Haïti… A world in its own right

By Anne Lescot and Florence Santos da Silva

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A year ago, when we began researching this special issue on Haiti, we had only a faint idea of the size of the task before us. Furthermore, we never imagined that this issue would come out at the very time when the turmoil of the uprising in Haiti most resembled Jean-Claude Duvalier’s departure on 7 February 1986, oscillating precariously between peaceful demonstrations and violent uprisings.
The eye-witness account that we have assembled, and the accompanying images, are « statements » – points of view – testifying to Haiti’s vitality. Far from being spent, this vitality seems rather to be fed by the social, economic and political situation in a country that is on the brink of collapse. Their vision of Haiti has made this island that is the object of so many dreams and fantasies all the more vivid despite the difficult times.
We can but admire the courage of artists who, as is so often the case, were among the first to become aware of the drama into which their country was about to catapult itself, gathering together to form a voluntary organisation called « NON », and refusing to let themselves be trapped within a political system that went against their beliefs as free men and women.
Over the course of these pages, in what is still only a partial answer to the question « What aspirations for Haiti today? » The authors provide a range of texts and images according to their individual sensibilities, as if in a vain attempt to capture an entire country within the instant that it takes for the camera’s shutter to open and close. Working like photographers, we have attempted to encapsulate the reality of the country’s creative forces in ephemeral, intimate snapshots captured in a fraction of a second, seizing instants, news flashes, images, and slices of life here and there where we could.
And there was so much to record. Haiti is half an island whose only resource nowadays is no doubt its culture – its only exportable asset. The number of works published each year, often at the author’s own expense, exceeds that of many other Caribbean countries. There are an incredible number of artists, musicians, craftsmen, etc. Is Haiti a land of creators?
These days Haiti lives for and through culture. It is through culture that the country’s identity is conveyed. Despite its proximity to numerous other countries, in particular the United States and the Dominican Republic, Haiti has maintained its own identity and continues to cultivate its unicity. This is no doubt motivated by a desire to never to be engulfed by outside forces or its own demons. Its real weapons are also its vaccines – its canvas and paintbrushes, drums, Voodoo, dances, songs, tales and, last but not least, its writers. And a history that is as singular as it is harrowing.
We have combined texts and photos so that Haiti is seen and told. And felt. We would have liked to include its smells – Akassan, Griot pork, vetiver, molasses, and even refuse (why not?!).
The texts that make up this issue are like a series of impressions or snapshots. They are just so many glimpses of a much stronger reality. Haiti thus appears in all its kaleidoscopic complexity.
A history to be challenged
As the first black republic, born in 1804 as the result of a revolt against slavery, Haiti brazenly stands out in History. New York Professor Thomas C. Spear ironises about a world order that ostracised the Haitian state from the outset. He suggests inverting our scale of values by inventing a new order for the « three founding ‘fathers’ of our national myths – Jefferson, Napoleon and Toussaint ». Daniel Maximin reminds us of the role that Haitian writers have played historically. They are at the forefront of the struggle against dictatorship, opposing « the power of fiction and the real power of those in power ». In order to achieve this, they have had to – and still have to – forge a path between glorifying a fossilised past that focuses on the country’s heroes, and re-appropriating an identity at long last free of references to the Other, the former colonist, in order to achieve a new freedom.
Recognition, independence and memory
With some anger, Christophe Wargny speaks out against what he calls « eclipsing » and strikes out against the carefully contrived exclusion of Haiti’s history. There is much to be done with respect to recognition and ancillary tasks, to teaching history, and in particular to the issue of the exorbitant compensation payment that France demanded of the young Haitian nation in return for independence. Victor Schoelcher’s reactions in a text dating from 1843, unearthed by the historian Marcel Dorigny, further substantiate – if that were necessary – this line of thought. Marcel Dorigny reminds us of the stakes at hand and examines the international consequences of the first State to be founded on a revolt against slavery, from the nation’s first hours. Pascale Berloquin Chassany evokes the difficulties associated with the preservation of independence acquired so painfully. In her novel, Rosalie l’Infâme, Evelyne Trouillot makes history speak – dares to incarnate it. Her title is taken from the slave ship upon which the grandmother of a young slave woman, Lisette, travelled from African shores to Santo Domingo. She says, « When I wrote this book, I became aware that I was merely a humble witness to collective memory ».
Little-known cultural expressions
Players faced with a context as difficult as this must have a high level of commitment and passion. Actress Paula Clermont Péan paints an astonishing picture of Haiti’s budding theatre scene and suggests new paths to be explored. She also underlines the importance of linking culture with development. Barbara Prézeau-Stephenson, head of the AfricAméricA foundation shows how the « indigenist » heritage cohabits with the concept of « contemporaneity » in Haitian art, which is struggling to gain recognition for anything beyond naive expressions. Both authors are calling for a veritable cultural policy for Haiti.
To talk about Haiti without discussing its various forms of music would be like describing a body without a soul. « Music » journalist and photographer, Emmanuelle Honorin, has made several trips to Haiti to study its musical landscape. She looks back on a trip in southern Haiti, where she met farmer musicians who perform music handed down from colonial times that is little known outside their own world. Daniel Chatelain, a musicologist from Haiti’s sister island, Cuba, discusses the influence on that island of Haiti’s music.
The film director, Rachèle Magloire, talks about a young film industry that became a veritable hive of creativity during the 1980s, but which suffers from veiled censorship.
Haitian society: Creole, Voodooism and Sexism
The division between rural and city dwellers is a recurring problem in Haitian society.
Anthropologist Gérard Barthélémy sees the issue as a confrontation between two « creolities » – any project for a new society must take it into account. This is also the case with ever-present Voodooism, for which Elisabeth McAlister opens the way to a new understanding by exploring the religious roots of representations of love, sex and gender in Haitian society. Chantal Regnault echoes this in images of voodoo ceremonies and Guédés. An echo can also be found in Dimitri Bechacq’s exploration of Parisian migrant voodoo practice – is it commerce or credence?
Every week we hear worrying news of the violence inflicted upon Haitian women, exacerbated by the current political conflict. Marie-Frantz Joaquim, a militant feminist, uses proverbs to talk about the other side of the coin.
Haiti’s influence in Africa
Jacqueline Scott Lemoine shares the moving story of her life in a few short lines of poetry. As a woman working in theatre and radio in Dakar, she tells the story of her life with her husband Lucien Lemoine and of her connection with the country where she was born.
Africa and Haiti have more than their old wounds in common. Edmond Mfaboum Mbiafu evokes the Haitian experience from a continental point of view, within the context of the reductive myths that this pain creates with respect to our visions of Africa and Haiti, and in the light of modern realities.
Camille Kuyu has studied the structure of families, and husband and wife relationships, in order to better understand the on-going influence of African heritage. He demonstrates that plaçage is closer to customary marriage than the Western practice of living together. In an article published on africultures.com, Haitian volunteers in Africa are given a new voice that gives new life to their memory.
How can man and women fall in love with Haiti? Film maker Charles Najman attempts to answer this question with words, as he does elsewhere with film, in particular in Royal Bonbon, in which the central character is a mad man at the Palais Sans Soucis who thinks he is King Christophe reincarnated. It was not the actor but rather the old mad man himself that Patrice Montfort met with at the Palais. Photographed by Charles Carrié, he embodies a complex mix of the past, the enchantment, the excesses and the haze of Haiti.
Why did Nancy Houston want to write about Haiti without ever having been there? Because she was fascinated by a people who, despite all the baseness, love their country, while she has trouble appreciating the advantages of her own country.
Heaven and hell are one, as portrayed through optical illusions in Roberto Stephenson’s photos of Port-au-Prince and Voodoo inspiration. But hell is not a fatality. More than ever, at the time of the disappointing bicentenary, there are many in Haiti who seek to learn from the first Haitian revolution in order to build a society in which the need for democracy is finally legitimised.
We too have dreamed of an enchanted Haiti freed from all forms of dictatorship after 200 years of independence. We have dreamed of the Haitian child as photographed by Frédéric Koenig, wanting to launch his little boat upon the waves.
As the months passed our work progressed, we became increasingly aware of the pressing need to bear witness to the fantastic vitality of this country, as expressed by 21 authors from all horizons. For all of us Haiti is still a beacon, and – as Daniel Maximim dares to call it – « a light shining in the dark of night ».

