Watching Haiti at the speed of light
News moves, literally, at the speed of light. Last week the man on the television said that X happened. This week Y happened and X is no longer as important to the world as it once was. The impact of it disappears almost as quickly as the man himself when you press “off” on your remote—blinking out the light from the screen. The same can be said of history, unfortunately. For me though, at least on one topic, I can’t forget either.
A few weeks ago it was reported that during an internal meeting, President Donald Trump called Haiti, El Salvador, and the entire continent of Africa a “shithole.” Sensibilities were ruffled by the crass language used by a president who seems to speak in nothing but vulgarities. The responses of these people seem to amount to nothing more than “I can’t believe he said that.” Not questioning the thoughts or ideology they represent, but rather the appropriateness of their expression. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin admonished, “Shithole was the exact word used once not twice but repeatedly,” This sort of “you grabbed the wrong fork to eat the fish” properness about words leaves the meat of the topic untouched, at least to me.
Others seemed genuinely, and rightfully, upset at the insult—and what it actually meant. A whole crop of harsh rebuttals and opinion pieces rose in defense of all those poor and/or brown countries. Many of the responses I’ve seen range from insightful, like a New Yorker piece that refutes the basic idea that African immigrants are dragging the country down (“43% of immigrants from ‘shithole’ African countries have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33% of the overall American population.”), to the cringe-worthy skits on Conan O'Brien where he does a fish-out-of-water thing in port-au-prince to show that Haiti is cool and Haitians are cool too.
I think these are all well and good in helping to humanize a people who are, maybe more so nowadays, constantly pushed into the margins and “otherized.” These are the immigrants, the foreign-born citizens, and the just plain old non-whites who’re decried as those people who always need to get their shit together.
To me, however, the topic is pretty personal. It’s beyond feel-good comments meant to boost black people’s self-esteem. I am Haitian. Though I’ve only been to the country once, and can’t cook the food or speak the language worth a damn, to me it’s not just about proving that Haiti is pretty or just calling Trump a racist clown. Those comments don’t at all address the fact that the perception crudely articulated by Trump is probably one shared, in perhaps a more subtle way, by many Americans who simply know these countries by what they see in lightning fast tv reports. For them, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, full of black people who are always needing help. The problem is that this perception is not entirely wrong.
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The infrastructure of the country is so unsound, the political process so corrupt, the financial resources so low, that they’re still in partial shambles from the 2010 earthquake—one which presumably took the life of my uncle who went missing immediately afterward. I saw some of this first hand on my first and only visit to Haiti as a child. The natural settings I walked through or drove past were beautiful. When we traveled through any urban area, however, I could see the rickety state of things. Everywhere were homes made of weak wood, and small creeks that smelled like sewage. I remember, as a ten-year-old, being asked for money by crowds of other ten or twelve-year-olds—the pennies I had were snatched up in seconds, but they were not enough.
The country has always been in dire straights, in one way or another, and that is the reality. The solution to combating Trump’s disgusting mindset isn’t, in my opinion, to post photos of breathtaking Haitian sunsets on your social media and declare Haiti not a shithole, but it’s to understand the history of the place and understand why it’s as poor as it is. When you start to ask questions, and you begin to understand the serious harm done to Haiti, you realize that the state of that country has to be combated with justice, not words just meant to make them feel better.
Mainstream conversation around the subject of Haiti has avoided the word justice as much as it wished that Trump had avoided the word shithole. It's as if it was another one of those improper words not to be used in polite company. It is quickly glossed over by most anti-Trump pundits that Haiti was born into debt bondage, as France forced the country to pay it $17-$20 billion for the slaves it had “lost” (as late as 2015 France insisted it owed Haiti a “moral” debt, but denied that they would ever pay back in cash money what they stole from the country). I don’t believe anyone in the mainstream press has brought up the US military’s viciously brutal disbandment of Haiti’s parliament and the later installation of a savage dictator—one who’s crony almost put a bullet between my father’s eyes. What needs to be discussed is the Clintons and their role in the 1994 coup against the country’s first elected president. These historical facts, along with IMF meddling and even more recent, disturbing stories, give clarity to the quick blimps Americans have been seeing of the country since forever. Without that clarity—without context or history—people will simply look at what's in front of them and jump to easiest conclusions: that Trump is right.
Similar to other ruptures in the status quo (think from Weinstein to #MeToo), Trump’s lizard brain utterances could give way to a meaningful exploration of what Justice might mean for countries like Haiti. Something to contrast the hand-wringing about “policymakers... grappling with how a destitute, corrupt and now devastated country might be transformed into a self-sustaining nation.” Instead, I would love to see a Frontline episode that looks over the not-hard-to-find records of—and interviews of those involved in—the near extermination of Haiti’s previously self-sustained agricultural industry. I would love to see context given to the images of shirtless black bodies with distended stomachs who always seem to need our help. It might be interesting to find out why Haiti has to import almost all its rice from the US, right? I think so anyway.
The complexity of history is something that I hope comes up in the possible mainstream conversation currently involving Haiti, though I’m not sure if the US news cycle allows for this kind of context to sink in, or even be brought up. As I write, the impression of Trump’s comment is already fading, as is the chance to respond to it in any meaningful way. The president’s next absurdity is being reported on, the next possible military adventure is being discussed, another Kardashian took a provocative photo of her ass. The light hits our eyes, but it's turned off all too quickly.
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