Two Haitian-Americans, Fabienne Doucet and Karl Racine, chosen by Carnegie Corporation for its annual Great Immigrants group.
America has a long history of antagonizing the world’s first Black republic, so it was no surprise that Haitian immigrants faced intense discrimination when they arrived here. During the 1980s and 1990s in particular, matters worsened when the CDC designated Haitians as a high-risk group during the AIDS epidemic, spurring discrimination under the guise of public health. Newcomer Haitians settling in Miami and New York became known as the “boat people” and remained social pariahs.
With many relegated to live in rough, inner-city neighborhoods, some Haitian youth faced “Haitian Fridays,” when delinquents would jump Haitians for recreation. This hostile environment caused many Haitians to abandon their heritage entirely.
One day, a group of youth in Miami’s Little Haiti decided enough was enough. Together, they formed the “Power Of United Negroes in Divinity,” more commonly known as the Zoe Pound. Members were “hard as bones” — “zo” meaning “bone” in Creole. Their primary goal was to fight back against their tormentors, meeting violence with more violence.
The Zoes became a force to be reckoned with and, soon enough, there were no more Haitian Fridays. Instead, Zoe Pound held regular Haitian pride demonstrations, driving around en masse, blasting Haitian music and waving the Haitian flag.
Say what you will about the Zoes, since they eventually expanded into a formidable criminal organization, their unabashed embrace of Haiti set the tone for an emerging diasporic identity. They ushered in a new era of pride, celebration and flair for Haitian Americans. Being Haitian became cool. And nowadays, Zoe is a term of endearment for youngsters throughout the Haitian diaspora.
Finding our ground as Haitian Americans
Though much remains unchanged — gang warfare and political instability continue to plague Haiti, and people still flee for safety — Haitian American communities are finding their ground.
People of Haitian descent have an employment rate, 80%, that is 21 percentage points higher than US-born citizens and 16 percentage points higher than non-Haitian immigrants, according to the CATO Institute. Second-generation Haitians are an educated group, with 54% holding a college degree, compared to 42% of all Americans.
“When given the chance and proper legal institutions,” the study notes, Haitians “turn around their economic fortunes.” Haitians are running successful businesses, winning elections, and receiving appointments for prestigious positions.
Slowly yet surely, Haitians are achieving the American Dream, and the excitement around it all is building within the diaspora. Second-generation Haitians now wave the flag with more gusto than their parents. A new crop of Haitian American icons has emerged, from Edwidge Danticat to DroXYani and Jessie Woo.
Much of the most viral Haitian media is being created outside of Haiti, signaling a shift in Haitian identity. Previously, someone like Success Jr. would have been written off as not really Haitian. Now, he is one of many cultural touchstones for the Haitian diaspora.
What it means to be Haitian
This shift comes at a cost though: A growing rift between Haitians back home and Haitians abroad. The differences in attitudes, values and cultural expression cannot be ignored. In particular, both groups have differing views on what it means to be Haitian. Some accuse the diaspora of capitalizing off a superficial Haitian identity without genuinely understanding the culture they claim to represent.
My parents would never refer to themselves as “Zoes.” To them, Haiti is playing soccer outside and running from house to house without a care in the world. Haiti is handling an emergency without the privilege of Triple-A, 911 or medical insurance. Haiti is gathering every evening for krik-krak storytelling with the village elders. It’s a lifestyle that folks raised abroad can never truly understand.
For many of my peers, in contrast, Haitian identity amounts to eating soup joumou, bumping Kodak Black and putting a flag in a social media bio.
Often, this rift starts in the home. As children, we resented our parents’ traditional, domineering parenting style. Many of us do not speak Creole or French. Instead of being taught about Haiti, we grew up hearing peyi a pa bon and Ayisyen pa bon. It’s enough to make those on the outside think of Haitian culture as mysterious and insular.
Educate ourselves, uplift our culture
However, there is something very empowering in educating yourself about your heritage. For me, reconnecting to my roots meant learning to love parts of myself that I took for granted. It means appreciating the culture and people who raised me.
The more I learn about Haiti, the better I can understand my family history, the stories of my loved ones and my personal story. As a diaspora, that’s the work we must do to learn about and uplift our culture. For our sake, Haiti’s sake and our children’s sake.
Arslay Joseph is an aspiring writer and blogger based in the Boston area. This essay is adapted from his writings about Haitian identity and culture, available on his blog Imprecisewords.com or Medium.