In modern times, one universal truth since the French Revolution has included the anger and the fear that the young always directed at institutions which sheltered a civilization. Not at all unlike the anger and the fear that came out of slavery. Like in Haiti about the time of the French Revolution. Before the Louisiana Purchase. The anger and the fear directed at royalty and the clergy. At the time of the French Revolution, the anger at all of the estates, including the journalists covering the story.
The anger was over the powerlessness…. in the always and everywhere identity of being a slave — this powerful identity from the past in the New World based upon race that is not allowed in polite society to be discussed… Or about that anger from the past which had come of slavery.
I spent part of last weekend with the descendants of displaced slaves. I attended a program on Sunday about rebuilding Haiti. After waking earlier that day to “Speaking of Faith,” a National Public Radio program that morning which had discussed life in western Alabama where shelter had always been based upon a social order of the soul, with its burden of history. The houses of western Alabama always had had porches, in a day when air conditioning did not cut off a family from a neighbor, with a concern of long-term survival. Whereas part of the rebuilding process, part of the architecture included recycling building materials of the past, and an architectural teacher from the University of Auburn mentioned the slave houses in this part of the Alabama. As he was talking about the importance of an architecture that was committed and engaged, he asked who now could ever understand in this day and age slavery? “Either its social and/or cultural part at the time of slavery?” In western Alabama, where had been the descendants — with its displaced slaves and the slave masters still present. Architectural students from the University of Auburn had to find out about the truth in the collective memory of slavery, in the architectural systems being re-created.
The Saint Paul Public Library offered a panel discussion with sponsorship of the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library with mostly Haitian people. Max Adrien is a Haitian-born Hamline University French professor with a Ph. D., from Tulane University in New Orleans where he helped establish a Haitian Creole program. In examining Haitian history, he told the story which began on December 5, 1492 in Haiti. Where Columbus sank the Santa Maria. Why Columbus came, with the late 15th century European God. Perhaps initially with a 16th century benevolence. To find a route to the east. To avoid the Ottoman Turks –those fierce Ottoman Turks. Adrian said he had a B.A. from Loyola University in Chicago, and knew well the theology of Columbus’s world. In a five minute history, he spoke of the arrival of the French who formally claimed control of the western portion of the island of Hispaniola. With the encouragement of Louis XIV, the French West Indian Company had begun to grow tobacco, cotton, indigo, and cacao under the labor of the enslaved Tainos who inhabited the island before Columbus’ gang arrived. With high Taíno mortality attributed to a missing immunity to Old World diseases, a French monsignor had suggested going to Africa to import replacement labor. And thus the history of African slaves from hundreds of different tribes, with hundreds of different languages. The estimated number was 790,000 African slaves in 1783-1791. And so the story of displaced slaves, from Africa.
Thirty years younger than the United States, Haiti was the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere. Adrien discussed Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution from France that caused enough fear to Napoleon for the United States to complete the Louisiana Purchase. Louisiana, with its sugar base economy. Louisiana, with its same French connection. Louisiana, caught in the same slave trade triangle as Haiti. He made mention of crippling reparations paid to France after the country’s revolution in order to lift an embargo. And its history has shown the ongoing dependence ever since, based on reparations for the freed slaves, and with the old paradigm of slavery. In the 18th century, Haiti was the richest island in the Caribbean, with its economy based upon sugar.
Barbara Pierre-Louis, a Ph.D. candidate, gave a personal account of her Haitian history, where reference was made to Paul Farmer’s powerful book, The Uses of Haiti. Both of these speakers had been in Minnesota on January 12, 2010 on the day of Té Tremble. Roulio Lundy was a young Haitian who had married a Minnesotan in March 2009 but was home on the island. One of 19 children, he gave a moving account of visiting a neighborhood where a woman his own age had prepared him lunch as he readied to journey 60 miles in his car to return to his mother’s home on that Tuesday. After turning down an invitation to eat food three times, he finally took the food and put it in his back seat and set off for home. Five minutes down the road, there was upheaval on the road he was driving on. The sky turned black. And the buildings along the side of the road collapsed. It seemed the end of the world had arrived. He spoke of picking up 3 young men in his car as he resumed his travel, witnessing horror after horror of adult men sawing off their arms, to escape from the rubble of their buildings. Offers of all worldly goods were made by those trapped if somehow they could be saved. The four men distributed the food and water in the car as they came across horrific scene after horrific scene. And he found that the woman who had prepared his food had died in the earthquake. He had a flat tire later that afternoon, and took a wheel off another care to continue on, at one point abandoning his car. It took him until midnight on Thursday to complete his journey on foot to his mother’s home. He found that all of his family member were alive.
