About 40 years ago, during my 18 months as a pretend social worker for the City of New York, I sat on a couch in an apartment in the East Bronx, I think 172nd Street, interviewing a new client, a well-spoken, neatly dressed black woman with a Haitian-French accent, who brought me up short because she was entirely nonbelligerent and did not demand things from the City in a voice that made most of my clients sound like Putney Swope.
In other words, she acted dignified and grateful that I came to talk with her. She offered me coffee and I shook my head: thank you, but no. She had little enough.
She had nothing.
Who was she?
I wish I could remember her name. She was an island of quiet dignity in an ocean of sordid Gimme. I remember some of their names–the ones who had street smarts and who supplemented their welfare income via prostitution, numbers running, and benefits padding via forged birth certificates. But this woman had still not forgotten she was a lady, not someone fronting for a Temptations song. Whether that came later?…
Her greatest fear that day in 1969 was that her young children were increasingly curious about the neighborhood kids who were running the streets.
What brought her to East 172nd Street?
She told me she was married to a Haitian journalist. Liberal? Conservative? Non-political? Take a guess. He could read and write. That probably was enough. He disappeared one night. No one dare play down the near-parallel with Pol Pot’s Kampuchea in the Haiti of the Duvaliers and Aristide. Papa Doc’s Tonton Macoute snatched the woman’s husband, took him away, but did not return a body she could bury. More than likely there was no body left. And there sat Duvalier with his picture of Pope Pius XII behind him, pretending Christianity while he practiced voodoo.
And the government expelled her. A woman with no practical education, no survival skills, and with two young children. She ended up on Welfare in New York City. She attended the neighborhood Catholic church each morning where the old Latin Mass helped anchor her in a strange land because it was her common language (even Duvalier could not kick out the Mass). And she prayed.
I wonder if God heard those prayers or whether she and her children were engulfed in the massive and valueless Public Assistance slum that had destroyed and would destroy so many before and after them. I wonder if any of them are still alive. Remember, this was the period of Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.
And I think this morning about Haiti, her homeland.
I sat last night in a diner in Bristol, Pennsylvania watching Anderson Cooper (the name still reminds me of an accounting firm or a tire) playing anchorman while reports of an horrific 7.0 earthquake–35 seconds of pure hell–were coming in from Port au Prince, about 40 miles from the epicenter.
Not again. Not there. Why again? Why does God seem to have it in for Haiti out of proportion to any discernible logic?
Some years ago, an historian named Norman Davies wrote a two-volume history of Poland called God’s Playground. This was the nation overrun by Sweden, Russia, Austria-Hungary, you name it.
What then is Haiti if not yet another playground for the horrors of history run mad? It is the land of the Cat5 hurricane, the earthquake, American support for bastard dictatorships. It is the land where the pirate Christoforo Colombo, on December 5, 1492, stuck his boot and where his mutinous and restless seamen (what a great pun) raped their first women. It is a land where Toussaint L’Ouverture fought to expel the French and probably terrified the American slave-holders into even more vile repressions that sped up the inevitability of the American Civil War. It is the land where an impotent JFK withheld aid from Haiti because it was clear that Papa Doc was pocketing the money while his people starved and were “disappeared.” It was the land where sanctions did not matter. They still don’t. The illiteracy rate in Haiti hovers around 80% or higher.
There is so much more it is hard to comprehend or to accept. The Dominican Republic on the other side of the island of Hispaniola is hardly Paradise, but compared with Haiti….
Pray for Haiti. It is Hell in the New World. It never deserved its fate except that it, like an abused partner, trusted the wrong people.