10 Best Books About Haiti Update 05/2022

Books About Haiti

When I first went to Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was just four months into his first term as president. Before, it looked like Haiti was about to enter a new time. Aristide said this when he thought about the miracle of his presidency, which came after the Duvalier regime from 1957 to 1986 and the military juntas that ruled until 1990. “We are learning to live in the world again,” he said.

It was the tumultuous recent history that drew me in, and the idea that Haiti might be a good example of how global power and politics played out in the last half of the 20th century that made me want to learn more. I thought, however, that I’d come too late. I thought I’d be studying the dynamics of blood politics in retrospect, as a way to learn about history. There was a violent coup against President Aristide just a few months after I first went to Haiti, and in the years since, the people who have power in Haiti haven’t changed at all. They still use it for their own benefit, though. One way or another, all of the stories in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara deal with power and profit. They usually happen in places that might be called “hot zones” in the world, like Haiti and Burma. The only place I go back to is Haiti. This is a list of books that have helped me understand a place that is still as interesting and mysterious to me as when I first set foot there.

Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War by Mark Danner

Stripping Bare the Body Politics Violence War by Mark Danner

In the first part of this multi-part book, Danner’s award-winning reporting from 1986 to 1990, when Haitian civil society was trying to get a foothold against a well-entrenched complex of reactionary powers, is used. Danner also talks about the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s and the “war on terror.” If you want to learn more about Haiti, Danner goes far beyond the current events. He looks into Haitian history and culture, and these chapters are the best primer on the country out there. They’re still relevant today as they were when they were first written about 20 years ago.

Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti; photography and oral histories by Leah Gordon; commentary by Don Cosentino, Madison Smartt Bell, Richard Fleming, and others

“Haiti,” writes Leah Gordon in the book’s introduction, “seems to be on the fault line of history.” During Carnival, the ghosts, spirits, devils, and clowns of both history and the present come out of the cracks. The photos can be scary at first, but oral histories help make them more human. They show how the photos have a purpose and even a sweetness to them. The essays try to figure out the history and culture of Haiti’s Carnival tradition.

Hadriana of All My Dreams by René Depestre

One of the best books ever written by Haitian-born Depestre, who should be on every shortlist for the Nobel Prize in literature. They love each other at an early age. The story of Patrick’s early love for Hadriana is full of high-octane language, fast-paced storytelling, and even weirdly plausible inconsistencies. Patrick’s chance at love is cut short by Hadriana’s death at the wrong time. Or isn’t it? Depestre’s story is like an MC Escher-designed hall of mirrors.

“Lecture On Haiti” by Frederick Douglass, delivered at the World’s Fair in Chicago, January 2, 1893

Lecture On Haiti by Frederick Douglass, delivered at the World's Fair in Chicago, January 2, 1893

There is a good book called Haiti: A Slave Revolution, 200 Years After 1804 that has the text of Douglass’s speech. Douglass and his family were planning to move to Haiti when they heard that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. They thought slavery would never be abolished in the United States. Douglass decided to stay in the United States. Later, he served as the country’s ambassador to Haiti, which was a job he did for the country. Douglass’s lecture is so accurate that it could have been written just a few days ago. It talks about Haiti’s role in world history, how foreign powers and businesses have tried to influence its internal affairs, and what Haiti’s future holds.

Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren

A must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about Haiti. Deren went to Haiti in the late 1940s to study ritual dances, but the project turned into a deeper look into Haitian voodoo, the religion that Christians love to hate. Studying voodoo’s gods and goddesses, its rituals, and its role in Haitian life is not just one of the best books on the subject; it’s one of the best books ever written about how people live. No, it’s not.

Nan Dòmi: Le Récit d’une Initiation Vodou by Mimerose Beaubrun

In this new and important book, voodoo is looked at from the inside out, instead of the usual focus on ritual and cosmology from an outsider’s point of view. Beaubrun tells us about how she was initiation into voodoo and how long it took her to learn. This takes us into the mysterious world of this ancient religion. Nan dmi, which means “second sight” or “lucid dream,” is a book that needs an English translation. A translation of the book in English is coming out from City Lights Books in September 2013.

All Souls’ Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused, all by Madison Smartt Bell

Bell’s historical-fiction trilogy about the Haitian revolution should be read from beginning to end. I know I’m cheating by putting three books together as one. When Bell tells the story of the years that were long ago and tumultuous, it comes alive in a way that only the best writers can do. You feel like you have an important personal stake in the outcome.

The Rainy Season and Farewell, Fred Voodoo, both by Amy Wilentz

The Rainy Season and Farewell, Fred Voodoo, both by Amy Wilentz

I know I’m breaking the rules again, but I think these powerful, personal books should be read together. Wilentz’s time in Haiti starts in 1986 when Baby Doc Duvalier is overthrown. It goes on through the aftermath of the earthquake in January 2010. When you read Wilentz’s writing, you’ll get some of the best ideas out there. It’s brooding, vivid, merciless, but also kind.

Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, edited by Don Cosentino

In the long run, this huge collection of both images and words is worth the risk of getting a hernia because it’s so big. If I had to pick one book to be an encyclopedia of Haitian history and culture, this would be it.

Island Possessed by Katherine Dunham

As a young graduate student in anthropology, Dunham traveled from the University of Chicago to Haiti in 1936, where she studied dance. This trip started a long-term friendship with the country and led to the creation of a world-renowned dance troupe with her name. When Dunham wrote a memoir about her time in Haiti, she used a lot of close observation and research as well as common sense and honesty about all kinds of human things, like sex and love. One of the best books ever written by a truly great person.

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