Myriam Chancy: Toward Black Liberation
- By Jim Hicks
A Review of Myriam J.A. Chancy, Harvesting Haiti. Reflections on Unnatural Disasters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2023.
If I weren’t invariably late with everything, this review would have been posted at 4:53 p.m. yesterday, January 12, 2023. Like most events that break time and begin a new calendar for some portion of the world (what Jalal Toufic has termed a surpassing disaster), what happened in Haiti at that exact time, in just forty-five seconds exactly fourteen years ago, has no doubt been forgotten by nearly everyone else everywhere else. That’s just how it is. Time is a mother.
For that very reason, along with a host of others (including at least a few of which I’ll try to explain here), Myriam J.A. Chancy’s new collection of essays, Harvesting Haiti. Reflections on Unnatural Disasters is a work that should be available in every library. It should be assigned in classes, across this nation and elsewhere, and read by everyone who cares at all about having an accurate sense of the history of this hemisphere. That’s a tall claim, I know, so let me step back a bit.
By now, one may at least hope that right-minded teachers and open-minded students have, at the very least, some understanding of the nature—and one hopes, the history—of systemic racism. The story generally told is one where, in this country, with its society created through genocide and slavery, yet also holding ideals of equality and democracy, the institution of slavery is replaced with a series of other measures—segregation, redlining in real estate and banking, selective benefits in government initiatives like the G.I. Bill, lack of access and equality in education, etc., etc.—that maintain white supremacy and repeatedly forestall social movements that militate for reconstruction and civil rights. When academic initiatives like the 1619 Project receive national attention and intense political opposition—without, one must insist, any serious opposition from serious historians—you know that systemic racism is being challenged, to real effect.
And the story we hear is nearly always a national story, even though we all know, at some level, that the history of the so-called New World is, by definition, hemispheric. Myriam Chancy’s book—a collection of talks, essays, and interviews on post-2010 Haiti that also includes a poem and a photo essay—offers its readers a chance to avoid the parochial blinders of national history. What would it mean, and how would we see US history differently, if we put the Haitian Revolution where it belongs, at the center of our hemispheric histories? Marx argues, of course, that all history is the history of class struggle. What Chancy’s Harvesting Haiti implicitly argues instead—and what the story of the New World itself suggests—is that all history is the history of Black Liberation.
Chancy’s combination of talks, columns, and more formal essays gains cumulative strength as it progresses. It begins with testimony, both personal and journalistic, about the horrific toll of the January 12, 2010 earthquake, which Haitians refer to by simply the number 12, or in Kreyòl, “Douz”: at least 300,000 dead, the emblematic monuments and structures in the capital city flattened, and later a cholera epidemic, brought to the island by the UN workers sent to help. From the start, though, Chancy balances her events-based testimony with discussions of the political, social, and international realities the country faces as well as with dissections of the ideological stereotypes and prejudices that frame both the understanding and actions of non-Haitians. Her real subject, as her subtitle—itself a reference to a seminal article by Paul Farmer—makes clear, is the sort of unnatural disasters that this combination of history and prejudices foments.
What comes to mind, anyway, when you think of Haiti? For most, I imagine, it will be “the poorest nation in the hemisphere,” or some combination of evil dictators, social unrest and violence, along with the battering ram of earthquakes and hurricanes—the sorts of things we generally read in the news that make us happy to live elsewhere. What we don’t hear, what we’re not taught, is the story of an independent Black Republic, of the revolution that inspired decolonial movements everywhere, not just those that would follow in South and Central America.
Chancy’s overall argument is that our sense of New World history was engineered principally by the US and France, and that what it cannot accept and include is the reality of independent Black Republic. instead of having the Haitian Revolution in its rightful place, i.e., the center, it instead made the reality of that independent Black Republic almost invisible. Indeed, these two countries and their allies tried by every means possible to reverse that reality, initially, by demanding that indemnity be paid to France—a sum worth tens of billions of today’s dollars—before Haiti was allowed to participate in global trade. Where else in history did the loser of a war successfully demand compensation from the winner? As Paul Farmer has put it,
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the US simply refused to recognize Haiti’s existence. In the latter half, gunboats pre-empted diplomacy. And in 1915 US Marines began a twenty-year military occupation and formed the modern Haitian army (whose only target has been the Haitian people). (Cited by Chancy, 38)
In short, the poverty of Haiti today was engineered long ago, and its current dysfunction is a consequence of a history that is ongoing . Like social and racial divisions in the US, the global subordination of Haiti has been continued and maintained, by any means necessary.
In any brief review, much of the richness and many of the key themes of this collection will inevitably be neglected. Not least of them, given my emphasis here on looking to Haiti as central to the ongoing revisions in US historiography, is the work that Chancy does to think in and through Haiti’s place within Caribbean cultures. Her analysis on the history and current political crisis between Haiti and the Dominican Republic alone merits a review. And the author’s own response to her post-earthquake homeland in poetry and photos is equally essential and heart-breakingly lovely. And, not surprisingly, given her own activism during these years, the analysis of the shortcomings and shortsightedness of so-called humanitarian interventions is on point, eloquent, and evidence-based. What she calls for, not surprisingly, is for Haitians to be seen as partners, and for their own suggestions and solutions to be heard. Given her earlier analysis of Haiti’s history and the systemic racism from those countries now offering assistance, the failures in hearing Haitians is hardly surprising either.
For me, though, one moment that particularly resonated—no doubt because all teachers, including me, at times despair about their ability to reach their students—was an essay where Chancy describes teaching a course on Haitian literature at the University of Cinncinnati. At first, her students simply refuse to read and take seriously the great Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s masterpiece, The Kingdom of This World, which both celebrates and offers a cautionary tale about the Haitian Revolution. What the students wouldn’t accept were the miraculous powers given to the Vodou priest Macandal. Chancy asks, “Why would Carpentier want us to think about Macandal’s powers as real, as the impetus for revolution?” (in this, a novel written just a decade before Cuba’s actual revolution).
Her students couldn’t answer, and Chancy realizes that they can’t because they can’t take the “backward belief system” of Vodou seriously, as Carpentier does. So, to help them out, she gives them some Biblical passages describing the resurrection and asks them to compare and contrast. They get the point: you can’t fault others for faith that closely resembles your own, simply because you don't know their scriptures.
In the end, this form of reversal is what Harvesting Haiti itself aims to achieve: rather than continuing to subject her homeland to the use and abuse of its more powerful neighbors, Myriam J.A. Chancy hopes that her own stories of Haiti will allow the sorts of connections that her own students began to make: a glimpse beyond their blinders at the real Haiti, and at its bountiful, potential harvest.
O, let Haiti be Haiti again / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—
JIM HICKS is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.