Representing Haiti

• June 2019

When it comes to the political efficacy and ethical obligations of digital platforms, The Public Archive: Black History in White Times has been an irresolute failure. The site was launched soon after the 12 January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.1 It was meant to serve as a response to the toxic efflorescence of racist representations of Haiti in the international media following the quake. These representations, of Haiti as either “a former colony of France” or as “the poorest country in the hemisphere,” were not new. Nor were the portrayals of Haiti as accursed, as irredeemably corrupted, or as the site of repeated social tragedy and political farce. What was new, however, was how these older invocations were supplemented by a steady stream of invasive and abject representations of Haitian people themselves, or, more frequently, of their maimed, mutilated, or lifeless bodies strewn amongst the rubble of Port-au-Prince—and used to produce a spectacle of black suffering and degradation that affirmed black victimization while stoking white moral righteousness.

The Public Archive was proposed as a countermeasure to such representations. While anthropologist and performer Gina Athena Ulysse has called for “new narratives” of Haiti, the site took a slightly different turn, seeking instead to unearth older historical narratives that have always existed but rarely made it into mainstream media.2 Its purpose was to mobilize the richness and complexity of the Haitian past to combat the flattened debasement of its present. History, it was believed, had a potentially redemptive quality. The ultimate goal of The Public Archive was to offer a small gesture that could help to combat public perceptions of Haiti, and by altering Haiti’s appearance in the representational field, it was hoped that social and economic policy could be positively reformed.

As the earthquake recedes in memory, not only has this repertoire of Haitian abjection continued to reproduce itself but new terms, most recently the classification of Haiti as a “shit-hole country,” have been added to the global reserve of anti-Haitianisms.3 More importantly, the political-economic policies that have both produced such anti-Haitianisms and required them for their functioning have only intensified. Writing of the first US occupation of Haiti (1915–34), C. L. R. James, The Public Archive’s intellectual patron saint, wrote of the coupling of representation and violence that has historically afflicted the country. James noted how “the ceaseless battering [of Haiti] from foreign pens was reinforced by the bayonets of American Marines.”4 Today, during what anthropologist and writer Jemima Pierre has dubbed the “second occupation” (2004–), the bayonets have been replaced by the blue helmets and white trucks of the United Nations.5 They have been joined by a cohort of foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, celebrities, missionaries, and academics who descended on Haiti after the earthquake, seeing the possibilities for profit in the wake of disaster and personal advancement in the name of national reconstruction and international charity.6

This intensification of exploitation has cast a shadow over The Public Archive’s core mission. In retrospect, the desire to mobilize history seems guileless, and the engagement with a redemptory politics of representation hopelessly naïve. The Public Archive offered a liberal and reformist response to questions that deserved radical and revolutionary answers. Moreover, nearly a decade after the earthquake, a set of long-festering issues concerning advocacy and alliance remains. What roles do the digital projects in and from the global north have in Haiti’s political and economic life? Do these projects actually have any productive use? Or is their presence, and their presumptive claims for and occupation of the space to speak on behalf of Haiti, its people, and its past, actually destructive, appropriative, and ultimately silencing? Can those of us in North America float above the fray of Haiti’s politics, flitting in at our pleasure and commenting from a safe and privileged distance through a form of keyboard criticism and laptop engagement, while profiting through what can often be seen as a form of digital neocolonialism and academic carpetbaggery? And finally, a fundamental question: Who gets to speak for and represent Haiti? These difficult questions have sparked not merely a reconsideration of The Public Archive’s ethics and politics but also of its fundamental purpose and future.

The original tagline for The Public Archive was “History behind the Headlines.” It was catchy if quaint but pointed to the kind of archival drive that was behind the site. Less a blog than a digital clearinghouse, it aimed to collect, compile, and collate historical essays, archival sources, and informed contemporary journalism on Haiti, drawing on documents freely accessible through the digital collections of libraries and archival repositories as well as open-access periodicals, academic journals, and newspapers. Pay-walled items were avoided, and there was an attempt to use sources both from Haiti and from the alternative and independent presses. The design of the site was straightforward. Using an uncluttered and clean if somewhat staid WordPress template, posts followed a simple format. A post was given a title that appeared above a header graphic, usually a historical photograph in the public domain culled from the online collections of the Library of Congress, Gallica, the New York Public Library, the Digital Library of the Caribbean, or a similar repository. Beneath the image, three or four short pull-quotes hyperlinked to their source.

