Note: This essay is part of a chapter from a book currently in-progress. Emmanuel Buteau has graciously shared this with Liminal Theology.
The Haitian sun is a wonder to behold. It evokes the miraculous every time it announces the dawn of a new day. Rising, it gives rest to the denizens of the night such as the dogs, which, with their incessant bark, fill the night with both annoyance and a sense of safety. The morning dew slowly retreats granting the flowers, the leaves, the crops and even the birds, who rely on it for their first drink of the day, a few moments to ease into the warmth of the sun which will eventually rule the day.
The Haitian sun is the life force that turns night to day in a country that has seen far too many nights. Perhaps that is the reason everything in the country greets it with such magnificent displays of color, sound, smell, life! The greens and yellows of bananas and pineapples and spinach and water crescent. But also red, purple, and white which bounce off the peppers, the eggplant, and the flesh of freshly flayed fish respectively. The Haitian morning is glorious indeed! Except for the dogs who work the graveyard shift, and who tend to snooze in spite of the sun’s inescapable gaze, everything springs awake in the Haitian morning: beets, beasts, and beetles alike. Even the ever-flowing waters, sweet, salty, and in between, seem to find new life with each sunrise.
Across Haiti, everyone and everything is invited to this everyday event that is the rising of the sun. The birds tweet hysterically as they fly from tree to tree as though seeing light for the first time. The rooster, ever punctual and proud, can be heard chanting in endless Kohokoriko! Kohokoriko! as one responds to the other and to the other and to the other… Standing tall and dignified, the goats will not be outdone. Their rhythmic bè!!!!!!!! bè!!!!!!!! of mother, father, and kid add a measurable contretemps if not a subtle challenge to the rooster’s seeming dominance. And every chant is unique – in pitch, in depth, in loudness, in color. And if you were to listen carefully, you could distinguish the young from the old, the big from the small, the bound from the free, and the well fed from the feeble.
Humans mark the rising of the sun as well. Peddling merchants add their own chants to the mix. Carrying loads that can weigh 60 or more pounds on their heads, they walk for hours, often barefoot and on little more than a cup of coffee and a square of bread. As they walk and peddle, they shout the names of their product. Others find a spot in the marketplace or on a sidewalk, coaxing passersby to stop and look and perchance make a purchase. Buses can be heard miles away blasting their horns to signal their readiness to get on with the day, not to mention the bells and hymns which fill the air highlighting the fact that the transcendent too pervades ordinary Haitian life.
Great is Haiti’s beauty! Great is her history! Great are her contradictions! The mornings are simply wonderful and full of possibilities; but morning occupies only the first part of the day. Then comes noon and then 2 pm and then 4pm as the Caribbean sun drowns Haiti in its overwhelming presence. The rooster, the goat, the birds, and even the cows find shelter somewhere, somehow. Not so for those in the marketplace; not so for the street merchant. She must sit still in the blazing sun. Sometimes she must shout to be seen, and at times she must die to be heard. The straw hat or beach umbrella on which she relies for protection is effective only for a moment. As the dust rises with each passing car, taptap, bus, and hour, it settles in her nostrils, eyes, ears, hair, and mouth. Eventually, the hum of the streets seems to crescendo to a deafening clamor, and the shouts, horns, and emotions try to outdo one another, as if one were the enemy of the other.
Coming home to the town of Mariani late one afternoon, I decide to stop by the side of the road and buy some mangoes. By this time, many of the merchants have left for the day. I approach a woman who is down to just a few items, among them fruit. Noticing that her mangoes show clear signs of wear from spending all day in the sun, I make a comment, a stupid comment, I realize now: “Oh my, those mangoes look like they’ve suffered!” She does not miss one beat as she retorts: Nou menm ki moun, n ap soufri “We are people, and we’re suffering, so…” I think that is her way of saying to me, “duh!” Caught off guard and with nothing constructive to add, I collect my shame and my mangoes, which the merchant places in a thin black plastic bag. I continue my journey home reflecting as the sun sets behind me.
