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Assistant Professor Regine Jean-Charles' recent research, focuses on Haitian post-earthquake perspectives. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Listening to Haiti’s ‘Other Voices’

The world knows all about Haiti’s problems — but little else, says BC’s Jean-Charles
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By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor
Published: Dec. 16, 2010
Journalism is supposedly the first draft of history, but when it comes to the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Regine Jean-Charles only hopes the subsequent drafts are better than what she’s seen thus far.

The American-born daughter of Haitian immigrants who returned to their native country, Jean-Charles says media coverage in the aftermath of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake — which killed an estimated 230,000 people and left at least a million others homeless — has, however well-intentioned, helped reinforce longstanding negative stereotypes about Haiti. 

Phrases like “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” bundled with video images of destitute, helpless Haitians amidst rubble and shelters — or, more recently, coping with a cholera epidemic — form an all-too-familiar narrative that simplifies Haiti as little else but a socioeconomic wasteland, she says. 

“To say Haiti is the poorest country in this hemisphere is, obviously, not untrue,” says Jean-Charles. “But when it is repeated over and over, in words and images, it becomes the whole picture to the exclusion of all else.”

What’s often left out of this account are the voices of Haitians who can provide thoughtful context and balance to a seemingly unrelenting procession of despair, says Jean-Charles, whose recent research, writing and teaching reflects her interest in post-earthquake perspectives. She contributed to a book of essays which train historical and cultural lenses on the earthquake’s impact, helps maintain a blog on Haitian life and culture www.tandenou2.blogspot.com, and has dealt with earthquake-related issues in her classes on Haiti this fall. 

The coverage of post-earthquake Haiti has been aptly summarized by Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, according to Jean-Charles.

“She said that Haitians are described as either ‘impoverished’ or ‘resilient,’ when in fact the best and truest description is somewhere in between. And there are Haitians writing, producing radio shows, and taking photographs that offer more nuanced, complicated and human images of Haiti.”

Examples of Haitian-produced perspectives on the disaster include the book Haiti Parmi Les Vivants [Haiti Among the Living], which contains essays, poetry and eyewitness accounts, and “Haiti’s Hero,” a documentary about a doctor’s efforts to provide post-earthquake medical care produced by Haitian film students. There also is a blog by Carine Exantus http://bit.ly/cuEuzK, a college student who now lives in a refugee camp with her family. 

The media focus on international assistance to Haiti, especially on-the-ground relief efforts from the US and elsewhere, fuels the perception of Haiti as an irretrievably broken society, she adds: “If you read or watch most outlets, you’d think Haitians are not doing anything.”

In fact, Jean-Charles only has to look within her family to know otherwise. Her father, a physician, and her mother, a medical professional, have both been active in providing health care to victims of the disaster. And there are other, broad-based responses to Haiti’s plight, she notes, through indigenous organizations like Fonkoze, which has been fighting Haitian poverty for years and was instrumental in reviving the nation’s currency system after the quake. Other promising ventures, such as a collaboration to bring mobile financial services to Haitians without bank accounts, tend to be less reported, she says.

Jean-Charles cites the book to which she contributed, Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010, as a further example of “other voices” telling Haiti’s story. While not all the writers featured in the volume are of Haitian descent, all have considerable experience and insight on Haiti. They include former Haitian ambassador to the US Jean Casimir, Journal of Haitian Studies Associate Editor Legrace Benson, photographer and filmmaker Leah Gordon, Universite d’Etat d’Haiti literature professor Nadeve Menard and novelist Yanick Lehens.

Jean-Charles’ essay, “Shaken Ground, Strong Foundations: Honoring the Legacy of Haitian Feminism after the Earthquake,” looks at the historical contributions of women to Haitian society, and urges that the reconstruction address economic, social and educational inequities that afflicted women before the January disaster.

“The best way to honor the legacy of our fallen Haitian feminist trail-blazers will be to rebuild in a way that includes gender equity,” she writes, “to reconstruct institutions that assist the development of women and girls, and to provide more educational opportunities for women and girls to become agents of transformation.”


                                                                                        ***

I want to talk about gratitude.
I want to talk about compassion.
I want to talk about respect.
How even the desperate deserve it.

How Haitians sometimes greet each other
with the two words, “Honor”
& “Respect.”
How we all should follow suit.

Try every time you hear the word “Victim,”
you think “Honor.”
Try every time you hear the tag “John Doe,”
you shout “Respect!”

Because my people have names.
Because my people have nerve.
Because my people are
your people in disguise.

Excerpt from “Quaking Conversation” by Lenelle Moïse, www.lenellemoise.com