I am profoundly skeptical about history: how we teach history and how we learn history. People imagine their place in the world on the basis of what has come before them and where – based on that trajectory – they are going. The present is an instant between the past we know and the future that follows from it. For the most part, people fight over the meaning of the events that everyone agrees plot the course of history. In that way, different futures open up. However, it is a kind of social or cultural insanity to place oneself outside of the accepted trajectory. And yet, I have found that it is possible to suddenly understand that your history – individual or collective – has been leading you somewhere other than you assumed. It’s happening to the Haitians. It’s happening to me – through them. Let me try to explain.
An event is now taking place in Haiti that is entering the world’s consciousness as a Memorial for those who lost their lives in the earthquake. This moment is being prepared for history. However, historians who some day look back will never be able to understand this moment in Haitian history unless they dig very deeply. In my experience, historians who dig that deeply should look for a day job. Future historians will be misled because all of those who record the present are being misled and are misleading themselves. I have surveyed the corporate, national, and critical media to see how the Memorial is being understood both inside and outside of Haiti. With only one tiny exception (inside of Haiti – more on that later), we understand that President Preval called for a national period of mourning, from February 12 to 17. There is almost no variation in the story, irrespective of the ideological leanings of the media outlet.
My friend Vilmond became agitated when I told him how the press, including Le Nouvelliste in Port-au-Prince, was describing the event. I could feel him withdraw in the way that he does when he feels that it is simply hopeless to try to get through to me. However, this time I was determined to bridge the chasm. It has taken a couple of days and much communication and has led to a wonderful exchange between the people still sleeping under the stars in Delmas 33 and myself.
In a previous article, I related that Vilmond had been telling me how the people of Port-au-Prince were grappling with the meaning of the earthquake. A Haitian woman who lived outside of Haiti had returned to warn people, on Radio Tele Ginen, of a coming catastrophe that would be exponentially more devastating than the floods of Gonaive. This prophetess told Haitians that there was only one chance to save themselves from the impending disaster: they must beg God for forgiveness for all of the corruption, violence, and inhumanity that they have accepted.
Haitians did not listen and God sent a warning at 4:53 pm on January 12, 2010. Afterwards, Vilmond and the others in Delmas 33 kept telling me that God was still speaking through His prophetess, whose name was Lili. She was back in Haiti warning that there was one more chance to atone for their sins. God asked her to tell Haitians that they must fast for three days, from February the twelfth to the fourteenth, and pray for forgiveness for the corruption into which they have allowed their country to sink. If they refuse this last chance at salvation on earth, then God will visit catastrophes on Haiti that will surpass the earthquake in destruction and terror.
Vilmond and his friends laughed a couple of weeks ago when they told me that Preval was so worried about the warning of the prophetess that he decided to go her one better and set aside five days rather than three. In fact, while all of the international press is reporting that Preval has scheduled the national period of mourning for five days, the people of Port-au-Prince know better. Preval did not command these Days of Atonement; God did. For them, it must end today: Sunday. God’s prophetess said so. And they are fasting, as she has instructed them. Once again, there is not a mention in any international press of this phenomenon.
If you look at the videos that Port-au-Prince’s leading newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, has posted, you see a remarkable difference between, on the one hand, the sombre, tearful, official day of mourning that took place with the President, the Church hierarchy, international dignities and a large crowd of mourners and, on the other, the lively, boisterous celebrations among the poor at Saint Louis de Gonzague and Henfrasa. There, you will see the euphoria that the people of Delmas 33 are trying to communicate to me. This is not a day of mourning; it is the chance that God has offered to Haiti to save itself. People are so ecstatic that it is difficult for me to connect with them at the moment.
It hurt Vilmond to discover that what I will call the Days of Atonement were being reported outside of Haiti as a sombre national day of mourning for the dead. It is a defining moment for him and all those around him. Haitians are accepting their responsibility for the evil that they have allowed. He told me that everyone is talking about the signs that God is sending to communicate that Haitians are entering a new phase in their long relationship with Him. Early on Friday morning, there was a light tremour to remind people that this was the first day of the fast. A man at one celebration threw away his knife, saying that he would never again turn to violence. A woman gave birth in the crowd and the child will be called Emmanuel, meaning, “God is with us.” Many people saw, in the sun itself, a human hand opened to reveal a cross cut into the palm. On Saturday, people were to proclaim their remorse by making music. The hundreds of people celebrating and praying in Delmas 33 had no instruments, so they made their own. He had a long saw that he rigged to vibrate in order to produce a twang. But he said he didn’t have the physical force to keep playing it. He let some other people take it over and he found just a couple of rocks and joined the percussion section.
