imitate the grown child: his own weight breaks the boundary that has become an obstacle to him. What people fought for us? What people wanted to gather the fruits of our labor? And what dishonorable absurdity to conquer in order to be enslaved. Enslaved?… Let us leave this description for the French; they have conquered but are no longer free.

Let us walk down another path; let us imitate those people who, extending their concern into the future, and dreading to leave an example of cowardice for posterity, preferred to be exterminated rather than lose their place as one of the world’s free peoples.

Let us ensure, however, that a missionary spirit does not destroy our work; let us allow our neighbors to breathe in peace; may they live quietly under the laws that they have made for themselves, and let us not, as revolutionary firebrands, declare ourselves the lawgivers of the Caribbean, nor let our glory consist in troubling the peace of the neighboring islands. Unlike that which we inhabit, theirs has not been drenched in the innocent blood of its inhabitants; they have no vengeance to claim from the authority that protects them.

Fortunate to have never known the ideals that have destroyed us, they can only have good wishes for our prosperity.

Peace to our neighbors; but let this be our cry: “Anathama to the French name! Eternal hatred of France!”

Natives of Haiti! My happy fate was to be one day the sentinel who would watch over the idol to which you sacrifice; I have watched, sometimes fighting alone, and if I have been so fortunate as to return to your hands the sacred trust you confided to me, know that it is now your task to preserve it. In fighting for your liberty, I was working for my own happiness. Before consolidating it with laws that will guarantee your free individuality, your leaders, who I have assembled here, and I, owe you the final proof of our devotion.

Generals and you, leaders, collected here close to me for the good of our land, the day has come, the day which must make our glory, our independence, eternal.

If there could exist among us a lukewarm heart, let him distance himself and tremble to take the oath which must unite us. Let us vow to ourselves, to posterity, to the entire universe, to forever renounce France, and to die rather than live under its domination; to fight until our last breath for the independence of our country.

And you, a people so long without good fortune, witness to the oath we take, remember that I counted on your constancy and courage when I threw myself into the career of liberty to fight the despotism and tyranny you had struggled against for 14 years. Remember that I sacrificed everything to rally to your defense; family, children, fortune, and now I am rich only with your liberty; my name has become a horror to all those who want slavery. Despots and tyrants curse the day that I was born. If ever you refused or grumbled while receiving those laws that the spirit guarding your fate dictates to me for your own good, you would deserve the fate of an ungrateful people. But I reject that awful idea; you will sustain the liberty that you cherish and support the leader who commands you. Therefore vow before me to live free and independent, and to prefer death to anything that will try to place you back in chains. Swear, finally, to pursue forever the traitors and enemies of your independence.

Done at the headquarters of Gonaives, the first day of January 1804, the first year of independence.

The Deed of Independence

Native Army

Today, January 1st 1804, the general in chief of the native army, accompanied by the generals of the army, assembled in order to take measures that will insure the good of the country;

After having told the assembled generals his true intentions, to assure forever a stable government for the natives of Haiti, the object of his greatest concern, which he has accomplished in a speech which declares to foreign powers the decision to make the country independent, and to enjoy a liberty consecrated by the blood of the people of this island; and after having gathered their responses has asked that each of the assembled generals take a vow to forever renounce France, to die rather than live under its domination, and to fight for independence until their last breath.

The generals, deeply moved by these sacred principles, after voting their unanimous attachment to the declared project of independence, have all sworn to posterity, to the universe, to forever renounce France, and to die rather than to live under its domination.

Signed: Dessalines, Christophe, Petion, Geffard, Vernet, Gabart, et al.

Source: Jean-Jacques Dessalines to the People of Hayti, January 1, 1804, translated by Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus and published in Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789 – 1804: A Brief History with Documents and Duke Today. Original document in the National Archives UK [pdf].

Image: Sir Harry H. Johnston, “The Statue to Dessalines on the Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince; He is represented as the declarer of Haitian independence in 1804,” The Negro in the New World (1910). Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / General Research and Reference Division / New York Public Library.

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10 Books for 2013

A couple of caveats concerning our list of ten notable books for 2013: we’ve listed more than ten books and not all of them were published in 2013. While some of the texts mentioned below come from 2012, others were published as early as the 1930s. We also have a stack of excellent recent titles that didn’t make the list but certainly deserve a mention: Rupert Roopnarine’s The Sky’s Wild Noise: Selected Essays and Russell Maroon Shoatz’ collected essays, Latasha Natasha Digg’s Twerk and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, Hakim Adi’s Pan-Africanism and Communism and Jose Miguel Palacios’ 9/11/1973: The Public Life of an Endless Day, Lorna Goodison’s Oracabessa and Claremount Chung’s Walter Rodney: A Promise of Revolution – as well as those titles that already appeared on our 2013 Black Radical Reading list and our late 2012 compilation of recent work on Haiti. Caveats aside, here’s the list. All speak with a particular urgency to the Black present – and to the year ahead.

