Kai Wright: This is The United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Erik Von Ancken: Developing right now, destruction and death in Haiti after one of the most powerful earthquakes this country has ever seen.
Reporter 2: Among the crowds were slogans against the United States and the United Nations accused of supporting the ruling power.
AMBI: [Haitian Creole language]
Jillian Wolf: In Haiti, it appears death is never too far away.
Vladimir Duthiers: L'Union fait la force. In union, there is strength. Laura, Haitians will need that strength more than ever in the days and weeks ahead.
Pat Robertson: They got together and swore a pact to the devil.
Speaker 1: Is that the way for everybody to be free? They did not believe because of the color of their skin. They should be slaves of somebody else.
Nadege Green: Welcome to the show. I'm Nadege Green filling in for Kai, who's out this week. Many of us are still reeling from the surge of headlines and crises coming from all across the world. The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan and Haiti is reeling from a catastrophic earthquake, political instability, and recent rainfall from tropical storm Grace that left a flurry of flash floods in its wake.
Headlines demand our attention, but in this hour, we also take some time to consider news events from 30 years ago. Kai sat down with MacArthur genius and actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith to talk about Crown Heights and her play Fires in the Mirror. First, we're going to stay with Haiti for a bit and really unpack the reality of what it means to help. From its founding in 1804, Haiti bears the honor of being the only Black Republic created from a successful slave revolt that freed all enslaved people in the country.
Haiti has also experienced its share of political and weather-related disasters. We've been here before. In 2010, an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and left 220,000 people dead. Then and now, there's the same question, "How can we help?" We'll explore this with Dr. Marlene Daut. She's a professor and associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia and one of her research areas is Haiti. Professor Daut, thank you so much for joining us.
Professor Marlene Daut: Oh, thank you so much for having me here.
Nadege: After this 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti's southwestern region, Chardonnières and Aux Cayes, groups and individuals are mobilizing to provide short-term and long-term relief. First, Professor, when you heard the news that another earthquake has hit Haiti, what was your initial reaction?
Professor Daut: I would say devastation and disbelief. I think most of us said, "Not again," and then as the reality settled in that it was actually happening, began to try to find family members and friends. It was like a frantic search to get information.
Nadege: What are you hearing about what it's like on the ground?
Professor Daut: I think right now, a lot of people across the southern peninsula of Haiti, including Port-au-Prince, are just very fearful right now of aftershocks, of course, which can often be just as forceful as the initial quake itself. The memory is still really strong. Even people in the capital who weren't at the epicenter of this particular earthquake still remember what it was like the last time. Haitians call the last earthquake "Gudu Gudu" and the sounds that the earth made.
People are just wondering if the safest place is to be inside. I have friends who say, "Should we sleep outside?" the idea of being trapped under the rubble, and so I think that's-- To me, what's the saddest part is that people are just fearful. They see the image. They know that some people have been trapped and that the idea that that can happen to them and that they're not safe inside that there's no security in their homes.
Nadege: I think there's a collective reliving it again, right?
Professor Daut: Yes.
Nadege: That's happening right now. The big question that so many people are asking is, how do we help? I would actually like for you to start with what not to do, especially as we consider the billions of dollars in aid that was pledged after the last earthquake in 2010.
Professor Daut: I think it's really important to remember, we're still in the recovery phase where there are first responders still-- they're still finding people alive. There was a prison where they found 14 people alive. There's still a possibility for people to have survived the quake, and so the initial effort right now is to help survivors with things like food and water and also to find survivors who may still be trapped. Most of the aid that people in the United States or elsewhere in the world can offer is really to help individual Haitians.
I know that sounds antithetical to what we think of, especially in the North Atlantic world when we think about aid, but the effort to rebuild after is something that will be more important in the coming weeks and even years. In that sense, the thing not to do, I think, is not to donate to foreign organizations that don't already have people on the ground. One of the biggest mistakes that we learned from the earlier earthquake in Port-au-Prince was that while the Red Cross is great at helping first responders, they are not that great at the work of rebuilding that comes afterwards.
Nadege: I actually want to pause there because you mentioned Red Cross. That has been a big point of contention for so many people past the 2010 earthquake, and still thinking about relief now that there was an NPR and ProPublica investigation that looked at how that money was handled and found that although the Red Cross had promised 130,000 homes, ultimately, what was built were six homes.