There have been nearly three hundred individual posts since The Public Archive launched. Some posts explore elements of Haiti’s history or respond to current events in Haiti by providing links to historical sources. Others draw on Haitian art, literature, architecture, and intellectual and cultural history. The scope of the posts has broadened to include thematic annotated bibliographies and reading lists (on Haiti, on black urbanism, and on black radicalism) as well as interviews conducted over email with writers, artists, intellectuals, and activists from or working on Haiti. At the same time, it became important to not only illuminate Haiti’s history but to place that history in the context of its engagements with a series of widening geographical scales: the greater Caribbean, the Americas, the Atlantic, and the black world.

The strengths of The Public Archive, and of the digital more generally, are of a contradictory nature. As an ostensible archive, with an emphasis on storage, slow engagement, and unsystematic recall, The Public Archive created the possibility of a platform that was not merely reacting to contemporary events but could unspool an interpretive narrative of the past and present though its own terms and at its own pace. It could break off from real time to dwell in the past, or attempt to conjoin the present to the past in considered and deliberate fashion. It could be unencumbered by the present and the need to respond to things in an immediate, ad hoc way. Moreover, at the start, very little original content was produced for the site. It refrained from adopting the kind of personalized narrative voice, with its conceits of mastery, professional authority, and critical finality, that centers the author or blogger, often displacing or marginalizing the object under study. It wanted to refuse the genre of think-pieces and editorials that have as their first condition an arrogant presumption of ownership of a subject. The site was not about the performance of a self-declared “Haiti expert.” It was, instead, deliberately amateurish and based on the ethos of a citizen-researcher with no more or less access to the world than any other nonprofessional. Additionally, pull-quotes from source documents were used to let documents and texts speak for themselves; in some respect the site was curating the voices of the dead.

Yet while there was an emphasis on the historical and an aspiration to function as an archival repository, one of the strengths of the project was precisely the ability to respond to contemporary events as they unfolded. The possibility of composing posts without the bureaucratic editorial machinery of a traditional publication, without a time- and labor-intensive editorial process, and without the overhead costs of print provided an agility and flexibility that could ensure relevance and potentially respond with the speed of the contemporary news cycle. The concentration of editorial control also provided an additional flexibility, as did the brief and perhaps limited anonymity of the site: it was freed from the nepotistic encumbrances and editorial self-surveillance brought on by fealty to disciplinary communities and academic cliques, let alone advertisers, funders, and sponsoring institutions.

These qualities were, I think, at one point enhanced by The Public Archive’s Twitter feed. Twitter provides a broader platform for the website, amplifying the posts for a wider audience, generating a larger context for and commentary on the postings, while also linking the site to a community of like-minded parties, including a connection to Haitian organizations and organizers, news sites and publishers, journalists, bloggers, intellectuals, artists, and activists. Whatever it has become since the heydays of the Fail Whale, the Black Twitter Bird, and #FollowFriday, at one time Twitter offered an unfiltered, unmediated, and nonhierarchal community and a sort of alternative press syndicate or network of radicals from Haiti and throughout the world.

Admittedly, many of these positive qualities have also proved to be limitations. The concentration of editorial power not only invariably narrowed the perspective of the site but it meant that the publication schedule was hindered by basic questions of time and energy. It became difficult to do the necessary background reading and research to generate posts of sufficient complexity and depth. As a result, the site has not always updated on a regular basis, reducing incoming traffic and quelling any developing buzz. More importantly, the time lags between posts have meant that current events in Haiti often pass it by. While there have been a number of important and timely posts on, for instance, the denaturalization of Haitians in the Dominican Republic and the crisis of Haitians immigrants in detention in southern California, other issues have come and gone—or are ongoing—without any comment from the site. The events surrounding the arrest of Guy Philippe and the #PetroCaribe crisis immediately come to mind, as do the antigovernment protests that are unfolding as I write. Unfortunately, with a single editor it simply became impossible to do the necessary background reading and research to create posts with the complexity and depth they required. As a result, the site is too easily unmoored from current events—an issue compounded by the fact that it is not based in Haiti and I do not speak Kreyol.

