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Category: International

Haiti: Absent in Life, Death and On the Evening News

| January 20, 2010

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The author, here volunteering along with Haitian Jean Murat, applies ointment on an infected woman in March of 2009.

The author, who has worked in Cite Soleil, a poor district hit hard by the earthquake, asks us to see her partner and friends in Port-au-Prince through her eyes, not as they are customarily portrayed in the media.

I pictured them at first huddled on top of one another in a huge, human pile. My friends and adopted family, who live in Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti—quaking from the shocks that gripped them, trying hard to hold each other down during tragic times, as Haitians are often forced to do. Are they there? Still alive? Phone lines continue to ring silently into the night, and the media mentions Cite Soleil only to say that, as a slum, it exists.

Envisioning my 24-year-old partner Robinson—who runs an orphanage and medical clinic on this landfill-plantation of 300,000 along the capital's coastline—rescuing the orphans that he cares for is what keeps my heart beating. But if there is no longer a Robinson? For me and the thousands of Cite Soleil residents that he serves on a daily basis that would be an enormous loss, but to the rest of the world, men like Robinson simply don't exist. They are suspiciously absent from the media because their realities lie far from those of the "mainstream." To see them would require reporters to dig deeply into history and various political agendas but most of all to immerse themselves in places that they are usually unwilling or afraid to go to. Places like Cite Soleil.

Because of the media's limited perspective, Haiti's story and the stories of its good, honorable, hygienic and hardworking masses—even in Cite Soleil—never get told on the evening news. I've seen this happen again and again as a journalist and human rights advocate. Robinson, who works as a community activist, medical assistant, interpreter and big brother to orphans in one of the poorest places on earth, is not the image of Haiti or even of black men that you will see during the coverage of this disaster—or of any other in the places where poor and black people live. Robinson is not your typical gangster, rapper or athlete. He has no claim to fame, like Wyclef Jean. He is simply one of millions of black men, black people, who have lived and rallied against a torturous existence because of the consequences of slavery and colonialism on their lives and lands. Rather than providing their viewers with an examination of how Haiti came to be what it currently is—a nation of the descendants of slaves who carry with them the generational consequences of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and all of the political, economic and social insanity that goes along with that—the Western media remains content to share with its viewers only that Haiti is poor, illiterate and incapable of governing itself. Talk about blaming the victim.

One way to give aid to Haiti immediately is to stop slandering and shaming its peoples in the international media. Another is to incorporate the perspectives of Haitians themselves into current news coverage. Let everyday Haitians, not just Wyclef, tell their stories, which are searingly different from Jean's own. Black stories rarely get told on the evening news because the tellers are not white, educated, color or class privileged enough to influence decisions made by producers and editors. We do, however, hear the opinions of the Pat Robertsons of the world, with such gems as: "You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free [from slavery]. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other." Nice.

The fact that black peoples' histories and realities have actually been thoroughly shaped by racism, white supremacy and international coercion is frequently deleted and edited out of news and feature stories. Or, it is erased and trivialized by scholars and politicians. Thus—perhaps because whites’ fear of history is great and black people’s access to the media is limited—the descendants of slaves remain voiceless, branded, ignored and set aside in ghettos like Cite Soleil, in countries like Haiti, deemed irrelevant by a world that can never know the many blessings and lessons they have to give or the levels of capability they can achieve.

People will tell you that Haiti is violent and chaotic, mad, evil and insane. That it is riddled with gangs, voodoo, corruption, poverty and illiteracy, and that as a state it has failed because its leaders are incapable of running a functioning government. This is not true. Haiti is a paradise, in parts. Its people have highly developed morals and principles. Even the poorest peasant farmer has a strong understanding of politics and of what democracy should look like. But nearly every Haitian suffers in some way from the colonial legacy in Haiti, which has bred dependency, colorism, rabid individualism and profound poverty. You will not hear on the evening news of the many unnecessary obstacles that Haitians have had to overcome primarily because of U.S. and French foreign policy, or of the countless human rights abuses against Haitians that were being committed by United Nations peacekeepers prior to the earthquake. You will not hear these stories until Haitians, as well as other Afrodescendants around the world, come to be viewed fully by the international community as equal and competent human beings. You will not hear Haiti's true story until everyday Haitians are afforded a voice of their own.

When Robinson and I last toured Cite Soleil in March of 2009, a small girl approached me from out of nowhere, shoving a tiny piece of paper into my hand. Then she ran away. On that paper she had scribbled her name: Adline Verne. It took me some time to understand how powerful it was that she had no concrete expectations and had asked nothing of me. She merely wanted me to know, for future reference, that she existed. Because she opened her hand to extend to me this information, I feel obligated by journalistic responsibility to report it. In Haiti, there are millions of voiceless, nameless people like Adline.

Maybe now their voices will be heard.

On Sunday this week, the author finally was able to speak to clinic director Robinson Remedor, who survived the earthquake although he watched his father and best friend's daughter die. The orphanage lost one child, and a room is demolished. The medical clinic is up and running, with the help of a team of doctors and medical supplies that arrived from Miami.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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