Anne Lescot was born in France in 1969. Her father is Haitian and her mother French.
After obtaining her maîtrise (fourth year of university) in Art History and History, she worked in several Parisian art galleries and organised the « Haïti : entre art et vodou » exhibition. Concurrently, she studied anthropology and for 10 years devoted herself to researching voodoo for her PhD thesis at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris.
In 1997, she moved to Haiti and participated in the UNESCO Slave Route project, organising seminars on what we have learned from the slave trade. She also worked on the conference entitled l’insurrection des esclaves à St Domingue le 23 Août 1791. She works with the Bourbon-Lally gallery, which is the main venue for « avant-garde » Haitian artists.
In 2001, she and Laurence Magloire, created Digital LM Film Productions, producing a number of documentaries on Haitian culture for Canadian television companies (ARTV et La Société Radio Canada). In 2002, she co-directed the documentary Des hommes et des dieux, which addresses the issue of homosexuality and its perception within Voodoo.
After returning to France, in collaboration with Guetty Félin, she mounted the Haïti en Seine project consisting in a series of events featuring Haitian culture in Paris and the Seine Saint-Denis area in June and July 2004. She is also coordinating the Écrans d’Haïti film festival in New York, Paris and Port-au-Prince.
Florence Santos da Silva was born in France in 1961. She is a journalist and photographer and is interested in change within African societies. She first became involved in this area, notably through her support for African women, when writing a thesis on the history of women’s associations in Burkina Faso for her maîtrise. She has contributed to a range of general publications including Regards, Le Nouvel Afrique Asie, Témoignage Chrétien, l’Humanité, and Le Monde Diplomatique, and women’s magazines such as Amina, Elle and Clara Magazine. She has had numerous articles published on www.afrik.com and africultures.com.///Article N° : 5715


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