Day 23: Black History Month: “’The Women of Tomorrow’: Haitian Women Speak: Twenty-five Quotes and Declarations from Haitian Women Writers and Thinkers”
As we continue to celebrate the contributions of Haiti and Haitians to human flourishing in the world during the Black History Month, in this post, we look at some important concerns Haitian women writers and intellectuals have raised regarding the status and welfare of women in the Haitian society and in the world; we also pay attention to their broad vision of life itself. What follows below is a selection of twenty-five quotes and declarations from these Haitian women.
- On exile
“It’s not easy to start over in a new place,’ he said. ‘Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.”
—Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (2007)
- On Haitian optimism and Strength
“Haiti is not a lost cause or a basket case. We have a rare history – a unique history – and a vibrant culture. We have to look to the future, but the weight of this [disaster] is still on us.”
Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis, Interview (2010)
- Haitian Society and the Plot of Haitian Women
“For several years the Haitian economy has posted disturbing macroeconomic indicators and negative growth in real terms. The longevity of such a crisis increases the difficulties of Haitians living together in a national community where they historically have not enjoyed full citizenship. Poverty, inequality, the permanence of anti-democratic structures, totalitarian temptations, and state violence are among the many motifs that push feminist thought to question the exercise of citizenship in this country, which, for the moment, receives a great deal of media coverage but remains nevertheless poorly understood.”
—Myriam Merlet, “Haiti: Women in Conquest of Full and Total Citizenship in an Endless Transition” (2010)
- On hope and difference
“Hope is not something that one often associates with Haiti. An anthropologist and critic representations of the island, I have often questioned narratives that reduce Haiti to simple categories and in the process dehumanize Haitians. Yes, we may be the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but there is life there, love, and an undeniable and unbeatable spirit of creative survivalism.”
—Gina Athena Ulysse, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle (2015)
- Vodou as Humanism
“All knowledge presupposes a fundamental holism grounded in the idea of oneness and unity of all forces of nature, in the idea of independence and interconnectedness of these forces, and in the premise of supremacy of totality over individuality. The universe is a seamless cosmos where every force has meaning and a connection with other entities. Creating dissonance in nature’s polyrhythms, disturbing the harmonious flow of tings, and bringing about division in the community are all acts that represent moral transgression in the Vodou world. Due to the web of interconnectedness, a person’s moral violation distracts, disturb, and perturb the outer world that ought to seek restoration of its harmonious state and rhythm. Morality for those who serve the spirits is a constant effort to maintain social cohesion, harmony, and balance. What is ‘right’ in the Vodou world is not a function of abstract reasoning but is relative to what achieve unity.
—Claudine Michel, “Vodou in Haiti: Way of Life and Mode of Survival” (2006)
- On Marriage and Freedom
“I had declined the honor of marrying you because I was against the horrible transaction this marriage was to be, but I was sold… “No, a subjugated people, like an oppressed person does not ask for freedom, they take it: even if they have to spill their blood or die in its conquest.”
– Cleante Valcin, La blanche negresse (1934)
- On Miseducation and Afro-Haitianness
Miseducation is a system of organized schooling used as a tool of domination to promote a genocide of the mind while assuring the continuity of the colonization process… The disempowering effect of the European-based school system denies Haitian the opportunity to see the real meaning of the freedom they fought so hard for and obscures their historical origins. The school system impedes awareness of cultural traditions, promotes Euro-American history, and transmits to every new generation of students the trauma of denial African identity and alienation of self. Thus, it runs country to any peace building efforts. Instead of placing emphasis on the value of African culture, schooling in Haiti has become a weapon that excludes the African presence and promotes neocolonial oppression.”
—Margaret Mitchell Armand, Healing in the Homeland: Haitian Vodou Tradition (2013)
- On Modernization and Progress
“The occupation [The U.S. occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934] initiated a process of modernization that gave the country a veneer of apparent civilization. The traditional mulatto elite and certain groups among the nascent middle class, both mulatto and black, integrated themselves to a certain extent with the managers of this modernization. The inauguration of urbanization projects, especially in the capital, gave the impression of a change that was favorable for development. This was the period of the construction of the Palais National (National Place), the Casernes Dessalines (Dessalines Garrison), the Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice) and the Palais Legislatif (Legislative Palace), the Faculte de Medecine (Medical School, etc. These urbanization projects transformed Port-au-Prince, which ceased to be a “large.”
