Last week, I had the chance to hear Amy Wilentz speak about her new book, Farewell Fred Voodoo, at Oxfam’s Boston headquarters. “Fred Voodoo” is a term that international journalists in Haiti used for the typical Haitian. When reporting a story, they would look for the Fred Voodoo quote – the average Haitian perspective on the topic at hand. It’s something like what “Joe the Plumber” became in the 2008 election.
Living in Haiti as a journalist, Ms. Wilentz experienced the small, storied Caribbean nation as an outsider. While I haven’t spent the same length of time in Haiti, my work with Oxfam brings me there frequently, and I can definitely relate. Ms. Wilentz talked about traveling around Haiti in what felt like a bubble. Trying to listen, be open, learn – to not be that all-too-typical outsider arriving with all the solutions for a “better” Haiti. In Kreyol, white people are blans, basically their version of Fred Voodoo. I’m a blan, I’m Jane American Pie.
With Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Ms. Wilentz signals the end of that era of stereotyping Haitians in journalism – and even beyond journalism to development and the overall international presence in Haiti. If the 2010 earthquake did anything positive, it showed the world who Haitians really are. The devastation, the bravery, the strength, the strife, the hunger, the vitality. Fred Voodoos they are not.
I attended Ms. Wilentz’s talk – as I think many of my colleagues did – to gain some perspective about Haiti. To get some answers to some of the most puzzling questions that plague us about how we can be of best use in Haiti, how we can help and not contribute to the complex problems there. But Ms. Wilentz didn’t come to the table with answers, or advice, or declarations. She came with questions. And her book does the same. It’s not a journalist’s job to write solutions and occasionally insert a Fred Voodoo quote. Just like it’s not my job, as an Oxfam media officer, to answer questions on the Haitian people’s behalf to my US audience.
Jane American Pie will never fully understand what will bring sustainable change to Haiti. But if I drop that label for myself, and we all say farewell to Fred Voodoo, asking the right questions of ourselves and each other will get us there.
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