Haiti: Aftershocks Of History

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Marco Werman: Historian Laurent Dubois has just returned from Haiti and he sees cause for optimism.

Laurent Dubois: This is a country that made an incredible transformation at its founding by overthrowing slavery, and there's no reason that we can't expect maybe a new moment of change in the future.

Werman: Dubois teaches at Duke University and he has a new book out called Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. In it, Dubois focuses on key moments in Haitian history that as he says reverberate today.

Dubois: A lot of the thinking always goes back to Haiti's founding as a nation founded by slave revolutionaries in a world that was quite hostile to that victory and that overthrow of slavery. So there's a great deal of attention to that. Haitians are also very aware in a way Americans are less so of the impact of the US occupation and of the US role in their country in the 20th century.

Werman: I'm sorry to jump in, but let's return to that time. US Marines occupied Haiti for about two decades starting about 1915, and as you explained, that's when many of our current images of Haiti got embossed in our American minds. How did that happen and how does it resonate today?

Dubois: Well, this is a long occupation. The US was very involved in Haiti. I mean it really directly ran and governed Haiti for two decades. And at the time a lot of images were produced of Haiti through marine memoirs. This is actually the time when the first Zombie films were made with direct reference to Haiti became kind of a mainstay of our culture. So we had a kind of set of stereotypes that grew up about Haiti and at the same time, curiously most of Americans are not aware that we were in Haiti for that time. So we kind of inherited stereotypes and cultural stereotypes without much historical knowledge. And that's one of the things I try to rectify in the book so that we get a better sense of what that history meant for Haiti.

Werman: One thing you go into on the chapter on the US occupation in the early 20th century was this idea of using a really nascent military techniques against Haitians, aerial bombardment. That was just really surprising. Tell me about that.

Dubois: Yeah, it's one of the first places, probably not the first place, but one of the first places the US uses aerial bombardment against the insurgent groups who are known as the Cockos, who were rebelling against the US in the countryside. And it's a story that really isn't much told in the United States, but again, resides very strongly in Haitian memory because of course, it was a particularly new and terrifying form of combat. So I think knowing those sorts of things is important because it gives us a sense of how historical memory might shape the present.

Werman: Now, you write about how at the time many African American leaders didn't oppose the occupation. Booker T. Washington celebrated the occupation of Haiti as the only way to civilize Haitians. W. E. B. Du Bois said the occupation was beneficial. Why?

Dubois: Well, the African-American relationship with Haiti has been complicated and vexed in many ways, but I think partly it's that there are these images of Haiti that are hard for people to escape. There was a sense of a need for racial uplift both inside the country and that could be applied to Haiti. And so it is important I think for us to realize how ambiguous and complicated these perspectives are in our own country.

Werman: You know, in the meantime I'm just wondering how do those stereotypes from the US occupation and now other stereotypes that have been piled on, you know, the basket case country, how do you unhook those? How do you make them less potent?

Dubois: Well, it's a real challenge because they really are deeply embedded and whenever Haiti comes in the media you do find that these tropes are just kind of available and in some kind of unconscious space they just pop out. So I think we need more information. Obviously, many Haitian writers have tried to confront these. I begin the book with the story of a writer in the 1880s sort of trying to confront negative images of the country. The more information we have I think the better, but we also really need to insist that if we are going to be involved as we are in Haiti, that needs to start with some humility and some kind of recognition that we teach ourselves about the country as well.

Werman: What about Haitian history for you could really help move the country forward if that chapter of history were just better understood, either by Haitians or by the international community?

Dubois: Well, there's a core idea in the book that I draw from a Haitian sociologist, Jean Casimir, which is that Haiti, rural Haiti anyway, is built around what he calls a counter-plantation system, a system that emerged on the part of slaves who wanted to reconstruct a world that resisted the plantation, but also resisted its return. So it's built on individual autonomy, a lot of entrepreneurialism, on a kind of sense that to kind of be free also means to have economic independence. But it's something that in many ways has often been under attack in Haiti rather than supported.

Werman: Let me just finally ask you this, Laurent, I mean there are numerous commemorations and memorials today in Port-au-Prince in Haiti, for the second anniversary of the earthquake. When you think about this anniversary what crosses your mind?

Dubois: The ways in which Haitian people have grappled with it and the way in which religious communities have grappled with it, and also the way in which social solidarity kind of dominated actually the response in Haiti I think is something to remember. I mean this is a society that suffered a massive disaster on a scale rarely seen, and yet the response was one of kind of social solidarity and working together. And that's I think something to remember and remind ourselves when we hear maybe more negative or stereotypical visions of Haiti.

Werman: Laurent Dubois is a Duke University scholar of the French Caribbean. His latest book is Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Laurent, thank you very much.

Dubois: Thanks a lot, Marco, I appreciate it.