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Archivism and Activism: Radio Haiti and the Accountability of Educational Institutions

Haitian Radio //
Radyo Ayisyen

Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.

To start the series, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights.  Last week, Jennifer Garcon shows how the long marriage between Haitian politics and Haitian radio has endured, despite multiple and conflicting alliances, high drama, and attacks from all sides. The powerful and the powerless have even in their enmity presumed that if they could harness radio’s power they would ascend to political power. Her story recounts one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life.

The sweeping stories of Radio Haïti-Inter and its archive (now at Duke University), its more than 5300 recordings fully digitized and described in English, French and Haitian Creole) come together in this all too brief account. Laura Wagner, who listened to each recording and wrote the descriptors, writes of the work itself, the emotional, financial and intellectual challenges involved, and the reason this archive is essential to anyone interested in Haiti, or radio, or racial justice.

Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman

Click here for the full series!

—-

For four years, I spent forty hours a week in a cubicle in a converted tobacco warehouse with noise-cancelling headphones over my ears, listening to and describing the entire audio archive of Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haïti-Inter. Though my title was “project archivist,” I am not an archivist by training. But I am compelled to compile, assemble, and preserve stories from lost people and lost worlds. Sound is more intimate than printed words or video. With sound, voices are inside your head, as close as another person can be. As I processed the Radio Haiti collection, I would forget that many of the voices I heard every day belonged to people I never knew in life. Sometimes in my dreams I would see the station’s director, Jean Dominique, alive and laughing.

Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas
Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas working in the studio in 1995, image courtesy of the author

Radio Haïti-Inter was inaugurated in the early 1970s. Dominique, an agronomist by training, quickly became the most recognized journalist in Haiti. His professional partner and wife, Michèle Montas, Radio Haiti’s news editor, was a Columbia Journalism School graduate who trained several generations of Haitian journalists. Dominique was part Ida B. Wells, part Edward R. Murrow, part Sy Hersh, part Studs Terkel, part Hunter S. Thompson. He was an investigative journalist who uncovered human rights abuses, government corruption, and corporate malfeasance. He was an activist who possessed the charisma of a theater star, the crackling wit of a satirist, and the public intellectual’s gift for insight and analysis. After Dominique was assassinated on April 3, 2000, more than fifteen thousand mourners attended his funeral.

In 2013, Montas donated the archive of Radio Haïti-Inter — more than 1600 open-reel tapes, more than 2000 audio cassettes, and approximately 100 linear feet of paper records — to Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, under the condition that it be digitized and made available to the widest possible public in Haiti. Thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Council on Library and Information Resources, today the Radio Haiti Archive is a free, publicly accessible, trilingual digital collection. Its over 5300 audio recordings represent the most comprehensive archive of late 20th-century Haitian history. Radio Haiti still speaks, despite government repression, multiple exiles, the assassination of Dominique, the attempted assassination of Montas in December 2002, the closure of the station in 2003, and the 2010 earthquake. That the archive exists is a miracle. 

Revive Haiti-Inter
Flyer calling to “Revive Haiti-Inter,” ad for the solidarity campaign to reopen the station in 1986, image courtesy of the author

According to its mission statement, the Rubenstein Library “builds distinctive collections of original materials and preserves them for use on campus and around the world. In support of Duke University’s mission of ‘knowledge in service to society,’ we collect a diversity of voices in a wide range of formats… We invite students, scholars, and the general public to explore the world through our unique collections.” the library seeks to preserve the voices of marginalized people, and make various kinds of materials (including sonic media) available to audiences beyond Duke, beyond the United States, and beyond academia.

In Radio Haiti’s broadcasts, rural farmers, activists from poor urban neighborhoods, sex workers, marketwomen, Vodou patriarchs, and refugees narrate vivid stories of their lives and worlds. The aurality of radio allowed speakers and listeners who were not traditionally literate to participate in the political life of Haiti. Likewise, the aurality of the Radio Haiti collection makes it a trove of information that appears nowhere else. It is invaluable for academic researchers and ordinary audiences alike. It is a people’s history of Haiti, told through voices that are silenced in the written record.