1. Kamau Brathwaite’s “Dream Haiti” is a poem of cruel elegance that renders the ill-fated passage of Haitian migrants across the Florida straits as a bittersweet tale of the travails of Haiti and the African diaspora. It was first published in the fall 1995 issue of Nathanial Mackey’s Hambone, splayed across more than fifty pages and set in Brathwaite’s experimental, acoustic typography, the Sycorax Video Style. In 2007, New Directions Press reprinted “Dream Haiti” as part of the excellent collection DS (2) – Dreamstories. This past year, Memoire d’encrier published Brathwaite’s long poem in French translation as RêvHaïti. While Brathawite has been chastised for his supposed obsession with “the endless purgatorial experiences” of Black people, with thirty eight Haitians drowning near Punta de Maisí, Guantánamo, Cuba on Christmas Day, 2011, thirty off the Bahamas in November, and another eighteen by Turks and Caicos just yesterday, “Dream Haiti” maintains a terrible poignancy.

2. Edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas and published by Fahamu Books and Pambazuka Press, the Queer Africa Reader, emerged out of a defining moment in African history: The 2010 charges for “gross indecency and unnatural acts” pressed against Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a Malawaian transgender woman, and Steven Monjeza, her male partner. The charges served to bring the muted discussions among queer African activists, intellectuals, and artists out into the public while spurring Ekine’s and Abbas’ editorial labors. The result is nothing short of path breaking. Combining forty-two essays, testimonies, statements, and stories by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex contributors from across the continent, the Queer Africa Reader challenges the idea of Africa as the “homophobic context” while providing an urgent, engaging, and eloquent account of both the diversity of African LGBTI experience, and of the polyvalent strategies of African queer survival, resistance, and liberation.

3. In Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, David Austin recovers the critical role played by Montreal as a nexus for Black Power and Caribbean left activism and takes the Canadian state to task for its attempt to undermine Black politics while marginalizing Black Canadian citizenship. Austin, among the foremost chroniclers of West Indian and pan-African political and intellectual histories, argues that Montreal in the late sixties was defined by a public hysteria generated by white fears of Black sexuality, which were used to justify a repressive state of security. Fear of a Black Nation builds on two previous works by Austin: A View for Freedom, an oral history of the St. Vincents-born, Montreal-based cricketer and organizer Alphonso Theodore “Alfie” Roberts, and You Don’t Play with Revolution, an edited collection of CLR James’ Montreal lectures and talks. Together, Austin’s “Montreal trilogy” is necessary reading for understanding the history of Black Montreal – and the history of the African diaspora writ large.

4. Historian Barbara Ranbsy’s Eslanda: The Large Unconventional Life of Mrs Paul Robeson, retrieves Elsanda Goode Robeson from the shadows of her often-over shadowed husband. Eslanda Robeson was tirelessly committed to women’s liberation, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. She was also a journalist and an anthropologist who trained with Bronislaw Malinowski and wrote the neglected monograph African Journey in 1941. Rambsy recounts Robeson’s intellectual and political career – including her unflinching testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee – while reconstructing the complex contours of her longstanding and unconventional relationship with Mr. Robeson. It’s an engaging history of Black politics – and of Black love.

5. Difficult, disorienting, and disturbingly brilliant, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Studies (Minor Compositions) is an elliptical manifesto for radical self-organization against and independent critique of the carceral geographies of neoliberalism and contemporary whitesupremacy. Reclaiming the Black Radical Tradition from Autonomist politics while rewiring Black Studies through critiques of contemporary governance, Moten and Harney attack liberalism’s normative ideas of education, study, debt, and economy in prose that is unsettling, dissonant, and utterly uncompromised.

6. Jared Ball takes more than just his title from I Write What I Like, Steven Biko’s collection of writings from 1969. In I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto (AK Press), Ball also borrows Biko’s approach to the analytical connection between Black consciousness and Black decolonization and the importance of alternative forms of media in the struggle for Black freedom. For Biko, journalism provided this alternative venue; for Ball, it is the mixtape and in I Mix What I Like, Ball has written a compelling statement on the potential of the mixtape for the transmission and circulation of the radical aesthetics, ideas, and voices shut out of corporate-controlled colonial media. Drawing on theories of internal colonialism and critical studies of the culture industries – on Fanon and Cabral and Zizek and McLuhan – I Mix What I Like is a smart, rangy, and original book whose very form encodes the possibilities it exhorts.