Professor Daut: I think that a lot of the NGOs and various aid groups that sought to go to Haiti after the earthquake, especially those that hadn't been there already and didn't have a lay of the land, underestimated what it takes to actually do things like build a house in Haiti and imagine that it would just be as simple as pulling up with some materials. I think that's why it's really important also to consider what Haitians need, sending things without understanding how they're actually going to get to the people will not be helpful.
Just finding out what it is that people are in need of and then finding those organizations or those individuals who they can send money to, direct money to, who can get those things for people on the ground in Haiti, whether that is, again, water or food, clothing, things that people need immediately, that's what we need to be focused on right now.
Nadege: Absolutely, and because we're talking about two parts: the short-term and the long-term. Last month, you were on another WNYC show, The Brian Lehrer Show, to discuss the recent assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Can you just tell us your understanding of the stability of the Haitian government?
Professor Daut: That to me is there are natural disasters that can be compounded by human disasters. It was just a little over a month ago that Haiti's president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated. A subsequent power struggle ensued. Now, there's a new president, Ariel Henry, who's supposed to be prime minister. His authority is questionable because Moïse's authority to appoint him as the prime minister was questionable. There's, I think, a lot of political fears as well as fears about, literally, the earth that people are living on.
There's also fears about what's going to happen politically. Will there be elections? Who will determine when they're going to happen, how they're going to happen? Already, we've seen delays. I think there's still a lot of uncertainty and then, of course, there's the investigation. What's happening to the investigation into who sent assassins after the Haitian president? So many questions and I think that having this earthquake is really going to make getting answers take a little bit longer than they ordinarily would have.
Nadege: In the midst of all of that, what exists of the current government has to respond to this crisis. You mentioned Ariel Henry. He recently said that all foreign aid in response to the earthquake must go through Haiti's Office of Civil Protection, which would mean that the Haitian government has some control over where the money goes. Can you talk a bit about the historic tug of war over who controls the money that is pledged?
Professor Daut: Yes, I think that while it's undoubtedly true that especially Haitian civil society members want to have a say, they are also wary of working with the Haitian government, particularly with the administration that is currently in place. I think the terrible thing would be if this made organizations not want to work together because I think that's what we saw in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, was the land of 10,000 NGOs popping up and each one playing by their own rules and not speaking to each other and talking to each other.
Even though aid itself, foreign aid to Haiti, is a dubious nature in terms of its helpfulness and who it benefits because sometimes the money these organizations raise go to pay their CEO's salaries, R&Rs. There's all kinds of things that were uncovered from investigations about the aid not just with the Red Cross that flooded into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, but then, of course, the Haitian government has, at times, also mismanaged funds. Funds have disappeared. We saw this during the PetroCaribe scandal leading up to the protests that Haiti experienced throughout 2018.
Nadege: The PetroCaribe scandal.
Professor Daut: Haiti was purchasing oil at a discounted rate and the money that the government saved was supposed to go back into all these infrastructure projects. Those projects didn't happen. People in 2018 began to ask on Twitter and other social media, "Kot Kob Petwo Karibe a? Where is the PetroCaribe money?"
Nadege: I also want to talk about where this earthquake happened to situate us in Haiti. When the 2010 earthquake happened, it affected Port-au-Prince, which is Haiti's capital, tends to be more centralized. There's more access points to Port-au-Prince. Much of Haiti's social services, et cetera, are rooted and based in Port-au-Prince. This time, the earthquake happened in the southwest region, in a less central and more rural area. What are the challenges, given the geographical location of hard-hit places like Jeremie and Les Cayes, that didn't have in that built-in rapid response structure that Port-au-Prince did have?
Professor Daut: Yes, I think that while the southwestern peninsula is less-densely populated, if you were to look at a map of Haiti, you would also see that, especially on the westernmost tip, that it's actually easier to get there by boat than driving across the terrain, and so this became-- even though these cities that were hit are far less populated, so we don't expect to have upwards of 200,000 casualties, but it's a human tragedy on multiple levels because there are other kinds of tragedies that can happen in the wake.
Those things are different kinds of aftershocks. If people can't get water and food-- and there's also injured people who need medical care. There have to be ambulances that can come and get people and drive on the roads, which were unfortunately impacted by the remnants of tropical storm Grace, which I believe was a tropical depression when it hit Haiti. Because of the infrastructure realities, this creates flooding and just makes the recovery effort that much more difficult. It makes the isolation that much more profound.
