Opinion

Haitians and African-Americans Are Trapped in the Same History

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By Jean McGianni Celestin

During the “Millions March” demonstration in New York last month, tens of thousands of protestors marched from Greenwich Village through parts of upper Manhattan before concluding on the steps of the NYPD’s headquarters downtown. The demonstration was one of the largest organized responses to recent police killings of unarmed blacks around the country and came after the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The rally made modern-day Martin Luther King disciples proud: it was a fusion of races, genders and nationalities, all marching peacefully for justice.

There was a visible Haitian presence at that march. New York City is home to the highest concentration living in the United States and many of them wore Haitian flag buttons and bandanas. One man stood at an intersection with a large Haitian flag and waved it as encouragement to passing demonstrators. For many Haitians who have spent any significant part of their lives in Haiti, the site of protest is familiar.

Today marks the five-year anniversary since the earthquake and this year both mourning and protest reverberate as themes. January 12, 2010 is a date that will live in infamy. More than 200,000 Haitians perished in the catastrophe and millions more were left without food, water or shelter. It was a heartbreaking tragedy, but one that many believed would also be an opportunity for new beginnings in Haiti. The reconstruction efforts were supposed to boost tourism and the economy. Instead, what has happened since has been nearly as tragic. Ten months after the earthquake, the country was rocked by the worst Cholera epidemic in recent history. The likely source of the outbreak was linked to United Nation security forces stationed there. But on Friday, a U.S. federal judge in New York dismissed a lawsuit brought on behalf of the victims, ruling that
the UN was immune from liability.

The Haitian proverb “Beyond the mountains, more mountains” continues to be the script for Haiti. Life since the quake has been an aftershock of injustices.

But Haiti is a resilient nation born out of self-determination and a spirit of resistance. It’s a history that the diaspora gloat about on New Year’s Day celebrations of the island’s independence, and over the past several months, that spirit has been on display in the streets of Port-au-Prince. Anti-government protests against President Michel Martelly for allegedly delaying elections have intensified at levels more ferocious than what we’ve seen in Ferguson and New York City. In the midst of a demonstration last month, UN forces fired live ammunition at a crowd of protesters. No fatalities were reported, but neither has an investigation into this illegal use of deadly force against civilians of a sovereign country. But if James Baldwin was right when he wrote: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” then it will take more than bullets to deter Haitians from protesting.

Unlike the fight for racial justice in America, the Haitian struggle can seem more complicated. On the surface, it’s a black country governed by black people, so Haitians fighting Haitians reads like a self-defeating prophecy. But at the core, the fight is about the same: the pursuit of justice and equality.

Haitian politics has seldom produced either, perhaps because it’s never been autonomous. Corruption is rife at every level of government, but most narratives around the issue are voided of Haiti’s historical context in the Western Hemisphere. The consequences of that context shaped its political culture. To suggest that Haiti is still paying for the sin of becoming the first Western nation to emancipate itself from slavery would be met with cynicism. And to say that its coerced dependency on foreign aid generates enormous profits for American industries that rather the country remain in flux than become stable would be cast-off as excuses. U.S. domestic subsidies implemented since the 1980s for rice farmers in states like Arkansas has turned the island into the fifth largest importer of American rice in the world; a crop that was once a leading Haitian export. To make any mention that the chaos that trampled Haitian democracy over the last half century was, in large part, architected by men groomed at the U.S. Army School of the Americas would sound absurd.

The easier analysis is that Haiti is a “basket case,” as framed by a recent Washington Post editorial . Its “chronic political dysfunction” can only be corrected with outside supervision.

This is the traditional gaze on black lives everywhere. Much of Africa is perceived this way, as does, in the microcosm, African-American communities. Black people’s problems are not just insoluble, but self-inflicted. Part of a deep-seated pathology of failure. I suspect that this might be enough of a commonality for us to see whether it’s police violence in Staten Island or corrupt government in Haiti, that the world sees us all the same. We are trapped in the same story.

 

Jan. 12, 2015

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