7. If you’re looking for stories of African primitives, villages, tribes, or witchcraft then Jemima Pierre’s The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago) isn’t for you. An ethnographic account of contemporary Ghana, The Predicament of Blackness is an innovative and urbane study that rejects the tired vocabularies of imperial anthropology while offering a searing riposte to both those Africanists (the majority of them) who refuse to consider question of race, racism, and whitesupremacy in Africa – and to those African Diaspora Studies scholars who are reluctant to take Africa seriously. If Fanon were trained as an ethnographer, he would write this book. Have the courage to read it.

8. We’ll admit that we knew little about Lucy Parsons until encountering her in the “Communist Women” chapter of Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class. Davis highlights Parsons’ lifetime of labor agitation and advocacy, her writing on behalf of the working class, her position as one of the first women to join the International Workers of the World, her militant defense of her husband, Albert Parsons, one of the martyrs of the 1886 Chicago Haymarket massacre, and her membership in the Communist Party (though she neglects the fact that Parsons was a longtime anarchist). Given this history, it comes as a minor shock that Parsons is not a better-known figure within the pantheons of Black radicalism, though perhaps given its phallocentric nature we shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, we should thank Charles H. Kerr for keeping Parsons’ history and memory in circulation through their publication of Lucy Parsons: Freedom Equality & Solidarity: Writings & Speeches, 1878-1937, edited by Gale Ahrens, and the fictionalized history Dynamite and Roses: Lucy and Albert Parsons and the Haymarket Bombing by Robert Benedetti. At the same time Haymarket Books has republished Carolyn Ashbaugh’s 1976 biography Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, from which Angela Davis’ drew heavily.

9. Part academic treatise, part personal memoir, Carol Boyce Davies’ genre-breaking and boundary-bending Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from the Twilight Zone is theoretically grounded in the foundational geography and geomorphology of the Antilles. Yet if the archipelagic impulse towards flux, fragmentation, and fluidity has oftentimes led to a silly, apolitical academicism, Davis knows exactly where she comes from – and exactly where she’s at. Recounting a lifetime of migrations from Trinidad to Ibadan and Brooklyn to Brazil, Caribbean Spaces heralds a commitment to Black freedom – both at home and abroad – with insurgent style and righteous grace.

10. Dr. Jean Price-Mars’s two volume master work the La Republique d’Haiti et la Republic dominicaine, is arguably the best source for understanding the historical origins of anti-Haitian racism in the Dominican Republic and the ideological origins of the recent denationalization ruling of the Dominican constitutional court. Unfortunately, it isn’t available in English and both the Spanish and French translations are out of print. You can, however download both volumes of the French here. Or you can look at three other texts that illuminate the fraught legacies of Haitian-Dominican relations. Historian Pedro L. San Miguel’s The Imagined Island: History, Identity, and Utopia in Hispaniola (University of North Carolina) has an excellent chapter outlining Price-Mars’ arguments – and recounting the responses to it. Silvio Torres Saillaint’s Introduction to Dominican Blackness [pdf], published by CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute, provides what is perhaps the best account of the problem of whiteness and the fact of Blackness within Dominican society and history. Finally, last summer, Petionville, Haiti publishers C3 Editions issued Identité dominicaine et racisme anti-haïtien, an unpublished monograph by the late Dominican historian Franklin Franco Pichardo. All three monographs provide a necessary intellectual ballast in support of Dominicans of Haitian descent facing the uncertain waters of the coming year.

The Public Archive’s prior readings lists: Radical Black Reading: 2011. 2012. 2013. Reading Haiti: 2011. 2012. Radical Black Cities: 2012.

Image: Librairie africaine à Yaoundé, Cameroun (1950/1970): Source: La bibliothèque du Défap-Service protestant de mission

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Haitiano

A Negro of Santo Domingo.
Haitiano
Eres Haitiano
eres haitiano por ser negro
eres negro
eso te hace haitiano
no por nacimiento
Por ser negro
Eres negro
Eres haitianoo por ser negro
Negro es lo malo
Malo es lo haitiano
Negro es feo
Feo es haitiano
Eres haitiano
Por ser negro eres haitiano.
_____________
Haitian
You are Haitian
you are Haitian by being Black
you are Black
that makes you Haitian
not by birth
By being black
You are Black
Black is bad
Bad is Haitian
Black is ugly
Ugly is Haitian
You are Haitian
By being Black you are Haitian

Blas R. Jimenez, “Haitiano,” (1980). h/t: tifanmkreyol

Blas  R. Jiménez (1939 – 13 November 2009) Broadcaster, educator, essayist, and Dominican poet of Negritude and Black consciousness.

