Easily the most hyped Haiti-related book to come out in the past year was Purpose: An Immigrant Story (It Books), the memoir of rapper-turned-presidential-candidate Wyclef Jean. They say Purpose is actually not that bad, especially if you’re interested in either Clef’s take on the dissolution of the Fugees or his embittered account of his agonized history with Lauryn Hill. But it offers little on his controversial charity efforts or on his political aspirations, though perhaps these issues will be addressed in one of the proposed seven tomes Wyclef plans on writing. Regardless, the books that interested us in 2012 were not over-marketed and vapid celebrity tell-alls but politically and intellectually engaged tracts – often published by smaller, lesser-known presses, and often overlooked by the mainstream.
One such book, Terre de femmes: 150 ans de poésie féminine en Haïti (Bruno Doucey) we’ve written of before (and it was actually published in 2010). But we were so taken by this strikingly designed volume that we feel compelled to mention it again. Terre de femmes contains poetry from thirty-five Haitian women writers, from early twentieth-century figures Ida Flaubert and Emmeline Carriès Lemaire to contemporary writers Kettly Mars and Elvire Maurouard, many of whom we were introduced to for the first time. The anthology boasts a spectrum of tone, perspective, and style: romantic verse sits alongside odes to Simon Bolivar and invocations of Toussaint Louverture. Terre de femmes is a welcome revelation, as were the contents of two other excellent collections compiling writing by and about Caribbean women. Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2010 (Editorial Campaña), edited by Myrna E. Nieves-Colón, is a bilingual compendium that grew out of the Boricua College Winter Poetry Series, while Ifeona Fulani’s pioneering Archipelagos of Sound: Transnational Caribbeanities, Women, and Music (University of the West Indies Press) gathers essays on Rhianna, Celia Cruz, Grace Jones, Louise Bennett, and, as it turns out, the incomparable Lauryn Hill.
Problems of distribution and translation (or, less generously, questions of disinterest and Anglophone insularity and provincialism), have kept English-language readers in the dark concerning many of the writers published in Terre de femmes. Similar problems plague our knowledge of books by publishers based in Haiti despite their deep and growing lists. Since May 2011, the Petionville consultancy firm C3 Group has had an admirable output of monographs published under the imprint Editions C3Group. Their first title, 100% Préval, is a wide-ranging assessment of the presidency of Rene Préval that brings together a cross section of Haitian politicians and intellectuals. They have published seven books since including Les 100 premiers jours de Martelly on “Martellisme” and the early days of the Martelly presidency as well as a number of regional studies of Haitian economy and politics. Radical? Probably not. But they are, nonetheless, important interventions and their latest monograph attacks the question of color and racism in Haitian society. Titled La vie et ses couleurs and edited by Lionnel Trouillot it contains contributions in Kreyol and French by writers including Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Emelie Prophète, Evelyne Trouillot, Gary Victor, and Rodney St-Éloi, the latter also the publisher of the fantastic Montreal-based press Mémoire d’encrier.
Having already published the late geographer Georges Anglade’s Le secret du dynamisme littéraire haïtien and Jean Casimir’s Haïti et ses élites. L’interminable dialogue de sourds, among other academic texts, Editions de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti have over the past year issued Robenson Belunet’s important addition to studies of the first US Occupation, La France face à l’occupation américaine d’Haïti (1915-1934), as well as Marie Redon’s ambitious comparative study of frontiers and islands, Des îles en partage: Haïti, République dominicaine, Saint-Martin, Timor Editions, published in collaboration with Presses Universitaires du Mirail. Also published collaboratively, this time with Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, is the collection Haïti, réinventer l’avenir. Edited by Jean-Daniel Rainhorn, Haïti, réinventer l’avenir grew out of a conference in Geneva in January 2011 on Haiti’s reconstruction and is billed as a “trialogue” between more than two-dozen contributors drawn from Haitian civil society, the Haitian diaspora, and the international community. Haïti, réinventer l’avenir should be read alongside a similar volume, Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Quake (Stylus/Kumarian), edited by anthropologist Mark Schuller and NACLA editor Pablo Morales.