An “uncanny strangeness,” to use Freud and Julia Kristeva’s phrase, pervades my encounter with this merchant. She seems to think that something is missing in my perception. My desire is for mangoes, healthy looking mangoes. My eyes ignore or simply fail to see everything else which the condition of the mangoes entails, including the very hands and feet and life that make them available to me. I am concerned with the history of the fruit and the condition to which it has been subjected unaware that something more is at work right before my eyes, unaware of the limits of my own presuppositions.
This merchant raises several questions, some of which I would like for us to consider briefly here. The question of the depth of our perception, especially when it comes to suffering; especially when it comes to the suffering female black body. We may be able to see suffering and correctly identify it as such but what are the criteria of adequacy for the methods which we deploy when engaging the suffering other? Another question has to do with encounter, those spontaneous events, which, like what ensues in the above exchange, threaten to erode the existential ground of our very being. I find the phenomenology of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the artist Tamara Baussan’s painting “La marchande” especially helpful in addressing these questions.
Combining philosophical theory with artistic expression is nothing new. Merleau-Ponty himself is famous for his deep interests in Paul Cézanne, the highly influential 19th century French artist. In Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty finds a source of inspiration and a kind of kinship, someone who refuses to be prisoner to preconceived dichotomies or “reductionisms” whether between “sensation and intelligence,” seeing and thinking, nature and composition, and primitivism and tradition (Mercury, 45). Merleau-Ponty sees in art, a parallel to nature, one in which, as Jean-Yves Mercury suggests, the philosophical and the non-philosophical are tangled with the very roots of being (16). “It is certain that life does not explicate the work of art,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “but it is also certain that the two communicate” (Sense et non-sense, 34-35).
This communication motif is what interests us here. For Merleau-Ponty, the artistic and the philosophical (more precisely, the phenomenological), in dialogue, are the key to returning depth to our perception, and I might add, precisely our perception of the suffering other. Paul Tillich himself is keenly aware of the need to reclaim this lost dimension of depth in human experience. And the merchant seems aware as well. Her concern seems to be, as Tillich would say, that I am conflating the vertical and the horizontal dimensions. That I am ascribing ultimate concern to something that is of preliminary concern. And it all hinges on my use of the word “suffering.” The merchant calls in question my anthropological assumptions as if to say, if you are so concerned with these mere mangoes, how much greater must your concern be for me, a suffering fellow human being. And even with this claim, she is not asking for much.
Her desire is to be seen for who she is, for her suffering to mean something more than mangoes. She makes it clear that she and the mangoes are not even in the same category. In a terse statement that is reminiscent of Eberhard Jüngel’s rejection of Descartes’ notion of God as more than necessary, she is saying that there are no are grounds for comparison: I am a person and these are just mangoes. She is claiming for herself a place in the conversation about what it means to be human. Yet the mangoes still play a part: they reflect albeit merely the conditions she must endure, conditions which, and this is key, are threatening her very humanity. Terse and sharp, the merchant’s retort is effectively a demand for solidarity. It is a demand for justice. It is a demand for action.
Now I want to describe to you Tamara Baussan’s La marchande. Sitting on a curb, her legs are open widely enough that her left elbow rests comfortably on her left thigh. Her right elbow rests on her right knee as her fingers fall freely in the empty space between her legs. Her bare feet push against the pavement and her toes, angled outward, offer balance to a drooping body. The woman’s blue dress, sleeveless, like her dark skin, glistens in the Haitian sun.
Her face sits in her left hand. Her lips, bright red, protrude from a chin completely buried in her left hand. Her eyes, pointed downwards and between her open legs, are completely closed, accentuating long, dark lashes. Her lined brow casts an air of distress over a face, which, without words, makes visibly plain the gravity of the contents of her mind.
