Haiti occupies a place all its own in U.S. culture. The 1791-1803 uprising that marked the first successful slave revolution in history terrified American slaveowners. Over the centuries that followed, Haiti has represented sorcery (not in a good way), AIDS and pretty much every other social and physical illness associated with poverty and dictatorship - all in the spirit of blaming the Haitians.
Yet the overwhelming U.S. response to the catastrophic earthquake, from ordinary Americans as well as the Obama administration, seems to show a new attitude. Haitian-Americans are noticing.
"My spirit is totally uplifted by this," Yves Colon, a former Miami Herald reporter who now teaches at the University of Miami told the Washington Post. "Not too long ago 'Haitian' was a maligned word. Either you had AIDS or you were poor. It seems like people's eyes have been opened. The earth shook to open people's eyes."
Highly publicized remarks by the Rev. Pat Robertson and others might seem to point in another direction. But they were slapped down by a variety of other commentators for suggesting, among other things, that Haitians brought the disaster upon themselves. To be sure, Haitians themselves have been debating for decades how much responsibility they have for their country's enormous troubles, but these are discussions within the family, so to speak.
We last reported on Haiti, where I spent considerable time in the early 1990s, five years ago ("Haiti's Dilemma," Feb. 18, 2005). We expect to examine the country's reconstruction in the not-too-distant future.