Most libraries in poor countries like Haiti lack the resources to restore, digitize, and process audiovisual materials, but wealthy institutions in wealthy countries tend to neglect sonic archives. Unlike written records, audio is difficult to skim, and therefore harder for researchers to use. The rights considerations are often fraught. Audiovisual archives are expensive and difficult to preserve, digitize, and process; as a result, many projects, including Radio Haiti, depend on highly competitive external grants. While these days many universities prize Black archival collections (sometimes to the point of commodification, as Steven G. Fullwood argues), it’s another matter when those collections are audio, especially non-English language audio. In Radio Haiti’s case, the audio is in Haitian Creole and French. All of these factors made Radio Haiti a complex project. But I believe the complexity of a project like Radio Haiti could be mitigated if institutions were to truly make custodianship of marginalized collections a priority. In other words, some of the complexity isn’t inherent to the collection, but rather to the system that was not built to accommodate it.

As I processed Radio Haiti, I ached for the cane-cutters that the Duvalier dictatorship effectively sold to the Dominican Republic, former political prisoners describing horrific torture,  and migrants risking their life at sea. But it was not my trauma. In some ways, this project was challenging because I am not Haitian, but it was also easier because the anguish was not my own. I understood the archive’s importance, but I did not feel the pain in my bones. 

Jean Dominique and the people who mourn him
Crowds of people mourning Jean Dominique, image from the Radio Haiti Archive Twitter page

So, yes, the material in the archive could be heavy, but the project was difficult mainly because the current practices of US academic libraries are incompatible with a project like Radio Haiti. For the last year and a half of the project, there was no remaining grant money or internal funding for an intern fluent in Haitian Creole or French to earn a living wage. When I proposed seeking additional funding to support an intern to help describe the audio, I was told it would be unfair to other staff who are likewise underpaid. In order to finish before my own grant-funded salary ran out, I listened to and created multilingual narrative description for an average of ten recordings a day. Every day was a race against time. I was reprimanded for “overdescribing” the audio, and told, “Don’t do the researcher’s job for them.” Library leadership and I did not share the same objectives. Despite their stated commitment to digitize Radio Haiti and make it available to the Haitian public, they still considered traditional academic researchers the target audience, while I was thinking of ordinary people in Haiti, trying to access the audio on a secondhand smartphone with a limited data plan.

Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor ask, “what happens when we scratch beneath the surface of the veneer of detached professionalism and start to think of recordkeepers and archivists less as sentinels of accountability… and more as caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users, and communities through a web of mutual responsibility?” They call for empathy between the archivist and the creators, subjects, users, and audience of the archive. I believed that “slow processing” — providing detailed, trilingual description of each Radio Haiti recording — was a necessary act of empathy, and the only way to honor the voices in the archive and make the collection truly available to Haitian audiences. If I provided only “minimal description,” Radio Haiti’s audio would remain lost. 

The work was exhausting. I began to have panic attacks. One administrator encouraged me to develop “strategies for self-care.” “Self-care,” which places the responsibility onto the individual worker, is not a solution to burnout. What I needed were more resources.

Broadcasting from Radio Haiti-Inter
Employees broadcasting from Radio Haiti-Inter,  Fritzson Orius in foreground, image courtesy of the author

Like everyone else in the neoliberal US university, archivists are bound by concrete considerations of political economy. They are being asked to do more with less: they must eliminate backlogs and process more collections more quickly, without improvements in salary, staffing, or workspace. Library work remains a feminized profession, one that downplays and erases the intellectual labor of those workers who “merely” process collections. The archivist is the invisible technician, while researchers discover. And so my intent is not to impugn any individual. Rather, I point to the structural factors and cultural attitudes — including institutional white supremacy — that make traditional archives inhospitable to collections like Radio Haiti. 

