Nature has no memory

I remember hearing about the 1937 massacre quite a bit when I was a girl in Haiti. Nothing in great detail, but a phrase here and there,  from one of my relatives.

Ou kwè yo tiye l tankou yo te tiye lòt yo nan 1937?
Do you think he was killed like the others were in  1937?

in the 1960s and 70s, a few of the men in my family had gone to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane fields and had never returned. Their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, nephews, nieces, were looking for explanations, for answers, and history was their only clue.

When one or two of these men did eventually come back, penniless and with only the tattered clothes on their backs, they were often mutilated, like soldiers coming home from war. Or they were on the verge of death. They, like many who attempted to re-cross the border seventy five years ago, would come home to die.

In the early nineteen nineties, I met an artist named Ernst Prophète whose grandmother, he told me, had survived the massacre. In her honor, he had painted a graphic painting of her crossing the Massacre River with a trail of blood following in her wake. He titled the painting and wrote directly on the canvas, “Grand’ Mère me disait que la riv. massacre était en sang” or  Grandmother told me that the Massacre River was filled with blood.

This painting started my quest to reunite the stories of the lost cane workers of my childhood with the survival tale of my  friend’s grandmother and others like her.

In 1994, I traveled to the northern Haitian-Dominican border, hoping, if nothing else, to place my hand in the Massacre River, which had gotten its name not from the 1937 massacre, but from a centuries old massacre where Spanish and French colonists had butchered one another  over how to split the island. Sitting by the river and chatting with the children bathing in it, and the men watching their animals drink in it, and  the women washing their clothes in it, I wrote in my notebook, “nature has no memory.”

I was expecting to see a river full of blood, but what I saw instead were people living, even with a painful past trailing them like the blood in Ernst Prophète’s painting. This did not mean though that they had forgotten. Many had inherited their parents and grandparents’s stories of the screams that filled the nights for days, of the river risen to new heights on blood alone. But their present was also agonizing, too agonizing at times to allow them to linger too long on their past.

Puzzled that there was no plaque or marker anywhere to show that thousands of people had died not far from where we were sitting, I asked an old Haitian man--called a viejo by both Haitians and Dominicans on the border--why he thought that was. The best way to commemorate the horrors of the past, he told me in Spanish-accented Creole,  is to stop the injustices of the present.

His words still haunt me today.

Maybe today’s light, while shining on  yesterday’s darkness, can also highlight  the horrors of the moment, the beheadings and lynchings and mass deportations, which shroud in darkness all “citizens of the island” as the late Haitian-Dominican activist Sonia Pierre used to call all of us who are children of Hispaniola. Even as injustice and inequity loom large though, she once said, “it it important to celebrate.”

And celebrate we will. We will celebrate  those who died and took their stories with them, as well as those who lived and left us, a moan, a whisper, a phrase, something memorable enough to land in a child’s ear, to embolden her to ask questions, to write testimonials, or  to move a young artist to craft a haunting piece of art, so that, hopefully,  we should never need to ask again:
Ou kwè yo tiye l tankou yo te tiye lòt yo nan 1937?
Do you think he--or she--was killed like the others were in  1937?

Edwidge Danticat

Copyright 2013

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