The brutal treatment the Haitian military metes out to the Haitian people is one of the driving forces of Krik? Krak!It breaks apart families, tears lovers asunder, forces characters to make difficult decisions, and causes them to question their allegiance to their mother country. The male letter writer in “Children of the Sea” is forced to abandon his love and flee to the United States because he fears the macoutes will torture and kill him. Those same macoutes brutally beat Madan Roger with the butts of their guns because of her son’s connection to an anti-Duvalier radio show. Madan Roger’s neighbors keep silent while she is beaten, even though it “sounds like [the soldiers] are cracking all the bones in her body,” because they fear becoming the target of such violence themselves (Danticat 14). These are two clear examples of how brutal acts are used to keep the Haitian people within the government’s control.
The brutality of the government and military is not only physical. It also has elements of psychological warfare. For example, Guy, from “A Wall of Fire Rising,” commits suicide and abandons his wife and young son because he can no longer handle living in a corrupt military state devoid of freedom and opportunities. Another harrowing example of the mental and emotional manipulation of the Duvalier regime is the forced copulation of immediate family members. In “Children of the Sea” Célianne is forced to watch as the macoutes make her brother have sex with their mother. This type of senseless brutality is what causes Haitians like the Aziles from “Caroline’s Wedding” to flee Haiti and question whether or not they should even go back to visit.
Because of the major and minor horrors and obstacles of daily life under the Duvalier regimes, the characters of Krik? Krak!continually oscillate between hope and hopelessness. Some, like Guy in “A Wall of Fire Rising” or Célianne in “Children of the Sea,” succumb to the hopelessness of their situations and seek out freedom in the form of death. Others, like Lamort from “The Missing Peace,” rally in the face of violence and maintain their hope. The source of this hope comes in different forms. For Lamort, her hope stems from her ability to finally claim her mother’s name as her own. For Suzette in “New York Day Women,” hope comes in the form of her stoutly Haitian mother learning how to navigate and survive in New York City.
Hope is also a weapon the Duvalier regime uses against the Haitian people. In “Children of the Sea” a rumor is circulated that the old president is returning. Thousands of Haitians flock to the airport to greet him, only to be gunned down and arrested by the macoutes. In a world where violence happens as quickly as taking a breath, hope can be a dangerous emotion to have.
Questions and conflicts about national identity permeate all of the stories in Krik? Krak!Because of the injustice and terror the Duvaliers mete out to the Haitian people, some Haitians flee to the United States in search of safety, freedom, and opportunities. Once there, they grapple with the cultural differences between Haiti and the United States, and cling to some facets of their old lives despite their new surroundings. For example, Suzette’s mother in “New York Day Women” refuses to go out to dinner, and prefers to cook meals at home. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Hermine bemoans the fact that her daughters think and act “so American” and have “no taste buds” by her Haitian standards (Danticat 140). However, when Grace successfully becomes a naturalized citizen, Hermine is overjoyed, because it feels like the hopes and dreams she and her husband had of a better life in the United States have finally come to fruition. The desire to assimilate to American society while also maintaining their Haitian roots is one of the major conflicts facing the characters of Krik? Krak!
Furthermore, conflicts over national identity are not limited to exchanges between Haitians and Americans in Krik? Krak!Haiti has a tumultuous history with the Dominican Republic–a history that is heavily alluded to in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven.” The murder and forced removal of Haitians from Dominica made many people question where their true home was, and what their real nationality was. Another example of this facet of struggles with national identity is found in “Caroline’s Wedding.” Hermine is deeply troubled that Caroline will marry Eric, a Bahamian, instead of a Haitian man. Although Eric is also from the Caribbean and an immigrant, the cultural differences his national identity represents are problematic to Hermine.
The enduring power of love appears in many forms and from a plethora of sources in Krik? Krak! The love between lovers, of a father for his daughter, a mother for her son, strangers for strangers, etc. add an element of hope in the face of the trials and tribulations the characters must endure. In “Children of the Sea,” the love of the two letter writers is shown in their commitment to write letters to each other, although they know those letters will never be sent or received. Also in “Children of the Sea,” the father of the female letter writer forfeits all of his assets, his entire inheritance from his ancestors, in order to save his daughter from the macoutes. This type of sacrifice is also a form of love. The night woman in “Night Women” fights to shield her son from the truth about her status as a sex worker, because she wishes to preserve his innocence. This is also an act of love. Finally, the love strangers can have for strangers is apparent in “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” when Marie “adopts” Rose after finding the little baby girl abandoned near a sewer. Although Marie is in part motivated by her inability to have her own child, she still shows a willingness to nurture a baby who was cast out by its true parents. The love Marie harbors for Rose hints at the idea of a universal love Haitians have for one another.