This was an intimate and collective conversation with God. It was not the government or Washington or Paris or Ottawa that the Haitians were protesting or even remotely had in their minds. It was much more important. And, especially, it was not a sombre remembrance for the deceased. Haitians were setting things right with God. They were purging themselves of the sins that led to January 12.
On February 12, the liberal Port-au-Prince newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, published an article that framed the current event in terms of mourning for the deceased: “Haïti: jour de deuil un mois après le séisme” (“Haiti: A Day of Mourning One Month after the Earthquake”). I read the exchanges that took place on the newspaper’s site under the article posting. A couple of readers alerted the others to precisely what the article avoided: the need to atone. One referred others to the website of Imaj-Info, a news source in Port-au-Prince. There, the battle for the meaning over this moment is discussed under an article entitled, “En mémoire des disparus du séisme – 3 jours de deuil ou de prière? A chacun sa manière de faire le deuil.” (“In Memory of those Lost in the Earthquake – 3 Days of Mourning or of Prayer? To Each his own Manner to Grieve.”) It describes Junon Brutus as a courageous angel to whom God had confided the secret of Haiti’s original sins. Brutus appears both rebellious and angelic all at the same time. Imaj-Info says, as does Vilmond, that Brutus is the source of the three days of prayer and fasting, “in order to cleanse the country of its sacrileges.” This is her second warning. The first went unheeded. Imaj-Info says that the God that is speaking through her is not the God of any one religion. This time, the Vodouist, Catholic, and Protestant leaders are all making sure that they don’t miss the train to the redemption of Haiti. Imaj-Info offers us the only analysis of the Days of Atonement that would have meaning for the majority of Haitians. In powerful images, they speak directly to Haiti’s “leaders” with eloquent contempt: “En priant, et en faisant de la politique sur les restes de nos proches mal ensevelis, songez également à mettre vos mains dans les déblaies du vieux Port-au-Prince.” (“While praying and playing politics over the remains of our poorly buried loved ones, imagine also putting your hands in the rubble of old Port-au-Prince.”)
The great and powerful celebrities of the United States of America descended on Haiti in shows of spectacular goodwill and generosity: multi-millionaires with hearts of gold and clear titles to jets and runways. Junon Brutus is, while infinitely more relevant, surprisingly less well known even to Haitians. But they know what they need to know. She is “Lili” among the poor of Port-au-Prince. God chose to speak through her. It is God, not “Lili,” Who is important in the story that is playing out in Haiti.
For her part, Junon Brutus was born in Haiti and works for the Global Network of Religion for Children. She has worked to improve the lives of the children of Cite Soleil for some time. She is Christian and a Seventh Day Adventist. According to the Haitian Seventh Day Adventists, her prominence at the moment in Haitian society is causing some consternation within the sect because she is not what the male-dominated leadership imagined the next prophet would look like. In any case, Haitians are not looking to make a new celebrity in the circumstances. A prophet is a humble receptacle for God’s message. The message belongs to God. The Haitian Seventh Day Adventists questioned how the vodouists would participate during the fast. Would they pray to their gods or to God? In my experience, the concept of God in Haiti is fluid enough among followers of all sects that they will be able to understand each other. This is a deeply complex history. The different historical paths that lead to the present are crossing at this moment, under enormous stress. There is an historical opportunity for unity in pluralism. This may be a unique moment in human history.
To know Haiti is to ask how God is speaking to Haitians now. How do Haitians understand their history? This moment? There are a number of competent histories of Haiti that are addressed to foreign audiences critical of Western imperial policies. The language and the references belong to the West. It is not along those pathways that Haiti understands itself. If it were, then I would not have deflated Vilmond by telling him that everyone outside of Haiti was being led to believe that Haitians were mourning the dead. He was dumbfounded. I had missed everything that was important about the moment. What is important, then?
All media present the Haitians as victims of the earthquake and, in some way or another, of history. The powers that control Haitians are outside of Haiti. Religion does not enter into the discourses that organize analysis of Haiti. Even when mentioned, there can be no analysis. So, traditionalists allude to the importance of the Catholic Church. Radicals mention vodou in a vague gesture of resistance. Neither describes the paths that Haitians have tread to this moment. Haitians have been empowered by their relationship with God and the spirits. They are not the victims of religion.