Former archivist Jarrett Drake contends that “the purpose of the archival profession is to curate the past, not confront it; to entrench inequality, not eradicate it; to erase black lives, not ennoble them.” As a white American woman, my personal experiences were obviously not comparable to those of archivists and scholars of color who endure racism regularly, but my time as the Radio Haiti project archivist revealed to me how Black archival collections are subjected to structural racism. The Radio Haiti collection was created by and for Black people. It centers the voices, perspectives, and experiences of Black people. It is a sonic archive, in a field that prioritizes traditional paper collections. It is largely in Haitian Creole, a disparaged language spoken mostly by Black people. It is from a country that has been colonized, exploited, invaded, occupied, vilified, pitied, embargoed, evangelized, and intervened upon for centuries. And finally, its primary audience is not anglophone academics, but Haitian people. 

Portion of resistance mural
Part of a painting of the outside of Radio Haiti-Inter addressing the assassination of Jean Dominique, image from the Radio Haiti Archive Twitter page

Many library workers at predominantly white institutions make extraordinary efforts to combat systemic white supremacy, but low-level staff cannot create change when the larger institution remains hidebound. Bringing Radio Haiti back to Haiti required intellectual work, passion, and love. To represent diverse voices and make a collection like Radio Haiti truly accessible to a worldwide public, traditional archival institutions must undergo a radical transformation. They must confront assumptions about what makes a collection “difficult to process,” commit resources to collections that foreground the voices of marginalized people, and support the work of staff who give those collections the care they deserve.

Editor’s Note: Minor changes have been made since publication for clarity and to add links to sources. Nothing substantive has been changed. 12:48 PM EST, 5/3/2021

Featured Image: Picture of a painting of Radio Haiti tied to a cross with the inscription (in translation): “The proverb goes: each firefly lights the way for itself [every man for himself]. We say: unity makes strength. Let’s help Radio Haiti-Inter lay its cross down so that it is not crucified.” Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

From 2015 to 2019, Laura Wagner was the project archivist for the Radio Haiti Archive at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. She holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from UNC Chapel Hill, where her research focused on displacement, humanitarian aid, and everyday life in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Her writings on the earthquake and the Radio Haiti project have appeared in SlateSalonsx archipelagos, PRI’s The World, and other venues. She is also the author of Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, a young adult novel about the earthquake and its aftermath, which was published by Abrams/Amulet in 2015. She is currently working on a book about Radio Haïti-Inter and its archive.

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Broadcast Kidnapping: How the Rise of the Radio led to the Fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier

Haitian Radio //
Radyo Ayisyen

Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.

Last week, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights.  This week, Jennifer Garcon shows how the long marriage between Haitian politics and Haitian radio has endured, despite multiple and conflicting alliances, high drama, and attacks from all sides. The powerful and the powerless have even in their enmity presumed that if they could harness radio’s power they would ascend to political power. Her story recounts one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life. Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman

Click here for the full series!

—-

On January 23, 1973, Jean-Claude Duvalier, only 18 months into his life-long appointment, received a call that threatened to profoundly destabilize his nascent presidency. On the other end was Clinton E. Knox, a close political ally and advisor, who also happened to be the US Ambassador to Haiti. Knox, Jean-Claude was informed, along with US consul general Ward Christensen were being held hostage at a residence just outside of Port-au-Prince. To secure the safe return of two high-ranking US officials, the captors demanded the release of political prisoners, a hefty ransom, and a plane to facilitate their escape. The kidnappers “meant business,” reported The Washington Post, Times Herald on Jan 26, 1973, and during the call, Knox warned Jean-Claude of the severity of the situation, that they ”threatened to blow my head off, if they didn’t get what they wanted.”

Jean-Claude Duvalier
Jean-Claude Duvalier, by Flickr user jsstokes10

Just hours before, Knox, boasting of Haiti’s improved political situation, told a Miami Herald reporter that, “everything [was] calm.” Since Francois Duvalier’s death in 1971, the new president had been aggressively courting international aid. In a marked departure from his father’s political rhetoric, Jean-Claude openly declared his intention to lessen authoritarian conditions in Haiti. He called for the organization of new political parties and the reestablishment of a “freer” press. Thanks to Knox, millions in international and humanitarian aid–previously suspended because of Francois’s long history of human rights abuses– began pouring into the country. In truth, Jean-Claude never intended to fully democratize Haitian society, he instead hoped that a few small concessions would help him to secure the benefits of appearing to do so. But soon, his new “liberal policies” allowed for the public expression of widespread discontent and opposition that had long festered just beneath the surface.

