mercredi 27 février 2013

Haiti's Many Landscapes

Last year, in February to be precise, I read Régine O. Jackson's Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora. I loved it, and have been meaning to share some thoughts about it here, but have not gotten around to it until now. I'm actually surprised that the book hasn't been reviewed more widely since its publication.

For many years now, there has been increased attention paid to the Haitian Diaspora -- they were declared the 10th department before Nippes was! (I guess now the Diaspora would be the 11th department? That doesn't quite have the same ring to it.) But what do we mean when we evoke the djaspora? Is the Haitian community in the Bahamas comparable to the one in France? Is Boston's Haitian community equivalent to that of the DR? And what of the nuances within each of the different groups?

When there is much talk about members of the diaspora helping Haiti, investing in Haiti, there is little discussion of  their capacity  to do so. The assumption seems to be that all djaspora are in a position to help their compatriots at home. Yet, that is far from being the case. Some diasporic communities are more in need of support from the home country rather than being in a position to provide it, yet they rarely seem to receive such support.

Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora explores and illustrates all of these issues. One of the things I most loved about the book was that it does not contain chapters on Haitian communities in Miami and New York City. Not that I have anything against those two cities, but there has been tons of research done on Haitians in those communities already, much of it stellar. And we should be wary of those two enclaves being seen as representative of the Haitian diaspora as a whole. Jackson's volume contains chapters on Haitian communities in the Bahamas, in the Dominican Republic, in Boston, in Guadeloupe, in Jamaica and Montreal. Just as there is incredible diversity amongst Haitians at home, so there is among the diaspora. They do not all speak the same languages, they do not all subscribe to the same religious beliefs, and they are not similarly integrated into their host societies.

The volume contributors are highly respected researchers in their fields. Apart from Margarita Mooney's chapter, which seemed to rely mostly on anecdotes, I was very impressed with the caliber of the research and writing. Samuel Martinez's chapter on Haitians in the Dominican Republic was rather depressing, but that was to be expected given the turbulent history between the two nations. I loved learning about Haitians in 19th century Jamaica. I have always wanted to visit Cuba, but Yanique Hume's chapter now has me even more intrigued. Part III of the book is entitled Diaspora as Metageography and the authors in this section stretch the meanings of diaspora beyond its traditional limits to include soundscapes and cyberspace, to cite only two examples.

I have been on something of a history kick lately. In the past two months, I've read Alyssa Sepinwall's Haitian History: New Perspectives, Avengers of the New World and Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois, and in spite of the many references to Silencing the Past in these texts, added Ti Dife Boule sou Istwa Ayiti by Michel-Rolph Trouillot instead. Regine Jackson's volume is a wonderful addendum to that list, showing how  historical processes  have impacted and continue to impact various  Haitian communities around the world.

This book did raise one question in my mind that is not specific to Haitian Studies: why in the world are research books so expensive? I would love to tell you all to run out and buy this, but I doubt you'll be able to afford it. The hardcover runs for $122.99 on Amazon, whereas the Kindle edition is $87.59. I hope you will ask the libraries you frequent to buy it, but it makes me wonder about editorial policies. Does Routledge really want people to read this book? The contributors to Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora have made many important interventions in the discussions surrounding Haiti, its diaspora, diaspora studies in general and identity politics (which is a topic we're visting a lot on Tande lately). It would be a shame if prohibitive pricing keeps this book from being more widely known.

Contributors: Paul Brodwin, Fabienne Doucet, Heike Drothbohm,Yanique Hume, Regine O. Jackson, Samuel Martinez, Elizabeth McAlister, Margarita Mooney, Angel Adams Parham, Ermitte St. Jacques, Nina Glick Schiller, Matthew J. Smith, Gina Athena Ulysse, Chantalle F. Verna


dimanche 10 février 2013

Being Haitian...Beyond Identity Politics

It's been a while since my last post.  Between travelling to Ghana for Christmas, a bout of what appeared to be dengue fever (or malaria depending on who you ask) followed by the flu and the beginning of a new semester I have been slow to write for Tande. But I am back and looking forward to a new year with new posts on new topics, and continuing our effort trying to think about Haitian culture and literature from a range of perspectives.

Recently I was telling my husband, Ohene,  about the brilliant jazz singer Cécile McLorin-Salvant and played a bit of her music for him.  Upon hearing the song, Ohene asked, "why are they calling her Haitian?" I replied, "Because her father is Haitian and she was born and raised in Miami." To which he countered,  "But she sounds like an African-American jazz singer, nothing about the way her music sounds is Haitian." It is probably worth noting here that Ohene is a huge jazz fan. In school he took a jazz class about both the history of the music as well as the more formal elements of the genre. 

Not being familiar with McLorin-Salvant's entire body of work, I could not verify his claim, but I did recall from an interview her own musings about how people in Paris assumed she was African-American and had been exposed to jazz as her cultural heritage.  In fact, in interviews she explains that as the daughter of a French-Guadeloupean mother and Haitian father she was classically trained and more influenced by Caribbean soundscapes than African-American traditions.
As someone who thinks about the relationship between cultural identity and belonging and who is committed to getting beyond the identity politics attendant to how we "see ourselves," I think that McLorin-Salvant's music offers a compelling example of how some of these tensions play out. 

When you google Cécile McLorin-Salvant under the link for her website it identifies her as a "French-American singer" but when you click on the actual  website, her bio states that she " was born and raised in Miami, Florida of a French mother and a Haitian father." On the occasion of McLorin-Salvant's visit to Haiti and concert last fall, Roland Léonard described her trip as a "pilgrimage," clearly evoking the idea of return--so central in narratives of diasporic journeys--for an article in Le nouvelliste. Understanding that identification and misidentification are always a part of how we process the different ways that people identify and define themselves, there are countless questions that we can ask on this topic. 

How do we define identity?  What constitutes belonging? When does a generation in the diaspora cease to have ties to the homeland?  At some point, does one's identity in diaspora overshadow any ties they have to the homeland?  How does one reconcile a deep feeling of belonging that is based only on an imagined homeland?  How do we think about cultural belonging in more fluid ways in the face of the rigidity of citizenship? These are the kinds of questions I have been having my students wrestle with in my two  classes this semester--"Theorizing the Diaspora" and "Paris Noir: From la Négritude to le Hip-Hop."  Of course, these are also questions that I wrestle with myself, as the USA born daughter of immigrants who always instilled in me pride and recognition of the fact that though born in the US I, too, am Haitian. 

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall offers insight to some of these issues by arguing that cultural identity is both a matter of "becoming" as well as of "being."  Tiffany Patterson and Robin Kelley would call this the processual nature of diaspora.  Sociologist Régine Ostine Jackson takes on multiple ways for thinking about Haitian identity in relation to diaspora by focusing on the concept of "geographies." Indeed, scholars working on diaspora have been asking these kinds of questions and generating more for a long time, but how do those theories correspond to (if at all) to they way we think about and talk about these issues on a daily basis?