January 21, 2010 What Haiti Could Really Use are Some New Stories.
I know a guy who thinks Cuban women are whores. The first time he made a widely disparaging comment about Cubans, I gaped at him with a look of disbelief on my face before telling him what an ignorant ass he was. To which he responded, “What? My friend who went to Cuba told me they’ll screw you for food. He told me this story about how he went out for a cigarette one night and before he went back inside he ended up…heehee, you know” He then proceeded to make obnoxious sucking noises to communicate his point with illustrious finesse.
Now imagine I’m invited to dinner by Sir Charming above and I decide to invite my friend Jennifer. The two of them hit it off immediately and I can tell he thinks she’s cute, has an engaging personality, and is pretty smart too. As the dinner progresses somehow she mentions that she’s Cuban and I can see the glint of joy in my friend’s eyes. “ahhhh THAT’S why you were so flirtatious….of course!” He feels more confident about his chances of sleeping with her at some point in the near future. All of a sudden, his notion of her is colored by what he thinks he knows of Cuban women. Had she never mentioned her nationality his perception of her (and his own chances of getting nookie) would have been very different. And interestingly enough, this kind of shift was a not a result of what he got from Jennifer, but it was about a group she “belongs” to.
The power of stories about groups of people is subtle but undeniable. Stories are the foundation of our assumptions and our expectations for people we’ve not yet met. In our first interactions with people, much of the opinion we have of them is influenced by the stories we hold in our psyches about their “kind” of people. Just think about how much stories aid in your dating life. Whether you describe your new beau as “artsy” or a “typical blonde”, images ideas and experiences come together to tell a story about what that means . Outside of how stories are helping you get laid, they play remarkably large roles in development since stories govern much of our understanding of the developing world In the video below, Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, discusses how stories about Africa restricted her understanding of her own voice in literature and elicited a constant unwarranted attitude of pity from her American peers.
In the wake of Haiti’s earthquake, I find myself thinking about the stories that were told about Haiti up to this point. Let’s see, she’s poor, dysfunctional, corrupt, and with all her mysterious voodoo tendencies, is in desperate need of a Christening of sorts. She’s an oppressed version of Santana’s Black Magic Woman . These associations didn’t just fall from the sky. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has had a history of dictatorship with a fair share of government abuse. In an attempt to deconstruct why Haiti has such a stark degree of poverty compared to its neighbors, NYTimes columnist David Brooks asserts that we must consider the “progress-resistant cultural influences” that keep Haiti poor. Of course there was mention of Voodoo, a lax attitude towards personal responsibility, and harsh child rearing practices. Nicolas Kristoff further various understandings of Haiti’s impoverished state by noting that one of his readers decided Haiti was poor because of ““the low I.Q. of the 9 million people there,” and added: “It is all very sad and cannot be fixed.”
Is it that surprising that a Haitian music artist came under the most scrutiny for trying to orchestrate funds to aid his country men and women in the face of this tragic event? Unlike Brangelina, Wyclef is not Haitian by way of cute-3rd-world-child-adoption. This is his country. These people who he personally went to pull out of rubble could very well have been his siblings or friends. Yes, we have every right to scrutinize the organizations we are pouring millions into, but I wonder what elicited the unique distrust of Wyclef when some of our most trusted organizations (like the Red Cross) have had records of mismanaged funds during the Tsunami and Katrina. It could have been the relative obscurity of Yele up to this moment. Or it could have been that the story of Haiti couldn’t allow us to collectively accept that an honest and capable leader could be born of such a twisted and tortured country?
I am very proud of the outpour of support that Americans have shown to Haiti in this moment. It is remarkable to see the millions of dollars pouring in from people all throughout the country. But years after our money has been spent, it is our stories that will remain. Perhaps another service we could do for Haitians (and citizens of other poor black countries…like umm…Africa) is to pay closer attention to the way we are telling their story in our media, in our conversations, and in our mind. Try to look past the contemporary economic shortcomings to see it is the first Caribbean country to release itself from the stifling grip of slavery. Or rather than a sea of begging people to pity, begin to acknowledge the resilience required of Haitians to survive socioeconomic conditions many of us have never come close to experiencing ourselves. Like everyone else, I’m following the developments earnestly and hope to see Haitians rebuild their lives. But I also hope that this earthquake has also shattered what Adichie refers to as the “half-devil, half-child”story of Haiti and can begin to see them as fully human.