I recently showed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s presentation, “The Danger of A Single Story” while teaching for an advanced Black Studies class on “Theorizing the African Diaspora.” Listening to Adichie’s frustrations regarding the limitations imposed upon novelists to proffer “authentic narratives” that belie the complexity of daily realities, I was struck by the usefulness of what she was saying for teaching about Haitian literature and culture. Adichie captured what have been some of my own challenges of presenting Caribbean and African texts in the US classroom.
Take, for example a recent oral presentation on Marie-Célie Agnant’s La dot de Sara (1995), for which the students circulated a handout containing two pictures. On the right: a gleaming shot of the Montreal skyline replete with beautiful skyscrapers and lavish buildings. On the left: a picture of an unnamed Haitian village, dirt ground dampened by flood water, naked child with a bewildered look in her eye, and thatched roof hut. The juxtaposition evoked the binaries I had hoped my students would interrogate: modern/ ancient, rich/ poor, developed/ undeveloped to name but a few. On its own the presentation was quite good, a thorough exploration of mother/daughter relationships and the challenges of immigrant life for the novel’s main character. Yet it was marred by this picture; with a single image the idea of the single Haitian story of poverty rose to the top.
The picture suggested to me that perhaps despite my lecturing about vigilance regarding how popular images and stereotypes inform our perceptions of the country, the dangerous single story had snuck into the classroom. Whether facile descriptions such as the ubiquitous phrase (which I refuse to reproduce here!) that has come to be shorthand for Haiti, or the notion of boatpeople constantly streaming onto USA shores, reductive images imbue our understanding of Haiti with fatality. Perhaps my students were only half listening to Haitian historian and Haitian Studies’ Association co-founder Marc Prou’s powerful lecture about the richness of Haitian cultural and historical contributions, and the imperative distinction between “being impoverished” and “being poor.” He delivered these words to the Boston College community during an event to help contextualize the crisis in Haiti as a result of the earthquake in January. Perhaps I had failed my students by leading this section on Haitian literature with the Agnant book rather than putting Kettly Mars’ Fado (2008), first, a book set in the urban landscape un-preoccupied by the discussions of poverty that Agnant pursues. Perhaps the dominant image, especially apparent since the earthquake, was just too powerful to overcome by teaching a few novels.
Then another student, a first year student who had left Haiti only four years ago, raised her hand inquisitively. Her words were simple: “Pourquoi ces deux photos?” Why these two particular photos? The presenter explained her desire to concretize the “ici et là-bas” described in the book. She then went on to mention that she had just done a search for “Haitian village” and that the picture looked much better in color. But the question lingered. The first year student said that the problem with the photos was that it made it look as though on the one hand Montreal was beautiful whereas Haiti was not. This was certainly not the Haiti that this student was familiar with. She had access to other stories about Haiti that revealed complexity, nuance and beauty. She could challenge the single story her classmate proffered because she knew it was not the only one. I seized upon the students’ exchange as a “teachable moment” for explaining again how in the case of Haiti and many of the other Caribbean and African nations we studied in this class, for the U.S. audience, there is an undeniable dominant narrative that we must position these writers against, and that their works should help us to deconstruct it. I concluded by saying that if the image of Haiti that they are left with at the end of the semester is the one in the picture, then the purpose of the course and my teaching is in vain.
Since the earthquake, many colleges and universities across the United States’ have sponsored “teach-ins” about Haiti in order to promote awareness, educate and to counteract and make sense of all the reporting that was coming out of Haiti during the first months of this year. These events have featured Haitian academics, experts on Haiti, artists and poets using their voices to provide a deeper and more informed understanding about Haitian history and culture that includes critical analysis as well as celebratory pride. The purpose is to offer some background, some context and some alternatives in the face of a single story.
I am reminded of the elation I felt at the end of last year after learning that Edwidge Danticat has won the MacArthur prize in the same week that Guerline Dieu Damas and her five children were killed in Florida, the victims of domestic violence. That week I wrote a piece about the “highs and lows” of the Haitian diaspora, noting Danticat’s words in an interview that, “in these past twenty plus years, I have seen some movement in the complexity of our narratives.” As a teacher I attempt to render the complexity of these narratives by teaching different types of texts, teaching poems from Brassage: Yon Rekeil Poem Fanm Ayisien/ An Anthology of Poems by Haitian Women or by Félix Morriseau-Leroy alongside films by Arnold Antonin, and historic texts to provide a broader context. Yet, there are days when I wonder what more can be done to get beyond the single story.