We cannot insist enough on the superficial and utilitarian characheristic of this modernization, since the charges that were produced through the occupation left the fundamental structure of the country intact. The impetus given to the development of the cities and the creation of administrative institutions could not in any way resolve the serious economic and social problems Haiti suffered from.
The archaic agriculture structures remained intact. Changes were only adopted to the extent that they showed themselves to the be indispensable to assure the success of American investors. But in fact, there were very few changes introduced into the agrarian structure.
Land ownership, as was the case before 1915, was characterized by a large concentration of property in the hands of the State and large property-owners. At the same time, the fragmentation of the “habitation” (small land-holdings) had increased, along with the lack of land among the peasantry. In 1941, the agronomist Schiller Nicolas (a specialist in Agricultural Economy estimated that the State owned thirty percent of the total land in the country.
The massive dispossessions carried out to benefit American capitalist increased the number of peasants without land, leading to the pauperization of the middle levels of the peasantry.”
—Suzy Castor, Veneer of Modernization
- On Women Solidarity and Internationalism
“Now the ‘Voice of Women’ begins again, strengthened by the support of new collaborators. It is not the organ of a party or the defender of a doctrine. It wishes to extend its activities to include everything that concerns women. It wishes to be the link between all Haitian women who do not know one another. Thus, it will try to connect them to women around the world who, whether free or oppressed, are working for the emancipation of women. It will enable these women to become aware of themselves and to organize themselves according to their affinities, their abilities, their political convictions…
We will travel further afield to take a look at women in other countries, in order to work hand in hand for a little more love and harmony in the world. We hope, gentlemen, that you will come talk to us sometimes, as friends, about the social problems that are wreaking havoc in or country and the world, and that together we will manage to solve them through a ‘collaboration of both sexes for the good of the country.”
—Madeleine Sylvain-Bouchereau (1907-1970), On the Voice of Women/La Voix des Femmes (1947)
- On Women’s Emancipation and Future
“We need to make our peace with the loss of certain ways of life, for we will never return to those patriarchal traditions that some people look on with nostalgia. Isn’t humanity marching toward a new ideal, in which the apathy of earlier times is no longer appropriate?
The young woman needs a clear initiation into her diverse tasks, as much as with regard to work as with regard to her social duties and moral life. She is not obligated to be self-sufficient, to participate in public life, to take responsibility, to run the risks of freedom. In our milieu as elsewhere, these have become realities. Isn’t it important for her to be prepared?
We demand the young woman’s emancipation because this emancipation is the necessary corollary of women’s emancipation. She has to be able to fully exercise her political rights once she has acquired them. We cannot wait for her to change civil status to ask her to prepare and apply herself.
We demand the young woman’s emancipation because young women are the vital forces of the nation and the reserves for the future.
We demand the young woman’s emancipation because a society that wants to be strong must use all of its elements indiscriminately, regardless of sex or civil status; because the young woman who contents herself with being only a young woman, which means not to be at all, is deadweight and the community cannot drag deadweight around forever, without eventually transforming it into countless radioactive rays.
Because there will be more young female doctors and nurses unafraid of the night when it is a matter of saving a life or of relieving suffering. There will be more educators who are not afraid of the bush, nor of far-flung villages when it is a matter of bringing lifght.
There will be more women lawyers who are not intimidated by a single gaze in a crowd of thousands when it is a matter of the triumph of justice.
There will be more social workers whose new role is… so fulfilling and so productive…that no filthy door can repulse them when it is a matter of knocking to bring knowledge and well-being.
There will be more young artists unafraid to express their talents whatever those might be, even if such expression causes endless talk and incurs general disapproval.
There will be more women whose intelligence will not only be on display in salons, as has too often been the case up until now.
