- Haiti and the “Savage Slot”
I am an anthropologist. As an anthropologist I would like to begin with two ethnographic vignettes that document experiences that have helped me think through the intellectual and political legacies of Michel-Rolph Trouillot. My academic (and political) work has been particularly impacted by two of Trouillot’s essays. The first is “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness” (1991) and the second is “The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean, and the World” (1990). Together, these essays provide the template for rethinking not only the discipline of anthropology and the study of Haiti, but also the political economy of global white supremacy that structures the current neocolonial and neoliberal moment.1
The first ethnographic vignette takes place in Haiti. The second is in Ghana.
The large wooden gate in front of Jet Set, a café and bar in Petionville, was slightly ajar. As our host, Jean,2 moved to the front of the group and pushed the door to lead us inside, we saw, just behind the gate, a Haitian guard sitting on a chair with a shotgun across his lap. He looked up with eyes that revealed no clear emotion as the five of us walked by him and into the open courtyard of the bar. The first thing I saw as I stepped into the courtyard was the big round table with about ten people—all blan3—wearing white T-shirts embossed with the bold “Doctors without Borders” logo. The people at the table were animated, jovial, their mood obviously enhanced by the bottles of Prestige beer and Rhum Barbancourt on the table. Their laughter followed us, echoing throughout the bar. On the stone wall behind this table, and behind the bartender, were draped two large flags—one of the United States, and the other of the Dominican Republic. As our group made its way into the dark, cavern-like space, we saw more tables, around all of which sat aid workers—though the other patrons looked like journalists—some wearing the obligatory khaki [End Page 110] vests and carrying cameras. At the bar, more people were seated; to the right of the bar, under a large spotlight, was another group of people crowding around a pool table. We found our seats in a back corner. As anthropologists are wont to do, I took notes on my surroundings.
The first reaction among the non-Haitian members of our group was one of shock. A white colleague who was part of our post-earthquake assessment group4 was the first to comment on the obvious absurdity of our surroundings: “Are we really in an all-white place in the middle of Port-au-Prince?” she asked. To get to Jet Set that evening, we had to drive around throngs of people who, having just suffered the earthquake thirteen days prior, were still sleeping in the streets: without electricity, traumatized, and seemingly anonymous. My white colleague was incredulous and stated that, even as a white woman from the United States, she felt extremely uncomfortable in this space. We all mulled over her comments, and the discussion of the night was framed around this seeming contradiction. Yet my reaction was not so much discomfort as it was a numbed familiarity. I had encountered these kinds of environments before . . .
But it was not in Haiti, it was in Africa—in Accra, Ghana—where I have done my ethnographic research over the past decade. Here, as I will argue, the parallels are clear, as postcolonial Africa necessarily inhabits the “savage slot” that Trouillot describes. And this leads to my second ethnographic example.5
I remember the first time I walked into Champs, a discreet but popular sports bar in Accra, known for its Tex-Mex menu, its karaoke nights, and its lively and boisterous clientele. It was a late Saturday evening in the summer of 2006, and I had accompanied a Ghanaian friend, Kemi, who was meeting a business acquaintance. My first reaction, as we ducked through the front door and stepped down into the basement-like venue, was shock. This shock was quickly followed by extreme discomfort. Kemi...