Further Reading

Essays
“Negritud andina,” Hoy (2003)
“Diálogo, memoria y emancipacion,” Hoy (2004)

“En la esclavitud,” Hoy (March 2004)

Books

Exigencias de un cimarrón (en sueños) (Santo Domingo, República Dominicana: Taller, 1987).

El nativo: (versos en cuentos para espantar zombies) (Santo Domingo, R.D.: Editora Búho, 1996).

Aquí …: otro Español. (Santo Domingo, R.D.: Editora Manati, 2000).

Caribe africano en despertar (Santo Domingo: Centro de Información Afroamericano, 2006).

Afrodominicano por elección, negro por nacimiento: seudoensayos (Santa Domingo, República Dominicana: Editora Manatí, 2008).

Image: Sir Harry H. Johnston, “A Negro of Santo Domingo,” The Negro in the New World (1910). Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / General Research and Reference Division / NYPL Digital Collection

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“You lied to defame Dominican, Republic! Stop or you’ll taste our medicine!”: A letter to the Editor

The Public Archive is always happy to receive letters to the editor like the one below which, we think, provides a stark example of how history has been twisted to the cause of anti-Haitianism while providing an unadorned, even brutal, representation of the ideological context of the recent ruling of the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Tribunal regarding its citizens of Haitian descent. Please send death threats and love letters to editor@thepublicarchive.com or post your comments below.

You said:

“This antihaitianismo sees the presence of people of Haitian descent – and of people of African descent more generally – as a threat to Dominican identity.”

Since 1522, Santo Domingo (today DR) has had mulatto and negro! The 1799 census said: 11 thousands slaves, 16 thousands Spaniards decedents, and 83 thousands mulatto!!!!

DR (Santo Domingo) has had a strong African descendants population since it’s inception in 1508!!! DR has had a black President (Ulysses Hereaux from 1882 to 1899). Blacks had been, and currently are, in charge of the armed forces, own several small businesses, and they practically  exercise all the sports, music, entertainment, news, and communications in DR!!!!!!

There is NO AGAINST BLACK sentiment in DR.  DR is multiple times more diverse and tolerant than the US and their cousins in Europe combine!

With regards to the Haitian.  Historically,  Haiti militarily invaded DR (Santo Domingo) in 1801, 1805, 1844, 1845, 1849, and 1855 with the purpose of asphyxiating and extinguishing Santo Domingo and DR.  During the 22 years of Haitian occupation, Boyer allowed the immigration of more than 18,000 African ex-slaves to Santo Domingo in 1822 (James Monroe was determined to kick the slave out of the US) with total disregard of the opinions of the local inhabitants.

Then, after DR defeated the Haitian in 1859,  Haiti decided to switch tactics to annex DR by peaceful means that included high birthing rate, open border, and illegally sending thousands of them to DR.

This plan was catalyzed by the  US when the US invaded both Haiti (1914) and DR (1915).  The US relocated thousands of Haitian youth to the sugar fields in DR so a to minimize rebellions in Haiti and to enable the DR pay the its debt to its creditors (Europe/US).

While the US ran DR, the Haitian illegally occupied all the Dominican border provinces with the intention of “Haitianized” them!  Thanks to Trujillo, Dajabon was rescued from the Haitian occupation in 1937.

The 1919 Dominican Constitution clearly stated that the children born to people in transit should register with the consulate/embassy of the countries where their parents are from!  The Haitian Constitution clearly states (since 1809) that children of any Haitian parent is Haitian regardless where they are born!!

So both constitutionally and historically, the Haitian are illegally in DR.  Now, there are 10.7 million people in Haiti (Haiti occupies 1/3 of the island) and 10 million people in DR (including the 1.3 millions Haitian in DR).  The whole island has 21 million people which is far more than the 12 million people in Cuba (Cuba is twice the size of DR).  Haiti has failed as a society and as a State but they continue to birth 193 thousand people every year and no one not even the UN has told them to curb their birthing since the island is finite, the resources are finite, and there is no room for their garbage!  But instead YOU PUSH FOR DR TO FAIL JUST AS EQUALLY AS HAITI! DR is poor and it does not attend to its poor.  Now you want DR to adopt the responsibilities of Haiti!  Even Turk & Caicos (4 thousand Haitian), Bahamas (17 thousands Haitian), Jamaica (11 thousands Haitian), and Cuba (34 thousands Haitian) do not admit them!!!!  They are blessed that a Sea barricades them from Haiti!