Although not inherent to the site, another difficulty concerns the ways the terrain of the digital is being reshaped by market forces. With the ever-growing power and monopoly of Google, users are increasingly directed to already-popular commercial sites through profit-driven filtering, not to those of independent bloggers, the alternative press, or to public or university libraries. The great open and common space that was the promise of the internet not so long ago has increasingly become closed. Moreover, many of the independent Caribbean sites that launched around the same time as The Public Archive have not been updated for years, are full of dead links, or have simply been shut down.7 Nicholas Laughlin’s Caribbean Review of Books and Nadève Ménard and Régine Michelle Jean-Charles’s Tandenou have not been updated for some time. Mediahacker, the site of Seattle journalist Ansel Herz, who reported both on the earthquake and on Haiti’s representation in Wikileaks, no longer functions, nor does the promising clearinghouse Haitian Bloggers Collected. The difficulties of long-term commitment, financial and otherwise, have seen many of the peer sites of The Public Archive shuttered. For those websites that have shut down, there is often no archive of their publishing history. The kind of preservationist crisis that was anticipated and feared with the shift from analog media has come to pass, and I am unaware of any project that is preserving these sites. The Public Archive is haunted by impermanence, the fear of a dead link, and the disappearance of its content—of becoming an archive without an archive.

The problem of impermanence is only partly one of the structural efficacy of the digital—it is also about the long-term commitments to internationalism and the strength of the bonds of solidarity over time and space. The practice of alliance can be neither intermittent nor sparked by exceptional crisis, as was so much interest in Haiti following the earthquake. It needs to be persistent and based on a willingness to slog through the times of low energy, little interest, and a lack of publicity. But solidarity is difficult, especially when it is forged over distance. How, then, can one create an editorial platform about a country when one is geographically distant from that country? When distance works continually to erode the bridges of solidarity? The Public Archive tried to attend to this problem by speaking less to Haiti itself than to North American discourses about Haiti, to critiques of foreign institutions engaging Haiti, and to the treatment of Haitians abroad, especially in North America. But such a strategy often becomes, again, reactive. It also raises a fundamental question concerning the political nature of the politics of representation.

Part of the importance of the efforts of The Public Archive was in its attempts to deexceptionalize Haiti, to re-present Haiti as something other than the extreme opposite of the West and to show how such representations were produced and circulated. In our interview with the late literary critic and translator J. Michael Dash, he was able to distill what this deexceptionalizing might look like. “My hope is that one day Haiti will be under the radar like Barbados or St. Lucia,” he stated, “that it will not be the destination of choice either for thrill seekers or bleeding hearts.”8 We share the sentiment and its effort to move away from positive representation to normal representation. At the same time, even such a move could have dangerous implications, especially concerning the assumption that better representation could prompt better engagement. For if colonialism demonizes its subjects for the sake of vulgar expropriation it is the trick of neocolonialism to normalize its subjects for the sake of better exploitation. Representation does not cure the problem of representation and positive, better, normal, or more complex representations of Haiti can have an opposite effect: paraphrasing Bill Clinton, they can be used to exploit Haiti better.

Furthermore, when it comes to representing Haiti, North Americans begin with a fundamental assumption: that Haitians cannot represent themselves. That it is necessary for North Americans, white, black, and other, to step in because only they can collect, curate, and collate Haiti’s history and culture, that only they can be Haitian experts, that only they can re-present Haiti to the West. Yet no matter the nuanced ethical justifications or parsings we come up with, even the most well-intentioned academic or journalist is working within the imbalanced structures of intellectual and epistemological uneven development that privileges North America over Haiti. And, as with the Red Cross or the Clinton Foundation or the United Nations, there is no means of holding them (us) accountable to the Haitians they (we) exploit. Furthermore, the nature of the engagements with Haiti is often dictated by the professionalizing needs and intellectual trends of the North American academy. Thus cultural studies of Haiti are privileged over political economy. Literary analysis over critiques of imperialism. The revolutionary era over the postrevolutionary period.9 We become the gatekeepers. But to what end? And what inherent right do we have to represent—and by representing, possess and own—Haiti?

There are of course many important digital projects whose commitments are righteous and unwavering and unconstrained by geography, race, or nationality. The long-running Brooklyn-based journal Haiti Liberté offers a rare radical perspective on Haitian politics, as does the blog Haiti Info Project, whose live reporting during the February 2019 protests has been indispensable. Both the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Center for Economic Progress have provided serious, in-depth studies of Haitian political economy, including on North American immigration policy towards the country. Meanwhile, a host of journalists, activists, and citizens continue to write and report, often using Twitter as their platform, from Port-au-Prince and Hinche and Cap-Haïtien—but also from Miami, Brooklyn, and Montreal.10

All these organizations and individuals deserve support—in terms of money but also through the basic fact of readers. They should be the first line of inquiry for matters of Haiti, and they deserve a privileged place within our intellectual and political communities. As for The Public Archive, perhaps it has outlived its usefulness in its given form. Perhaps the concerns with representation, history, and archive have exhausted themselves, and a new iteration, with a new set of engagements, is required to maintain its relevance and importance.11 I simply do not know.

