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by Ethan Casey

Taking Haiti Personally

Books discussed in this essay

--Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak! (Soho Press, 224 pp.; $20, 1995; Vintage, $11, paper, 1996)

--Joan Dayan, Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press, 339 pp.; $35, 1995)

--Herbert Gold, Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti (Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.; $12, paper, 1992 [first published 1991])

--Blair Niles, Black Haiti: A Biography of Africa's Eldest Daughter (1926; o.p.)

--North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Haiti: Dangerous Crossroads (South End Press, 256 pp.; $35, hardcover, $15, paper, 1995)

Public events give place names new overtones that can seem to override previous, private meanings. For my first 27 years, for example, Waco was merely the town my grandfather came from. Now the name evokes an unhappy recent history, and I'm tacitly asked to take a side. So too with Haiti. I have spent time in that unhappy country, respect particular Haitian people for particular reasons, know the country's language and vivid smells and sounds. The now pervasive presumption that politics should trump my own experience both baffles and angers me; I'm not on anybody's side, thank you very much.

The meaning of "Haiti" has become a battleground. Some months ago a friend sent me a flier for a new book from South End Press. Haiti: Dangerous Crossroads was, I was told, "a succinct history and up-to-date analysis of the tragic betrayal of Haitian democracy" that explained "why attempts to 'restore democracy' in Haiti seem doomed to failure. In part," claimed the flier,

the reasons lie in Haiti's centuries-old "semi-feudal" class structure overlaid by the agro-export economy established during the U.S. occupation. Much blame, however, rests squarely on the shoulders of the United States. The U.S. response to the coup--the inhumane refugee policy, a leaky embargo, ineffectual weak-kneed diplomacy, and a sustained cia campaign to paint [then-President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide as demagogic and mentally unstable--lays bare the United ...

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