Nadege: Going back to that question, how do we help? We talked about what not to do, but what works when it comes to aid after a crisis like the one we're seeing in Haiti right now?
Professor Daut: I think what works is making sure that doing due diligence-- I think that when people give money, they imagine that it's going directly to the Haitian people. The more we can find organizations that are often smaller grassroots organizations without big names, which is why talking to Haitian people, even Haitian Americans who have family there, can give some idea of who is in the southwest that we can give money to.
I'll just name one organization, which is FOKAL. They're one of the bigger ones as well, but certainly, there are other smaller ones and they couldn't even point people to them. I think that is the beautiful thing about that organization is they understand the landscape and they know who needs what at any particular time. I think the biggest thing is making sure that their communication lines are open and that people are really doing their homework if they do want to actually help.
Nadege: Let's take a break. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Nadege Green and we're talking to Professor Marlene Daut, who's done extensive research on the history of Haiti. When we come back, we'll ask her about the coincidence of August 14th, the date this latest massive earthquake hit. It's also the same date we remember the start of the Haitian Revolution. Don't go anywhere.
Nadege: Welcome back to The United States of Anxiety. I'm the Nadege Green. I'm talking with Dr. Marlene Daut, historian from the University of Virginia and expert on colonialism in Haiti. While preparing for this show, The United States of Anxiety team, we were talking about how people talk about Haiti, especially after major disasters like after the 2010 earthquake and even after past hurricanes.
Every time there's a catastrophic event, there are people who ask, "Is Haiti cursed?" or they outright declare Haiti is cursed, right? It's not, but I want to dig into where that comes from. The earthquake struck the southwestern region of Haiti on August 14th, which was also a very important day in Haitian history. It marked the 230th anniversary of Bois Caïman, the Vodou ceremony that is credited with launching what would become the Haitian Revolution. Before we dispel this whole idea of a curse, Professor Daut, can you tell us a little bit about this moment in Haitian history, Bois Caïman?
Professor Daut: Yes, so August 14th, 1791 at around 2:00 in the morning, there was a gathering of enslaved people from various plantations around the Northern Plain in an area called Morne Rouge. This is in the northern part of what was then Saint-Domingue, today Haiti, a French colony, it was at the time. In this gathering, people were really plotting to rebel. It was led by a man named Boukman Dutty.
He gave this very resonant speech where he said the god of the white man calls him to commit crimes and thirst for our tears, but the God of the Black man want's our liberty. That's what we have to go out and we have to take it. Within about a little over a week, the enslaved had set fire to almost the entire Northern Plain. By the end of September, they had brought the entire plantation economy to a standstill. August 14th in Haitian history is a really important day. It's celebrated around the country. In fact, there were celebrations scheduled to be in Le Cap. The earthquake happened that morning just after 8:00 AM.
Nadege: Anytime we hear Haiti is cursed because Bois Caïman was a Vodou ceremony, it is often tied to popular misconceptions and distortions of Vodou, an African-based religion shaped by Haitian culture and that is rooted in ancestral remembrance, people's relationship with the earth, and cosmos and God. Can you unpack for us the false and negative narratives that are tied to Vodou and how they manifest in moments like these?
Professor Daut: I think that there's been a long history of Protestant conversion in Haiti. Some Haitians practice the Vodou religion at the same time as they practice Catholicism in what's called "syncretism," where the two religions that were forms of spirituality mutually reinforce one another and co-exist together. For a long time, there've been Protestant missionaries in Haiti. They've sought to convert Haitians to Protestantism.
One of the things that happens in this shift where you start to see a lot of Haitians actually convert to Protestantism is the instilling of this belief that Vodou is not only just wrong, but it's somehow responsible for all of Haiti's ills, and that the way to "cure" Haiti of this curse is for people to convert to Protestantism. Of course, it's ridiculous. This idea that Pat Robertson floated after the 2010 earthquake about Haitians making a pact with the devil on the night of Bois Caïman is, of course, absurd because in the Vodou religion, there is no the devil--
Nadege: Pat Robertson is an evangelical minister?
Professor Daut: Exactly. There is also a vested interest in promoting this narrative. There was a time, especially pre the earthquake and then, once again, as recovery efforts got really heavily underway throughout the 2010s, there was a time when you would go on a plane to Haiti and all you would see were missionary groups. They were wearing a T-shirt that identified them with different colors for each different church or congregation and aid groups.
