By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Even a casual tennis follower knows by now that Naomi Osaka, a 20-year old rising star defeated the legendary Serena Williams on March 22 at the Miami Open. At the time of this writing it is not yet known how far she will reach in that tournament. But what is sure is that she is an ascending star. Her win against the indomitable Williams, who is coming back after leaving the circuit on maternity leave, has put Osaka on center stage. That win came after Osaka landed her first Women’s Tennis Association title at Indian Wells, CA.
Osaka, is a Haitian-American-Japanese, who moved to Florida at the age of three, where she currently lives.
Her rise has made her the pride and joy of the Haitian community, who have been swooning by her exploits at a time when the community feels under siege from the hostilities coming out of the Trump administration.
But if Osaka were to one day decide that she wanted to lob her celebrity from the tennis court to help encourage young Haitians in Haiti, or here to take up tennis, she would be welcomed with open arms and a chest full of nails.
There is a long tradition of Diaspora Haitians who throw themselves in the mix to help their country or community. There are plenty of examples where members of the Diaspora, motivated by altruism and a desire to make a difference, bring themselves down from their “celebrity” status to help the country, only to be demonized after being deified.
I am not a psychologist, nor do I want to play one in TV or elsewhere, but this observation has been codified over the years as I see over and over again how we treat “celebrities” who have the misguided view that they can help burnish Haiti’s bandied brand name.
Part of the problem is that we want to keep our celebrities on a pedestal because if they come down from the mountaintop to mingle with the masses, we realize they are humans and are deeply flawed like the rest of us. We become disillusioned and lash out at their imperfections at best, and at worst, we try to exploit them. When they get on to this game and move on, we cast aspersion on their character.
The most spectacular example is Wyclef Jean. In the early 1990s Wyclef revolutionized the hip-hop world by infusing a pan-Caribbean African flavor to the emerging musical genre. He mixed Creole and brought a unique beat to rap music. His remarkable talent with his band the Fugees earned him a Grammy Award. So when Wyclef strolled onto the stage wrapped with a huge Haitian flag on his back to accept the award, it was an indelible moment forever seared in Haitian lore. Immediately a God was born. Haitian teenagers, who would hide their identity had a newfound pride and began draping themselves in the flag. The West Indian Carnival Parade was suddenly brimming with people wearing Haitian colors and flags. To be sure, our presence was always strong, if not visible. It was a new dawn. To be Haitian became cool.
I followed Wyclef’s rise while a reporter at the New York Times and wrote a story explaining how Wyclef was more than a musical star. To Haitians, particularly the youth, he was a larger than life figure that validated their identity. It was powerful and heady stuff.
I also followed Wyclef’s fall at this newspaper when he made the fatal mistake of trying to enter Haitian politics by putting his hat in the presidential election ring about six years ago. The knives came out sharp. His lack of higher education, his poor command of Creole and his tenuous grasp on the issues were amplified. These are all legitimate concerns. But Haitians ended up electing another musician with the same weakness without some of his attributes. in that election, Haitians voted for Michel Martelly, a bawdy musician, who foreshadowed what a Trump administration would entail.
Over the years, Wyclef has become a cautionary tale for Haitian-American celebrities. Many, at least their handlers, have learned that to help Haiti, or the Haitian community, is not to dive into the muck. You must be guarded, strategic and know the limits of what you can accomplish. This attitude may fly in the face of the American ethos etched into our mind since grade school that you must give back to your community because as the old saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected.
But a group of prominent NFL players, most notably Pierre Garcon and Cliff Avril have found the right formula. They’ve carefully identified projects and have enlisted their teammates and friends in their efforts to do concrete, achievable tasks with a beginning and an end. Avril, for instance, has built scores of homes with a flair. In 2016, he paid for schools, homes and clinics that were destroyed after the earthquake in 2010. He did his part and exited the stage.
Other celebrities, including movie actors, musicians and entrepreneurs have lent their name when possible and move on, doing their own thing. It’s a loss for the community’s growth because we lack the engaged stars who can help fund community organizations and help support Haitian businesses.
And so we find ourselves brimming with pride and steaming with envy when one of us ascends to stardom. We must find a way to bring them into our midst. I’m hopeful this is a transitional period and this is a rite of passage that has inflicted other immigrants that preceded us to America. I hope we refrain from our tendency to cannibalize our own.