As a 16-year-old in the mid-1990s, Yanatha Desouvre couldn’t believe it as he watched. The Haitan singer who once sang the gospel song, “Vanite, Tout se Vanite” (Vanity, It’s All Vanity), at Desouvre’s church in Philadelphia was on TV—Wyclef Jean. And Jean wasn’t ashamed to let people know he was Haitian.
For Desouvre, who had been spat on for being Haitian in the fifth grade and who had faked a Jamaican accent to escape bullies, listening to Jean reaffirmed the teenager’s sense of worth.
“What changed was Wyclef, when Wyclef threw the Haitian flag on his back,” Desouvre, 43, said. “It reminded me who I was. It reminded us who we were.”
Haitian-Americans’ accomplishments over the years have helped diminish the stereotypes that were associated with them, making it less challenging for members of the diaspora to embrace their heritage.
“When you see someone doing amazing things from where you come from, it’s a great sense of joy, a great sense of pride,” said Daniel Bartley Jr., 34, a Haitian musician based in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“It gets you that ammunition so when that guy comes up to you and says ‘boat person’ or whatever, you can look at them and laugh at them and say ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Do you know Wyclef, do you know this person, do you know that person?’”
Origins of the stigma
The stigma started mainly because of Haiti’s perennial position as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere for decades and being made up of Black people, many Haitian-Americans say.
“The world hates poor people, no matter where you are in the world they don’t like poverty,” said Nehemiah Legiste, a career coach based in Brooklyn. “Then most Haitians are dark-skinned, the darker you are the harder it gets.”
As Haitians fled violence in Haiti under dictator François Duvalier in the 1970s, some left by boat to Miami. Over a decade, about 55,000 Haitians arrived in Florida on the high seas between 1972 and 1981, according to federal immigration data.
Americans assumed these so-called “boat people” were uneducated, unskilled peasants, according to a Haitian Immigration study. The term was generalized to refer to all Haitians.
Around the same time, employers refused to hire Haitians, saying they had tuberculosis during the 1970s and then AIDS during the 1980s. In 1983, more than one-third of Haitian immigrants in the U.S. were unemployed. When Haitian immigrants were hired, it was for low-wage jobs at places like factories, restaurants and music stores.
Haitian-Americans were looked down upon as a result, regardless of their status.
“‘Why was I born into this?’ [That’s what] I used to think in the heat of the moment,” Bartley said. “There was pain, anger and resentment. But as I matured, now I have feelings of pity. Ignorance created that and a lack of cultural understanding and sympathy.”
Erasing the stigma
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed Haitians from its list of major risk groups for AIDS in 1985. Nevertheless, many still believed in the initial inaccuracy.
Meanwhile, Haitian-Americans were taking full advantage of opportunities in the United States. People like Henri Ford, who had migrated from Haiti at 13, received a degree from Harvard Medical School in 1984. Reginald ‘Combat Jack’ Ossé, an attorney, represented numerous musicians, including Jay-Z.
The success stories began to become more frequent, culminating in that moment of Jean draped in a Haitian flag at the Grammy Awards.
Several years later in the early 2000s, actor Jimmy Jean-Louis emerged in the U.S. film industry. Haitian-Americans also began to appear in significant numbers as elected officials, masters in the culinary arts, professional athletes, designers and many more visible roles.
“It’s nothing like it was before,” said Nancy St. Leger, a Haitian folklore dance teacher who migrated to the U.S. during the 1990s.
“We hustled. We have restaurants, tons of things going on here, nurses, college graduates or you have a business. We’re well developed within the American culture. So they realized that these people aren’t just poor people,” St. Leger added.
The internet later served as a major tool to help decrease the stigma during the 2000s. Haitian-Americans took to Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms to make known the positive sides of Haiti.
Multiple Haitian-American social media pages and blog sites were also created, such as L’Union Suite and Best Haitians World Wide (BHWW). They posted pictures of Haiti’s touristic sites, made known different facets of Haiti’s culture and mentioned Haitian-Americans’ achievements.
With the rise of the internet, it also became easier to access information on Haiti’s history and to refute false and exaggerated narratives, Haitian-Americans said.
“You can’t just be a “cat eater” anymore because you can easily debunk it now,” Bartley said. “You can easily find our glorious history. We’re not just ‘boat people.’ We’re descendants of kings and queens. We’re descendants of people who shaped and changed all of history.”
Passing the baton
Looking back at the 1980s and 1990s, many Haitian-Americans feel like it’s a must to continue to excel in their careers so they don’t give people a foothold to stigmatize them.
Desouvre eventually overcame the shame he felt with being of Haitian origin. He has since co-written an award-winning film, “The Sweetest Girl,” produced by an all-Haitian cast and crew.
“I never thought that would’ve been possible when I kicked that kid for spitting on me,” Desouvre said. “That stigma is long gone. Haitians, we are a sensation.”
As an entrepreneurship professor at Miami-Dade College, Desouvre said he is committed to pushing the young generation of Haitian-Americans to strive.
“I take the baton and run past the “Haitian boat people,” run past “Haitian body odor,” run past all of those things and let the next generation know that they too can run past those things,” Desouvre said.