We call this disaster capitalism because all of these hotels built up. That's the time when the Marriott came, the Best Western had come. These are not places that the majority of Haitian people are going to stay at or even work at. These are multinational conglomerates who are going to make money by having missionaries stay there or by having aid groups stay there.
We see that what looks like, "Oh, we're talking. We're having a conversation about religion," is actually a conversation about something else, about money, and that some people look at a disaster as an opportunity, whether that's an opportunity to promote their faith or an opportunity to make money of some kind. I think constantly being wary that when we hear these things, it's not an innocent misunderstanding of Haitian history. That is often quite willful.
Nadege: It's willful and, for me, it really-- like when you think-- Go back to 1791. In the same breath that we say Haiti is the first Black Republic to abolish slavery, well, then Vodou is the first world religion to aid in the abolishing of slavery in Haiti, the first Black Republic. No other world religion had ever done that at that point that we know of. At the same time though, Christians were slave owners. The Catholic church actively participated in Black people as commerce and enslavement. To have this moment come full circle, even as we continue to unpack these narratives today, really is striking because Vodou typically is not talked about as a liberating force in popular narrative, though it really is.
Professor Daut: Absolutely, because the slave owners on Saint-Domingue feared Vodou so much that they would have people executed for carrying what they called the "fetich," these fetishes like amulets or locks of hair or things because they couldn't understand it. Sometimes they invented things. For example, in the famous case of Mackandal from the 1750s, who was burned at the stake in 1758, accused of poisoning other enslaved people and white people in order as a propagation of the Vodou faith and Vodou religion.
You really see how much fear there is attached that they did all of these interviews to try to find all the people he had maybe poisoned and affected with his religion because he was an oungan or a Vodou priest. You see that it's long-standing. It's not actually new. Some people came to know of this connection when Pat Robertson made those horrible and racist comments, but this is something that we have to continue to combat because Vodou is anti-slavery. This is why it so scared the "planters" and enslavers of Saint-Domingue.
Nadege: It's not like we don't have an answer for why Haiti experiences earthquakes. It sits on a fault line at the intersection of two tectonic plates. The same goes for hurricanes, Haiti's geography. Much of the Caribbean makes it susceptible to storms. Certainly, we can talk about manmade problems like poor infrastructure that makes homes even less resilient in the face of a hurricane or an earthquake. When people flippantly say that Haiti's problems are a curse, truly, what are they leaving out?
Professor Daut: They are leaving out so many things because there's the system of faults in the south. Before the 2010 earthquake, this system of faults have been dormant for 200 years. That's very common to see a system of faults that will then go dormant. When it wakes up, it stays awake for a little while. It doesn't go right back to sleep. That is why I said that there can be some other quakes to come in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Also, this one stretches to Jamaica and this earthquake recently was felt as far away as Jamaica.
To say that Haiti is cursed or even to say that it's a coincidence actually just doesn't really capture the full story, which is that there are scientific reasons for this. For example, Haiti had a big earthquake in the north in Cap-Haïtien in 1842, but that's on a different system of faults. That's the one that collapsed Henri Christophe's famous palace, Sans-Souci, for example. I think that people-- maybe when they hear something that doesn't sound quite right because to impose this kind of supernatural understanding on the world seems like it could be faith-based or part of someone's worldview.
We really actually have to take a step back from that and see the harm that saying something like that could cause because what we need to do in Haiti is not repeat the mistake of 2010, which is that the infrastructure is not fixed. The infrastructure is not better. Now that we know that this fault may continue to be active, this means that things have to ramp up full speed because it will be a human disaster if another big earthquake happens and nothing changes between now and that time.
Nadege: Can you talk a little bit more on the manmade side of this, that the problems we're seeing in Haiti from the political issues to the lack of infrastructure, to the socioeconomic issues are long-standing and much deeper than we're talking about?
Professor Daut: Yes, some of it has to do with the way that the buildings were built. Another thing in terms of what happened in Port-au-Prince in 2010 has to do with the flight from the countryside of Haiti into the city of Port-au-Prince, which was way overpopulated with millions of people. That overpopulation also contributed to the high number of casualties that we saw there.
