By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Growing up in Elizabeth, NJ, I and the handful of Haitian kids who lived there would sometimes get into schoolyard spats with our African American classmates. In the heat of the moment, the African American kids would call us “Frenchy” because of our surnames and accents. We would shoot back, “I’m not French, I’m Haitian.”
It would go on like this for a while, with the typical harmless things kids do. Then, we came to realize that these taunts were out of envy and nothing more. “Can you say something in French,” they would ask. We would say something banal, and we all would laugh.
When I first saw African Americans, I actually thought they were Haitians. In my innocence, I thought every Black person was Haitian. I remember saying to my mom that I didn’t know there were so many “Haitians” in New York.
At that time, most of the Haitians who had migrated to the U.S were middle class, but we lived in mostly poor Black communities — meaning that language was not our only division. So Haitian parents warned their children not to play or associate with “Ti Ameriken Nwa,” Creole for “little Black Americans,” whom they saw as criminals in waiting. That was the mainstream propaganda and trope, and Haitian parents fell for it like other immigrants have for generations before and since.
I’m glad to say that my mom was not such a parent. Liberal to the core, she welcomed my friends. Derrick Taylor, who passed away recently, was one of my best friends. A funny, irreverent, great guy. Derrick loved lambi, our conch dish, and my mom would oblige him with a heaping plate when he came over.
What most Haitian parents didn’t understand was that the reason they lived in the poor communities is that a system placed them there, whether or not they had money. It’s called structural and systemic racism.
After I graduated from Elizabeth High School, I should have taken a gap year before going to college, but of course, such a concept was foreign to me. Instead, I went to Rutgers, then Kean College. I didn’t do much academically, but that year was not all lost. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement and discovered Malcom X and Martin Luther King. I immersed myself in Black American life through books.
I felt buoyed by that history, like I had found my intellectual compass. I settled my choice down to three Historically Black Colleges and Universities — Howard, North Carolina A&T and Morehouse. One day I ran into Derrick while he was home from school and told him of my plan.
“Homeboy, you have to come to FAMU,” he said referring to The Florida A&M University. “That’s where I am, you have to.”
I followed him there and that experience changed my life. Our shared cultures and challenges are more intertwined than either of us had realized.
A viral view of anti-Blackness
This reality has come to the fore with the latest crisis facing Haitians. We all saw it: U.S. Customs & Border Patrol agents treating Haitians seeking asylum the way that slave catchers of yore chased down African American runaways fleeing plantations. We all watched the agents, high on their horses, use the reins as whips to make sure these Haitian people, these Black people, didn’t come here.
It took a minute to sink in, even as the images went viral, but soon the Congressional Black Caucus, civil rights leaders and Black journalists pushed back hard. They united around Haitians because they didn’t see us as “Haitians,” but as the lost cousins that were dropped off at an earlier port during that peculiar institution we call chattel slavery.
It is about time that we Haitians come to the realization that we are Black Americans, just with a different accent. Heck, there are millions of us in Louisiana. All you have to do is watch an LSU game on any given Saturday and you will see Black people with French surnames.
New Orleans is the only place in America where people don’t wonder about my name and accent. I’m one of them.
Back at FAMU, I had met some students from Louisiana and one had invited me there and his mom told me about Marie Laveau, the famous Vodou priestess, and other luminaries that came from Haiti. When I ventured into the deep swamp towns and hamlets, I heard a Creole akin to that in Cap Haitien, a different accent.
At FAMU, after the freshman year, few people lived on campus. We lived in apartment buildings where the majority of the dwellers attended the school and these places became de facto dorms.
We would congregate at each other’ places, watch BET, and talk about the problems facing Blacks in America and how we would solve them when we became professionals. They would pepper me with questions about Haiti and its revolution.
At that time, the sheen had been wiped off the Haiti of my youth. In the early 1980’s, a wave of Haitian refugees coming by boat was top of the news in South Florida and nationally. And Haitians would become synonymous with AIDS. I would try my best to explain the reality in Haiti, although back then I didn’t follow Haiti all that much. I reverted to the history for contextual background.
I’m still in touch with a cadre of these classmates to this day and we are on a chat group where we share the latest news of who has passed away and the trials and tribulations of our children. That is how I found out that Derrick had died.
Joint histories coming to light
I was one of a handful of Haitian students in the “Yard” as FAMU’s campus was known and was popular partly because I was a reporter at the FAMUAN, the school’s newspaper, eventually becoming its editor in chief.
These days, things are different. I was invited to speak by the Dean of the School of Journalism, where I was pleasantly surprised to see that Haitians were no longer a small minority of the student body. There is a Haitian Student Association in Tallahassee that includes students who attend FAMU, Florida State and Tallahassee Community College.
I spoke about my time at FAMU and campus life in the early 1980’s. The students
were mostly from South Florida, presumably children of the refugees who were arriving while I was in school.
They were fully integrated on campus life. They were part of the frat scene and were part of the larger Black family. Instead of being from Louisiana, their parents came from Haiti, and they had embraced the culture.
During our conversation, I asked them why they felt they started a Haitian club, considering the campus was majority Black and there was a Caribbean student club dating before when I was in school. I was told that while they identified with all of them, there was something special about being Haitian because of the country’s history. They wanted to preserve it and celebrate it.
I flashed a smile because I knew exactly what they meant. It’s time for this generation, who has embraced their African American and Caribbean cousins, moored solidly in their “Haitianity,” to coin a word, to rise. They, more than anybody, understand this moment. It is their moment to show the world where Black unity can take us.
The time for petty division is over. Haitians, Black Americans, Caribbean Americans and now continental Africans must realize that they are not competitors. We are collaborators facing an ever-rising tide of white nationalism in the world bent on pushing us back and holding us down.
If we can gain that unity, we can make the Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) coalition into a broader movement for social change, along with like-minded whites who support our cause.