Editions de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti also published a path-breaking collection of Caribbean economic history, Histoire économique de la Caraibe (1880 – 1950), edited by scholars Guy Pierre, Gustie Gaillard-Pourchet, and Nathalie Lamaute-Brisson. Focusing largely on the changing fortunes of the sugar industry and the role of banking, debt, and monetary policy in the region’s economic organization and development, Histoire économique de la Caraibe contains contributions from a fantastic set of Caribbean historians including César Ayalá, Alain Buffon, Roberto Cassá, Rebeca Gómez Betancourt, Leslie F. Manigat, Rita Pemberton, Inés Roldan de Montaud, and Oscar Zanetti. Other works of a historical bent published in the past year include Malick W. Gechem’s study of self-fashioning and negotiation within the colonial laws of Saint-Domingue, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge), and a special issue of the Radical History Review, titled Haitian Lives/Global Perspective and edited by historians Amy Chazkel, Melina Pappademos, and Karen Sotiropoulos. The issue includes a micro-history of plantation life in Saint-Domingue, an analysis of Toussaint’s L’Ouverture’s 1801 constitution, an account of the National City Bank in Haiti, and histories of both Guantanamo and Miami’s Krome Detention Center. Unfortunately, the Radical History Review is only available to paid subscribers. Sara E. Johnson’s Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas (California) takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of how African people within the greater Caribbean responded to the Haitian Revolution while in Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution (Chicago), Deborah Jenson examines the texts written by Haitians themselves. Jenson examines the political tracts penned by revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines as well as Saint-Domingue’s popular, anonymously written Creole poetry.
The most famous account of the Haitian Revolution is, of course, CLR James’s 1938 history The Black Jacobins. But before he composed his dramatic history of revolution, James rendered the revolution as historical drama. His play was written in 1934, staged in 1936 at London’s Westminister Theatre – with Paul Robeson starring – and lost until a draft was rediscovered in 2005 by historian Christian Høgsbjerg, who unearthed it during his doctoral research. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts has been edited by Høgsbjerg and published by Duke. It comes as the first publication of a new series, The CLR James Archives, edited by Robert A. Hill, a scholar best known for his work on the Marcus Garvey and Universal Improvement Association Papers Project. The aim of the series is to recover and reproduce James’s work, and work on James, for a contemporary audience. In another act of recovery, James’s analysis of the economic and political nature of the mid-century Soviet state have been compiled by Scott McLemee as The Dialectics of State Capitalism: Writings on Marxist Theory, 1940-1956 and is due out from Haymarket Press.
The state is at the center of a number of recent monographs that have examined questions of democracy, dictatorship and neo-colonialism in contemporary Haiti. Justin Podur’s Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, The Earthquake and the UN Occupation (Pluto) scrutinizes the ways in which the international community has choked Haiti’s sovereignty since the 2004 coup while promoting a supposedly benign international occupation of the country. Jeb Sprague’s thoroughly-researched Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti (Monthly Review) examines the growth of right-wing paramilitaries and their role, supported by money and political muscle from the United States and the Dominican Republic, in subverting Haitian grassroots democratic movements. In the 2005 book Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority (Fernwood), Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton, shed light on Great White North’s role in the overthrow of democracy in the Black Republic; a section of Yves Engler’s latest, The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy (Fernwood) pillories Canada’s post-earthquake callousness.
Finally, Revue Noire, the Paris-based journal of Black art, has published The Room of Mario Benjamin, the first monograph on the Port-au-Prince based abstract painter. And if you aren’t able to travel to Los Angeles to see the well regarded exhibit In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art at UCLA’s Fowler Museum its catalogue, edited by Donald Cosentino, will be published by the University of Washington Press. The exhibit displayed works by artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat to the famous found-object sculptors of Port-au-Prince’s Grand Rue; the catalogue contains essays from Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Leah Gordon, Claudine Michel, Jean Claude Saintilus, and others.
All told, there’s a depth and richness to these publications that is still missing from Haiti’s coverage and representation in the mainstream press. Support these endeavors. Buy the books.
All best for the new year.
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Image: Cédric Audebert, Le marquage architectural et culturel de Little Haiti et la Librairie Mapou. Source: Cédric Audebert, « Les stratégies spatiales de la population haïtienne à Miami », EchoGéo (2007).
Ten books we read in 2012 that surprised us, stayed with us, and made us see the world in a different light. Listed in no particular order.
