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Cannibals and Savages: Racism and images of Haiti

Latin America and the Caribbean

Displaced persons camp after the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Photograph:David Schmidt.

“…the black man in his own home is a barbarian and a beast…when emancipated and removed from the crushing competition of a superior race he…descends step by step down to the original depths of his ignorant and savage instincts…” - The New Orleans Bee, 1861.[1]

A Dark Country

The passengers in the Miami airport terminal had self-segregated, the Haitians occupying one end of the room while various groups of foreign volunteers and church workers congregated at the opposite end. The largest group of missionaries, apparently from the Midwestern United States, wore matching powder-blue t-shirts which fit snugly across the flabby breasts of the men and women in the group.

I sat with seven missionaries from Rancho Community Church, an Evangelical Christian church in California that sent this “relief team” to Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. We were huddled up in a corner on the blanc’s side of the terminal; Pastor Bill, the group’s guide, took a knee in front of us. “I need to warn you guys. Haiti is a dark country.”

He glanced over at the Haitians congregated on the other side of the room, then clarified.

Spiritually dark. Satan really has a stronghold there. Expect demonic attacks in Haiti; people there still worship the Devil. It’s hostile, enemy ground.” Right on cue, Pastor Bill pulled his windbreaker more tightly around his neck for dramatic effect, regaling us with a litany of anecdotes about how evil the Vodou[2] religion was. “One of our missionaries saw a horrible demonic face up in the corner of the outhouse one night, with bright red eyes and black feathers sticking out on all sides! He shouted out the name of Jesus a bunch of times, and the demon disappeared.”

I began to wonder how much actual humanitarian relief this group would be doing in Haiti, and why I had volunteered to translate for them in the first place.

“We’re going to a country that, as a nation, has rejected God and chosen Satan,” Bill told us as we boarded the airplane. “That’s why God sent the earthquake to Haiti. As a wake-up call. But don’t worry—we’ll be staying with Pastor Marcel while we’re there. He’s a godly Haitian; one of the trustworthy ones.”

Fear of the Vodou religion has historically played a central role in racist perceptions of Haiti as a nation. This description of a “voodoo ceremony,” from the U.S. newspaper Picayune in 1896, is typical of the sensationalist treatment given to Vodou by the press in Europe and North America:

“…nearly a half hundred impassioned black savages danced as naked as islanders to the beating of ox skulls and tom-toms, the weird crooning of hags, the sharp ejaculations of bucks and wenches…” [3]

Strong racial undertones historically accompany condemnations of Vodou; as a religion drawing from African roots, it has been described as “dark and primitive”:

“…the barbaric rites of Voudooism originated with the Congo and Guinea negroes, were brought to San Domingo, and thence to Louisiana. In Hayti the sect is in full vigor, and its midnight orgies have reverted more and more to the barbaric original in the last twenty-five years…” (Harper’s Weekly, June 25 1887)[4]

The demonization of Vodou—and, with it, much of Haiti’s Afrocentric culture—has accompanied and contributed to foreign intervention in Haiti. During the occupation of Haiti by the United States Marines from 1915–1934, sensationalistic literature abounded in North America, attributing cannibalism and human sacrifice to the Haitian religion. Conversely, while racist depictions of Vodou abroad stoked the fires of interventionism, Haitian guerrillas fighting against the occupation found inspiration in the ancient religion. During the U.S. occupation, the Catholic Bishop of Cap Haitien, Monseigneur Jean-Marie Jan, put it succinctly: “…the bocors [Vodou priests] were the soul of the insurrection”.[5]

A Dangerous Place

“Africans transplanted to Saint-Domingue [Haiti] remain in general indolent and idle, quarrelsome and talkative liars, and are addicted to stealing.” -French visitor to Haiti, 1797 [6].

As the airplane hit the tarmac in Port-au-Prince, it became quickly apparent that Pastor Bill’s concerns about Haiti went beyond “spiritual attacks”: he pictured Haiti as an entire nation of pickpockets and thieves. “Stick by me in the airport,” he warned us as we disembarked from the plane into the muggy air of the Caribbean. “It’s totally chaotic. They don’t control anything at the airport; as soon as the bags come down the belt, everyone just grabs whatever suitcase they want to. There are no employees or anything, so any of these Haitians could just make off with your bag.”

Needless to say, none of this was true: the Port-au-Prince airport was like any other terminal in any other part of the world. Still, Pastor Bill’s eyes darted back and forth, staring at unseen evils. He jumped as an elderly woman brushed by his shoulder to reach for her bag. He reached for his passport, spilling the contents of his pockets on the ground, and scrambled to pick them up. “The U.N. troops are worthless,” he commented to one member of our group. “The first time I came here after the earthquake, the U.S. military was still running things, and it was great. They kept order.”