Then, of course, there are things like the building codes, the cement and concrete that is used, the way the buildings were constructed with just cement and no reinforcements inside, or sometimes the cement to make it go a further way and get more out of it, mixed with sand that there were a lot of problems that came from lack of oversight, and also just shoddy builders building things really, really quickly and selling them, and not adhering to any particular kinds of codes.
This is why it is also a political failure because it is the job of a government to regulate this kind of thing so we don't have huge disasters like this. Of course, an earthquake at 7.0 or 7.2 in this last one is devastating. We still don't see those same numbers, for example, when they happen in California. We don't see those same numbers elsewhere because there is very much a human and political side to it. That's the part where we don't want to rely on spirituality necessarily to understand this, but we do have to think a little bit about politics and the choices that people make in terms of how something like this could happen and have such a devastating effect.
Nadege: One of the phrases that we hear a lot in Haiti, which I feel like really captures Haitianess and getting through these hard times is, "Nou lèd men nou la." It's like, "We may be ugly, but we're still here," but it's said in a very loving way, right? It's meant to say that everything might not be perfect, but we're still here.
Even after the 2010 earthquake, shortly after, there's still going to be the fritai lady who comes out and sell the fried griot and some plantain and pikliz that even in the midst of the rubble that you start to see those slices of life that makes you smile still as a Haitian or makes you remember that we're still here together, that we're still working together. Are there any moments for you, Marlene, that has stuck out since this earthquake has happened?
Professor Daut: Oh, I live far from my family right now because I don't have any close family here in Charlottesville. I will say, the WhatsApp groups that I'm in with family members and friends in Haiti, that there is still--- of course, there are still laughs and joy and talking about music and talking about the latest movie that you saw. I think that there's always a way forward. I think of something that Haitian writer, Demesvar Delorme, a 19th-century Haitian writer, he survived the 1842 quake I mentioned in Cap-Haïtien.
He was a small child though. He wrote his impressions many years later down in a never-published journal that then was later printed as a book in the 20th century. Then he said it's like you think the world is going to end because after that quake, there was a devastating tsunami that flooded the city, which is what caused most of the damage, the city of Cap-Haïtien. He said, "We were like the worried people of the Middle Ages when the date was given for the end of the world."
It's like they could see this hurricane come in and the tsunami. Then the next day, the sun came out and people started going about their business. Just as you mentioned, going to the market, selling things, picking up the rubble, and they picked up the pieces and put their lives back together. That description stayed with me from the moment of the 2010 earthquake to now, which it seems at first like the world is ending with these gigantic quakes. I grew up in California, so I've seen some big ones myself and then it doesn't go. It just goes on and people go about their lives.
Nadege: Professor Daut, what happens now and how important is it that the solutions come out of Haiti itself?
Professor Daut: I think what happens now is I hope, I look every day to see that, hopefully, more people can be recovered. I know as time goes on that that possibility gets more scarce. I'm hoping that there won't be too many more casualties. I'm hoping that the kinds of aid that will help people on the ground can reach people that the survivors can get treatment. I think another side of the tragedy is those who survive only later to die because they couldn't get proper medical care. I would not like to see any kind of occupation. I think Haitians who live in Haiti right now have been very clear that that's not what they want.
I hope that the members of civil society groups who were meeting in the wake of the assassination to try to plan a way forward might also be involved in this recovery and rebuilding efforts and thinking about not just strengthening these cities in the southwestern peninsula that were hit this time, but also going back to Port-au-Prince as well and making sure that the next time that's the epicenter that things have changed. I think many Haitians that I'm speaking to and families were ready for a change and hope it can happen sooner rather than later.
Nadege: We'll have to leave it there with Dr. Marlene Daut, professor of African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Haiti and colonialism are among the subjects she specializes in. Thank you so much for being here.
Professor Daut: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
Nadege: After the break, we'll turn to a conversation Kai had with playwright Anna Deavere Smith to talk about the 30-year anniversary of the Crown Heights riots and her documentary-style play Fires in the Mirror. How are social narratives shaped? While we may yearn for a shared narrative, how can we come to terms with the fact that we're living in a time of tremendous discord? That's up next after the break.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, everyone. This is Kousha. I'm the senior digital producer for The United States of Anxiety. Quick plug. Next week, we're talking about education and the pandemic, how a lack of investment in school buildings determines who can safely return to school during the pandemic and who can't. We want to hear from you, teachers, students, parents.
