I wasn’t surprised by President Trump’s comments. I already knew who he was and how he felt about Haitians. I knew last November when he ended the Temporary Protective Status (TPS) of those who came to the US fleeing damage from the earthquake, the hurricanes, or the coup d eta’s orchestrated in part by our government. I knew when he deported Reginald Castel, a Haitian immigrant who previously lived in Rochester with a wife and two kids and insulin-dependent diabetes, who last saw Haiti at 8 years old and speaks no Kreyol. I knew when the tentacles of the Trump administration in the consulate denied visas for upstanding Haitians with full time jobs, beautiful houses, families, and productive lives in Haiti the chance to visit the US to share their expertise with my students—despite the fact that other administrations have let Haitians with less qualifications come in the past. And of course, I already knew that Trump was, in general, crude and racist…so I felt that his comments were undeserving of my time.
But reading Roxane Gay’s op-ed in the NY Times, “No one is coming to save us,” and considering here on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, King’s reminder that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” I decided that something must be said…Something must be said not for Trump’s sake, but for the sake of the Haitians I love, for the beautiful town of Borgne that I have come to think of as my second home (if it will have me), for those who did the majority of the rescue and recovery work after the earthquake with only their bare hands on rubble and by sharing the bits they had when little outside aid came, for those who have lost their lives to poverty (like my little friend Jeffry) or resistance (like journalist Jean Dominique) over the decades, and, finally, to counteract the standard narrative in the media that Haiti and Haitians are something to pity or to be saved.
Haiti’s history is complex, full of heroes and betrayals, a great source of pride to Haitians as well as impetus to many others who value freedom. It is a country of firsts, both inspiring and tragic—the first land “discovered” by Columbus in the new world, the first genocide of indigenous people, the first global economy, the first (and only) country founded by a successful slave revolt, and the first black republic. The US and Haiti’s histories have been united since the beginning. The success of Haiti as a colony allowed France the funds to support the American Revolution leading to our win, and a few years later the Haitian Revolution so strapped France’s resources that they were forced to sell the US the Louisiana Territory on clearance. Since their revolution in 1804, Haitians have supported movements of liberation across the Americas. They were the main funder of Simon Bolivar’s quest to free Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and Colombia and fought in the American Civil War. Frederick Douglas was ambassador to Haiti, and Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston visited for inspiration and consolation. Haitian immigrants and descendants continue to serve the US in leadership positions at all levels.
Yes, Haiti suffers grinding poverty and environmental degradation, but much of that is a result of a long litany of racist actions and structural violence by outside forces including boycotts intended keep former slaves from being successful, indemnities paid to France for loss of property (aka slaves), occupations, embargoes, extortion, election manipulation, kidnapping of elected officials, and forced open markets. Also there are the internal issues common to the abused when they gain power and imitate their abusers; forced labor, corruption, mistrust, and human rights violations stem from the sharp divisions between the small percent of haves and the large population of have-nots. But what it lacks in monetary wealth, Haiti makes up for in sense of community, solidarity, sharing, hard work, spiritual strength, creative resistance, and resilience. We would do well to learn about these riches from them.
As Americans we owe a lot to Haiti and Haitians for our own freedom and success. The least we can do is educate ourselves on Haiti’s unique history. We need to understand the root causes of why some places don’t look quite as nice as Mara Largo. Being on the receiving end of racism tarnishes the surface, but ignoring, endorsing, and propagating racism rots the core. As we remember King, we must also remember that silence is not an option.