On Jan. 12, 2010, Bill Nathan was resting on the patio roof of the St. Joseph's Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hurled him seven stories onto a concrete roof below, a neighbor claimed he saw Nathan "flying like a bird" through the air.
Only by dragging himself with a fallen clothesline through broken glass was he able to just evade the concrete waterfall of three stories of shattered orphanage that buried the spot where he had just lain. He was airlifted to the U.S. and miraculously suffered only minor injuries.
Bill Nathan had been a child slave (or "restavec") before escaping to Port-au-Prince, where he was taken in and educated at St. Joseph's. He has toured the world as a drummer, has studied and performed at Duke and in Durham, and he is now director of the home that saved him before nearly crushing him. Haiti is full of stories of redemption, resilience and horror like Nathan's, and some of them find expression in Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, the magisterial new book by Duke professor Laurent Dubois.
Before the familiar images of Anderson Cooper's bloody T-shirt, media-fed Americans often equated Haiti with refugees on makeshift rafts or the burning cars and machine guns of perennial coups. But time spent with Dubois' book, which received a glowing review on the front page of The New York Times Sunday Book Review, will leave one feeling hopeful for a country damaged physically and emotionally by its past as a slave colony to its present as an destination for missionaries and relief workers from around the world.
It's the years in between, those of righteous uprising and developed infrastructure, which are the focus of Dubois' book. We sat down with Dubois in his office at Duke's Haiti Lab to discuss his uncompromising take on a country that makes many uneasy and ambivalent.
Independent Weekly: You've just returned from Haiti—you got back last night—and this is almost exactly two years after the earthquake killed over 300,000 people and left over 1 million people homeless. What kind of conditions did you find there?
Laurent Dubois: Well, it's a mix. There are still a lot of buildings that came down in the earthquake that have not been rebuilt, most strikingly the National Palace and a lot of the government buildings. The downtown area is still really kind of devastated and there's a lot of people still living in tents there. In neighborhoods it's a slightly different situation. You do see reconstruction in certain areas. Overall, I think it's very clear now that reconstruction is going to be a long, long process—probably a decade-long process, maybe more—because reconstruction also confronts broader structural problems that were present before the earthquake.
It seems like the American response to the Haiti earthquake was especially strong and organized when you consider the increased number of natural disasters that we've experienced in just the last few years. Why the intensity of this response?
We have a long history of relationships: 1994 [when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to power with the help of the U.S.], the U.S. occupation before that, a 20-year occupation in the early 20th century and all kinds of other connections. Many, many people in the U.S. go and do volunteer work in Haiti. It's a very common destination for that.
I think the key is to understand that there's sort of a difference between immediate relief for a disaster and then the reconstruction process. And the first is one in which people were immensely grateful, obviously, for the immediate aid and medical assistance. The reconstruction process, of course, is inherently a societal, a structural and a political problem and in many ways raises much more complicated long-term issues.
Less than 20 years after the U.S. declared independence from England and more than 70 years before American emancipation, the slave population of what became known as Haiti fought to liberate itself from France. By 1804, Haiti was an independent nation. With such an auspicious beginning, how did such a righteous country come to be viewed as the troublesome charity case of the Western world?
The Haitian revolution ... was so radical. It was part of the age of revolution and it was linked to the French and American revolutions, but it also honestly went much further than either of those other revolutions because it was carried out by people who were enslaved, who overthrew the slave system, freed themselves and then created their own country.
It also happened at a moment where slavery was really the dominant economic system in the entire Atlantic world. Every European empire was invested in slavery. North America was invested in slavery. So a nation founded by slaves who had overthrown their masters was naturally not particularly well received except by more radical abolitionists of the time.
At the same time, the revolutions set up a set of major problems in Haiti about how freedom was to be articulated and put into practice.
You find some cause for hope that, in spite of the many setbacks that have plagued Haiti, history could turn around and the country could live up to its overwhelming potential. How could that play out?
Haiti is an extraordinary country, and I think that anyone who's traveled there knows that it's a very complex country. And there's always a mix of positive and negative like anywhere else. One thing that's important is that a lot of what we see today is the result of recent history, let's say the last 30, 40 years. It's not a kind of inexorable story that is how it had to happen from 1804. And a big emphasis of the book is to point out that in the 19th century, Haiti was quite economically successful. People migrated to Haiti instead of Haitians migrating out of Haiti. There are moments in the past where Haiti has actually succeeded quite well, and that's often forgotten.
The other thing is that there's a long tradition of democratic action, of civic organization—a really remarkable, cultural, intellectual tradition of thinking about Haiti, all of which provides resources for the future. I think there needs to be a lot of soul-searching outside the country, because so many policies that have been directed at Haiti have been actually really negative and destructive.
A lot of times people want to change Haiti, but something we can start with is perhaps changing our own approach to Haiti, which would be one of the most valuable things we could do.
How do you feel about the overwhelming number of missionary groups, NGOs, even entities like the Haiti Lab at Duke, that are striving to help in their own ways? And do you think that they're making any headway or is it really just chipping away at too large a stone?
We do have to be lucid that in the last 20, 30, 40 years, there's been many groups that have tried to contribute during a time in which the situation [there] has been as been bad and maybe even [has] worsened. So I do say in the book [that] I don't think the current configuration of aid is working. Paul Farmer, in his recent book, I think, admits similarly even though he's invested a lot in those things, [it] doesn't mean that it's not making contributions, but I mean taken as a whole, we have to realize that something, I think, isn't quite going as it should, given the overwhelming desire to change things. But that also is partly because, to some extent—and here again I follow Paul Farmer in this, at some level—it's only when the Haitian state itself can be taking on these projects and directing these projects that they're really going to accumulate and amount to something structurally, that can really change the lives of all Haitians.