Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Have you read a good book about Haiti?

I am talking with a woman who volunteers in Haiti.

There are, in Haiti, volunteers who come one time for a week or two and others who stay for longer periods of time and still others who come back over and over again.  There are houses, built by Europeans, on small islands or cliffs overlooking the sea that sit empty most of the year.  There are Hatien-Americans who come back and build homes as investments; homes far larger than most houses in the United States or Haiti that often serve as guest houses for various volunteer groups.

This woman, I am talking with, is a come back again and again volunteer.  I had been reading The Rainy Season and Farewell Fred Voodoo, by Amy Wilentz.   I was longing to discuss these books with someone.  In Good-bye Fred Voodoo, she explores the many themes of foreigners in Haiti and their relationship with the Hatien people.  I had just ridden a crowded bus for five hours in which I was the only white person. We are given a pit stop in which I, along with my bus mates, find a tree to pee under in full view of one another.  They find this to be of great amusement and I laugh along with them or smile simply at the joy of being out of the bus and not having a bursting bladder.

And so, I ask in the guest house where I eventually arrive, if she has read any good books about Haiti lately.  I understand that I want  to live in a perpetual book group in which people discuss books at any given moment as a point on a compass that is guiding our lives.

She smiles and replies,  "I bet I read a book you never read."  I am excited at the prospect of any new book.  It is called, she tells me,  How To Make Love To A Black Man.

She goes on to say that when she goes to the beach the Hatien men always ask her to marry them. It is so sweet, she says, but her Hatien translators, who she also takes to the beach, take good care of her. She laughs and says she hates to go back to the United States.   It is true that strangers to not ask us to marry them and that we do not have men who take us from place to place.   Many of us live in places with people  representing many different cultures, nationalities and languages. Our whiteness, thankfully, becoming less and less of an advantage.   Attractive black men, in our country, hopefully have no need to flirt with or compliment aging white women to get an education or a job.

When I get home I try to look up the book.  I can only find How To make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired; a book written by Canadian, Dany La Feriere, in 1985.

I think about this title and consider many things.  I am grateful, in my own country, that young people fall in love and marry whoever they wish, regardless of skin color, religion or gender.   I shudder to think of a time when a young, black boy was murdered for even talking to a white girl in the United States.

But in post- earthquake Haiti, white women are, if they are open to it, courted and wooed and helped in ways they would never be in the United States.  It is, of course, the attraction to that which is different but it also the possibility of immigration and sponsorship; one of the only immigration paths open to a young, male Haitien at this time.  It is also a power dynamic of boss and employee and rich and poor.  it becomes a way for a white volunteer to feel that she has come to know the real Haiti through these relationships.

In the United States and Canada few of us have guards, gardeners, cooks, cleaners and a woman who washes our dirty clothes by hand.   Guest houses with these services, provide much needed jobs for people in Haiti.  They serve volunteers who are also providing training and services to the Hatien people.

I watched countless crushes between the translators and the volunteers.  I saw them end in tears and misunderstandings and one end in a marriage and a new life together in the United States.  I watched married women, women with boyfriends and live in partners create romances in a foreign place that were safe because they were after all going back home.  I tell myself that this is normal and fun but then each volunteer leaves and the translator must welcome a new, young pretty white volunteer who will also go home.

I watch the Hatien men, in some organizations, take on positions of leadership and power rather than their female peers.   The men become escorts, drivers and translators. They help white women navigate a country that our state department still has travel warnings on.

The line between power and sex and love and money and exploitation and genuine friendship are difficult to navigate everywhere. In Haiti, it seems particularly fragile.

Amy Wilntz in her book, Farewell Fred Voodoo, says that every Hatien has their white person and every white person has their Hatien.  I cringe when I read this.  I know what she is saying.  I have seen it in  myself and others.   The question becomes if a volunteer is coming to do the work they set out to do or to bask in the love, attention and care of a group of people who have for too long been taking care of, directly or indirectly, white women.

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