When news broke last night that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake has killed thousands and leveled Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I immediately thought of the things we take for granted in America—building codes, for example. I also thought of a photo essay I once edited about Haiti’s long tradition of recycling and retailoring clothes from wealthy nations into modern couture. The essay’s creators subsequently made a film, Secondhand(Pepe):
You might find it odd that children in Uganda or in Thailand or in Port-au-Prince are running around in shirts that say the New England Patriots actually won Super Bowl XLII—but enormous multinational charitable organizations are devoted to selling these castoff clothes, in bulk, to needy people around the world. In 2002, the declared value of these exports was $59.3 million.
The Root documented this controversial reality in a story titled “Dead White People’s Clothes.” And yes—that’s what they are, in a way; another name for Haitian pepe is “Kennedy,” after the American president who shipped aid and clothing to Haiti in the 1960s. But I think the fashion tells a larger story: about the limits of charity; the interplay of art and commerce; a dark and bright side of globalization. The making of “Kennedy” also underscores that, living for decades at the back end of capitalist production, Haitians have proven as resilient and creative as they were at their founding.
In the wake of this disaster, one hopes that that tradition continues.