Keynote Speaker

Elizabeth McAlister

Associate Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University

"Singing, Telethons, and the Haiti Earthquake:
A Critique of the Culture of Neoliberal Humanitarian Relief"
Elizabeth McAlister

This talk first listens to music made by Haitians, for Haitians, close to the epicenter, in the direct aftermath of the Haiti 2010 earthquake. Then, it considers music made by (mostly) North Americans for (mostly) other Americans, in telethon performances far away in New York and Los Angeles and London, weeks after the event. I argue that Haitians used music, and particularly religious singing, self-reflexively, in a culturally patterned way, to orient themselves in time and space, and to construct a frame of meaning in which to understand and act in the devastated Haitian capital.

In the telethon, celebrities harnessed the viewer's capacity to respond emotionally, interpellating the viewer as a giver to the neoliberal project of privatized humanitarian aid. The telethon accomplished its record-breaking success because of its ability to present the mediated suffering of Haitian bodies as a poignant pleasure to be consumed by viewing, listening givers. The telethon focused on the emotionality of the American popular singers, and overwrote the story of the disaster with an American way of knowing, divorced entirely from a Haitian perspective, from Caribbean narratives, histories, and understandings.

The following information can be found on Dr. McAlister's profile page at Wesleyan Univeristy.

Elizabeth McAlister is Associate Professor of Religion, and also teaches in American Studies and African American Studies. She earned her Ph.D. in 1995 from Yale in American Studies with expertise in Afro-Caribbean religions. Her first book is Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora (University of California Press, 2002) and is an analysis of this parading musical festival as both religious and political. Her second book is a volume co-edited with Henry Goldschmidt that theorizes race and religion as linked constructs: Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2004).

McAlister has published Rara, numerous articles and book chapters and produced three compilations of Afro-Haitian religious music: Rhythms of Rapture (Smithsonian Folkways, 1995), Angels in the Mirror, and the CD Rara that accompanies her first book.

In her efforts to make Afro-Caribbean religions and music better understood by the American public, McAlister has been interviewed by Terri Gross on "Fresh Air," was profiled in the New York Times, and consulted for projects such as "Africans in America" for PBS, the Learning Channel, and for Afropop Worldwide on Public Radio International.

McAlister is currently writing articles on the politics of religion in the U.S. after the Haiti earthquake, on the uses of music in Haiti and on telethons in the U.S. after the quake, on musical artist Wyclef Jean, on the recent interest in zombies in American pop culture, and a book project on the thought and interactions between American and Caribbean evangelicals who perform "spiritual warfare" (their term) in and for the nations of Haiti and the United States.

Please visit McAlister's page to learn how you can support Haiti; besides financial contributions to international organizations, there are many ways for Americans to support relief and rebuilding by responding to requests initiated by Haitian grassroots organizations.