- William Alpheus Hunton, Decision in Africa: Sources of Current Conflict (International Publishers, 1960). Walter Rodney approvingly cites Hunton’s Decision in Africa in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa but one wonders if anyone has read it since. Hunton, an African American educator and activist with the Council on African Affairs who had his career ruined by anti-Communist witch-hunts, went into exile in Guinea, and then Ghana, where he joined W.E.B. DuBois. Decision in Africa is a searing assessment of the political and economic fortunes of Africa after World War II that pays special attention to the history of US neo-colonialism and the politics of, as Hunton put it, “Dollars and Empire.” It’s a classic of Pan-Africanism. Why isn’t it in print?
- Basil Davidson, Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah (James Currey, 2007). To dismiss Davidson as an old dead white guy is to dismiss a historian who writes with an insight and elan that places him among the greatest chroniclers of the history of the African continent. Davidson has the instincts of a journalist, the discernment of an academic, and the elegance of a poet. His portrait of the rise and fall of Nkrumah and of Gold Coast’s transition to independent Ghana is intimate but unsentimental and offers a lesson on how to write about Africa that contemporary writers and pundits would do well to learn.
- Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (Vintage, 1991). Angelou’s memoir of her time in exile in Nkrumah’s Ghana contains the grandiloquent, occasionally purple, flourishes typical of her writing but it is also a clear-eyed and moving account of Black expatriate life in Ghana and of the vexed relationship of African Americans to Africa. Candid, occasionally brutal, resisting any slide towards romanticism, Angelou nevertheless captures the profound but fraught bonds that stretch across the Atlantic.
- Willie Esterhuyse, Endgame: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid (Tafelberg, 2012). Esterhuyse is a professor of philosophy at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University and an Afrikaner liberal who believed in gradual, reformist transformation of the Apartheid regime. He was contacted to begin covert, private meetings with Thabo Mbeki and the African National Congress in the late eighties, facilitated by mining conglomerate Consolidated Goldfields and the South African security forces. Endgame is Esterhuyse’s critical recollection of those meetings. It is a book that is thoughtful and considered though sometimes self-righteous, and that inadvertently provides a stark anatomy of the political calculus and the economic consolidations that led to the compromised and inegalitarian form of South Africa’s post-Apartheid nation.
- Brenda Gayle Plummer, Haiti and the Great Powers, 1902-1915 (Louisiana State University Press, 1988). Diplomatic historian Brenda Gayle Plummer’s first book describes the conditions and narrates the events that led to the landing of US Marines in Haiti on July 28, 1915 and their initiation of a military occupation that would last for nineteen years. Drawing on US, European, and Haitian archives, Plummer highlights the inter-imperial rivalries – and the domestic political contentions – that shaped Haiti’s affairs. Masterful but understated, Haiti and the Great Powers is a critical text for understanding not only the history of the US intervention—but also the history of the Black Republic’s present.
- Brian Meeks and Norman Girvan, The Thought of New World: The Quest for Decolonization (Ian Randle, 2010). Meeks and Girvan’s edited collection grew out of a 2005 conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica assessing the legacy of the New World Group, the loosely-affiliated band of economists and political scientists that emerged around the figure of Trinidad’s Lloyd Best in the late 1960s and that sought to develop an indigenous critique of Caribbean political economy. The collection contains an extended interview with Best and a dozen essays, the best of which are Girvan’s distillation of the “seven theses” of New World, Kari Levitt’s account of New World’s activities in Montreal and James Millette’s unsparing skewering of New World’s shibboleths. The Thought of New World is a critical compendium of a moment in Caribbean intellectual history while the New World Group’s thought – unfinished, ill-defined, and occasionally diffuse – offers a welcome alternative to IMF and World Bank orthodoxies.
- Maximilian Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Baraka Books, 2012). Forte, a Montreal based activist and anthropologist, provides a compelling counter-narrative to mainstream media accounts of the war on Libya and the overthrow and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. Slouching Towards Sirte has an excellent analysis of the contradictions and paradoxes of Gaddafi’s pan-Africanism and Libyan anti-Black racism while arguing persuasively that regime change in Libya is but a preview of US strategy in Africa through AFRICOM.
- Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler, editors, Revolution: A Reader (Publication Studio, 2012). We haven’t yet finished reading Revolution: A Reader, though at 1,200 pages – and with an accompanying annotated online version hosted on a “public reading commons” – we don’t expect we ever will. An open and ecumenical compilation of statements on the theme, Revolution: A Reader is probably best approached through a reading strategy of errancy and discovery – or by simply opening its pages to the writers you already know. Hakim Bey, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, and Mahmoud Darwish were among the names we first flipped to, but they alone barely suggest the incredible scope and ambition of Robertson and Stadler’s project.