On her left side sits a covered pot or a small version of a krich, the large clay drums in which rural Haitians keep their cool drinking water from the tropical heat. The pot’s golden hue matches the mosaic that makes up the background. The pot or krich oozes a blood-red substance which seems to be spreading over the curb and onto the street, suggesting the pot keeps a secret of its own.
In terms of her socio-economic background, Tamara Baussan might as well be from a different planet than the merchant. Yet she seems to understand not only the urgency of the demand for solidarity and justice but also the weight of having it denied day after day, her status both as an outsider and as a member of the Haitian elite notwithstanding. Born in Bakou, Russia in 1909 – by the way, Merleau-Ponty was born just a year earlier, in 1908 – she studies in Turkey before emigrating to Paris, France. There she meets an artist in his own right, architecture student Robert Baussan. Robert is the son of Georges H. Baussan, Haiti’s leading architect at the time. Most of us here are probably familiar with the senior Baussan’s most public and most important work. He designed the Haitian presidential palace, which was destroyed by Goudougoudou, the January 12, 2010 earthquake, which also killed untold numbers of people, Haitians and non-Haitians alike.
La marchande brings depth to perception in several ways. First, it starts with a paradox: a merchant who has no merchandise. Generally, the iconic Haitian merchant is either surrounded with produce or is carrying some load on her head. A merchant without a burden is a rare phenomenon in Haitian contemporary art. This parallels the attitudes of Haitian society, where a woman is usually legitimately addressed as machann, only when she is working. Most other times, the word is a pejorative, which encapsulates sexism in its vilest form.
The merchant is sometimes depicted carrying an empty container, happily playing her role as shown in another image I found hanging in a restaurant in Cayes, Haiti’s third largest city. It would appear that her identity, if not her usefulness, in the Haitian imagination, is bound to her role as keeper of the economy. It is a fact that female black bodies bear the brunt of Haiti’s social and economic burden. Gessy Cameau Coicou writes, “it is as though those who hurt women do not realize that women have their own demands [to justice], that women too suffer abuse in [Haitian] society. And when I take a good look, I see that women suffer even more abuse, because, on top of all the suffering that afflicts humans, women suffer rape, beatings, and all sorts of humiliation” (Fièvre, 277).
La marchande is a daring expression of the phenomenon which far too often escapes perception in Haiti: the dignity of the female black body. In the painting, gone are the sweet potatoes, the fried plantain, and the mangoes. Gone are the piles and piles and piles of used clothes and shoes and fish and rice and corn. Gone is the reduction of the merchant to the position of beast of burden. Silent is the shouting, and at times, combative face. Gone also are the passersby and their jeers – many an insult in Haiti is directed at her, because of her sex and through her sex. No hum, no clamor, no need for terse retorts. She is just there. “La marchande” treats the female body with honor and dignity. It manifests a vision of what Jean Price Mars calls solidarité incontestable (141) in a place of terrible beauty but of far too much senseless suffering.
Is justice merely a vision of the future? Must we bring the threshold any lower? The merchant’s words and La marchande’s face’s requirement is modest at most. They seem to be asking: ‘Look at me and dare to see me for who I am. As you consider the sufferings of the trees and the mangoes and the streams and the rivers and the cats and the dogs, and even the planet, consider me, your fellow human being, for I, too, am suffering. I, too, am wilting and fading away. When you consider the beauty of nature, remember me, for I, too, as part of nature, am beautiful, and this, despite the blemishes which the sun and history have etched into my skin.’
The politics of buying and selling and all the smoke and mirrors that are deployed to dress the marketplace in the borrowed robes of success and fairness come to a head in the comments and body of the merchants. In painful detail, La marchande uncovers the lifelessness of the face and hands that care for the goods from which we draw life and pleasure. The woman selling mangoes wants to know why her safety and her wellbeing are not taking into account in the process of assigning value to the products for which she must pay with her very body. Life and art indeed communicate. In this instance and in this time of widening gaps between the rich and the poor, and between the strong and the weak, they seem to be speaking a single word: justice.
Featured Photo by Nathan Congleton, flicker