Love and Haiti

Conde Nast Traveler (September 2009)


Love and Haiti

By Amy Wilenz

You can call Haiti the Cleopatra of countries—its ravishing natural assets, thrilling history, and magnetic culture have long made select visitors swoon. Its tortured past, however, has made it the Caribbean nation that tourism largely forgot. But this, reports Amy Wilentz, may have to change.

This is a love song. It’s a Haitian love song, played on three drums and an electric slide guitar that never sounds quite on key. No question, you can dance to it.

I’m writing this song not just for me but on behalf of the thousands who have come to Haiti over the centuries and been touched by it, moved by it, even changed forever: the writer Zora Neale Hurston and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Haiti. The actors John Gielgud, John Barrymore, Richard Burton, and, more recently, Danny Glover, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. I’m writing for rock stars Mick Jagger and David Byrne and for rapper Wyclef Jean (who’s actually Haitian-American, and who introduced some of the aforementioned to his homeland), and for the great anthropologist, physician, and author Paul Farmer.

I’m also writing this love song for Maya Deren and Katherine Dunham, both of whom documented traditional Haitian dance and were bitten by the Haiti bug. This song goes out, too, to director Jonathan Demme, whose son was named after a Haitian shantytown, whose walls are covered with Haitian art, and whose films always have a Haitian touch. In this eclectic group are other writers, also: William Styron, Lillian Hellman, and Haiti’s greatest foreign fictionalizer, Graham Greene.

Let’s not forget eternally optimistic Congressman Dick Durbin, longtime lover of Haiti, or Bill Clinton (the third U.S. president ever to visit—and now the UN’s special envoy to the country), or Jimmy Carter, who came to monitor elections, or possibly the grandest of foreign dignitaries who fell for Haiti, Franklin Roosevelt, who drafted one of the country’s many constitutions (that’s how we conducted foreign policy back then) and was the first U.S. president to visit—in 1934. Hats off, too, to the late pontiff Jen-Pol Dè, as we write his name in Creole; he came to Haiti during the time of the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and said that things had to change.

Not to be too arrogant, but I am also writing this song on behalf of Christopher Columbus.

Haiti is not a place you just visit, as Columbus would surely have told you (he shipwrecked there in 1492). It’s not a stream into which you just dip a toe. Here, you dive in headlong. It drives you crazy—with love, with anxiety, with desire. You fall into its arms as if it’s been waiting forever to receive you.

It hasn’t. And as with any great unrequited love, Haiti’s indifference only makes you crazier for the place.

Haiti is the Cleopatra of countries, a destination unparalleled on so many levels. It has eccentric history and a tri-continental culture. Its syncretic art is singular and explosive, tender and transcendent. In Haiti, even a pile of garlic for sale, a row of plastic bowls from Taiwan, a display of brassieres (locally manufactured), black bags of charcoal standing at drunken angles cheek by jowl, can be a delicate, devilish masterpiece. There is an ethos of making do with what you have that leads to an ability to make much out of little, to make magisterial statements out of the least materials: With two or three beans, a chicken feather, an old rag of worn-out satin, and a hollowed-out gourd, a voodoo priest can make a whimsical charm that wards off evil.

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 “Amy Wilenz could have added to the list of well known Haitianophiles Simon Bolivar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Aime Cesaire, Alejo Carpentier, Andre Breton, et j’en passe,  open-minded and cosmopolitan men and women  who could recognize, beyond the usual cliches associated with Haiti, an intellectually keen, culturally rich, socially gracious, historically conscious, politically sophisticated,  and spritually aware people” (Dr. Asselin Charles)