What condition is your school building in and what impact does that have on the students' ability to learn? Now, we're offering a bunch of ways to talk to us. If you want to call and leave a voicemail, call 347-560-8588, or you can hit us up on Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter. Just record a message and use the #usofanxiety. As always, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. All right, thanks. Talk to you soon.
Nadege: Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Nadege Green and I, like many of you, I'm sure, have been thinking a lot about the divisions in this country, how so many people can look at the same facts, the same events unfolding right in front of us, and walk away with completely different narratives of what happened and where this country has had it. Well, so has our regular host Kai Wright.
Kai: One of the last plays I saw before the pandemic in person in a theater was a revival of Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith. You might know her from TV shows like The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, but she is an accomplished playwright who teaches at the Tisch School of the Arts here in New York. I have to say Fires in the Mirror really moved me.
It's about the riots that erupted in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in August of 1991 between Black residents and Lubavitch Jewish residents. It was a moment when neither side had a shared narrative. Anna captured that by interviewing people in the neighborhood and then portraying them on stage in a one-woman show. Here she is in a PBS adaptation playing one of the characters from the community.
Anna Deavere Smith: The people show their anger. They set fires, upturned cars, looted, and I believe, in retaliation, murdered a Hasidic, but you see, this was just the match that lit the powder keg. It's going to happen again and again and again.
Kai: August 19th marks the 30th anniversary of those riots. We invited Anna Deavere Smith on to talk with us. Here's our conversation.
Kai: Anna, thanks for joining us.
Anna: Sure. Thanks for having me.
Kai: Your work has been about looking at these moments of crisis from multiple points of view and, as I gather, an effort to understand the discord in our shared culture. I guess it's rooted in that old adage that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth, which feels really relevant to just about everything today, all of our big crises, whether it's the debate over vaccination or the refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election.
It just felt like with us living through this never-ending crisis that it was the time to talk to you about your work. I wonder, you probably get that a lot, right? I imagine I'm not the only person who's thinking that these days, we need Anna to make a play about these past two years.
Anna: Last summer, I would say yes really in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, but your definition of my work is terrific. I'm very interested in moments of discord. I don't think in my lifetime, it's never been this bad.
Kai: The work that introduced many people to you and your way of thinking was Fires in the Mirror, which was a reaction to the Crown Heights riots. I just want to recap some of that history for the folks who are unfamiliar with it. Can you help me just set the stage?
Anna: Well, the Grand Rebbe, a very, very important figure for those Lubavitch individuals living in Crown Heights, was going through the streets with an entourage of cars, which was not unusual. One of the cars ran a red light, jumped a sidewalk, and hit a young Black boy named Gavin Cato and killed him. That is really what sparked what some people called a riot, some people called an invasion by the police that Crown Heights became an occupied territory according to some of the Black youth I talked to. Some of the Jewish people I talked to felt that it was a pogrom, but it was certainly a place where nobody agreed.
Kai: After, as you said, young Gavin Cato, seven years old, was struck by this car and died, the violence began almost immediately.
Anna: There's something else happened at that night. Number one, the father of Gavin Cato, Carmel Cato, was being beaten on his back as he was trying to say, "It's my son." That same night, Yankel Rosenbaum, who was a young scholar from Australia, was stabbed and killed. This was also a very important part of the story, particularly from the Jewish point of view, Lubavitch point of view.
Kai: You interviewed something like 50 people in the neighborhood right after that happened and you wrote Fires in the Mirror and dramatized this. I guess going back to that moment, what made you believe? Why did you believe at that moment that the best way to understand these events was through this process of gathering these divergent points of view and try to dramatize them? Why was that the best way to understand this event?
Anna: Well, that wasn't really what drove me. That's what drives me in my work, but in this case, I was living in San Francisco. I was not in New York when it happened. I am a New York resident now. George Wolfe was, at the time, putting together a festival that was to happen in December at The Public Theater. George invited me to come to New York and do something in his festival. I remember very well, George said, "Well, what are you going to do? What's it going to be about?" I said, "I don't know."
I came down. The Public Theater gave me, I don't know, something like five, six train tickets and a couple of nights in a hotel to come to New York and sniff around and find something to make a play about. When I went to Crown Heights and started doing those interviews, there were just a series of things that caused me to think, "Oh, this is what I should write about." Certainly crucial was the recognition of two things. One, that nobody agreed. Two, the further we got away from the death of Gavin Cato, the less people even spoke about him.