Do not misrepresent or pretend to come across as an expert to a problem that France dumped on Hispaniola back in 1697 and that has magnified since the US closed its doors to the Haitian in 1984 and Duvalier was toppled in 1986.

fernando.fondeur@comcast.net

Image take from espacinsular.org

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Haiti, Antihaitianismo, and the Dominican Republic

On September 23, 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic ruled that the children of “irregular” migrants born in the Dominican Republic after June 21st, 1929 would be stripped of their Dominican citizenship. The ruling – which could render 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless – came as a result of a challenge by Juliana Deguis Pierre against the Dominican Electoral Board. The Electoral Board refused to issue Pierre an identification card. They argued that although she was born in the “national territory,” because she was the daughter of migrants in transit she did not have the right to Dominican citizenship. They based their ruling on article 11.1 of the Dominican Constitution of November 29, 1966 which held sway when Pierre was born.

While Ms. Pierre was the subject of the Constitutional Court’s ruling, it also targets all Dominicans of Haitian descent. The decision also formalizes a process of exclusion, racism, and harassment that had already construed Dominicans of Haitian descent as second-class citizens in their own country while marginalizing Haitian immigrants. Indeed, even before the ruling, Haitian immigrants had been subject to demeaning raids and dragnets by the Dominican security forces while in the past thirteen months, since August 16, 2012, almost 47,700 undocumented Haitians were expelled from the country – more than twice the figure of 20,541 expelled during the previous year.

The actions of the Dominican Constitutional Court also have their origins in the current of antihaitianismo – of anti-Haitianism – dating from the nineteenth century. This antihaitianismo sees the presence of people of Haitian descent – and of people of African descent more generally – as a threat to Dominican identity. It relies on both an identification with Spanish roots and the valorization of an aboriginal or indio past through the national cult of Quisqueya. It contrasts the Dominican Republic’s whiteness with Haiti’s Blackness; as one scholar memorably put it, “in the Dominican Republic the cause is the consequence: you are Black because you are Haitian, you are Haitian because you are Black.”

Yet while Blackness is rejected from Dominican identity, it is necessary for the Dominican economy. The four generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent that would be denationalized by the ruling are the children of Haitian cane-cutters who toiled in Dominican sugar plantations under conditions reminiscent of slavery. Thee importance of the Haitian market to Dominican commerce should also be noted.  The trade imbalance between the two countries is stark. In 2012, the Dominican Republic exported more than $1.7 billion worth of goods through formal and informal channels. Haiti sent back just $50 million in goods.

The most notorious result of anti-Haitianism came in the form of the so-called Parsley Massacre in 1937, overseen by Dominican President Rafael Trujillo with the complicity of Haitian president Elie Lescot. Between 2 October 1937 and 8 October 1937, between 14,000 and 40,000 Haitians were slaughtered by Dominican troops. The current ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Courts triggers the potential denationalization and displacement of tens of thousands of Dominicans while providing the ideological grounds for the recurrence of such dehumanizing violence against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. The massacre could happen again.

In response to the ruling, there have been protests by enlightened Dominicans in Washington Heights and San Juan, Puerto Rico while Haitian and Dominican civil society organizations have issued statements condemning the decision. One can only hope these protests spread. The late Dominican-Haitian activist Sonia Pierre once stated, “My community, the community of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, is the poorest and most vulnerable, subject to the cruelest denial of their rights.” Until the law is repealed, until Dominicans of Haitian descent have a secure and meaningful path to citizenship, and until their human rights are recognized and protected, they will remain the most vulnerable, victimized and preyed upon by a racist Dominican state.

What follows is a brief dossier of articles on Haitian-Dominican relations and the history of antihaitianismo:

Edwidge Danticat interviewed by David Barsamian, The Progressive (October 2003)

Alicia Anabel Santos,Today I’m Embarrassed to Be Dominican,” Latina (October 4, 2013)

Jemima Pierre, “The Dominican Republic Hates Black People,” Black Agenda Report (December 14, 2011)

Rachelle Charlier Doucet, Haïti-Rép. Dominicaine : La sentence de la Cour constitutionnelle dominicaine, un devoir de solidarité,” AlterPress (October 5, 2013)

Jean Ledan fils, “L’après-1929 avec “AMIGO”, Le Nouvelliste (October 3, 2013)

Amín Pérez, “La (des)illusion de la dominicanidad,” Hoy (October 5, 2013)

Ernesto Sagás, A Case of Mistaken Identity: Antihaitianismo in Dominican Culture, [Sagás’ full dissertation is here]

LaToya Tavernier, “The Stigma of Blackness: Anti-Haitianism in the Dominican Republic,” Socialism and Democracy (May 7, 2011)

