As Associate Professor of French Madeleine Dobie stepped to the microphone to begin Friday evening’s “Read-In/Speak-Out on Haiti,” the room was primed for a selection of Haitian poetry or prose, or perhaps a discussion of Haitian history or culture. However, Dobie began with something a bit more familiar: The New York Times. Specifically, she discussed a January 14th op-ed piece by David Brooks in which the columnist indicted Haiti’s culture, among other factors, for the extent of the devastation. “We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures,” Brooks wrote. “But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.” In discussing her disappointment that Brooks had stood “in judgment, not solidarity” with Haiti, Dobie gave the readings that followed a sense of deeper importance: the recitations were refutations, for they evidenced of Haiti’s cultural richness and depth.
Most of what followed was poetry, read in English, French and Creole, on a variety of subjects from cyclones to colonialism. Although many of the pieces were sorrowful, there were often themes of strength and hope. Aside from the poetry, a memorable and thought-provoking speech was delivered by Peter Burgess, an English expert in development planning, who described himself as “scared stiff” that money to rebuild Haiti would be distributed so as to benefit development contractors rather than Haitian citizens. “That’s not,” he proclaimed, “how you build a society worth a damn.” Saying that “there’s a huge amount of money that’s been raised that’s just plain disappeared,” Burgess turned to the audience to solicit ideas about how help could best be given. Although he received no specific answers, Burgess’ frank, funny tone made his concerns among the most the memorable of the evening.
The highlight of the event, however, came from a personal story. Rutzee Louijeune, CC ’10, a former president of the Haitian Students Association, spoke movingly of a beloved uncle, the only one in his family to refuse to leave Haiti as an adult. Louijeune e-mailed him on the day of the earthquake to see if he was safe, but got no response. She later found out that he was injured in a building collapse and rescued by his wife, but died in front of the hospital. Louijeune drew comfort from an anthology of Haitian-Creole poetry that a friend had mailed to her, and brought it with her on a trip to Haiti shortly after the earthquake. She read, passionately, from “Haiti Tomorrow” by Jean-Claude Martineau: “We may lose people, we may lose battles, but losing Haiti is something else.”
Although the event was sparsely attended aside from the groups that organized it, and some of the material was inaccessible to non-speakers of French and Kreyol, what did come through was quite moving. The “Read-In/Speak-Out on Haiti” demonstrated Haiti’s cultural wealth, offering an effective counter to those that would implicate it in the nation’s devastation.