Since Francois Duvalier’s 1957 election, Haiti’s government had systematically and strategically cut off avenues of civic participation in political life. During his 14-year rule, Francois co-opted any existing institutions that could oppose his consolidation of power, including the church, the army, and the press. This was a stark contrast to the political campaign season that led to his election, wherein aspiring political figures frequently made impassioned radio speeches in the hopes of courting new supporters. Over the airwaves, presidential hopeful Daniel Fignole sometimes summoned his woulo konmpresè, a popular force of over 10,000 supporters to the street in protest. Duvalier shaped his Noirist ideology in part via public discourse over the airwaves.  However, after taking power, he closed off these avenues of political engagement. By limiting the flow of information, the regime fostered social alienation and mistrust amongst different sectors of the population. 

The vibrant political debates that characterized the 1940s and 1950s Haitian media were replaced with round-the-clock pro-government propaganda. Nearly all independent radio stations and newspapers were shuttered, leaving only pro-Duvalier stations, like La Voix de la Révolution Duvalieriste, and papers like newspapers Le Nouveau Monde and Panorama. When, in 1971, a gravely ill Francois announced the transfer of the presidency to his politically inexperienced 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude, there were no national outlets for citizens to register their resistance. However, many anticipated that the death of Papa Doc would create a political vacuum too large for his son to fill. This possibility inspired new anti-government efforts.

Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

At 4 pm on January 23, as he was leaving his office in Port-au-Prince, Ambassador Knox was accosted and forced into an unmarked sedan. He was driven to his home just outside the city. The kidnappers, brandishing a small arsenal, demanded an audience with the young president. Instead, and in a breach of protocol, Knox contacted the consul general and lured him to the residence, where he too was taken hostage. Two hours later, Jean-Claude Duvalier received the distressing call. 

The young president found himself in a dire situation, given his long-regarded political disinterest. Both critics and supporters of the Duvalier regime believed he would be too weak and ineffectual to hold power. Up until then, Duvalier’s reliance on loyal old guard Duvalierists and his close relationship with Knox had sustained his presidency.  Encouraged by the prospect of millions in international aid, Jean-Claude began distancing himself from the violence of his father’s regime. Jean-Claudisme would tolerate criticism, promote free speech, embrace dissent and welcome repatriating exiles.  As Knox frequently argued, Jean-Claude had “embarked on a course diametrically opposed to the one [Francois Duvalier] pursued.” 

The 1973 kidnapping would be the first public reckoning for the new regime; the first open challenge to Jean-Claude’s political legitimacy. The kidnappers, anti-government leftists, demanded the immediate release of 31 political prisoners, safe passage out of the country, and $100,000 ransom. A final demand would not materialize until the early morning on January 24. After hours of negotiations with Duvalier’s administration, the kidnappers tacked on one last demand; that the details of the kidnappers be shared with Haitian citizens via a national radio broadcast. In defiance of the advice of his father’s most trusted advisers, and to save Knox’s life, Jean-Claude acquiesced. 

At approximately 10am on January 24, French Ambassador Bernard Dorin interrupted existing radio programming with a special announcement: Ambassador Clinton Knox had been kidnapped and held captive by three anti-government rebels. To secure his release the Haitian government had agreed to release 12 political prisoners, pay $70,000 US dollars in ransom, and charter an aircraft to transport the kidnappers and released prisoners to exile in Mexico. 