There were questions. One question was from a woman who had sponsored a child through the NGO called World Vision. The Minneapolis wife of Roulio Lundy suggested that the people in the audience take a different approach. She told of the dislike of non-government organizations (NGOs), who have been helping in Haiti for 50 years, with more poverty today than 50 years ago, with a greater number existing on less than $2 per day than ever before. The view there that the people were poorer, and the NGOs richer. Causing in the view of many locals, more damage than good. The NGOs that seemed to want to do something. That was the environment in Haiti before the earthquake.
Yes, I had spent part of the weekend with the educated descendants of displaced slaves. Maria Roesler-Lundy had married a descendant. Her husband was the only member of the panel who did not carry a post graduate degree from an American university. And all of the Haitians had spoken of the prestigious schools in Haiti. The few prestigious schools. Education maybe not unlike the air conditioning which had cut off so many from their neighbors. And there was this undertow of class, even among the descendants of displaced slaves, some who had gotten the chance to attend the prestigious schools, to pursue passing on the academics to the next generation. With or without the anger at the concept of the 16th century God.
The institutional advancement of a nation. Maria Roesler-Lundy came over to give a more explicit answer dealing with World Vision. She said her answer had not been about just World Vision. Her answer dealt with not giving just money alone to Haitian causes, but the need to get actively involved with the people in the nation. And when her husband compared this crisis of rebuilding to being about more than sharing money but similar to preparing food and then eating it with the people, and suddenly I was overcome with the realization that the only reason he was standing in front of me was because he had not stayed to share the food prepared by his former next door neighbor. And I understood the reasons hat he had wept at the conclusion of his speech delivered in Creole.
His answer was about creating a relationship. “Don’t try to change the Haitian people,” someone had opined on “This American Life.” The moderator had wrapped up the program quoting an American physician who had gone to Haiti long before the earthquake. He had commented upon all the Fixit types who come to town and get right down to work. Never starting the morning, as the locals ask each day, “How are you? How did you sleep?” There were now a lot of foreigners who skip the morning greeting each day. The advice of anyone going to Haiti who would deal with Haitians was “Try to understand their point of view.” Because in Haiti, there were some grateful and some ungrateful.
Institutional advancement in Haiti was a slow and cumbersome process, Apricot Irving reported on “This American Life.” The pitfalls of the old model of the 19th century benevolence could be seen over and over. Many Haitians were experts at receiving aid, but not changing their own lives, maybe attributed to a built up immunity to Old World theology, as some kind of remnant of an slave culture. Foreigners always in charge, with hope that the Haitians would catch on. Immunity maybe to the 16th century God of Columbus, who somehow had allowed slavery. And then the 19th century benevolence. As the slaves over time had become dependent on their slave masters. And now this cowboy culture from the US, when the problems are there to fix. The Fixit American Men from Mars, and their women, giving out of what these people did not have. Of technology. Of water. It was the social order of slavery.
The doctor that Apricot Irving interviewed said, “Build a citadel and you build another benevolent dictatorship. The cowboy to fix the problem. For efficacy, service and security…why not become a benevolent dictator?” The choice was to either continue the dysfunction, or to create a new model. To replace the old model in this slave culture. Of Papa Doc. Or the NGOs. Or think about the hard work of community building. When along the way, services in 2010 will not be provided. And that admittedly was a terrible choice. Building true community takes time….with a perseverance in a relationship. Between people.
So the reconstruction of Haiti. And the choice between the old model and the new. The old model which creates a new slave plantation, dependent on the masters. With all of the fruits just like before. . . With the distance. And the consequence. The ensuing anger, the violence…the discontent. Or the choice which comes with authentic generous sharing. When people gave, out of what others did not have, with a true caring. A never ending caring, which was seldom recognized when any people were enslaved. So the reconstruction of all of the shelter, in the New World, which always has been based upon a social order of the soul.
And so the spiritual architects, finding out about the truth in the collective memory of slavery, in the architectural systems being re-created. In the new discoveries of 2010, in the reconstruction of Haiti.