February 1, 2010

Understanding Haiti's history

For 60 professors, students and other members of the Emory community, Saturday night at the movies consisted of a documentary on Haiti’s struggle for democracy followed by an intense discussion on how oppressive dictators and American intervention have continually undercut that effort.

Understanding the country’s history, a panel of Haitian scholars emphasized, is essential to the success of the relief efforts that have been under way since a devastating earthquake upended Haiti three weeks ago, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing many more.

The “teach-in” is just one of the ways the Emory community has mobilized since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Efforts have ranged from raising money to raising awareness of the plight and resilience of the Haitian people. See a list of relief activities and volunteer opportunities maintained by the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, Emory’s central clearinghouse for information related to Haitian relief and recovery efforts.

Panelist Regine Jackson, a professor in Emory’s Institute of the Liberal Arts and an expert on the Haitian diaspora, hoped Saturday’s discussion would filter into classrooms and dorm rooms. “I’ve seen Emory students take on big problems and chip away at them. It would be nice to see that happen here,” she said.

The Jan. 30 event in the Cannon Chapel began with a showing of “The Agronomist,” the Jonathan Demme documentary about the life of Jean Léopold Dominique, a Haitian radio journalist and champion of the common man.

During his four decades on the airwaves, Dominique railed against colonization, dictatorships and military coups, actions that likely led to his assassination in April 2000. He was one of the first journalists to broadcast in Creole, the language most spoken by Haiti’s poor and working class.

Panelist Cécile Accilien, a French professor at Columbus State University, lamented that some of the relief efforts have recruited volunteers who speak French, Haiti’s other official language but spoken by fewer citizens. Accilien expressed concern about relief efforts purporting to want to “save” the Haitian people. “I do think this could do more harm than good,” she said.

Panelists blamed U.S. intervention for many of Haiti’s problems, including the lack of Haitian doctors and other professionals to draw on in the earthquake’s aftermath. “American support of oppressive dictators, like Jean-Claude Duvalier, was directly responsible for the exodus of professionals,” Jackson said.

She explained that attempts to establish American assembly manufacturing in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, lured waves of desperate Haitians from the rural areas to the city to find work. The earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, where more than 2 million people live, many of them in slums and substandard housing.

All of the panelists took issue with the portrayal of Haiti as a backward, fortuneless, lawless country, noting that it was the world’s first black-led republic, a nation born of a slave revolt.

“Every time the media shows Haiti as an impoverished and failed state, it does not reflect its history,” said panelist Guirdex Massé, a Haitian native and doctoral student in the Department of English. “Haiti is not a nation of orphans. The United States is not a nation of kind foster parents.”

File Options

  • Print Icon Print