Our little country will be much more prepared to fulfill its role as a great nation. It will depend on the young woman, standing on the shore of time and turned toward this future that her hope fills with sunlight, who must not let herself be blinded by mirages and led toward false happiness.”
—Marie-Therese Colimon-Hall, On Women’s Emancipation (1950)
- On Rape and Violence
“Foregrounding survivor narratives of rape that call into question the established dialectic of struggle between the colonizer and the colonizer will yield new and necessary theorization of violence that are more complex and complete than are previous ideologies.”
—Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary (2016)
- On Duvalier and Women Oppression
“The Duvalier state also targeted women in a systematic way, redefining forms of gender oppression…The Duvalierist state focused on a ‘patriotic woman’ whose allegiance was first to Duvalier’s nation and state. Any woman or man who did not adhere to these policies became an enemy subject to political repression…
The Duvalierist state would restructure and redefine gender roles and representation with two constructed categories of women: a reappropriated historical gender symbol represented by a rebellious slave woman, Marie Jeanne, who as a new constructed category, was transformed into ‘une fille de la revolution [sic] (daughter of the revolution) and became an integral part of the state paramilitary forces; and, parallel to the new ‘Marie Jeanne,’ another woman—the enemy of the state and the nation. Women who were not loyal to the Duvalierist cause were defined primarily as subversive, unpatriotic, and ‘unnatural.’
Paradoxically, the creation of the category of ‘Marie Jeannes’ gave access to social mobility of [sic] a few women in the black middle class. Yet this form of ‘state feminism’ had a morbid side. For instance, Duvalier nominated a woman as commander-in-chief of its [sic] notorious paramilitary forces, the Tonton Macoutes. Abuse of women by women was the common forms of torture for suspected political opponents…All the Duvalierist congress-women were prominent members of the Tonton Macoutes, giving them access to wealth and privileges.”
—Carolle Charles, Gender and Politics in Contemporary Haiti (1995)
- On the Human Condition in Haiti
“Misery, social injustice, all the injustices in the world, and they are countless, will disappear only with the human species. One remedies hundreds of miseries only to discover millions of others…It’s a lost cause. And of course, there is the hunger of the senses. All sufferings are equal. To defend himself, man refines the meanness of his heart. By what miracle has this poor nation managed to stay say so good, so welcoming, so joyful for so long, despite its poverty, despite injustice, prejudice, and our many civil wars? We have been practicing at cutting each other’s throats since Independence. The claws of our people have been growing and getting sharper. Hatred has hatched among us, and torturers have crawled out of the nest. They tortured you before cutting your throat. It’s a colonial legacy to which we cling, just as we cling to French. We excel at the former but struggle with the latter.”
—Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych (2009)
- On Totalitarianism and State Violence
“The Secretary of State was right: Francois Duvalier was named president for life in a referendum whose ballots offered only one choice, a single option: yes, like a long battle cry. A three-day free-for-all marked the victory of the revolution.
Daniel Leroy was kidnapped by tontons macoutes because he wrote articles denouncing violations of human rights; assaults on the constitutions; the rape and pillaging of women, children, people’s property. He was imprisoned at Fort-Dimanche, where men die every day of privation, torture, illness, and despair. This pain, this lack, this sorrow has become ingredients mixed with my blood. They inhabit me; I can’t get rid of them; they take my right to live, to sleep peacefully, to laugh, to see an end to my disarray. I feel a cold despair that has transformed the cells of my body. The image of my life has become muddled; I am waiting for it to become clear again when Daniel is freed. The dictatorship devours healthy life like a cancer; it seems immortal, eternal; it gets stronger, bolder every day; it gets drunk off its own power. Every man here is a leader, and society is caught in the web of a network of leaders at every level, monitoring their citizens’ every breath.”
—Kettly Mars, Savage Seasons (2010/2015)
- On the Possibility of Unity and Shalom
“Life robs us of what we give a hundredfold to the gods. Life takes you and holds her hands tight around your neck and, when she thinks of suffocating you, that’s when you breathe harder and harder. That’s when you twist yourself out from under her hold, without her even noticing it and you stick out your tongue at life. A magnificent little prank. A liberating joy. The joy of a savage child.
