I’ve written this essay in the form of bougainvilleas, ekphrasis of Haiti. “The squalor in which it was never possible, even for the powerful, to forget that one was human and frail” as Fatima Bhutto writes about Jakarta, is what I mean by Haiti (among the many things that it is).
Some Haitians are ginen (we will not harm, we will not kill). Some Haitians are bizango (we are members of a union for which we will take off our signs and put on our uniforms, a union for which we will harm). The crossroad, the main political concept produced by Haitian culture, is full of us, committed, hiding behind masks of modernity.
In Port au Prince, it is said, if you don’t find yourself a companion to laugh with, you’ll die with your teeth clasped shut. It is the very same Port au Prince where wild dogs roam the streets, and have since the Spaniards first colonized Haiti. Port-au-Prince, founded in 1750, when the Duc de Larnage persuaded the crown to purchase a plantation (habitation randot) and turn it into the capital of the French colony St Domingue. Whom are these dogs? It’s an important question. The Taino, the island’s inhabitants when Christopher Columbus landed in Haiti, believed that Opiyelguabiran, a dog, guarded the land of the dead. Do these dogs guard the dead of Haiti, ancestors who eat from guava trees at night as bats, as the Taino also believed? Haitians believe that a black butterfly is an omen of death. Death: a tale of dogs in butterflies in Haiti, which Port au Prince has plenty of. A city of the living or of the dead? Of both.
Bougainvilleas, again. If there’s ever an image in mind that is an allegory of Port au Prince, to me, it is that of a man or woman sweeping bougainvillea flowers off of a terrace, amid flying beings, as more leaves are soon to come floating down from branches firmly positioned above this terrace. This labor is accomplished with seriousness, despite the absurdity, often in the shadow of incessant hummingbirds and large lizard passerbys.
Through it, I think of my grandmother in her beloved Port au Prince, wearing a dress every day praying daily, hourly even. Concerned. Confused. I think of the order she loves, the kind in wood and often by candlelight. I think of the thin and fine, delicate, skin of a Haitian patty, descendant of the Spanish empanada. I think of the labor that goes into painted walls, wooden chairs, bougainvillea gardens, and other popular arts that embellish Port au Prince. I think of the labor that goes into caring for one’s own health, family, community, and home.
Through it, I also think of Haitian leftist movements, since the revolution, grounded in the rights of laborers and their land ownership. I think of labor battles, of the thousands of young Haitians who died in the name of communism and socialism, in one of Papa Doc’s many dungeons, and thus in the name of a vanguard proletariat, and the need to free children slaves or restavek as they are known in Haiti from forced labor at homes where they are beaten, tortured, for any kind of insubordination, is a better word, and underfed.
It reminds me of a traditional song to Erzulie, a Vodou deity. The song begins with “Erzulie, wo / kay la mande wouze” or Erzulie, wo / this house needs to be washed.
Most importantly, I think of the word service, a word that is central to Haitian Vodou. A Haitian Vodou adept (initiated into Vodou) is a sevite, and in service of the lwa, the deities. A marriage with Erzulie, for example, can mean sleeping in bed with her on Thursdays, and not with one’s partner, wherein she will appear in the sevite’s dreams.
This sweeper of bougainvilleas, a sevite of a terrace and its function in a city, is not only limited to sweeping a terrace. Terraces in the Caribbean are essential, foundational. The taino of Jamaica, for example, were a terrace people. The sevite has every potential to make art after having put the broom or rake down, and this service shapes its aesthetic. Most of the paintings produced at the Centre D’art in Port au Prince are examples of this. Hector Hyppolite. Wilson Bigaud. Laborers turned artists.
There is even a form of philosophy practiced by laborers that was and still is prominent in Chinese thought. Paradox. That a hand is a wand. That a peanut is a casket. The knowledge, and the will to act lies in the wisdom and stimulation of these paradoxes. It is why Haitians laugh about Haitian politics.
The frere lampier in the middle ages was the one who lit the lights of a religious establishment. The sweeper artist is often the caretaker of a lamp, which in vodou is a lit apparatus that exists to accomplish or acquire what a person desires.
Lamps are not always for artmaking. They are for money, for political power. Each laborer, a sweeper of leaves off of a wooden or concrete terrace dreams of something, wants something. They live in a society where Haiti is a heritage but sometimes that heritage is pushed aside for something else, corruption, some to leave Haiti to become else, you name it.
Magloire St. Aude was Haiti’s great poet of Port au Prince lamps, especially his own. Here is a short excerpt that I’ve done my best to translate.
De mon émoi aux phrases,
Mon mouchoir pour mes lampes.
Recroquevillé dans mes yeux effacés,
La peine le poème hormis les causes.
From my agitation to these sentences
My handkerchief for my lamps
Shriveled inside of my faded eyes
The pain the poem except its causes
In St. Aude’s poem, the narrator covers his lamp, agitated by words heard. It’s as if these words are in the way of one’s desires, deep desires. What’s important is that it is not that agitation that is at the foundation of a lamp; the lamp goes beyond one’s agitation.
For every sevite, a lamp. What lies behind the image of a person sweeping leaves on and off a terrace is an old rainbow as it is said in Vodou religion, or a deep desire for serenity. This rainbow we hope is Port-au-Prince’s fate, so unlike the city that the Haitian revolution promised. Let’s hope that this city’s lamps are fulfilled and the labor, just and not done in vain, elevates Port au Prince.
That we’ve drowned
Humans have always lived underwater in Haiti. Ancestors live underwater. Folks tell stories of being taken by spirits to live underwater. The painter Frantz Zephirin was taken under water by the deity Erzulie Freda, where he learned to paint. He is today one of Haiti’s greatest living painters. One interesting observation that he made underwater: most things were round. Perhaps this is what makes Haiti unafraid to drown. So, the labor continues. Towards what? From and toward Haiti.