amy wilentz

The Long Whodunit
 
return from exile, 1986
I counted Jean Dominique among my friends. I listened to his show on…View Post

The Long Whodunit

 

return from exile, 1986

I counted Jean Dominique among my friends. I listened to his show on…

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Four Years After
A child in Canaan, the new Haitian earthquake camp Photo by Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald staff
Fo…View Post

Four Years After

A child in Canaan, the new Haitian earthquake camp Photo by Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald staff

Fo…

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A few months after the Haitian earthquake of January, 2010, I drove around Port-au-Prince with Dr.…View Post

A few months after the Haitian earthquake of January, 2010, I drove around Port-au-Prince with Dr.…

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Does History Matter in Haiti?
 
In the June 6, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, there is a review of two of my…View Post

Does History Matter in Haiti?

 

In the June 6, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, there is a review of two of my…

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Petit Pierre’s AscentWhen Graham Greene went to Haiti, one of the many fascinating characters he met there was Aubelin…View Post

Petit Pierre’s Ascent

When Graham Greene went to Haiti, one of the many fascinating characters he met there was Aubelin…

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Little Sugar TrainAbove and below: A few photos of a model-train diorama made by a doctor named Tom who often works…View Post

Little Sugar Train

Above and below: A few photos of a model-train diorama made by a doctor named Tom who often works…

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Urban Botox in Haiti

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                                              photo: Dieu Nalio Chery/AP

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                                                                               photo: Amy Wilentz

Both of the photos above are of the Jalousie shantytown, arguably the most photographed shantytown in Port-au-Prince. They are before and after photos of the recent  government paint-over of Jalousie (after and before, actually, in order of appearance). 

Why is Jalousie so photographed, one might wonder. Jalousie is not the biggest, or even necessarily the poorest, of Haiti’s sprawling slums. But the tumbledown, terraced shantytown looks dramatic and also happens to face one of the two major roads that connects downtown Port-au-Prince with the wealthier suburbs of Petionville, Bourdon, Montagne Noire, and others even higher up the hill.

You can pull over, as I have done, and take a picture of Jalousie without (and this is the great convenience for nervous outsiders with their cameras and phones) ever having to get near the shantytown. In fact, there’s a kind of a look-out point off the road there, next to some shops, as I recall.

Many, many outsiders have taken photos from this point — in fact almost all pictures of Jalousie are taken from this one spot.  (It’s hard to see it in these pictures but major swaths of Jalousie were destroyed in the 2010 earthquake). When I took one such picture (just above) people who were sitting on their roofs in Jalousie enjoying a moment of leisure and ostensible privacy in their own homes, or hanging laundry on the clotheslines you can see in the picture, gave me the finger and otherwise made warding off gestures, because (I assume) the 45,000 or so residents are sick of their neighborhood being offered to the world as Haiti’s poster-slum.

Last month, in a moment of astounding cynicism, the Haitian government, which is loathe to make any move on behalf of the Haitian people, began a $1.4 million effort to put a bright face on Jalousie by painting scores of facades in an array of pleasing Caribbean colors.

Today, Jalousie is a target neighborhood for earthquake camp depopulation, which is to say that people from the 3-year-old makeshift earthquake camps that sprang up de facto around town after a million people were made homeless by the quake are being moved into Jalousie and a few other neighborhoods. The target neighborhoods that are not so visible are not getting the paint job.

Most of the people who work in service for the wealthy residents of Petionville and Montagne Noire and Bourdon live in Jalousie: the drivers, the housekeepers, the tailors and handymen, the locksmiths, the blacksmiths, the cobblers, the groundsmen, the cooks, the caregivers, the nannies, the hotel elevator operators, the wait staff, the bartenders, the busboys, the street sweepers, the market ladies, et al.

While the masters and mistresses of the suburbs live in graceful walled houses or mansions that look like the south of France, their servants live in Jalousie, with no running water and no sewage or power systems. The sewage flows in open canals, and the power comes (as it does in other shantytowns and in the camps) from dangerous freelance wiring that pulls stolen power from the weak, unreliable municipal grid. The water comes occasionally from the municipal twiyo, or pipes, where women and children line up with plastic buckets on their heads. 

Now in the old days, before globalization destroyed the Haitian economy, Haitians themselves used to paint their cement block houses. One year, pink paint would be cheap. And the houses that year would be pink. The next year, green. Sometimes, blue or yellow. Hence the famous paintings of the great Haitian painter Prefete Duffaut, that depict fantasy Haitian cities rising up into the heavens. When Duffaut first painted these tableaux, they weren’t so fantastical. 

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                                     painting: Prefete Duffaut

This (above) is what inspired the Martelly administration (if you can glorify President Micky Martelly’s regime with that noun) in its repainting of Jalousie: the newly painted slum is supposed to look like Duffaut’s cities in the sky. It’s a nice idea.

