Haitian Exceptionalism in the Caribbean and the Project of Rebuilding Haiti

By Clitandre, Nadège T. | Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Haitian Exceptionalism in the Caribbean and the Project of Rebuilding Haiti


Clitandre, Nadège T., Journal of Haitian Studies


There has been much discussion since the January 12 earthquake in Haiti on the media's representation of the nation. On television, in print, and online Haiti is portrayed, once again, as "a grotesquely unique" place.1 Immediately after the quake, we were inundated with negative responses to Haiti, its people, and its culture. From reducing the Haitian Revolution to a "pact with the devil," to calling for an intrusive paternalism that combats so called progress-resistant cultural influences, to describing the survivors of the quake as looters inciting violence, to blaming the natural disaster on the victims and their inability to use birth control, the unimaginable, unprecedented catastrophe in Haiti was being made legible through a recognizable long-standing master narrative of degradation. Haiti, as Sibylle Fischer states, was also made legible by the media through the very production of Haiti as a place "beyond comprehension."2

Of course, those of us who consider ourselves scholars of Haitian Studies and have been working on Haiti from various disciplines and fields recognize this narrative and responded quickly to a problematic representation of Haiti that ironically played a major role in unprecedented international donor support. While the media maintained its focus on the narrative of Haiti as impoverished country through images of naked and wounded black bodies, Haitian scholars and scholars of Haitian Studies were quick to intervene to expose the ways in which this narrative of degradation presented by the media effaces a long history. That is, the history of enslavement, involuntary migration and displacement; the history of colonialism, foreign intervention, forced isolation, and economic exploitation. It also effaces the complexities of Haiti's culture and religious beliefs. As we watched the images on screen, we were becoming more concerned with the possibility that Haiti is becoming what Jean Michael Dash describes as a "disappearing island," an island that disappears under complex symbols. These symbols are further amplified by the physical destruction in Port-au-Prince that makes even the urban landscape unrecognizable. The island now disappears under apocalyptic images: massive rubble, lacerated dead bodies, diseased living bodies, and makeshift tents ironically make Haiti even more visible in the global stage. Understanding this crisis of representing Haiti and the vacillating flow between its visibility and invisibility necessitates an awareness of the workings of Haitian exceptionalism. My aim here is to think through Haitian exceptionalism and its function in post-earthquake media representations. I argue that the paradigm of Haitian exceptionalism has reemerged in ways that push us to make distinctions between the negative exceptionalism that causes Haiti to disappear and reinforces problematic stereotypes, and the positive exceptionalism that centers Haiti in history and promotes regional, African diasporic, and global affiliations.

In her piece "What is a Metaphor a Metaphor for?", published just a few months after the quake in The Immanent Frame, Colin Dayan writes:

Showing images when dealing with a country alternately sentimentalized and brutalized is a dangerous business. It risks succumbing to what Michel-Rolph Trouillot called the language of Haitian exceptionalism. That is, Haiti as radically unlike any other place, as grotesquely unique. But we must remember that both processes, whether idealization or degradation, displace the human element. We face a process of sublimation, up or down. Amid evocations of a desperate people and festering landscape, the media and the "humanitarian" community continue to ignore the history and culture of Haiti.3

What does this idea of Haitian exceptionalism tell us about this ongoing struggle to speak about Haiti in a way that does not fall into the trap of two poles of representation: idealization and degradation? How does it reemerge in language post-earthquake? …

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