Viva Haiti

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I have just spent an hour watching the excellent Rachel Maddow interview people about the public health disaster unfolding in Port au Prince. Once the visual shock of some of the images registered—the wounded lined up in the hallways and parking lots of barely functioning hospitals, the man lying on the ground whose IV had run dry and who was slowly dying while family members held his hands—I began to realize that my personal connection to this scene felt like more than that of a casual viewer.

I have in my home a couple pieces of furniture made from fine Haitian mahogany. The story behind them goes that my grandfather, a Naval doctor, was stationed in Haiti during the U.S. occupation. His job was to oversee construction and be officer in charge of one of the many rural hospitals the U.S. built. Unfortunately, I do not know the exact area. Roads were quite scarce in Haiti at the time, so my grandfather rode out every day on horseback to oversee his hospital.

One morning after a great storm, he rode through the woods to work and came upon two giant mahogany trees that had been felled by lightning the night before. He had his men go out and bring the trees back to the compound, and later had a local carpenter make a whole set of furniture to his specifications.

I am quite sure that as a Naval officer my grandfather perpetuated our racist, destructive governance of Haiti in many ways. I also know that he was a good man and a strong leader, and that he probably ran an efficient hospital. It breaks my heart to read that, of all the ill that was done to Haiti during the occupation, one good thing that did endure were the hospitals we built—many of the buildings were still functional well into the 1990s.

My father was conceived in Haiti, and in the latter part of 1926 my grandmother sailed to Washington D.C. so that Dad wouldn’t be born on the island. (Her standard joke: “I didn’t want to have a black baby!” As a child, this really confused me.) My grandfather joined her later and ended up doing the delivery himself, when her regular doctor was out at a D.C. New Year’s Eve party.

Pop-pop (as we called him) returned to his post shortly after my dad was born, but my grandmother stayed with family in New Jersey for another couple months before travelling with the baby back to Haiti. During her absence my father’s older brother, not yet 2, stayed in the care of Haitian nuns.

Haiti needs our help long-term. After this crisis has passed, we need to figure out how to help the people of Haiti without repeating the missteps of our ill-begotten occupation a century ago. Can we do it? Can we aid the infrastructure, literacy, health care and survival needs of the country, while making sure that the system we help build is what Haiti wants and is capable of sustaining in our absence?

My family had a hand in the meddling—and also did some good in the country. I have an old gateleg table, in need of some repair but well-built out of beautiful wide mahogany boards, that reminds me of my connection to the country every day. May all go well, may relief get to those in need, may Haiti emerge stronger and more vibrant than ever. Viva Haiti.

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