Who remembers New York City’s controversial program — in 1983, under the late Mayor Ed Koch — to beautify the abandoned buildings that bordered the Cross Bronx Expressway by putting vinyl decals in the jagged remains of the punched out windows? Crack addicts and smack heads shooting up inside, but — for the outsiders passing through on their way from suburban Jersey to suburban Long Island, decals decorated with pretty shutters, pastel flower pots, drawn-back pleats of curtains, and half- pulled-down shades.

There was an uproar, of course, about the cynical program, the racist implications, the city’s failure to help the poorest residents better their lives, etc., etc., but at least no one was living in those buildings when the decals went up. The program cost the  comparatively rich New York City  $300,000.

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                                                                              photo by Ricky Flores

I have to say that for whatever reason, a free paint job for your house is a lot better than decals covering the shattered windows of economic blight. I have no doubt that the Haitians who live in Jalousie are glad to have a few brightly colored houses interspersed with the rest of the dull, crumbling, half-built, unsafe, stifling, and still unpainted beige or gray cement-block homes.

As Clement Belizaire, director of the Haitian government’s camp relocation program, told the Associated Press: “People are sitting on the balcony, having a beer, smoking a cigarette — whatever — and you have all of Port-au-Prince at your feet, and you’re living in colors.” Of course, the problem with this daydream is that the guy on the Jalousie balcony in Belizaire’s imagination is unlikely, in reality, to be able to afford the beer, or even the single cigarette (that’s how cigarettes are often sold in Haiti).

Anyway, the aim of the officials in Haiti in 2013 and New York in 1983 is the same: to prettify their economic failures with a makeover, a kind of urban Botoxing. In Haiti, the cosmetic effort is especially grating, since  billions have been promised by the international community to help with earthquake recovery, and millions have actually been spent.

And yet this, THIS, is the best that can be done to improve a camp-relocation target community?

It’s shameful, really. It’s not so much that the bright exteriors are bad in themselves. It’s simply that the cheery, slapped up paint is meant to hide — but actually highlights — the profound failure of the earthquake recovery effort.

This paint job is for passersby, for people with cameras at a distance, for outsiders — for tourists, business investors, journalists, and development workers. If it were intended to help the guy on the Jalousie balcony (relaxing with his supposed beer and his cigarette), the improvement effort would consist of toilets, sinks, sewers, and generators. And not pink paint.

Guess Who Is A White Supremacist?

 

 

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                               From a t-shirt design on the Ku Klux Klan website

Amy Wilentz, “Racist Suspect,” learned something new on the radio yesterday. Actually, a few new things. 

One:

Don’t trust people who say they want “the truth,” especially when they are posing as journalists! Real reporters are never so arrogant. Also never trust a radio show that airs for two hours consecutively.

Two:

There are people who believe I am a white supremacist, a spy, and a sexual imperialist.

So yesterday I appeared as a guest on a show on something called “Justice Radio” — or that’s what I was told it was called in various emails. I was interviewed by someone who called himself Gus Lawrence in his emails to me but who calls himself Gus T Renegade on the Black Talk Radio Network (sorry, I’m not linking; but it won’t be hard to find).

Here’s how Gus T described me on his show’s site:

The Context of White Supremacy [COWS; it’s the name of his show, it turns out] welcomes Racist Suspect, Amy Wilentz … She’s written extensively on the area of the world known as Haiti. We’ll discuss her 2013 publication, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti. Somehow the 8th area of people activity becomes a dominant theme in this narrative. Amputated limbs, tens of thousands of earthquake victims, centuries of White Supremacist meddling and even Sean Penn, somehow become analogous to sexual intercourse. White people always find a way to make their contact with Victims of Racism a pornographic sewer; the whole world as the White Man’s {and White Woman’s} brothel

Yes, incomprehensible, I agree. “The 8th area of people activity,” indeed.

Having been on the show, however, I now have an inkling of what Gus T could possibly mean by all this.

There’s a section in my book where I write about a theoretical American reader of a photo book called Haiti: Tragedy and Hope, that was put out by Time, Inc. Books in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. I describe this theoretical reader as sitting in his comfortable living room and looking at pictures of earthquake victims that I describe as virtually “pornographic” —and his interest similarly. In the section, I’m critical of what I see as the cynical use of tragic images to make money, and I also point out that when I write about Haiti, in a way I’m doing the same thing.

So Gus T misread the section. I will say this: unlike most of the callers-in to the show, and unlike many interviewers I’ve dealt with, Gus T had at least read the book. But every section he quoted at me, he had misread and misunderstood. What I criticized, he thought I endorsed. I would assert that it was a willful misreading, but I don’t think that’s the case.