Bernardo Vega, “El antihaitianismo como instrument,” El Caribe (September 19, 2005)

Frank Moya Pons, “Antihaitianismo histórico y antihaitianismo de Estado,” Diario Libre (December 5, 2009)

Humberto García Muñiz and Jorge L. Giovannetti, Garveysmo y racismo en el Caribe: El caso de la población cocola en la República Dominicana,” Caribbean Studies (2003) [click here for PDF via Cielonaranja]

Tribunal Constitucional Republica Dominicana. Sentencia TC/0168/13. Referencia: Expediente núm. TC-05-2012-0077, relativo al recurso de revisión constitucional en materia de amparo incoado por la señora Juliana Dequis (o Deguis) Pierre, contra la Sentencia núm. 473/2012 dictada por la Cámara Civil, Comercial y de Trabajo del Juzgado de Primera Instancia del Distrito Judicial de Monte Plata, en fecha diez (10) de julio de dos mil doce (2012).

Image: Antonio Ocaña, Fantasmas del cañaveral, (2004)

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Dread and Dispossession: An interview with Colin Dayan

http://www.galeriebonheur.com/haitian/georgesliataud/dessalines_l.jpg

Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has written on the literature and literary histories of the United States, Haiti, and Jamaica; on law, ritual, and anthropology; on prisons, torture, and the nature of the person. Her first book was an introduction to and translation of René Depestre’s long poem Un arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chretiena Rainbow for the Christian West (1977). She followed it with an innovative and counter-intuitive examination of Edgar Allen Poe, Fables of Mind: An inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (1987) and what is perhaps her best known work, Haiti, History, and the Gods (1998), a path-breaking study of Haiti’s ritual memories, literary histories, and subterranean archives. Recently, Dayan has published The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007), an account of the Eighth Amendment and the rationalizations for “acceptable” torture, and The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011), on legal discourse and the life and death of the person. A frequent contributor to the Boston Review and other journals, Dayan was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science. Dayan tweets at @mehdidog.

What first led you to René Depestre’s A Rainbow for the Christian West? And can you say something about the task of translating it into English?

I spent the second semester of my junior year at Wesleyan University.  It was a time when ‘girls’ at the so-called ‘seven sisters’ – I was at Smith – had a chance to go to colleges that up until then had been ‘for men only.’  It was a kind of trial before the idea of co-education became a reality.  At Wesleyan, besides discovering a way to make my politics real, I discovered ‘negritude’ poetry in an extraordinary seminar with Professor Norman Shapiro.  It was there that I first read Depestre’s Journal d’un animal marin (Journal of a sea animal).  Shapiro loaned me Un arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chrétien (A Rainbow for the Christian West).  I had never read anything like it.  It changed my life.

As an honors student in English, I was preparing to write a thesis on Eliot and Pound.  I returned to Smith my senior year with a new project: to translate Depestre’s “vodou mystery poem” and to write an introduction placing his poetry in the larger context of Haitian politics, religious practice and history.  It was a tall order and at first the French department wasn’t quite ready to take it on, nor was English.  Shapiro came to the rescue.  He put me in touch with Professor Thomas Cassirer at the University of Massachusetts.  I brought my proposal to him, he invited me to take his graduate course on Francophone poetry and poetics, and he agreed to advise the senior thesis.  The administration at Smith then made me what they called a ‘Smith Scholar,’ gave me the year off to write and work with Cassirer as director, and Professors George Fayen in English and Jean Lambert in French. It was Lambert who wrote in the final report on my translation and introduction that I gave too much emphasis to the political and then added words I have never forgotten:  “I believe that poetry can justify revolutions but revolutions cannot justify poetry.” It was an exciting time, of course: Jean Genet on the New Haven Green speaking in defense of Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven, Vietnam, and SDS. Depestre was still in Cuba, so Roberto Márquez, the editor of Caliban: A Journal of New World Thought and Writing, at Hampshire College took letters back and forth between Depestre and me.  I did not meet him until he moved to Paris in 1978. I went to his office at UNESCO with my book A Rainbow for the Christian West in hand.

You ask about the translation of his poetry.  I traveled to Haiti for the first time as I worked on the book, met Aubelin Jolicoeur in the lobby of the Oloffson, discovered vodou and nothing was ever the same again.  My experience of translating the “Epiphanies of the Vodou Gods” was especially thrilling.  I grew up in the South during the worst excesses of white terror in the sixties—and Depestre’s epic poem really spoke to me: It told the story of the lwa—through their voices as “epiphanies” coming down—or up—to visit a judge’s parlor in Alabama. It was then that I discovered the force of the gods and the life of the spirit, and then that I knew that vodou was not just a discipline of faith, but an epistemology that joined thought to political action. It was nothing less than a practice of enlightenment through flesh and spirit.  In my introduction, I attempted to reconsider Haitian poetics in light of the political and religious history that infused it, especially after the Haitian Revolution, the first successful revolution of slaves in the New World—what Aimé Césaire called “the first epic of the New World.”