- Derrick O’Keefe, Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? (Verso 2011) In a style that can best be described as “measured evisceration,” Derrick O’Keefe coolly guts the star-crossed career of Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian journalist, Harvard academic, failed politician, and early, unapologetic liberal interventionist. O’Keefe’s intellectual biography, however, can be read not just as an account of the slippery and self-serving contortions of Ignatieff’s thinking, but of the bankruptcy of both Canada’s political aristocracy and of the strange beast that passes as North American liberalism. Other lesser evils deserve a similar treatment.
- Nile Rodgers, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Disco, Family, and Destiny (Spiegel & Grau, 2011). We forget, I think, that the bass line of Chic’s “Good Times” provided the blueprint for contemporary popular music while Chic front-man Nile Rodgers produced practically every major pop act of the post-disco era, from Diana Ross to David Bowie. Le Freak, Rodger’s fast-paced and entertaining autobiography, is also a drug-addled, surprisingly star-struck account of this moment of American musical history – one that is tinged with the melancholy of the dark-skinned genius child who never quite received the recognition he deserved, even as everyone stole his sound.
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Image: Stan Douglas, McLeod’s Books, Vancouver, (2006).
In the northern mountains of the Republic of Haiti, there is an old palace called Sans Souci that many urbanites and neighbouring peasants revere as one of the most important historical monuments of their country. The palace — what remains of it — stands on a small elevation between the higher hills surrounding the town of Milot. it is impressive if only because of its size — or what one can now guess to have been its size. It was built to instill a long lasting deference, and it still does. One does not stumble upon these ruins; they are both too remote and too often mentioned within Haiti for the encounter to be fully accidental. Anyone who comes here, enticed by the posters of Haiti’s Departement du Tourisme or by one or another narrative of glory, is at least vaguely familiar with Haiti’s record and assumes history to be dormant within these crumbling walls. Anyone who comes here knows that this huge dwelling was built in the early nineteenth century, for a black king, by blacks barely out of slavery. Thus the traveler is soon caught between the senese of desolation taht molds Sans Souci’s present and a furtive awareness of bygone glory. There is so little here to see and so much to infer. Anyone who comes here comes too late, after a climax of which little has been preserved, yet early enough to dare imagine what it might have been.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, from “The Three Faces of San Souci,” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995)
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, scholar of the Caribbean, 1949-2012.
Colin Dayan, “Remembering Michel-Rolph Trouillot,” Boston Review (2012)
Laurent DuBois, “Eloge pour Michel-Rolph Trouillot,“ Transition (2012) $
David Scott, “The Futures of Michel-Rolph Trouillot,” Small Axe (2012) $
If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?”
“God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.
Bradley Manning, “Manning-Lamo Chat Logs Revealed” Wired (July 2011).
Alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning’s pretrial hearing is expected to end next week. In what little media coverage the trial has received so far, attention has focused more on the harsh conditions of Manning’s imprisonment than the disruptive political ramifications of having exposed the secret machinations of the most powerful nation in the world.
In one of the thousands of leaked diplomatic cables, former US Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson described Haiti as a “small, poor nation in the shadow of the American behemoth.” Unsurprisingly, as the Atlantic Wire put it, the cables “highlight how America has been micromanaging and manhandling the Haitian government into aligning their policies with U.S. interests.”
Consider this less-than-comprehensive overview of the profound American impact on Haiti in three key areas, as revealed by Manning and WikiLeaks:
US officials led a far-reaching international campaign aimed at keeping former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide exiled in South Africa, rendering him a virtual prisoner there for the last seven years, according to secret US State Department cables … The cables show that high-level US and UN officials even discussed a politically motivated prosecution of Aristide to prevent him from “gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning to Haiti.”
The Aristide Files, The Nation (5 August 2011).
The United States, the European Union and the United Nations decided to support Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections despite believing that the country’s electoral body, “almost certainly in conjunction with President Preval,” had “emasculated the opposition” by unwisely and unjustly excluding the country’s largest party, according to a secret US Embassy cable.
Cable Depicts Fraudulent Haiti Election, The Nation (8 June 2011).