The relationships between mothers and daughters are at the crux of most of the tales in Krik? Krak!Mothers sacrifice themselves for their daughters, sometimes giving their lives for their daughters, and other times making difficult decisions so their daughters can have better futures. In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” Défilé’s mother is a prime example of a mother that sacrificed herself for her child. During the mass execution the Dominican Republic carried out against Haitians at the Massacre River Défilé’s mother stayed behind so Défilé and her unborn child, Josephine, could escape. Défilé was forced to watch from the other side of the river as El Generalissimo’s soldiers cut up her mother’s body and threw it in the river. Later that same night, Défilé gave birth to Josephine. Rather than be traumatized that her mother’s death is so clearly linked to her daughter’s birth, Défilé tells Josphine, “at least you came out at the right moment to take my mother’s place” (Danticat 36). It is evident from this quote that Défilé sees her mother and her daughter as two entities cut from the same biological and emotional cloth. Though she has lost her mother, she now has her daughter to fill the void in her life that her mother left.
The act of fleeing Haiti for a better life is also an example of a mother’s sacrifice for her children. In “New York Day Women” and “Caroline’s Wedding,” we are presented with two older Haitian women who have varying degrees of difficulty adapting and assimilating to their new American surroundings. While these women undoubtedly fled Haiti in fear of the oppressive Duvalier regimes, they also left because they wanted to provide lives of opportunity for their daughters. This is felt most strongly in “Caroline’s Wedding,” when Grace finally earns her American citizenship and her mother rejoices at the “boundless possibilities” her daughter now has (Danticat 139).
Of course, the mother-daughter relationship is a two-way street. Daughters sacrifice for and nurture their mothers, while also challenging the long-held beliefs of the earlier generation. In “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” Josephine frequently visits her mother in jail despite the emotional pain it gives her and the danger of also being accused of witchcraft. In “The Missing Peace,” Lamort fills the void her dead mother left in her grandmother’s life. This is a clear parallel to Défilé and Josephine’s situation in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven.” In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Grace and Caroline provide for their mother’s livelihood, while also challenging her traditional Haitian beliefs by questioning the restorative powers of strong bone soup and marrying a non-Haitian man. Throughout Krik? Krak!mothers and daughters (and grandmothers) perform roles in each other’s lives that no one else could satisfy. The matrilineal lines and connections in Krik? Krak!run deep and strong.
Freedom is an elusive idea and state of being in Krik? Krak! For some characters, like the male letter writer in “Children of the Sea,” freedom means safety from political prosecution and the right to intellectual freedom. For the female inmates in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” freedom means the end of their incarceration and the physical release of their bodies back into society. For Guy in “A Wall of Fire Rising,” freedom means living life on his own terms and leaving behind a memory of himself he can be proud of. In all of these examples, the characters at first try to seek out freedom in the land of the living: the letter writer embarks on a dangerous exodus via boat in search of political asylum in the United States; the female inmates try to survive and scrape out existences for themselves while behind bars; and Guy tries to make the most of his life with his wife and son, often taking degrading jobs in order to support them. But despite their efforts, for all of these characters the type of freedom they seek is impossible to achieve. A sinking ship, disease, starvation, personal demons, etc. all bar their paths to freedom. So, in various ways, all of them succumb to death and find a different sort of freedom.
Elements of mysticism and the supernatural pervade almost every story in Krik? Krak!Sometimes there are direct references to magic, such as the female letter writer in “Children of the Sea” wishing she had wanga magic to use against the macoutes. Other times, the mysticism is present in the overall atmosphere, mood, and tone of the story. This is true in “Between the Pool and the Gardenias,” when Marie is so transfixed at the thought of having her own baby that she ignores Rose’s lack of life. As readers, we are left to wonder for most of “Between the Pool and the Gardenias” if Rose is actually still alive, or if Marie is hallucinating or performing magic that animates Rose. It is not until Marie remarks on Rose’s increasing smell that we realize the baby is indeed dead. This inability to discern between life and death adds to the mystical, supernatural vibe of Krik? Krak!
At times the mysticism of Krik? Krak! is matter-of-fact and treated as mundane, while at other times it is a source of fear and persecution. For example, in “Seeing Things Simply,” when a man buries his dead rooster as a sacrifice to his father, no one is alarmed, aside from remarking that he just wasted good meat. This wildly contrasts with what happens to Josephine’s mother in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” after she is accused of being a Lougarou. The difference in treatment of men who actually practice Voudou and women who are only suspected of practicing it reveal a gender bias and inequality vis-à-vismagic and mysticism in Haiti.
Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.
In 2003 and early 2004, I wrote a book to make the case for hope. Hope in the Dark was, in many ways, of its moment – it was written against the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq. That moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginably magnificent things came to pass. There is a lot of evidence for the defence.
Coming back to the text more than a dozen tumultuous years later, I believe its premises hold up. Progressive, populist and grassroots constituencies have had many victories. Popular power has continued to be a profound force for change. And the changes we have undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing.
This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It is also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both. The 21st century has seen the rise of hideous economic inequality, perhaps due to amnesia both of the working people who countenance declines in wages, working conditions and social services, and the elites who forgot that they conceded to some of these things in the hope of avoiding revolution. The attack on civil liberties, including the right to privacy, continues long after its “global war on terror” justifications have faded away.
Worse than these is the arrival of climate change, faster, harder and more devastating than scientists anticipated. Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the 21st century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now. This has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change and deep shifts in ideas, perspective and frameworks for large parts of the population (and, of course, backlashes against all those things).
It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It is also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse one. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety,” the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked. And Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movement’s mission as to “Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams”. It is a statement that acknowledges that grief and hope can coexist.
The tremendous human rights achievements – not only in gaining rights but in redefining race, gender, sexuality, embodiment, spirituality and the idea of the good life – of the past half-century have flowered during a time of unprecedented ecological destruction and the rise of innovative new means of exploitation. And the rise of new forms of resistance, including resistance enabled by an elegant understanding of that ecology and new ways for people to communicate and organise, and new and exhilarating alliances across distance and difference.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
There are major movements that failed to achieve their goals; there are also comparatively small gestures that mushroomed into successful revolutions. The self-immolation of impoverished, police-harassed produce-seller Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010, in Tunisia was the spark that lit a revolution in his country and then across northern Africa and other parts of the Arab world in 2011. And though the civil war in Syria and the counter-revolutions after Egypt’s extraordinary uprising might be what most remember, Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution” toppled a dictator and led to peaceful elections in that country in 2014.
Whatever else the Arab spring was, it is an extraordinary example of how unpredictable change is and how potent popular power can be. And five years on, it is too soon to draw conclusions about what it all meant. You can tell the genesis story of the Arab spring other ways. The quiet organising going on in the shadows beforehand matters. So does the comic book about Martin Luther King and civil disobedience that was translated into Arabic and widely distributed in Egypt shortly before the uprising. You can tell of King’s civil disobedience tactics being inspired by Gandhi’s tactics, and Gandhi’s inspired by Tolstoy and the radical acts of noncooperation and sabotage of British female suffragists.
So the threads of ideas weave around the world and through the decades and centuries. There is another lineage for the Arab spring in hip-hop, the African-American music that’s become a global medium for dissent and outrage; Tunisian hip-hop artist El Général was, along with Bouazizi, an instigator of the uprising, and other musicians played roles in articulating the outrage and inspiring the crowds.
After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many come from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but it is the less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – that often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. To many, it seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.
Disaster is a lot like revolution: disruption and improvisation, and an exhilarating sense that anything is possible
Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of centre stage. Our hope and often our power.
Changing the story isn’t enough in itself, but it has often been foundational to real changes. Making an injury visible and public is usually the first step in remedying it, and political change often follows culture, as what was long tolerated is seen to be intolerable, or what was overlooked becomes obvious. Which means that every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.
A victory doesn’t mean that everything is now going to be nice forever and we can therefore all go and lounge around until the end of time. Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I have long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognise the victories already achieved. Marriage equality is not the end of homophobia, but it’s something to celebrate. A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win and encouragement to keep going, not to stop. Or it should be.
My own inquiry into the grounds for hope has received two great reinforcements in recent years. One came from the recognition of how powerful are the altruistic, idealistic forces already at work in the world. Most of us would say, if asked, that we live in a capitalist society, but vast amounts of how we live our everyday lives – our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual and political organisations – are in essence noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, made up of things we do for free, out of love and on principle.
In a way, capitalism is an ongoing disaster that anticapitalism alleviates, like a mother cleaning up after her child’s messes. (Or, to extend the analogy, sometimes disciplining that child to clean up after itself, through legislation or protest, or preventing some of the messes in the first place.) And it might be worth adding that noncapitalist ways of doing things are much older than free-market economic arrangements. Activists often speak as though the solutions we need have not yet been launched or invented, as though we are starting from scratch, when often the real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing options. What we dream of is already present in the world.