An honest understanding of what is presently happening in Haiti changes the way that we enter into relations with Haitians. The flood of essays detailing the predatory policies of imperialist nations throughout history in conjunction with the description of Haitians mourning their dead in very sombre, tearful ceremonies leads to a general impression of Haitians as victims, once again. However, were we to accept the truth of this moment, then different pasts open up, leading us all to different futures. How would the government, the economic elite, the authorities in place, and most especially, the foreign governments and their corporate backers respond to the Days of Atonement? For what would they beg forgiveness? It is clear that the systems of domination in control of Haitian injustices would be sorely challenged to follow the lead of the Haitian masses in the Days of Atonement. However, the people are asking for forgiveness and pledging to refuse violence, corruption, and evil. If those currently planning the next round of injustices, violence, and oppression are not presently asking Atonement for their sins, what kind of a future will Haiti face? Either some people are in for a very rough ride or the masses are not serious. They look serious to me.
We are headed towards, literally, biblical clashes of interests. No one outside of Haiti has any sense of what is happening. All of us are burying Haitians alive.
Haitians that I know are taking full responsibility for the earthquake. God warned them once. They refused to listen. God is giving them another chance. They have been literally shaken up. When I asked Vilmond to tell me if everyone throughout Port-au-Prince was asking for forgiveness for Haiti’s past corruption and evil, he used a term that Aristide made popular. He said that only a minorite zwit (tiny reactionary minority) were sitting out the Days of Atonement. The people were accepting responsibility for allowing corruption to flourish in Haiti. The people were accepting their own individual and collective accountability for violence and injustice. This position is perfectly at one with Haitians’ historical relationship with God and the spirits. It is the way that Haitians will be able to remake their future in a way that is continuous with their history and transcends it all at the same time. The Haitian people have come together to ask forgiveness of God. Without God’s blessing, Haiti will never be at peace.
Haitians congregate from seven in the morning until noon each day of the Days of Atonement. The prayers are anything but solemn. They are an enormous outpouring of emotion. Haitians are speaking to God asking for forgiveness not only for their personal betrayals, but also for the country. By allowing injustice, they have turned their back on God. Rapacious foreign interests should be well warned that the people are consolidating around an ethical future. That Clinton’s heart was being recalibrated at this very moment in the United States could easily be yet another sign that Haiti may be able, as the ex-president so often says, to overcome its past. Martin Luther King had similar hopes for America. As in Haiti, he focused on the need for individuals to take responsibility for their past, their present, thus, their future.
When I called on Saturday afternoon, a young woman named Claudette answered Vilmond’s cell phone in enormous good spirits. She asked me, Ou byen avek Jezu? “Are you at peace with Jesus?” (More or less.)
An infuriatingly honest answer would have been that I believed that, while there is evidence that Jesus probably existed, the myth that came to be constructed around him was subsequently used by various systems of domination throughout the centuries to consolidate power and seduce the oppressed. Churches and sects have betrayed, throughout history, a person that I suspect to have been an extraordinary and humble human being.
Far more honest, in the circumstances, was my actual answer: Mwen byen ave’l. Li zamni’m. “I’m good with him. He’s my friend.” She was glad for me and called Vilmond to the phone.
I told him that the writings that occupy me these days take time in research, reflection, and revisions but bring in no income whatsoever. Moreover, I have become increasingly unemployable in the world that I inhabit. None of this surprised Vilmond; knowing that I am thoroughly critical of systems of domination, including the state, he has found it difficult to understand why I ever bothered to submit a proposal for a government grant. Applying his own Haitian experiences to my situation, he has asked me from time to time if my life was not in danger.
Yesterday, I confided a deep fear to Vilmond. I told him that I was facing eviction from my apartment in Montreal. I told him that I suspected that I would not be successful in my submissions for grants, the only thing that might have saved me from material ruin. So, I confided that I was now facing my deepest fear: being homeless and destitute in Canada. I know that the fear is less materialist than psychological: I fear being totally rejected by my society. And yet, it’s only fair, because I have already rejected that society.
Vilmond rose to the occasion. He told me that he was organizing everyone in Delmas 33 to pray for me. They are not praying that I will be successful in my submission for a little Canada Council grant. They are not praying that a publisher advances me money. They are not praying that I accept God. The people of Delmas 33 are praying that I find the courage to face my fears with dignity.
“You will die. We all will die. But we can be honest and courageous in the face of Death,” he told me.
And so the people of Delmas 33 who have all watched the life be crushed out of their loved ones, have no homes, nothing to eat, and absolutely no idea of what they will do in the future or where their country is headed, the people of Delmas 33 who are waiting for the rainy season without even one tent among them, are praying for me.