- Finding Haiti, Finding History in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
In the wake of the January 2010 earthquake that killed thousands of Haitians, crushing them beneath the rubble of collapsed cities and towns, international news outlets began to describe Haiti as both “disaster-prone” and “star-crossed,” conjuring up the image of a nation suffering from an ill-defined combination of inherent clumsiness and bad fortune.1 Perhaps the most explicit (and egregious) elaboration of this trope emerged from televangelist Pat Robertson, who only a few days after the quake offered his Seven Hundred Club listeners the “true story” behind Haiti’s “disaster-prone” past:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.” True story. And so the Devil said, “OK it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they’ve been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On one side is Haiti on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy I’m optimistic something good may come. But right now, we’re helping the suffering people and the suffering is unimaginable.2 [End Page 755]
In this now infamous display of revisionist history, Robertson locates the origins of Haiti’s “desperate poverty” in the nation’s “deal with the Devil” that enabled a nation of slaves to rise up and win their twelve-year anticolonial revolution against France. His formulation handily combines two familiar racist tropes: that of the mystical Haitian “other” in league with dark supernatural forces,3 and the line of U.S. (neo)liberal reasoning that links the poverty of black communities to their “pathological” moral failings, counseling that they need to turn towards good (patriarchal heteronormativity) and God (given the U.S. government’s support for private faith-based initiatives to fill the vacuum of the dismantled welfare state) in order to solve their economic problems.4 And just as this domestic line of reasoning elides the United States’ history of institutional economic violence against its black communities, Robertson’s story effaces the true causes of Haiti’s economic distress, causes only hinted at by Haitian ambassador Raymond Joseph’s response later that day. According to Joseph, “What pact the Haitians made with the Devil has helped the United States become what it is”: “When the slaves rose up against the French and defeated the French army … the U.S. was able to gain the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. That’s three cents an acre. That’s 13 states west of the Mississippi that the Haitian slaves’ revolt in Haiti provided America.”5
Here Joseph adopts Robertson’s sketch of Haiti’s diabolical contract “that people might not want to talk about” in order to recast the relationship between the two nations: the United States owes its wealth, he argues, to the success of the Haitian Revolution, and thus by Robertson’s own argument, to the Devil himself. By arguing that the United States is beholden to Haiti for its imperial prosperity, Joseph stops short of refuting Robertson’s argument that Haiti brought its suffering on itself. But his frame of “indebtedness” seems to constitute a rebuttal nonetheless, the recasting of an absent and unspoken narrative in which Haiti is the debtor beholden to the United States for its freedom. And this recasting, in turn, invokes the specter of an even more unspeakable narrative, that of the United States’ role in creating Haitian poverty through debt enforcement and military occupation, mechanisms of control it also used on African Americans...