A Promise in Haiti

  • Mark Curnutte
  • Vanderbilt University Press
  • 272 pp.

The Agee-Evans masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men inspires a similar look in Haiti.

Reviewed by Susan M. Green

In May 2006 a sports reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer set out to document the lives of three families in a Haitian slum. Mark Curnutte had spent nine years covering professional football before tiring of what broadcaster Bob Costas once called the “toy department of human affairs.”  Curnutte decided to apply his reporter’s skills to what he had learned while raising money for Catholic charities in Port-au-Prince. His goal was to “make readers care” about the people he had met in Haiti. The result was A Promise in Haiti, an earnest attempt to portray daily life in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The author was inspired by James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the iconic portrait of sharecropper families in Depression-era Alabama. That book coupled masterful photographs of destitute farmers with lyrical descriptions of everyday activities. It exposed how tenant farming institutionalized exploitation and revealed the sharecroppers’ dogged refusal to accept that they were somehow socially unworthy.

Curnutte makes no secret of his admiration for Agee. He notes parallels in the personal and spiritual lives of the people in both books, and makes plain his desire to emulate the earlier work in structure and theme. He adopts Agee’s focus on three families in his chosen community — here, a poor neighborhood in the city of Gonaives, 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Two of the fathers are unemployed; one mother is a vendor in the local market, while the other does not work outside the home. The third family consists of a widow with five children, her widowed sister with her own three children and a grandchild, and their brother, a widower with a 2-year-old daughter. Except when the brother is in the Dominican Republic looking for work, this family numbers 13 — all of whom share a two-room rented house.

As the author walks from one family’s house to another, he records all that he encounters: young men playing soccer in a vacant lot while Bob Marley blares from a battery-powered cassette player (electricity is a rarity here); goats and chickens sharing the road with pedestrians; a street that crosses an open sewer; a woodworking shop whose principal product is coffins. Curnutte grows accustomed to the pervasive stench, which he describes as a blend of dust, burning charcoal, garbage and urine and feces, both human and animal.

One family insists on being paid for answering questions. This would violate every tenet of journalistic ethics; Curnutte has never before paid for an interview. But when his interpreter advises that the family would use cash to buy food, the author hands the head of household a $20 bill, and assuages his guilt by disclosing the payment in his book. This ethical dilemma may seem trivial to readers inured to daily headlines of journalists paying high-level officials to secure gossipy tidbits. But Curnutte finds that maintaining a careful distance from his subjects is necessary not only as a professional matter but also as a survival mechanism. Life in Haiti demands detachment.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was revolutionary because it presented the poor not as immoral people who deserved their fate but as human beings facing appalling circumstances. Although Curnutte’s book follows in this realistic tradition, it seems unlikely to have the impact of the earlier work. Seventy years after Famous Men, cable channels and websites bombard us with images of destitution. Personal stories of the impoverished routinely serve as the lead in otherwise dry news reports. The author makes no claim to being an expert photographer, so it isn’t surprising that his snapshots are a far cry from the unforgettable portraits taken by Walker Evans. While Curnutte borrows Agee’s chapters entitled “Work,” “Clothing,” “Shelter” and “Money,” he does not sustain a narrative flow; his text remains rooted in anecdote.

But if A Promise in Haiti doesn’t quite live up to the book to which it pays homage, Curnutte succeeds in making readers care about his subjects. Not bad for a former football writer.

Susan Green is a labor lawyer in Washington, D.C.

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