Robert Lawless, “Haiti’s Bad Press”
Haiti’s Bad Press: Origins, Development, and Consequences by the anthropologist Robert Lawless can be summed up as another one of the “rose-tinted accounts of the civilization and progress of Hayti” mentioned by Sir Spenser St. John.
In this case, Lawless is writing about Haiti from the blinkered perspective of the New School of Social Research, which is influenced by the infamous Frankfurt School. Thus, the whole book is consumed by the distinction that Lawless draws between “folk models” and “analytic models.”
A “folk model” is a model that limits our thinking and which “we use daily as guides to mundane concerns.” An “analytic model” is a model that is a “representation of reality developed by scholars” that is “inclusive, universal, logical, simple, flexible, and open.” We are told that anthropologists question and challenge the reigning “folk model.” These “folk models” are biased and have to be “unlearned.” Anthropologists are always busy fighting them.
The reigning “folk model” about Haiti in the United States, which the average person would describe as “common sense,” is that it is “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” an exotic place that Americans commonly associate with AIDS, voodoo, cannibalism, brutal dictators and helpless, starving black people who are sometimes intercepted by the Coast Guard while trying to reach South Florida. Some of the most educated Americans vaguely know that Haiti won its independence from France a long time ago after a successful slave revolution that wiped out its White population.
Lawless never gets around to defining the “analytic model” of Haitian development. In three chapters (“Current Biases,” “Origins of the Biases,” and “Development of the Biases,” his method is to move through the primary sources and dismiss them with terms like “racist,” “ethnocentric,” and “christocentric.” At various points, Lawless ridicules the idea that AIDS came to the United States from Haiti, celebrates the military genius of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and even praises “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He thinks that voodoo is a wonderful religion and dislikes Catholicism and the French language.
There are several unpersuasive accusations in this book that the United States is “exploiting” Haiti – a country which accounted for 0.4 percent of US trade in 1890 and 0.5 percent of US investment in Latin America in 1930. Lawless argues that “the common American folk model of foreign aid” is that it actually helps to develop a foreign country whereas an “analytic model would more likely point out the consequence of most foreign aid is the exploitation of the Third World by the First World.” Haiti is being “exploited” by the G8, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the IMF which have all cancelled its national debt!
Fortunately, Haiti’s Bad Press isn’t completely useless. It contains a valuable bibliography and many excepts from older books which are intended to shock by demonstrating racist “stereotypes.” Lawless quotes Richard Loederer’s 1935 book Voodoo Fire in Haiti which is described as “the most offensive book” about “the black sexual animal” and “the innate sense of rhythm in blacks”:
“The remaining two passengers were pure-blooded negroes who with their ultra-European bearing and appearance were both incongruous and entertaining … Their western culture lay deeper than might at first sight have been expected and on only one occasion did the primitive African break through the shell of civilized convention. When someone put a record on the ship’s gramophone the studied calm of the two black stoics vanished. Consciousness of rhythm submerged the veneer of civilization. Indeed, so strong was the primitive urge, that a complete physical change transformed their bodies … The music seemed to surge, compelling responses in shoulders, hips and thighs – swaying, flexing, vibrating, in complete surrender to the throbbing rhythm. For the first time I realized what rhythm meant to the negro.” (Robert Lawless, Haiti’s Bad Press, p.67)
In 1801, the Jamaican planter Bryan Edwards published a book which contained the following prophecy about Haitians:
“What they are now (the Caribs), the freed negroes of San Domingo will hereafter be: savages in the midst of society – without peace, security, agriculture or property, ignorant of the duties of life and unacquainted with all the soft, endearing relations which render it desirable; averse to labour, though frequently perishing of want: suspicious of each other and towards the rest of mankind: revengeful and faithless: remorseless and bloody-minded: pretending to be free while groaning beneath the capricious despotism of their chiefs and feeling all the miseries of servitude without the benefit of subordination.”
In 1841, the French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher was scandalized by the blighted landscape of Port-au-Prince:
“Here is the capital. Foul public squares, ruined monuments, dwellings of plank and thatch, stove-in-quays, tottering wharves, no names on the streets, no numbers on the doorways, no street lights at night, no paving anywhere: the ground underfoot composed of dust and excrement on which walking is impossible after an hour’s rain. What disorder, what general ruin! …
The fields of Haiti are dead. Cactus covers with its spines the canefields deserted by the hand of man; it invades the towns, flourishing amid the ruins.”
Is it “racist” … or, does it have a ring of truth?
It’s true that Haiti has received a bad press. The press it is received is due to the objective prevailing conditions in Haiti after generations of freedom and equality. The reigning “folk model” in the United States is based on the American memory of the Duvaliers, the verified link between Haitians and AIDS, images on television of the crushing poverty and malnutriton which undeniably exists in Haiti as well as the boat people who are still to this day trying to make their way to Florida.
The bibliography, timeline, and excerpts are the only justification for reading this book. Otherwise, it is a waste of your time.