I understand that Haiti, History, and the Gods actually began, in some respects, in Jamaica. What is the story behind the origins of the book? And can you describe some of the processes and queries that led to your innovative approach to research, to archives – and to your shaping of its narrative structure? What sorts of archives did you use?

Ah, Jamaica: I arrived in ‘Papa Eddie’ Seaga’s Kingston on an NEH in 1986.  I had planned to spend the year writing a book called “History and Poetic Language in the Caribbean,” concentrating on the long poem and its revitalization by Carl Brouard, Aimé Césaire, René Depestre, Édouard Glissant, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott through the popular history and religious rituals that infused their poetic practice.  My first stop was Kingston where I lived on Carnation Way, right down from the University of the West Indies, Mona, thanks to the help of Val Carnegie and Sidney Mintz.  I went there to meet Kamau Brathwaite whose poetry had thrilled me when I taught the first course on the Caribbean at Yale the year before.  I never left Kingston.  Not until Baby Doc Duvalier got that phone call from Seaga telling him to ‘step down,’ as a friend put it. Baby Doc was escorted out on a US Air Force C-141 Cargo plane to a five-star hotel in the French Alps. Then I returned to Port-au-Prince to cover the heady days of dechoukaj, though even then I had grave doubts about the provisional government, the Duvalier loyalists who remained, the ongoing attacks on vodou, and the initial assaults on the peasants by the combined forces of US AID and the Haitian military.  But that’s another story.

Those months led to the writing of what would become Haiti, History, and the Gods. It was then that I became very interested in stories about Dessalines that I heard during the exciting days after Baby Doc’s departure.  Two months after the Duvaliers fled, the statue of Christopher Columbus, a kneeling bronze statue long prominent on Harry S. Truman Boulevard in Port-au-Prince, was thrown into the sea.  “A bas colon!” people shouted and there was talk of replacing it with Charlemagne Péralte or Jean-Jacques Dessalines.  Dessalines was my muse, the impetus for my work: the fondateur so reviled by the West that no historian wrote about him except to denigrate him.  I began work excavating what was written about Dessalines in the library of the Institut Saint-Louis de Gonzague in Port-au-Prince, with the amazing help of Frere Ernest.  But my real work was on and through vodou, as always. It was there in the field that Ogou Desalin came to life for me and with him, a new way of apprehending Haitian history.  In order to write the book as I envisioned it I had to destroy chronology.  I wanted readers to come to the understanding of what we assume to be ‘historical’ in a new way. I felt that only then could the enormous achievement of Haitians in preserving their history be told. I wanted somehow to introduce history-making as something akin to and inseparable from ritual, its repetitions over time, its attention to details that wreck any totalizing view or smug assurance. Of course, I also wanted to question generic divisions such as fact and fiction; so I introduced Marie Chauvet’s little known masterpiece Fonds des nègres as a way of doing what I called “literary fieldwork.”

Haiti, History, and the Gods almost single-handedly brought the scholarship on vodou out of an anthropological ghetto and into a wider literary and historical context. Do you have any thoughts on the literature and approaches to vodou – and to Haiti more generally – that have appeared in its wake? Are there any recent monographs on Haiti that stand out?

After Haiti, History, and the Gods, many books appeared that have continued the kind of history so necessary in these days of continued dispossession and dread.  Most exciting to me are, to name just a few that are always on my desk: Stephan Palmié’s Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition; Doris Garraway, The Libertine Colony; Sibylle Fischer, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution; Matthew J. Smith, Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change 1934-1957; and, most recently, Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law and Malick W. Ghachem’s The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution. You ask about approaches to vodou and Haitian history. Sometimes it seems that academic discourse – to paraphrase the anthropologist Pierre Clastres—conceptually ‘defangs thought.’ And nowhere is that defanging which is also a de-politicization so present as in the discipline of history.  For me, there is no such thing as an a-political natural history. The institutions of slavery and vodou (the ritual practice born of its terrors) shaped the way in which the earth—its landscape, its flora and fauna, its animals—was imagined historically, on the ground, by those whose voices get lost sometimes in the production of history.

