By Kerenne Paul Leandre
So far, 2020 has not been the year we all anticipated it would be on New Year’s eve when many of us partied in our New Year hats, attended church services, set goals, resolutions, consumed too many bowls of Soup Joumou, and so on. The worldwide outbreak of the novel Coronavirus upended all our plans in a matter of weeks. Whether they were long awaited graduation ceremonies, eagerly anticipated weddings, elaborately planned vacations, birthday parties, conferences, work, church… Everything about our daily routines has changed since the severity of the pandemic was thrust upon us in March. A reality that perhaps none of us imagined would become the actuality we are still living months later. Furthermore, the compounded effect of the additional pandemic of racism that has recently caused a national uproar, has made this year somewhat of a roller coaster. One thing the Coronavirus did not and could never upend though, is the celebratory spirit shared by Haitians across the US during Haitian Heritage month (HHM).
For those not familiar with the concept, HHM is a month-long celebration of Haitian heritage and culture, which takes place during the month of May in the U.S. It was first celebrated in Boston, MA in 1998. Following its inaugural year, it gained popularity across the US and has been celebrated by Haitians across many parts of the country ever since. Celebrations often include activities such as parades, flag raisings, exhibits, and many other types of cultural events organized by Haitian organizations across the U.S.
We reached out to Pastor Dieufort Fleurissaint, Chairman of Haitian-Americans United, Inc.(HAU), one of the oldest Haitian organizations in MA to get his thoughts on Haitian Heritage month. “Haitian Heritage Month is a very memorable time that reminds us of the defiance and the courage of our founding fathers. For me this is an opportunity as part of Diaspora to reflect upon our rich history, to celebrate our culture and to strengthen our bonds as a unified community, as well as advocate for positive social changes on behalf of Haitian diaspora and Haiti.”
Since its inception several governors, members of state legislatures, mayors and city councilors have issued annual citations and proclamations, recognizing the Haitian Heritage Month celebration in their states or cities. This year, amid the Coronavirus outbreak, the Boston mayor, Marty Walsh issued a statement to the public, acknowledging the celebration of Haitian heritage in Boston in May, and also highlighting the contributions and hard work of the Haitian community in the city of Boston. All Haitian Bostonians and perhaps others who saw the statement, chuckled at Mayor Walsh’s closing sentence: “And remember, Kenbe la”.
After taking part in celebratory events for two decades, most members of the Haitian diaspora had to stay home this year and celebrate from afar, in order to comply with social distancing rules. However, the spirit of Haitian Heritage Month did not depart the many Haitians in the US who take so much pride in their culture and make it a point for Haitian culture to be seen and celebrated regardless of circumstances. Throughout the month of May, we saw many Haitians across the nation proudly adorned in beautiful garments that feature the Haitian flag colors, Haitian bands hosting virtual concerts, images and clips of Haitian landmarks and Haitian dishes all over social media. The celebration this year, although different, did not lack in pride and spirit. According to Pastor Fleurissaint, HAU celebrated HHM with a theme around the pandemic, to remind our community that to protect themselves is to protect their Heritage.
As HHM comes to an end, we must continue honoring our heritage and culture by better establishing ourselves in the US through the acquisition of more economic and political power. A way in which we can do so promptly is by participating in the imminent 2020 Census.
The Immigrants Family Services Institute, Inc. (IFSI), a Boston based non-profit organization led by Dr. Geralde Gabeau is committed to leading the 2020 Census efforts in the state of Massachusetts for the Haitian community. “In order to empower ourselves economically and politically, and have actual impact, we need to have a real picture of how many of us currently live in the US. We need to also understand our assets base. Who do we have? What are the skills? Where are they?” She further adds: “The Census is key to helping bring valuable resources to our community, and to helping us gain more representation at all levels of government. When we participate in the Census, we say to everyone that we matter, that our voices matter, and that our heritage matters.”
Based on the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 881,488 Haitian Americans living in the U.S. The results of this year’s Census will inform decisions about allocating hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding to communities across the country, determine congressional representation, and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade. We must do our part to be counted. According to Pastor Fleurissaint, “The 2020 Census could be a turning point for the Haitian community, due to the influx of Haitian families to the States after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Natural disasters and political unrest in Haiti have forced the displacements of many more during the past two years, which translated into exponential growth of the Haitian diaspora and therefore opportunities to further the legacy of the Haitian diaspora.”
The Immigrants Family Services Institute, Inc. (IFSI), whose mission is to expedite the successful integration of recent immigrants into the social and economic fabric of the United States with justice and dignity, is a great resource for anyone seeking guidance and information about the 2020 Census. “When we participate in the Census as Haitians living in the US, we reaffirm that we matter in every aspect of the United States government; we matter as individuals, as families, as communities.” Says Dr. Gabeau.
Haitian Heritage and pride run deep, and every year we see generations of children and adults relish in the pride of their culture, with spirits that cannot be shaken by natural disasters in their home country, a worldwide crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic, or the plague of deeply rooted and active racism in the US. As we celebrate and take joy in all that makes us who we are, let’s continue exercising our pride and solidifying our legacy by taking actions that help create better communities for ourselves, and help forge the path for future generations of Haitian-Americans.