Accidental Traces: Stowaway Objects in the Radio Haiti Archive
From the early 1970s until 2003, Radio Haïti-Inter, or simply Radio Haiti, was the country’s most prominent independent radio station. Under the leadership of its director, Jean Dominique and its news director Michèle Montas (who was also Dominique’s professional partner and wife), Radio Haiti fought for human rights, freedom of expression, and an end to the exclusion of Haiti’s long-oppressed majority.
In my work as the project archivist for the Radio Haiti collection, I came across many forgotten objects, accidental stowaways that were not meant to be preserved. Many archives contain such stowaways, and they can tell us as much about history and everyday life as the intentional contents of an archive. In this piece, I will tell you about two stowaways which, though seemingly trivial on their face, contain complex, layered histories and meanings. What stories are buried in the interstices of an archive; which survive only by chance?
By the time I unearthed the scuffed cardboard reel-to-reel box, I had already opened and inspected 1537 such boxes while conducting the initial inventory of the Radio Haiti Archive. I affixed barcodes and unique identifiers to the box and the tape itself. This one was RR-1538.
In the end, I would inventory nearly 1700 reels and over 2000 cassette tapes, and each one told a story – most obviously in the contents of the audio, but also in the materiality of the tapes themselves. Some plastic reels were broken. Some were dusty. Others emerged from their musty boxes sloughing or with the biting smell of acid, suffering from sticky-shed or vinegar syndrome, or else contracted around the reel like a bicycle wheel—spoking. Some tapes were cloudy white from exuded plasticizer, crystalline residue, or mold. All of these pathologies testified to what these tapes, and the radio station that created them, had experienced over three decades: censorship, violence, imprisonment, exile, and, ultimately, assassination.
But RR-1538 told an additional story. Wedged behind the tape was a small blue slip of paper. On one side was a handwritten list of sponsors (Parkay margarine, Breacol cough syrup) that Radio Haiti’s announcers must have read on the air. On the other side was a raffle ticket from December 1979. For the low price of three dollars, the holder of the ticket could participate in a lottery to win a work by several renowned Haitian painters. The bottom of the ticket noted: “The profits of this lottery will be offered by the artists to RADIO HAITI-INTER.” Radio Haiti didn’t intend to save the raffle ticket. They had reused it as scratch paper, then likely forgotten it in an unrelated reel-to-reel tape box until I found it, decades later.
This raffle ticket is more than a raffle ticket. In 1971, nineteen-year-old Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier succeeded his father, the notoriously brutal François Duvalier, as président-à-vie. Aware that receiving aid money from the U.S. hinged on superficial respect for human rights, Duvalier fils appeared to be more tolerant of dissent than his father. In this climate of relative freedom, independent media outlets like Radio Haiti grew increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the dictatorship. But by 1979, Radio Haiti’s sponsors, fearful of being associated with an anti-government station, had withdrawn their support. To make ends meet, station manager Richard Brisson earned extra money for Radio Haiti by using his private car as a taxi, and famous artists donated their works to help keep the station afloat.
Less than a year after the raffle, Radio Haiti would be forced off the air. On November 28, 1980, Jean-Claude Duvalier’s forces, emboldened by the election of Ronald Reagan, stormed the station. (When the US election results came in, “The police and macoutes took to the streets and started shooting into the air,” Michèle Montas would recall. “We heard people shouting, ‘The Macoutes have returned! Macoutes are back in style! The Republicans are in power.’”) Most of the journalists were arrested and imprisoned. Not long after, most of the Radio Haiti team was exiled.
The Macoutes ransacked the station, but they did not know that Radio Haiti’s greatest treasure was its audio archives, which they left scattered, exposed to humidity and dust, but not destroyed. When Duvalier fell six years later and Radio Haiti’s team returned, the calendar on the wall still said 1980, and the archives were still there.
An irregularly-shaped metal thing, barely larger than a thimble, fell out of a reel-to-reel tape box from 1987. Thinking it might be some piece of radio equipment, I posted an image to social media. “Anybody know what this small metal object is?” Several people responded.