 

 

Peter James Hudson is an associate professor of African American studies and history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and the editor of the digital history resource The Public Archive: Black History in White Times.

 

1 The site was conceived and launched by me and Samira Sheikh. A historian of South Asia, Sheikh lent the site an important comparative perspective through her posts on Afghanistan. She left the project within about a year of its founding, however. See Peter James Hudson and Samira Sheikh, “Haiti, Afghanistan, and The Public Archive,” The Public Archive, 22 March 2010.

2 See Gina Athena Ulysse, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle (Wesleyan University Press, 2015).

3 Jonathan Katz, “This Is How Ignorant You Have to Be to Call Haiti a ‘Shithole,’Washington Post, 12 January 2018; Peter James Hudson, “Banking on a ‘Shithole’: US-led racial capitalism in Haiti began long before Trump,” LSE Latin American and Caribbean Blog, 12 April 2018.

4 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938; repr., New York: Vintage, 1963), 394.

5 Jemima Pierre, “Haiti: The Second Occupation,” The Public Archive, 4 August 2015.

6 The connection between disaster and profit comes from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2008). Klein was quick to point out the application of the shock doctrine in the immediate aftermath of postearthquake Haiti, especially through the Heritage Foundation, while others have extended her analysis. See “Disaster Capitalism Alert: Stop Them Before they Shock Again,” NaomiKlein.org (13 January 2010). Also see Alex Dupuy, “Disaster Capitalism to the Rescue: The International Community and Haiti after the Earthquake,” NACLA: Report on the Americas, July–August 2010, 14–19, 42; Mark Schuller and Julie K. Maldonado, “Disaster Capitalism,” Annals of Anthropological Practice 40, no. 1 (2016): 61–72; and Keir Forgie, “US Imperialism and Disaster Capitalism in Haiti,” in Maximilian C. Forte, ed., Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Humanitarian Imperialism (Montreal: Alert, 2014), 57–75. Klein has more recently taken up the question of disaster capitalism in the context of Puerto Rico. See Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists (Chicago: Haymarket, 2018).

7 It is worth mentioning that as once-independent sites move into the mainstream, they get rid of their “links” pages—usually full of hyperlinks to other independent pages—and, as these pages have disappeared, so too do the ethics of solidarity and fraternity that they implied.

8Distance and Detours: An Interview with J. Michael Dash,” The Public Archive, 4 March 2012. The notion of Haiti as an “exception” was provocatively posed by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his essay “The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean, and the World,” Cimarrón 2, no. 3 (1990): 3–12. It has been productively taken up by a number of scholars. See, for instance, Yarimar Bonilla, “Ordinary Sovereignty,” Small Axe, no. 42 (November 2013): 152–65; J. Michael Dash, “Neither Magical nor Exceptional: The Idea of the Ordinary in Caribbean Studies,” Journal of Haitian Studies 19, no. 2 (2013): 24–32; Jemima Pierre, “Haiti and the 'Savage Slot,’” Journal of Haitian Studies 19, no. 2 (2013): 110–16. Also see Peter James Hudson, “Germaine, Evangeline, and Other ‘Negro Girls’: Rudy Burckhardt’s Caribbean,” Small Axe, no. 37 (March 2012): 1–19.

9 For an important critique of studies of the revolutionary period in Haiti, but also of rebellion throughout the black world, see Jacob H. Carruthers, The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution (Chicago: Kemetic Institute, 1985), ix, and Intellectual Warfare (Chicago: Third World, 1999), 53, 196.

10 I am reluctant to name names here, especially of those in Haiti, because of the apparent danger to citizen-journalists at the time of writing.

11 Another direction is in the genre of the digital “little” magazine, committed to an occasional publication schedule, without commercial ambitions, and with a clearly defined and delimited but nonetheless committed intellectual community. The nature of such publications varies, but examples include a gathering together, contemptorary, and Past & Future Present(s).

 

Related Articles