Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Straightforward Account

If you've ever wondered why Haiti seems to be such as desperately poor nation, Laurent Dubois' history, Haiti:  The Aftershocks of History, will tell you why.  Dubois is clearly a sympathetic chronicler of Haiti's long, tortured road from slavery to free republic.  He fully recognizes the significance of black slaves overthrowing their French colonial masters even as he acknowledges the class divide between a small elite and the largely uneducated masses, divide that retarded progress for much of the nation's history.  He explains how Haiti came to owe a crushing foreign debt France and the US that profited few Haitians and many international bankers. 

Dubois is especially cognizant of the extent to which the former slaves, who were largely denigrated by elite, were able to create a sustainable economic system based on independent land ownership that strongly resisted any attempt to coerce them into any form of wage slavery.  At least until the US Marines occupied Haiti from 1914 to  1934.  The Americans managed to weaken and dismantle this system--something generations of Haitian leaders could never accomplish--and make Haiti, if not safe for foreign capital, certainly far more vulnerable than during its first hundred years of nationhood.  By the 1950's Haiti was ripe for the cult of personality created by Francois Duvalier.  And we all know how that turned out.

Dubois' keen understanding of Haitian culture is especially evident in his description of Americans' view of zombies:
...[M]aking zombies into generic horror-film monsters...obscured the fact that in Haitian folklore, the zonbi is a powerful symbol with a specific, haunting point of reference.  It is a person devoid of all agency, under the complete control of a master:  that is, a slave.  Sometimes the term is used as an insult--to this day, independent farmers in Haiti might call wage workers zonbi, insisting that to sell your labor is to sell your freedom... [T]he American zombie cliches...have function[ed] as a kind of intellectual sorcery.  They took a religion developed in order to survive and resist slavery--one that had served as a central pillar in the counter-plantation system--and transformed it into nothing more than a sign of barbarism, further proof that he country would never progress unless it was guided and controlled by foreign whites.
That pretty much says it all.

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