We were united more than ever. Against the dangers coming from those stronger than us. Against the threats of all those who were like us, the vanquished, who resembled us like two drops of water do each other, but who were not the children of the demembre.
We slipped on the paths, silent like pilgrims still inhabited by the mystery of a wise, joyful, and distant journey. Our dreams had taken us so far away, in a light so ancient that we staggered a little in the pink and bluish shadow of that dawn.”
—Yanick Lahens, Moonbath (2014)
- On the Predicament of Slavery and Dehumanization
“One day they brought us outside to stand in front of white men. I learned afterward that they were ship captains who had come from their ships that every morning with surgeons to inspect us. You know how it goes. Alas, you’ve witnessed the buying and selling of human beings since the day you were born. It’s true you didn’t feel those hands on your skin, rubbing it sometimes to see if it was really shiny or the product of lemon juice and gunpowder. No one forced open your lips to examine your teeth. No buyer ever spit in your face to make you understand that while there may have been physical closeness between you and him, there was no intimacy. But Lisette, you know how this can tear up the insides of a human being. Shortly after being inspected and purchased, we were branded. The surgeon was in charge, and he used red-hot branding irons made of silver. He smeared the top of my right breast with honey, then placed an oily sheet of paper over it before applying the seal.”
—Evelyne Truillot, The Infamous Rosalie (2013/2013)
- To Dream of a new Land and a New Humanism
“The hills look on knowing that their fate will be worse than death as the long-haired men from far away climb their mounds and into their fissures and order the cutting down of fir trees hundreds of years old so that they can dig up the gold nuggets, the slivers of silver, the black, black coal below the roots. The hills will die a thousand deaths as they disemboweled of their riches. And this Hispaniola. This is the land we are left with, beautiful, violated, dying, struggling to be reborn. A place of constant metamorphosis and contradiction.
When I return to this land, it does not seem so beautiful with its scars its mutilations exposed for all to see. When I return to this land, it is a new body, a different body, a body which does not quite suit me. This body is young and supple and doesn’t yet know of life’s troubles. But it learns very quickly as I work in the fields, cutting cane. The flesh of my hands, of my feet, is sliced open over and over again; tissue grows over tissue in repair. I grow thick, unlike myself. Every day, I battle this body and my body is embattled by the work, the scorching sun, the overseer with his whip, his gold teeth glinting at me in the night when his soft hands travel over my coarsened body in search of himself. I teach this body to know nothing, to remember nothing.
We have been brought to this land to serve these children, these orphans who must look at someone with trust in their eyes, hope clutched in their hands like a rare fruit. They are my second family, my second chance. I forget my home, my flowers, to tend to them, gathering them to me at right to tell them stories… I want them to remember something they cannot recall that once this land was sacred and one of the most beautiful creations of all this world. “
—Myriam J.A. Chancy, The Scorpion’s Claw (2004)
- On Defensive Violence and National Sovereignty
“The revolutionary logic endorsed by the most ardent avenger of the slaves in Saint-Domingue, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had encouraged defensive violence as the singular answer to the political non-existence of both the slaves and the free people of color. Dessalines’ revolutionary rhetoric also encouraged post-independence Haitians to view violence as the continuous key to their sovereignty. In his ‘Proclamation at Gonaives’ addressing the citizens of the newly formed Haiti Dessalines reminded the populace that liberty had only been won by the price of ‘your blood.’”
—Marlene Daut, Tropics of Haiti (2015)
- On the Dignity of Blackness and Haitianness
“It the United States, it is a known fact that race is a fundamental dimension of identification, and it can play an overwhelming role in shaping the life chances of its inhabitants. Haitian immigrants at a very early stage come to realize that they have entered a society that, unlike their own, uses a classification system based on race. Furthermore, they discover that fundamental distinctions exist between the races and that people are still treated differently because of their race. The principle of race equality so deeply ingrained in Haitians’ consciousness since 1804 does not necessarily hold true in the United States, particularly in practice. In the United States, the term Black does not convey the same positive meaning that it does in the homeland—that is to say freedom, independence, majority, equality, and pride. To some segments of American society, it can mean the exact opposite: inferiority, minority, inequality, and oppression.”