By conceding, Jean-Claude acted outside of the existing political framework set in place by his father. The Haitian public had come to expect consistency in political culture; any and all opposition was to be immediately crushed. That morning the airwaves carried the news of the dictatorship’s fragility to listeners far and wide. On the heels of the unprecedented announcement, Radio Haïti-Inter began reporting on the kidnapping developments to audiences around the nation.  When Jean L. Dominique, a former agronomist, went on-air, it was the first time since 1957 that domestic news was transmitted without censorship. Listeners were now given unfettered access. Dominique and co-anchor Marcus Garcia were the first reporters to arrive at the Knox’s residence, while he, Ward, and the kidnappers were still inside. Radio Haiti journalists described the surreal scene in detail, and conducted interviews with newly released political prisoners. When Knox finally emerged, listeners were privy to his fragile state, he appeared intoxicated and was clutching a bottle of rum; a stark contrast to his strongman image. When the kidnappers safely boarded an Air-Haiti plane bound for Mexico City, where they were promised (and granted) asylum, Dominique reported from the runway. For the listening public, the scene was simply remarkable.

Jean L. Dominique, Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The broadcast would undoubtedly be the most politically consequential of the kidnappers’ demands. It would mean that, for the first time of Jean-Claude’s young presidency, and for the first time in decades, news of the dictatorship’s fragility and fallibility would reach the entire Haitian populace.  Almost immediately, one journalist noted a change in the country, noting in  “Haiti: Trouble Ahead in Latin America in February 1973 that, when Jean-Claude conceded to the kidnapper’s demands, “Haitians finally realized that Papa Doc was gone forever” (Special Collection and University Archives, Rutgers University, Robert J. Alexander Papers, [MC974.1 Box 3]).

Citizens awoke to find themselves now living in a Haiti where anti-government resistance could succeed. In Isle of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean, Alejandra Bronfman argues that, “as listeners understood themselves to be listening along with others,” new possibilities for social and political life were revealed. For Haitian citizens living under the yoke of an authoritarian government, radio listening became a way to engage in politics and reclaim political agency in defiance of government overreach and repression. Widely accessible radio receivers could bridge areas otherwise geographically disconnected from urban, and often political, centers. Moreover, uncensored kidnapping coverage transformed Haiti’s political arena by radically changing popular ideas of what kinds of resistance were possible. 

One of four photos taken during the return of Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas to Haiti in March 1986, after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. showing a group in front of the old Radio Haiti station on Rue du Quai with a banner: “Kafou ak Matisan vle Radio Haïti-Inter.” Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In the aftermath of the kidnapping, Jean-Claude moved quickly to plug the political vacuum that has emerged in the wake of the kidnapping. He was determined to change popular memory of the event. Haitian newspapers began to praise Duvalier’s political acumen in saving the life of two US officials.  A mass rally was organized two days later to celebrate the President’s achievement. There, Jean-Claude gave his first ever public speech entirely in Haitian Kreyòl. “Little Duvalier,” he said, “would never hesitate to crush two or three vagabonds if he wanted to.” Addressing any would-be imitators, he warned, “I will be waiting for them with a big coco macaque.

As the government tried to hold onto power, new journalists and broadcasters were increasingly singled out by the administration. In 1980, a press crackdown led to the arrest of over 100 independent print and radio journalists. Despite government repression, radio broadcasting has been credited with the eventual ouster of Jean-Claude in 1986. The Knox Kidnapping was an early moment that signaled the possibility of a political alternative to Duvalierism. Even Knox agreed. Years later, he’d describe the ordeal as “one the most amazing things to happen in [Haiti] [“Envoy Relates Haitian Rebel Death Threats.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, Jan 26, 1973].

Featured Image: Jean Dominique and Michèle Montas return to Haiti in from exile in 1986 after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, met by 60,000 plus people. Radio Haiti Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Jennifer Garcon is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Center for Research Data and Digital Scholarship. Garcon instructs on the use of digital tools, methods, and literacies via tutorials and one-on-one consultations and provides project management and infrastructural support that helps faculty, students, and staff build innovative and sustainable digital projects. She collaborates closely with Penn and Philadelphia-area partners to develop and expand sustainable models for the care of vulnerable collections of data. Garcon received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Miami, an MA in English and American Literatures from Hunter College, a BA in English Literature and Cultures from Brown University. Her academic research interests include radio broadcasting, populist political rhetoric, and grassroots social movement in the Cold War Caribbean. Since 2016, she’s been a research associate with the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force.

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