Even before the Haitian government authorized it, Washington began deploying 22,000 troops to Haiti after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, despite U.S. Embassy officials saying there was no serious security problem, according to secret U.S. diplomatic cables provided to Haïti Liberté by the media organization WikiLeaks.
U.S. Militarization of Post-Quake Aid, Haiti Liberte (21 June 2011).
A prominent Haitian businessman and a top U.S. Embassy official urged UN occupation troops to attack a crowded Haitian slum, fully expecting that “unintended civilian casualties” would occur, according to secret diplomatic cables provided by WikiLeaks to Haiti Liberté.
U.S. Embassy Approved of Deadly Attack on Haitian Slum, Haiti Liberte (13 September 2011).
United Nations forces that have occupied Haiti since June 2004 were poorly trained, spied on student groups, mismanaged and staged elections, and recklessly shot, killed and wounded hundreds of civilians, according to secret US diplomatic cables.
Cables Paint Portrait of Brutal, Ineffectual and Polluting UN Force, The Nation (6 October 2011).
Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables … But the factory owners refused to pay 62 cents per hour, or $5 per day, as a measure unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament in June 2009 would have mandated. And they had the vigorous backing of the US Agency for International Development and the US Embassy when they took that stand.
Let Them Live on $3 a Day, The Nation (1 June 2011).
“International oil companies are increasingly concerned—both Texaco and Esso will meet with the Ambassador in the near future—that they will have to buy their oil from the GOH [Government of Haiti],” wrote Ambassador Sanderson in a May 17, 2006, cable, concluding that “we will continue to raise our concerns about the PetroCaribe deal with the highest levels of government.”
The PetroCaribe Files, The Nation (1 June 2011).
Disaster capitalists were flocking to Haiti in a “gold rush” for contracts to rebuild the country after the January 12, 2010, earthquake, according to a secret cable from US Ambassador Kenneth Merten. … “Other companies are proposing their housing solutions or their land use planning ideas, or other construction concepts. Each is vying for the ear of President in a veritable free-for-all.”
The Post-Quake ‘Gold Rush’ for Reconstruction Contracts, The Nation (15 June 2011).
“These cables show over and over, the U.S. considered Haiti to be its ward and regardless of whomever is in power, either democratically elected or not, they expect that person to do their bidding,’’ said Alex Dupuy, author of The Prophet and Power: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti and the International Community.
WikiLeaks cables show US calling the shots in Haiti, Miami Herald (21 July 2011).
Image: A U.S. Marine stands guard outside the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2010, Department of Defense.
We must not, however, be romantic about this question of peasant proprietorship. Peasant ownership, by itself, is no solution of the agricultural problem of the Caribbean. Haiti is the glaring example. The average holding is small, from three to six acres, and lots of one-fifth an acre are not uncommon. The method of cultivation is primitive in the extreme. The plough is unknown. A hoe and cutlass, valued at $1.20, represent the sum total of the peasant’s instruments of production. He is ignorant of questions of fertility, selection of seeds and plants, protection against insects and disease. his is essentially subistence agriculture, a pre-capitalist economy in which wages are unknown. To the primitive methods of coffee cultivation and preparation is to be ascribed the earthy flavor of Haitian coffee which makes it unpopular in the world market. The preparation of soil is the task of the family or an organization known as the “coumbite”, a primitive method of co-operation which has been described by Dr. Simpson as “one of the most popular, most beneficial, and most durable of Haitian institutions.”
The Haitian peasant is poor, miserably poor. In the expressive creole dialect of the country, he is a “toutiste”: he does everything for himself. The annual incomes of peasants in the district of Plaisance have been estimated at from 40 to 300 dollars, with the maximum figure rare. It is this poverty which has encouraged the Haitian to emigrate to the “superior” opportunities of field work in the sugar industry in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The Haitian peasant owns his land. But that is only half the battle. For peasant ownership to succeed, the peasant must be taught and educated, and his primitive instincts corrected. For failure to do this the mulatto overlords of Haiti bear as great a responsibility as the white foreign overlords elsewhere in the Caribbean who have consistently opposed peasant ownership.
Eric Williams, The Negro in the Caribbean (1942)
Image: Emigration to Cuba at village of Les Cayes, Haiti. Source: Art, Architecture and Engineering Library, Lantern Slide Collection. University of Michigan Library.