Kai: Oh wow.
Anna: It became like this political discussion.
Kai: That's so interesting.
Anna: He becomes invisible. Al Sharpton becomes visible. Yankel Rosenbaum's brother, Norman Rosenbaum, becomes visible. Variety of rabbis become visible, but Gavin Cato becomes less and less important than the story. That's when I would say I had the moment of feeling, "Well, yes, this should be a work of theater because journalism is going to follow the politicians," which is what it did.
Whoever has the loudest microphone is who the media is interested in. I think that's very dangerous. I'm interested in the unofficial language. Who's not talking? Who's not talking because they don't have the official language that the media needs because the media needs it to come out quickly and succinctly? I talked to people for an hour and I do not want succinctness. I want it to be messy because I'm looking for human character. I'm looking for human identity and human beings. I'm not looking for soundbites.
Kai: That's the media version of why Gavin Cato disappeared. Did you find that was true in the streets too? Did you find that as you talk to people that Gavin Cato had disappeared?
Anna: People weren't talking about Gavin Cato. They were talking about preferential treatment that they felt that the Jewish community got and the rabbis that I talked to, which is mostly who I was talking to was rabbis. In fact, there's a woman who's in the play who asked to be anonymous because she felt that I should have represented her husband, not her.
I also figured out that the rabbis where I wanted to get to, the Grand Rebbe, no way I was getting him. The rabbis were, I think, eager to talk to me to get their side of the story out and to keep me from wandering around too much. That's like right now. That's right now, is that you just better figure out which part of the story you're going to tell and not stray from it too much. We're in really a tribal environment intellectually right now.
Kai: You present these aspects of people in Fires in the Mirror, who they were and what they were doing that day that, on their face, have nothing to do with the event itself.
Anna as Al Sharpton: Ain't nobody out here wearing their hair like that no more.
Kai: You mentioned Al Sharpton, Al Sharpton talking about his hairstyle as an homage to James Brown.
Anna as Al Sharpton: James Brown took me to the beauty parlor one day and made my hair like his and made me promise to wear it like that 'till the day I die.
Kai: The Lubavitch woman who talks about her hate for wigs.
Anna as the Lubavitch Woman: I just feel like the wig is fake and I like to be as much myself as I possibly can.
Kai: Why was that important?
Anna: Well, in a play even more than in a movie, a play can absorb metaphors and a play can absorb another kind of unofficial language, which is language that is not explicit, that's implicit, right? The thing about hair was I realized everybody-- I mean, this was very interesting. Everybody had something on their head that spoke to their identity, the people I talked to, right?
The Lubavitch men wore yarmulkes. The women wore wigs. Some of the young Black men I talked to in the street had dreadlocks or baseball hats that spoke to a certain fashion that was like pre-hip-hop fashion or kufis. Then Al Sharpton, of course, becomes so interesting. I only talked to him for 15 minutes and I can't believe I had the nerve to-- even if that's very hard to get that interview, I can't believe I had the nerve to ask him about his hair.
Kai: I can't believe that's in the interview, to be honest.
Anna: But it is hair.
Anna as Al Sharpton: If I had to choose between arguing with people about my hairstyle or giving James Brown that one tribute he asked, I rather give him that tribute.
Kai: Something I took from those conversations was that it just seems like people carried so many assumptions and resentments and thoughts about themselves and each other that it was almost baked in, almost predetermined that when this awful tragedy occurred, that you would have these divergent understandings of reality.
Anna: Yes, that's right.
Kai: I'd say that to think about now.
Anna: I think both of these groups of people felt that they live in a state of potential danger. The matter of their identity and how it is regarded is very serious. I do think we're obviously in a moment like that now, but I think it's broader, that it more matters than race. There's also the matter of gender now, how people identify in terms of agender in addition to sexuality, in addition to the Me Too movement in terms of how women and men would like their bodies to be treated.
It does come down to the presence of the body and what happens to it. Is it able to live, move freely and with dignity or not? So many of the things that concern us right now have to do with that. Of course, the murder of George Floyd was such an explicit example of what happens when a person is not regarded with that dignity that they deserve.