It’s just that like most ideologues and all thought police, Gus T is singularly post-ironic.  

Anyway, I was richly accused by callers-in of being a racist and white supremacist, which is something that I have always associated with George Corley Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan, having grown up during the Civil Rights movement.

But that’s not what white supremacy means today. There’s a broader way of describing it.

Here’s a quote from University of Tennessee law professor emeritus Frances Lee Ansley:

By “white supremacy” I do not mean to allude to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily re-enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.

This is not exactly the active white supremacy Gus T described on the show: spreading white supremacy and dominance “throughout the universe.” However, Dr. Ansley’s description so accurately conveys what Haiti has been like since the earthquake, and so succinctly conveys the subject matter and argument of my book, that I had to do a double take when I read it.

I was also told by Gus T and the callers that I had too much access to US publications, and I should get out of the way so Haitians could publish pieces on Haiti in American papers and magazines — this is in fact something I’ve been thinking about, and this blog that you’re reading lets me write about Haiti without taking up print real-estate.

Go, English-speaking Haitian writers and reporters: the field is yours!

Anyway, the show gave me ample fodder for thought. Gus T and another caller pointed out that although I had castigated an important foreign institution for its information-gathering in Haiti, and had compared its work to spying in the old days, I too was an information-gatherer in Haiti. 

I tried to explain that this is what reporters do, and that journalists explain the world they see to people who haven’t seen it, but my interlocutors were having none of it.

They asked me point blank if I was in the employ of any foreign intelligence agency. (They seriously used this language: “are you now or have you ever been…”) They also wanted to know if I’d ever had sex with a Haitian, and also how much did I get for my book. Geez. And all these questions were asked in that post-ironic way: as if I would certainly respond truthfully. 

Let’s put it this way, it was an interesting. uncomfortable, slightly insane but useful two hours —  and I’m really glad it’s over.

PS I had to hang up on them, because at 2 hours and five minutes, they were still having such a good time I could see they’d never let me go!

Fixing One Thing

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Image courtesy of Haiti Stands on its Feet

After the 2010 Haitian earthquake, I visited the Physicians Without Borders emergency clinic in Léogâne. Patients with varying degrees of injuries were waiting for attention on the long driveway there. The doctor I talked to that day was full of posturing and foolishness, unlike most of the doctors I’d met who work with this group. In the long line of patients was one boy who’d lost both arms when his house fell on him, and of course both his hands, as well. He was three years old.

He was waiting and waiting — for hours.

Eventually, late that afternoon, I brought him and his mother to Port-au-Prince to get more pain medicine and to make sure his wounds had been properly dressed and fixed.

They hadn’t been, and the volunteer doctors in Port-au-Prince gave the boy what’s called a refinement operation. Soon after, he and his mother disappeared back into the countryside, and, searching in desultory, on-and-off fashion, I couldn’t find him again.

So when I visited Haiti most recently, in December 2012, I made this kid my priority. I had written about him in my new book, and felt an urgent need to make things better for him. I knew that if he had been a little guy in the US, injured in such a catastrophe, he would have had prosthetic arms within a few weeks or months of the disaster.

And so I did find him.

A big New York doctor told me that he couldn’t really begin to advise me about the kid until I could offer him some photos of the injuries — so I took photos, too. The child’s family shack was on a remote hilltop somewhere outside Léogâne. I got the pictures and sent them to my New York specialist who wrote back: “He needs prosthetic arms.” Duh. For this we need a medical degree?

But he also sent me some contact numbers and emails of orthopedists working in Haiti, and it turned out that the first ones I contacted, Haiti Stands on its Feet, a Puerto-Rico based group, were coming down to Haiti in January, 2013, to see patients at a clinic not so far from Léogåne. I contacted them, and they said they’d very much like to see this patient.

From here in California, I called Roberny Rosier in Port-au-Prince — Roberny, the heroic driver who’d gotten me over three rivers and up steep hillsides to the boy in December, and he agreed to go find the kid again, and bring him to the clinic.

After three visits, the most recent last Thursday, March 14, the child, now six years old, has a set of prosthetic arms. Thank you, Haiti Stands on its Feet!!

Naturally, I am happy about this — but still, I worry that it will be so hard for the child to stay focused on getting used to his new arms. His mother died of heart problems soon after the earthquake; he has an attentive father, but he lives in a big household, and that father has many other responsibilities. Plus there is so much stress in the Haitian countryside, so much poverty, so little work and so little food — it’s not like the kid can go to his physical therapist every other day. It’s not as itf he has a state-funded caregiver. He doesn’t even attend school.

So I am worried but hopeful. The boy’s doctors at Haiti Stands on its Feet seem to care in a serious way. His were the first upper body prostheses they have put together for their Haitian patients.

Well, so far it’s the kind of feel-good story I never thought I’d be part of.