Like many Americans, I am mainly familiar with just a few figures in Haitian history and culture: rapper Wyclef Jean, writer Edwidge Danticat, politician Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and revolutionary leader Touissaint Louverture. I have seen reports of the extreme poverty in the country–it is the poorest country in the Americas–and since the late 1980s heard periodic reports of political unrest. But what exactly are the push factors that lead to such large Haitian-American communities in Miami and New York? Why did so many Haitian-Americans I meet before my trip ask me: “Why do you want to go to Haiti?”
This young scholar explained to me that her mother left Haiti for good due to the instability that followed democratic election to power in 2000. After Aristide demanded France repay the 90 million Francs the colonial power demanded from Haiti after it achieved its independence (USD $21 billion); the US and Western Europe community became unsupportive of his administration. Aristide supporters and right wing military groups (supported by the US and the Dominican military) became embroiled in a grisly conflict in which supporters of both sides were murdered, tortured, and disfigured. In 2004, Aristide was forced into exile.
For many Haitians now living abroad, memories of their towns and neighborhoods transforming suddenly from peaceful communities to bloody war zones where no one could be trusted was sudden and horrifying. According to the millennial I met, the Haitian American baby boomers’ image of their country is often trapped in this time period. In their hearts and minds, the chaos, violence, and intrigue never ended. So she must call her mother every day when she’s in Haiti and affirm everyone she talks to in the country has been background checked. Her mom also refuses to travel to Haiti-fearful she will return home only to no longer recognize it.
In the US, our school textbooks and mainstream media teach us to think of the rest of the Americas (besides Canada) as naturally poor, unstable, and enigmatic. We are not taught to examine, for example, what push factors lead folk to migrate to the US at certain points in history – or what US policies may have caused the push. When a disaster strikes that is too devastating to ignore, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we turn to the little we know about our neighbors for guidance and leadership.
As a result people who are musicians, like Wyclef, or fiction writers, like Danticat, are charged with articulating an imaginary relationship between Haitians, Haitian Americans and US elites. The feelings and hope they articulate are indeed real-but the articulation substitutes the actual work of engagement, investment, and commitment over time necessary to build a truly autonomous Haiti. I realize now how my reading of Krik? Krak! and texted donations are a poor substitution for demanding more from my government and US-based philanthropic organizations in the way of investment in Haitian elections, jobs programs, infrastructure, and environmental protections.
Fortunately, it seems the millennial generation of Haitian-Americans is poised to build a bridge of engagement between Haiti and the US that can help salve old wounds and empower belief that a healthy Haiti is possible. By refusing to buy into unfounded stereotypes and directly engaging with Haitian scholars, artists, and activists as peers, these youth are bringing their families and American friends along a new path of US-Haiti relations. Perhaps next time I’ll accompany my new young scholar friend and her mom here. Only if I pass the background check.
Yours in Solidarity,