Pastor Bill isn’t the only non-Haitian who views the nation as a place that is naturally “chaotic”. News coverage in Europe and North America following the earthquake consistently focused on accounts of looting and rioting, generally ignoring the efforts of Haitian-run organisations that were working to coordinate aid and relief efforts. When organised relief was covered by the international media, it was typically depicted as a non-Haitian phenomenon, delivering a two-pronged message about Haiti: “Haitians are chaotic and lawless; foreign soldiers and NGO workers bring order.”

This attitude has ancient roots. Shortly after the Haitian Revolution in 1804, Europeans and white North Americans insisted that blacks were incapable of self-governance. One white plantation owner from the Southeastern United States described the decline of independent Haiti’s economy thusly: “It was French—it is now African. This explains all.”

The World’s Most Expensive Church Benches

“Haiti is not ready for representative government.” - Robert Rotberg, political scientist, author of Haiti: The Politics of Squalor.

The Haitian Pentecostal pastor Marcel met us at the airport and drove us to his enormous, three-story house in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Upon arriving, we were told what our “assignment” in Haiti would be: we were to build benches for Marcel’s church and apply a second coat of paint to Marcel’s house.

I asked Bill if we would be doing any actual humanitarian work, given the horrific earthquake that had killed 300,000 people and left more than a million homeless. “I understand that the church paid at least $4,000 to send this group of volunteers here,” I said.

“Well, you guys should be here to save people’s souls, not to give people some temporary material assistance,” Bill responded. “After all, this is our window of opportunity: Haitians are desperate right now, and we need to make sure they come to church. But if you want, we’ll see if Pastor Marcel wants to take you out to a village of poor people before you leave Haiti. You can take photos of the villagers. It will really bless you.”

Haiti is a country practically run by NGO’s. While not all of them are guilty of the paternalism shown by Pastor Bill, inefficiency is practically inevitable in a situation where dozens of foreign organizations are all running projects independently of each other. This bureaucratic confusion is fueled by the underlying belief, still rampant in Europe and North America, that Haitians are incapable of running their own country.

As recently as 2004, Haiti’s democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from office by Canadian, French and United States troops. The repressive regime of General Latortue that was henceforth installed in Haiti received the blessing of Prime Minister Paul Martin. Through gunboat diplomacy, foreign governments have repeatedly sent the message that they know—better than Haitians themselves—what is best for Haiti.

Sometimes foreign aid and political-military intervention go hand in hand. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) both provided large financial contributions to the groups in Haiti that were plotting to violently overthrow Aristide’s government.

A Post-Disaster Buffet

“I believe that culture is the only possible explanation for Haiti’s unending tragedy.” -Lawrence Harrison, author of Underdevelopment is a State of Mind.

During the last day of the church trip, our group of volunteers drove through downtown Port-au-Prince, past a series of enormous refugee camps filled with hundreds of makeshift tents. The visiting missionaries photographed families washing their clothes in puddles of water on the streets. After leaving the central part of the capitol, we reached our destination—an upscale hotel serving a buffet lunch. We ate at a long table overlooking the hotel’s swimming pool, next to tables full of foreign NGO workers from various countries. The only Haitians present were hotel employees.

Some degree of callous disinterest is necessary in order to continuously dismiss Haiti’s suffering. When we are aware of the complicit role which North American and European governments have played in that suffering, we resort to justifications. We explain, like Pat Robertson (and Pastor Bill), that Haiti was “punished by God for practicing witchcraft”; we suggest, like Lawrence Harrison, that something defective in Haitian culture itself has caused the nation’s poverty. All these “blame the victim” strategies have one thing in common: a fundamental belief in the “otherness” of Haitians—the belief that there is something inherent in their nature which makes Haitians “not the same kind of people as us.”

David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected].

  • Notes:

[1] Rod Davis,American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World (University of North Texas Press, 1999). p 350.

[2] “Vodou”, “Voudou” and “Vodoun” are preferred spellings of the syncretistic religion of Haiti, used by scholars of the tradition to avoid the negative connotations of the spelling “Voodoo” in the West.

[3] Rod Davis, American Voudou, p.357.

[4] Rod Davis, American Voudou, p.359.

[5] Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Invisible Powers: Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture. (Palgrave MacMillan, New York. 2006). p.111.

[6] Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, (Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine. 2006). p.56.

[7] Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, p.64.

[8] Paul Farmer,The Uses of Haiti, p.286.

[9] Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, p.285.


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