Kai: I have to say, I hadn't made that connection, the idea of that so much of what was happening in Crown Heights was about the physicality of dignity and whether or not Gavin Cato could play on that sidewalk safely versus whether or not the Rebbe could move through the community in his motorcade safely. They both--
Anna: Whether or not Yankel Rosenbaum could walk down the street that he was identifiably Jewish and attacked. Can he walk down the street? Maybe what these conflicts reveal to us is that we do live in war zones. I've begun to think. I know this sounds hyperbolic and overly dramatic, but I begun to think, do we live in a kind of apartheid culture in the United States?
Kai: I think we do if I'm honest. Was there a version of reality that you were like neither community can see this?
Anna: Oh, that's a great question. In talking to Mr. Cato and talking to Mr. Rosenbaum, I think their cause was very direct and simple, which is, "I want my son back. I want my brother back."
Anna: Their stories, I would say in each case, were just much more to the core, more heartfelt. They weren't speaking about something. They were speaking of something that happened to them. If you have a son and your son was killed or you have a brother and your brother was killed, you feel it on your own body.
Kai: I want to ask you a little bit about just the success or failure of this work in creating a shared narrative. These communities didn't have a shared narrative. We don't seem to have a shared narrative now. When we started thinking about the anniversary of these riots, one of my producers started calling around the people in the community. It seems like there remains, 30 years later, no shared narrative. I'm just trying to think about what gets us out of that space.
Anna: Should we have one? Maybe that's the question. Should we have one? I'm interested in the difference. I'm not interested in the sameness. I almost feel as though, should our project be about how to be in our differences, how to be in that rather than expecting a shared narrative? Of course, the narrative keeps changing. For example, with my play Twilight: Los Angeles about the Los Angeles riots, that's going to be done at the Signature Theatre this fall in New York with five actors.
To get one part of it clearer, although I talked to 320 people and I've formed it so many times, I went back and talked to a man named Héctor Tobar, who's a journalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner and a novelist, who really helped me go through the streets, the Latinx, what we now call Latinx, parts of the streets of Los Angeles in order to write that play. He talked about how, in the '90s, as a Latinx man, he sought Black writers to find a narrative that was not white.
He cut his teeth on James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Now, there's more Latinx writers that a Latinx person might want to go to to find an anti-racist narrative, right? The American identity and the identity of humans keeps revealing itself as very, very particular. One of the reasons that people continue to reveal themselves that's very, very particular is about dignity. It's like, "I don't want to be in this group, this stereotype. Look at me."
Now, how do we then have a way of going forward together? Can we, in spite of our differences, come together some kind of a way to have what you would call a shared narrative, right? I talked about safe houses of identity and how it's understandable that we have these affiliation politics where we feel that we belong in certain houses. I talked about coming outside of that area, but warning people who do that, that they will not be safe, right? Because you may not be able to go back to the place you left and you sure aren't going to be accepted in this other safe house of identity.
I talk about standing in the crossroads of that. I don't think that's everybody's desire or aptitude. If people do have that desire or aptitude as an educator, I say hone that because somebody has to be mobile. It's like an old-time idea of an ambassador. What are the tools of diplomacy? I think it's gotten that bad in our country that we're almost going to have to train people how to be ambassadors and not get killed because that's the other part of it. You could get assassinated, not by blood but in the media.
Kai: That's the piece of it, Anna. I really have to take that seriously. There are people who did not like the narrative and were prepared to violently assault the Capitol in order to assert their narrative.
Kai: Coming out of my safe house feels like not just rhetorically dangerous, but literally dangerous and people who won't get vaccinated.
Kai: Similarly, if what you're telling me is you got to learn to live with discord, how do we do that alongside the fact that this discord feels super dangerous to our society and to us as individuals right now?
Anna: It is dangerous. It's a fact that it's dangerous. In human history, there are people who have moved across lines, whether it's to get the story, whether it's to be diplomatic and come back at to find a way that we can be together. I think it's that serious right now that some people need to dedicate better themselves to being mobile.
Kai: Anna Deavere Smith, thank you so much for this time and for these thoughts and for your career of work that it's moved me personally and I think has been helpful for a lot of people.
Anna: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me on and good luck.
Nadege: All right, that's our show. The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Mixing and music by Jared Paul and Joe Plourde. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann, Kousha Navidar, and Christopher Werth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer, and I'm Nadege Green. You can keep in touch with us at email@example.com. I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show next Sunday at 6:00 PM Eastern. Kai will be back. Until then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.