Today marks the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and surrounding areas that killed almost 300,000 people and was the greatest natural catastrophe in the country’s history. Eight years later, many Haitians are still struggling to survive, many without homes and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yesterday President Trump added to the pain of this year’s anniversary with degrading references to Haiti and Haitian immigrants. Although he has now denied it, the comments leave a sting for those of us from the nation.
President Trump added to the pain of this year’s anniversary with degrading references to Haiti and Haitian immigrants.
Every year, Haitians remember where they were when they first heard the rumbling sound of goudougoudou, how long they were trapped, what they did next and where they slept that night. Every year, people in the diaspora remember the loved ones they lost, lament all that the disaster left in its wake (including the deaths of thousands as a result of a cholera epidemic that the United Nations eventually admitted being responsible for) and wonder what full recovery and reconstruction will look like. Every year on Jan. 12, we remember, we honor the dead, we grieve and we hope for a different future.
Mr. Trump’s comments have rightfully inspired outrage and should be condemned unequivocally. But, for three reasons, they are not shocking.
First, because they are evidence of a brand of racism that has always been present in U.S. society, which since the 2016 campaign has been fanned into virulent flame. Many of us have long understood that the mission to “Make America Great Again” has anti-black racism at its root—white could easily replace black. The project of white supremacists is to reclaim the country from anyone who does not fit the mold of whiteness and maleness.
Trump’s comments have rightfully inspired outrage. But, for three reasons, they are not shocking.
Haiti, the first independent black republic in the world, has long been the target of racism. In many ways, anti-Haitian sentiment can be equated with anti-blackness. In Silencing the Past: History and the Production of Power, Michel-Rolph Trouillot explains that the Haitian Revolution was unthinkable precisely because no one imagined that enslaved people would (and could) rebel against their white slave owners and claim their freedom.
The anthropologist Gina Ulysse explains it this way: “There is, of course here a subtext about race. Haiti and Haitians remain a manifestation of blackness in its worst form because the enfant terrible of the Americans defied all European odds and created a disorder of things colonial” (Why Haiti Needs New Narratives).
Second, Mr. Trump’s comments are not shocking because stereotypes about Haitians are unfortunately very familiar to many of us. Last month the president allegedly trotted out an old AIDS stereotype from the 1980s in his references to Haitian immigrants. In the 1980s, the Red Cross went so far as to put a ban on Haitians donating blood because of these prejudices. At the time Haitians organized protests just as they did earlier this year when the Temporary Protected Status for Haitians was revoked for more than 50,000 Haitians.
Haiti, the first independent black republic in the world, has long been the target of racism.
Third, Mr. Trump’s remarks are unsurprising because of the interwoven history shared by Haiti and the United States. Haiti won its independence from France almost 30 years after the United States became independent. But Haiti’s northern neighbor did not recognize its independence until 1862. Later, in 1915, the United States invaded and occupied Haiti for almost 30 years to “protect American interests.” Another intervention followed by occupation took place in the 1990s after a coup d’état ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The two countries have such strong ties that you cannot tell the history of one without the other.
Last semester I taught a class entitled “Haiti chérie: Haitian Literature and Film.” In it, we read novels by Haitian authors like Evelyne Trouillot and Kettly Mars, watched films about Haiti by filmmakers like Raoul Peck and listened to Haitian music. My goal was always to show students that, as historian Marc Prou says, “Haiti is economically poor but culturally rich.”
At one point, my father came to visit the class during a visit from Haiti. A Haitian immigrant to the United States who lived here for over 30 years before returning to his country of origin, my father is a trained physician who practiced medicine before retiring. He and my mother exemplify the “good immigrant” model. They worked tirelessly, owned multiple properties, sent all of their children to private school and college and then chose to return home for their retirement.
People should not matter because of what they contribute to the U.S. economy.
Certainly, when people speak disparagingly about immigrants they are not referring to people like my parents. But this kind of thinking is inherently flawed. People should not matter because of what they contribute to the U.S. economy; they matter simply because they are people.
My father was delighted by the class. As a proud father he loved to see me in action, as a devoted Catholic he was thrilled to be on Boston College’s campus and as a physician who teaches at the state medical school in Port-au-Prince, he enjoyed interacting with the students. But what left the greatest impression on him was seeing how much my students knew about Haiti and how excited they were about the material. He was moved by seeing students from so many different backgrounds—many of whom knew very little about Haiti prior to my class—take so much interest in his country. To him, the students were an example of the power of education, what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has cited as the power of stories to influence how people think about a place.
Despite what we know about the president’s proclivity for making racist remarks about specific groups, his comments are still demoralizing. This morning I had to tell my third- and fourth- grade sons about what their president said. Thankfully, with grandparents from Haiti and Ghana, they are aware of their rich cultural heritage and have traveled to both countries.
Yes, I am demoralized, but I am not discouraged: I know that Haiti, the first independent black republic in the world, has a legendary history. It is the home of artists, writers, dancers, photographers, filmmakers, intellectuals and so many people—both extraordinary and ordinary—who use their work and their lives to bring beauty and hope into the world.
Today is a day of sadness for us, but tomorrow will be a day for action, when we take these feelings and use them to fuel our resistance, just as our ancestors did. Or, as the author Edwidge Danticat puts it, “Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we fight.”