In the introduction to Haiti, History, and the Gods, you write: “Let me admit at the outset that I am obsessed by Haiti, for reasons that have much to do with my own vexed and haunted childhood, the uncertainty of my family origins, and my confrontation with an always blocked, silenced, or unspeakable history.” Your mother, who left Haiti in 1936, appears as a powerful, but furtive, presence in your writing: she is “hanging over the railing of a Hilton somewhere in Caribbean,” or standing on a terrace near Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. What was Haiti and the Caribbean for her and how has she shaped your own engagements with Haiti?

I cannot easily answer the question about my mother and Haiti: what it meant to her. But I’m trying to approach an answer in a memoir called Between the Devil and the Deep Sea. It is about her, but also about Haiti in the 1930s. If she shaped my approach at all it was through her reticence, her silences, the mystery of a past that somehow could not be told.

The Law is a White Dog evokes the “sorcery of the law” and the law’s “investing the juridical order with the power to redefine persons.” I’m wondering if there is a way of applying this analysis to the international legal orders enabling the continuing presence of the United Nations and MINUSTAH in Haiti. In particular, I’m thinking about the UN’s response to claims for compensation from the victims of cholera and the UN’s assertion that the claims were “non-receivable” under the UN charter. It seems to me that this suggests both a re-definition of Haitian citizenship – and of Haitian sovereignty.

In The Law is a White Dog I intend the “sorcery of law” to be quite literal.  Again, as with Haiti, History, and the Gods, vodou somewhat ‘possessed’ the original project: the book called Held in the Body of the State became more than an account of prisons, punishment, and the law. It was transformed when I began to write an essay called “The Rules of the Haitian lwa” – which became a chapter in Colonial Saints, edited by Alan Greer—where I elaborated on vodou as a new way of knowing, the law incarnated in the lwa.  In Creole the term for law is lwa or lalwa, pronounced like loi or law in French.  I began to wonder how we might take the loi d’etat out of its usual contexts and understand it more fully through what some condemn as ‘supernatural’ or ‘irrational.’  In turning to spiritual concerns, the beliefs of those most oppressed and most resistant, I hoped to give flesh and blood to the law. I wanted to demonstrate that personal identity as elaborated in vodou, along with its materialist bent, could teach us something about legal practice.  I wanted to tell a story of bondage and subjection more deeply corporealized, but also more irrational than the abstract precepts of law so revered by the State and its legal practitioners.  The stuff of spiritual life becomes the raw material of legal authority. Possession, zombification and magicality are part and parcel of the law.

You’ve recently written on the strike begun by inmates in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison in July 2011. They were joined by close to 30,000 other inmates at other state facilities. Why is the strike important for those of us in the “free world,” outside of the prison’s wall? And what is the significance of their call to end “solitary confinement”?

You ask about the importance of the latest hunger strike (the third in three years) at Pelican Bay and throughout the California prison system to us in the circle of privilege, to us in the ‘free world.’  There is no ‘free world’ now.  All we have to do is read the papers, where we read about unarmed black men shot dead by police all over the United States, where we read about the dogs of the rural and urban poor shot dead by police.  It is difficult not to sound the alarm. In a country wracked by economic collapse, racial hatred, and political paralysis, it is not easy to know how to speak about the exclusion of large, easily definable groups. Our much-touted freedom has always depended on enclosing and excluding persons assumed placed outside that dispensation.   The militarization of the police bodes ill for all of us, no matter our gates, no matter our so-called ‘security’ from ‘terror.’ All we have to do is read again The Patriot Act or The Military Commissions Act to know that labels like ‘terrorist’ can be arbitrarily applied and will be.  We are on a slippery slope.  Fear is a vice that takes root.

Can you say something about the origins and contours of your current book projects?

I am completing two books right now: 1) The forthcoming Like a dog: animal law, human cruelty, and the ethics of care (Columbia University Press) takes on canine profiling, police power, and current rituals of extermination for the powerless, the poor, and the racially suspect. In emphasizing juridical subjection, I mean to yoke our consciousness to what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the easy conscience of modern man.” Reasonable and civil consensus, these words engage me—haunted as I am by the prospect of divisions (in terms of genre, not just of subject) that allow the continued dispossession of those creatures – human and non-human – outside the circle of grace, those delivered to subjection without recourse; 2) Melville’s Creatures on his late fiction. I offer a new reading of his work as an alternative history and ethnography of the Americas: strained in places as it is, his prose holds the key to his purpose, which is nothing less than to redefine the meaning of the ‘literary.’ And I am continuing to write the memoir about my mother and me, Haiti and Atlanta, called Between the Devil and the Deep Sea.

Image: Georges Liautaud (1889-1990), Dessalines.

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