On the small sugar island of Saint Domingue in 1804, half a million slaves overthrew their masters in a revolution that shook the foundations of the European world. The Haitian revolution was the only revolt in the North and South American colonies that led to the complete defeat of slavery. A full half-century would pass and the Civil War begin before the U.S. could bring itself to recognize the island republic.
Today the country has fallen into terrible poverty. Caught between a dying peasant economy and brutal industrialization, its people struggle with unrelenting hunger, sickness, and fear. Perhaps this is why Beverly Bell’s Walking on Fire, a collection of 38 first-person narratives of Haitian women, is more bitter than bittersweet. The women Bell interviews, many of whom are veteran activists in Haiti’s grassroots democracy movement, recount stories of being raped, struggling to feed their families, and being subject to political torture. A foreword by novelist Edwidge Danticat and a preface by Bell, who has spent more than 20 years working with the Haitian democracy and women’s movements, offer the historical context for the intimate voices recorded here: a former cabinet member, a voodoo dancer, a poet, a vendor, a mother, a health worker.
The movement for democracy in Haiti in which these women partook observes a radical faith in the relationship between popular government and economic reform. It triumphed in the early 1990s after the toppling of the Duvalier dictatorship and the election of radical populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide was then ousted in a counter-revolutionary coup, and only came back to power with the assistance of the United States in the mid 1990s. The mass movement that brought him into office has yet to recover.
Bell does her best to balance the painful lives of the women she interviews with the recognition that under such conditions, mere daily survival of the body and the spirit takes tremendous resilience. “To have had nine children and survive in Haiti is no small matter,” says one woman. Yet at the same time, Bell’s embrace of the politics of everyday life—in which, to quote another woman, “everything is political,” so that writing a poem or singing a song becomes a “weapon of the weak”—seems at times to be a bleakly optimistic effort to twist courage out of sheer desperation. The conditions under which these women live are too horrible, and their victory too far away. But they do show that the longing for political freedom and for control over one’s life endures even under the most inauspicious and dangerous of conditions. Perhaps one day the small acts of rebellion that Bell celebrates may help to create a movement capable of political transformation, so that the example of Haiti once again frightens the powerful of the world.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Rick Perlstein on Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President by Ralph Nader