The second reinforcement came out of my investigation of how human beings respond to major urban disasters, from the devastating earthquakes in San Francisco (in 1906) and Mexico City (in 1985) to the blitz in London and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The assumption behind much disaster response by the authorities – and the logic of bombing civilians – is that civilisation is a brittle facade, and behind it lies our true nature as monstrous, selfish, chaotic and violent, or as timid, fragile, and helpless. In fact, in most disasters the majority of people are calm, resourceful, altruistic and creative. And civilian bombing campaigns generally fail to break the will of the people
What startled me about the response to disaster was not the virtue, since virtue is often the result of diligence and dutifulness, but the passionate joy that shone out from accounts by people who had barely survived. These people who had lost everything, who were living in rubble or ruins, had found agency, meaning, community, immediacy in their work together with other survivors. This century of testimony suggested how much we want lives of meaningful engagement, of membership in civil society, and how much societal effort goes into keeping us away from these fullest, most powerful selves. But people return to those selves, those ways of self-organising, as if by instinct when the situation demands it. Thus a disaster is a lot like a revolution when it comes to disruption and improvisation, to new roles and an unnerving or exhilarating sense that now anything is possible.
Marriage equality is not the end of homophobia, but it is something to celebrate. A victory is a milestone on the road
“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair,” the theologian Walter Brueggemann noted. It is an extraordinary statement, one that reminds us that though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats, cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost, or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope.
Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change. Those who think that way don’t remember raids on gay bars when being homosexual was illegal, or rivers that caught fire when unregulated pollution peaked in the 1960s or that there were, worldwide, 70% more seabirds a few decades ago. Thus, they don’t recognise the forces of change at work.
One of the essential aspects of depression is the sense that you will always be mired in this misery, that nothing can or will change. There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.
The other affliction amnesia brings is a lack of examples of positive change, of popular power, evidence that we can do it and have done it. George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Controlling the past begins by knowing it; the stories we tell about who we were and what we did shape what we can and will do. Despair is also often premature: it’s a form of impatience as well as of certainty.
News cycles tend to suggest that change happens in small, sudden bursts or not at all. The struggle to get women the vote took nearly three-quarters of a century. For a time people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just major cities.
Other changes result in victories and are then forgotten. For decades, radicals were preoccupied with Timor-Leste, brutally occupied by Indonesia from 1975 to 2002; the liberated country is no longer news. It won its liberty because of valiant struggle from within, but also because of dedicated groups on the outside who pressured and shamed the governments supporting the Indonesian regime. We could learn a lot from the remarkable display of power and solidarity and Timor-Leste’s eventual victory, but the whole struggle seems forgotten.
We need litanies or recitations or monuments to these victories, so that they are landmarks in everyone’s mind. More broadly, shifts in, say, the status of women are easily overlooked by people who don’t remember that, a few decades ago, reproductive rights were not yet a concept, and there was no recourse for exclusion, discrimination, workplace sexual harassment, most forms of rape, and other crimes against women the legal system did not recognise or even countenance. None of the changes were inevitable, either – people fought for them and won them.
Social, cultural or political change does not work in predictable ways or on predictable schedules. The month before the Berlin Wall fell, almost no one anticipated that the Soviet bloc was going to disintegrate all of a sudden (thanks to many factors, including the tremendous power of civil society, nonviolent direct action and hopeful organising going back to the 1970s), any more than anyone, even the participants, foresaw the impact that the Arab spring or Occupy Wall Street or a host of other great uprisings would have. We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.
Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear signifies their recognition that popular power is real enough to overturn regimes and rewrite the social contract. And it often has. Sometimes your enemies know what your friends can’t believe. Those who dismiss these moments because of their imperfections, limitations, or incompleteness need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have emerged because of them, even if not always in the most obvious or recognisable ways.
Change is rarely straightforward. Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds. A young man’s suicide triggers an uprising that inspires other uprisings, but the incident was a spark; the bonfire it lit was laid by activist networks and ideas about civil disobedience, and by the deep desire for justice and freedom that exists everywhere.
It’s important to ask not only what those moments produced in the long run but what they were in their heyday. If people find themselves living in a world in which some hopes are realised and some joys are incandescent and some boundaries between individuals and groups are lowered, even for an hour or a day or several months, that matters. Memory of joy and liberation can become a navigational tool, an identity, a gift.