What Do You Love About Haiti?

 Phoebe Rusch is a lecturer in the English department at University of Michigan, where they were a Zell fellow in fiction and received Hopwood awards in screenwriting and non-fiction. Their essays have appeared in Bust magazine, World Policy Journal online and The Mighty, and their poems in Luna Luna.


Phoebe Rusch is a lecturer in the English department at University of Michigan, where they were a Zell fellow in fiction and received Hopwood awards in screenwriting and non-fiction. Their essays have appeared in Bust magazine, World Policy Journal online and The Mighty, and their poems in Luna Luna.

 In 1804, former slaves led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated Napoleon, creating the world’s first independent black republic. In 1825, Haiti paid reparations to France for “lost property” in order to expel French warships, creating a cycle of irreversible debt. From 1915 to 1934, U.S. marines occupied Haiti, carrying out extrajudicial executions, instituting chain-gang labor and forcing the senate to re-write the constitution at gunpoint.

I.

The question takes a different meaning
when asked by other white Americans, perplexed
as if there could be nothing about Haiti genuinely worthy
of love—no art, no cuisine, no literature, no sensibility,
no thought not derivative, no marvels like Europe’s
cathedrals and triple-cream cheeses,
only an infant swaddled in torn cloth, crying to be held
in any stranger’s arms—

than it does when being side-eyed by Haitians
tired of bullshit in its many domestic
and imported forms. Humans still
set up house under tarp though
the earth bucked like a live thing
years ago, and I was there
when it did, so I say that’s why Haiti,
why the obsession, because it’s easier
to explain shock than honest yearning
for a place where I clearly don’t belong,
a place whose history seeks to subvert
easy lives like mine, built on others’
backs, into parity.

The revolution remains in the
oxidized cannons pointed in perpetuity
toward France, in a scrap-metal Madonna,
Erzulie nursing Jesus who was a brown revolutionary
like Toussaint, like Charlemagne Peralte, crucified
against a door by coal-smeared American marines, in paintings
of vodouisants ascending into the sky and ancestors
convening at the bottom of the sea, in the sly, queer smile
of a rara procession horning, in a note sung atonal, hip thrust,
woman possessed by male warrior god, embodying god,
a democratic boundless and expansive god who shits and eats,
in fluidity, multiplicity, in Kreyol

wordplay holding keys no child of god who looks like me
can truly parse or ever own

and isn’t this
as worthy as shopping sprees
in Milan, as prosciutto and wine?
This dream of freedom feared and radical,
caged and starved, that could still
upend the world into kingdom
if ever released?

II.

I’d never seen a dead body
before the earthquake. The earth
that day felt like something moving
underneath, in pursuit. In 1804, the year
of independence, Dessalines purged
the white people, at least the French,
sparing the Poles who defected against
Napoleon. I like to think I’d have
been spared too, my death not requisite
to build anew, though I probably
would have benefitted from slavery then
as I do now.

After the earthquake, I became accustomed
to the smell of death, no longer noticed it
clinging to my clothes, my skin. It became
the norm that houses should look like dioramas,
rooms exposed: staircases twisted and mangled,
kitchen tables tilting.

In the Champs de Mars, people tried to sleep
while sewage ran into their makeshift homes
with every heavy rain. How ferociously

some are forced to fight for human dignity.
When I returned to my own home, four lane highways
and menus with such a glut of options struck me
as an aberration, abomination, necessary sacrifice
demanded for the leavening.

III.

Not only skin but nation
enlist

in service of cyclical
cruelty almost cosmic,
deflecting blame upon

the sea and wind, God and the devil
wrestling in the blood
we don’t see beneath our fingernails:
how white Americans try, and try, to give

and enslave
our estranged family anyway

unable to defect from convenience
and maybe after death there’s only death,
even on the day of resurrection we wouldn’t
see each other dazzling fully human and clear
not even those who could be our child, yet

all flesh keeps groaning
toward promise, toward birth.

***

 

DO YOU LOVE HAITI? Don’t miss #ReadCaribbean at @MiamiBookFair. On Sunday, November 20, it’s all about Haiti. Join us all day in room 8301.

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