“That’s a bullet, not casings.”
“Being a bullet would explain the mushrooming of that one end.”
“Yeah girl, that looks like a bullet.”
I know nothing about guns, but a guy I went to grad school with suggested it was “the copper metal jacket on the impacted bullet with the lead core gone, not the spent shell, which cannot be copper but usually brass or steel.”
Following Radio Haiti’s return from exile, the Haitian army repeatedly shot up the station throughout the late 1980s. They were targeted again in the aftermath of the 1991 coup d’etat that forced Haiti’s democratic government from power. Perhaps this metal jacket is from 1987, the same year as the tape box where I found it. On November 29 of that year, the army stopped democracy in its tracks, slaughtering voters as they lined up at their polling stations, and shooting at Radio Haiti too. “Rocks! We threw rocks at them!” Jean Dominique recalled. “I’ve never seen anything so thrilling as those guys with their guns—big guns, what they call ‘fannfwa,’ ‘liver-busters’—running away from rocks!”
Just as Radio Haiti maintained their pockmarked façade, never plastering over the holes or straightening the “I” knocked askew by a grenade, they used to collect the bullets that were shot at them through the years. I have read several accounts of Michèle being interviewed by foreign journalists while running her fingers through the jar of spent ammunition, but I don’t know where those bullets ended up. They weren’t included in Radio Haiti’s archive — except for this one, which slipped quietly, at some point, into a reel-to-reel box, waiting to be found.
On April 3, 2000, the bullets hit their mark. Early that morning, hired assassins shot and killed Jean Dominique and a station employee named Jean-Claude Louissaint. The masterminds of the crime have never been officially identified, and Jean Dominique and Jean-Claude Louissaint have never gotten justice. Months later, Jean’s daughter J.J. read a poem written by members of a human rights organization on the air. Sèt bal nan kè ak nan tèt, pou libète lapawòl kraze rak, pou laperèz vale teren, reads one line. Seven bullets in the heart and the head, for freedom of speech to flee, for fear to spread everywhere. Three years later, after assassins tried to kill Michèle Montas—she survived, but her young bodyguard, Maxime Seïde, did not — Radio Haiti closed for good.
Archives of everyday resistance
As a white U.S. archivist-scholar, I have often asked myself what right I have to be the custodian of Radio Haiti’s legacy. At other times, I’ve often wondered if not being Haitian is the reason I could bear to spend so many years immersed in this archive at all. I know its importance, but I am not so close that the trauma is personal. Processing the archive — listening to every recording, sorting the papers, and unraveling the stories of objects like the ticket and the bullet — created both an entry point and a buffer. It allowed people to read about the collection without experiencing it firsthand unless they chose to. There is much to be said about affect and archival research, about vicarious trauma. But I also know that whatever despair, anxiety, or anger I felt as I absorbed the stories in the archive is negligible next to the experiences of the people who survived these events, or, in some cases, did not.
Radio Haiti’s story is more than repression. The broadcasts, as well as the tape boxes, papers, and ephemera contain as much joy, humor, and creativity as they do violence and pain. For those of us who write about Haiti’s past and present, this is a perpetual question: how do you write about suffering and injustice in Haiti without reducing Haiti, and Haitian people, to suffering and injustice? On Radio Haiti, people spoke publicly about their lives, as witnesses, as experts, as individuals with complex interior lives, for whom joy, humor, and creativity were acts of resistance. That, too, is part of the story of these two stowaway objects: a raffle ticket that shows how artists supported a dissident radio station trying to stay afloat, and one of hundreds of bullets fired at that station in an attempt to silent it, which the station’s staff gathered up and displayed in an act of defiance, until perhaps the things that were meant to kill them became, somehow, ordinary.
Laura Wagner, PhD was the project archivist for the Radio Haiti Archive at Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library from 2015 to 2019. She is currently writing a book that weaves together the story of Radio Haiti and its archive with her ethnographic research and personal experience of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.