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Posted April 3, 200
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Krik? Krak?
Saturday, April 3, 2004 - Page D23
You might think of Haiti as a country of oppression, poverty and coups. But Elizabeth Abbott reveals the truth.

Haiti is back in the news, and the news isn't good. Its first legitimately elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, claims that Americans kidnapped and sent him off into exile. Canada and France have joined the United States to militarily "secure" the chaotic little republic, and a new technocratic government promises to feed, house, educate and care for its desperately needy citizens, eight million of the poorest people in the world.

What does this all mean? Apart from coups d'état, oppression and poverty, what is Haiti all about? The three following books go a long way to explain and enlighten.

Begin with Harold Courlander's The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People (University of California Press, 1960), which is difficult to find outside libraries, but still the classic study of Haitian culture. Courlander was an ethnomusicologist and folklorist who spent decades recording Haiti's music and studying its traditions. He was also a well-known novelist (The African and The Bordeaux Narrative, a stunning work about Haitian backcountry peasants' experience of the supernatural), whose writing style, along with the inclusion of 90 superb photos, make this book a delight to read.

The first half of The Drum and the Hoe is devoted to vodoun, often misspelled as "voodoo" and misrepresented as primitive black magic. Vodoun is the West African Fon people's word for spirit or deity; over time, it has come to signify Haiti's belief system, religious rites and practices. Courlander traces how Haitians re-created ancestral ways of life at the same time they developed creolized versions of everything from vodoun and agriculture to music and folktales. To this day, Haiti is known as West Africa in the Caribbean.

When it was a colony, Haiti was better known as the Pearl of the Antilles, a fertile paradise that brought its French plantation owners immense wealth produced by the sweat and suffering of enslaved Africans. Two centuries later, Haiti resembles a no-man's land of cratered roads, denuded mountainsides and hunger-racked citizens, millions of them crammed into intolerable urban slums.

David Nicholls's From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti (1980), in the Cambridge Latin American Studies series, describes the political (though not the economic) dimension of Haiti's interminable crises, which began in 1804, when Europe conceded military defeat and Haiti celebrated its rebirth as the first black republic. Haiti paid a ruinous price for its victory; in 1806, the slave-owning United States imposed a century-long commercial embargo that destroyed any chance that the new nation could develop a viable economic structure. Later, France coerced Haiti into paying 90 million gold francs to compensate dispossessed plantation owners. The repayment took decades, and crippled the fledgling economy.

Haiti's unforgiving internal politics perpetuated divisions between its black and lighter-skinned citizens, and produced mostly corrupt and repressive leaders. Though Nicholls's book ends with the death of Papa Doc Duvalier in 1971, it helps clarify some of the recent events in Haiti. For instance, in charging the United States with kidnapping him, Aristide was identifying himself with another tiny and charismatic Haitian leader, the revolutionary hero Tussaint L'Ouverture, whom France really kidnapped and imprisoned in a prison high in the French Alps, where he died in 1803. Aristide's first public statement after exiting the U.S.-chartered jet that had flown him into exile was a recitation of Toussaint's words of courage to his people: "In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep."

The last book is Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat's literary masterpiece, Krik? Krak! (Soho Press, 1995). The title comes from Haitian storytellers' ritual of warming up their audiences by asking "Krik?" and taking the collective response "Krak!" as their cue to begin. Krik? Krak! is a collection of stories that usher us into the heartland of Haitian life. Its characters live in the fictional Haitian town of Ville Rose ("the city of painters and poets, the coffee city, with beaches where the sand is either black or white, but never mixed together") or the very real Brooklyn, N.Y., to which Danticat herself emigrated as a 12-year-old.

In one story, a peasant woman, Défilé, languishes in a Port-au-Prince prison, accused of killing a child by sorcery. Because her guards believe their emaciated and ailing prisoner takes her skin off at night and puts it back on in the morning, they beat Défilé to death: "Her skin, it was too loose. They said prison could not cure her," fellow inmates tell her daughter.

I wept at this story of Défilé and other women "said to have been seen at night rising from the ground like birds on fire." When I lived in Port-au-Prince, a dear Haitian-Canadian friend worked desperately to obtain a visa for his 88-year-old grandmother. A mob of her provincial townsfolk had denounced her as a loup garou, a werewolf, and tried to lynch her. My friend managed to bring her back to the safety of Montreal, where she recently died at the age of 103. (Jean-Bertrand Aristide's father, also accused of sorcery, was not so lucky; his accusers killed him.)

Many of Danticat's stories recall the 1937 Dominican massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians at the Massacre River. Others are about drowned boat people and those who survive them. In A Wall of Fire Rising, an unemployed sugar-cane worker escapes the misery of quotidian life by stealing an air balloon from which he hurls himself, choosing a soaring death over the misery of life beneath. And in Caroline's Wedding, an expatriate family struggles to reconcile Haitian traditions and ways of seeing the world with the realities of the United States. The arrival of the Americanized narrator's U.S. passport finally makes her feel secure living in the United States. "In my family, we have always been very anxious about our papers," she says.

Krik? Krak! may also lead readers to Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Farming of Bones and the just-released The Dew Breaker, about a man employed as a torturer for Papa Doc Duvalier.

Elizabeth Abbott lived in Haiti from 1983 to 1988. She taught history at the University of the State of Haiti, reported for Reuters and was senior editor of Haiti Times. She is the author of Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy.

© Copyright 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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