One of the missions of the Peace Corps was that volunteers would share America with the world and as a volunteer in Togo and Benin in the late 1980s I did so regularly.
My African brothers and sisters were curious about Black Americans and they were surprised that I was given my darker hue. To them, a Black American was a light-skinned person or a metisse.
I tried my best to explain that we were of different shades of blacks and that they look like many of my friends back in the United States. Bruno, a dear friend of mine from the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire, was one of those friends who lived in Kpalime, Togo, with whom I had these conversations.
Bruno was at my place when a copy of Ebony magazine arrived. I sifted through the pages waiting to make my point of our different hues. It wasn’t to be. The pages were filled with light-skinned Black people and the women had long weaves with blonde highlights.
I put the magazine away and didn’t show it to Bruno.
A decade later, when I decided to found The Haitian Times, I promised myself that the Black faces would not be another Ebony magazine. We would provide our readers with a complete reality of our troubled Caribbean nation — the good, the bad and the ugly. We’d show Haitians in all our glorious shades too.
Now, as Haiti finds itself once again in the news, many of our readers, Haitians in general, have been outraged by the depiction of their beloved homeland in the mainstream media. The images are indeed shocking and disturbing. But the question is: Are they real?
I’ve had several conversations with friends who were sure that the media were skewing reality. They felt that, at the very least, the media outlets should provide a balanced view of the Haiti they know and love — the beautiful terrain with its rippling chain of rugged mountains, cascading waterfalls, breathtaking landscapes, flora and fauna to rival any world-class botanical garden. The endless miles of beaches and seashores.
“Why aren’t they showing that side of Haiti?” That’s the question that comes up over and over again. There were particular venoms for CNN and the New York Times, the two most popular mainstream media outlets among Haitian professionals.
I replied, invariably, that the mainstream media has its ways of operating, that these outlets know what their audience needs are and they’re trying to meet them. The professor of journalism in me explained to them that, when it comes to covering countries like Haiti, the reporters who volunteer for those assignments are fearless and want to do a good job. The problem is that they’re not steeped in Haiti’s history, recent or otherwise.
Headline #1: Weak reporting bubbles up, sadly
In the good old days, we could count on the media in Haiti to inform the gaggle of foreign correspondents who would parachute into Port-au-Prince to cover the latest coup or natural disaster. But these days, Haiti’s media reflect the decline of the country. The quality of the journalism is abysmal. Left with little credible local news, the mainstream reporters do what we do, they file dispatches describing the scenes. Mission accomplished.
Their editors back at headquarters take the stories and add boilerplate stuff like, “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” — a phrase that drives my friends to frustration. This cycle is repeated over and over, and no matter how many hashtags we launch on social media – almost every segment, especially on cable television – is replete with that moniker.
I know this because I was part of the mainstream media and I know some of my works elicited similar outrage from some other group that I had covered who found my articles void of substance, despite my best intentions.
Headline #2: Bridging the gap, in more ways than one
It is with that knowledge that I wanted to start this newspaper. I know firsthand that these correspondents depend on solid local reporting to inform their work. I wanted to at least help shape the coverage when the cavalcade of journalists descended in Haiti.
Perhaps you may have noticed that the Haitian Times staff has been ubiquitous on mainstream media outlets, explaining in our best abilities why Jovenel Moise was assassinated; why a 7.2 earthquake and a hurricane inflicted so much damage; why Haitian migrants made a perilous journey through South America to the doorsteps of the United States seeking asylum.
Most of the working press members in national media are either former colleagues, students or friends. They turn to us because they trust us and in that sense, those who are complaining about the coverage don’t realize how bad it could have been. All they have to do is read dispatches from the prior earthquake or other major stories out of Haiti as proof.
But the mainstream media are precisely that. Mainstream. If you’re looking for it to have a complex and nuanced understanding of every issue or country that it covers, you should not read or watch. It’s not constructed for that. They are generalists moving from one beat to another every few years.
For me, the affirmation that Haitians are seeking from mainstream media is a source of frustration. For the last 23 years, The Haitians Times has provided to the community exactly what it says it craves. We cover the community’s aspirations and achievements. We write about Haiti with the sensibility of the insiders that we are. It is our country.
The mainstream media understand and depend on us to inform their coverage, while Haitians complain about the mainstream media’s poor treatment.
Headline #3: Look inward for validation, not at CNN & NYT
For one reason or another, the community is still looking for affirmation from the mainstream media, something that will remain elusive even if or when Haitians in America become mainstream. All you need to do is ask southerners and midwesterners what they think of the media. You’d be surprised to hear the same doleances.
The Haitian Times and the other outlets that are sure to come are what we should make sure have the resources to help Haitians define who we are as a community. Karl Marx said that the power to define, is the power to control. We should define who we are and then control our destiny. Waiting on CNN and the New York Times will not do it.
In the last six months, the American Press Institute and Borealis Foundation have generously funded research and training for local, Black- and brown-owned media outlets, including the Haitian Times.
Their research shows that you who are reading this opinion right now really like us. I sat in interviews with some of you who volunteered for our audience research. The criticisms were few, and you know that’s saying something because we are extremely critical of each other.
The interviews were tense and emotive. One woman cried as she described her disappointment that her dream of retiring in Haiti had been dashed because the country has descended into a scary place she barely remembers when she left home four decades ago. She worried about whether or not her children would want to immerse themselves in the culture.
It was sad and I understand her tribulation. But it gives me hope because, unbeknownst to her, the Haitian Times’ mission is to ensure that future generations of Haitians will see us as that bridge from the old to the new.
Another promise is that the Haitian Times will never be an Ebony. It is not a knock on the venerable magazine because when it started, it was trying to counter negative stereotypes about Black people. That was noble and needed. But the publication failed to evolve.
At this moment, Haitian Americans are feeling embattled more than ever with the constant barrage of negative images that are being fed, showing our country at its worst and lowest. The natural tendency is to show the pretty side of us, while neglecting to tell the ugly. In that scenario, no one wins.
We in the diaspora may feel good about ourselves, but we must be honest with ourselves about the downtrodden who live in misery, forgotten because the cameras are too busy showing all the pretty people who got it made, to borrow a line from Bob Dylan.