—Flore Zephir, The Haitian Americans (2004)
- Women as Life and Energy
“Class distinctions are marked also by the amount of cash women can generate in their marketing activities. Thus the ‘Madan Sara’, and small shop-(‘boutique’)-keepers are above the ordinary market women and roadside retailers…. It is worth nothing that women control the money earned through marketing operations. They set the quantities to be sold from the harvest as well as the prices. They make decisions about household expenditure and the purchase of manufactured goods.”
—Marie-Jose N’Zengou-Tayo, ‘”’ Fanm Se Poto Mitan: Haitian Woman, the Pillar of Society” (1998)
- On Haitian Women and Haiti’s Economy
“Women have an intrinsic value to Haiti’s economy. Not only do economic opportunities for women foster development, it promotes economic empowerment, invokes women’s agency, and it supports livelihoods. Three-quarters of those working in the informal economy sector in Haiti are women. These women overwhelmingly work in a sector that is unregulated, unsupervised, and unstable, and their profits and opportunities for growth may be limited… Haitian women’s engagement within the informal economy is not only a sign of economic desperation, but also of resiliency and creative.”
—Crystal Andrea Felima, “The Economics of Vodou” Haitian Women, Entrepreneurship, and Agency” (2016)
- On Haitian Exceptionalism as Human Resilience
“The Haitian Revolution did not develop out of an isolationist ethos, nor was the vision and actuality of the revolution produced in isolation. The revolution was never just about the freedom of enslaved Haitians in Saint-Domingue. Limiting Haitian exceptionalism to a Haitian ethos without acknowledging this paradigm as a political and methodological move with broader implications beyond a nationalist agenda only results in a displacement of Haiti from global, international, and transnational exchanges and linkages.
I would like to raise a larger question that not only pushes us to think about Caribbean affiliation, but also African diasporic connections. If the myth of Haitian exceptionalism authorizes both the production of Haiti in the media and the articulation of Haitian identity, history, and culture in Haitian Studies, how then have the narratives and rhetoric of the Haitian Revolution made the leap beyond Haiti’s singularity and placed the revolution as symbol in collective consciousness of the Caribbean, or African diaspora in general? The paradigm of Haitian exceptionalism tells us that the theoretical leap from viewing the Haitian Revolution as singular event to a collective and universal event in many ways has not been organic either, but an ongoing structural political and methodological process. Ignoring the political and methodological uses of Haitian exceptionalism by Haitian intellectuals and writers is a displacement that further marginalizes Haiti from global affiliation and coalition.
But if the foundation of Haitian exceptionalism is framed by the historic event of 1804, how do we deal with the notion of Haitian exceptionalism when we move beyond the glorious revolution? Post-earthquake, we are also witnessing a shift in grand historical narratives of Haiti. There is now the Haiti before the earthquake and the Haiti after the earthquake. The language of Haitian exceptionalism reemerges in post-earthquake narratives, marking the unprecedented catastrophe in national, transnational and global consciousness. I argue that there is a more recent manifestation of positive Haitian exceptionalism as that takes center stage post-earthquake and is not just about how Haitians perceive themselves, but also how they are being perceived by others. I further argue that the buzzword for this new articulation of Haitian exceptionalism, as I have seen it in the myriad responses to the earthquake, is resilience.”
—Nadege T. Clitandre, Haitian Exceptionalism in the Caribbean and the project of Rebuilding Haiti (2011)
*** I am very grateful for the editors and contributors of this amazing and informative anthology, The Haiti Reader: History, Culture, Politics (2020) edited by Laurent Dubois, Kaima L. Glover, Nadeve Menard, Millery Polyne, and Chantalle F. Verna. Some of the English translations in this post are taken directly from this excellent text.