Haiti is the “Pearl of the Antilles”. That is how the French colonists referred to Haiti when in the 1780’s, Haiti produced 60% of the coffee and 40% of the sugar for all of Europe.
There were 800,000 slaves in Haiti who produced those “pearls”.
In the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for 1/3 of the entire African slave trade. The abuse and torture heaped upon these beautiful people has all been documented. It is all enough to make any human being weep…forever.
The resilience of human beings, and the courage to act on that resilience was never more gloriously exemplified than when the slaves of Haiti rose up in revolution in 1791, and fought a civil war for freedom against the French. On January 1, 1804, Haiti became the second republic in the Western Hemisphere. It is the oldest Black Republic in the hemisphere.
Yesterday, the President of the United States used an adjective common in the American culture…he called Haiti a “shithole”. From the “Pearl of the Antilles” to a “shithole”…in both cases the language does not describe Haiti from the point of view of the people who live and labor there. In both cases the language of the dominant culture is horrifyingly and forever inhuman. The language denies the people’s existence as people. The language denies all truth, all history.
I don’t know about you, but let’s be honest…I have been hearing that term, “shithole” applied to people and places all my adult life. I grew up in Milwaukee, WI. I lived with peers, people older than I and younger, using that term freely, using it dismissively , always accompanied by an arrogant smirk that “those people” lived in shitholes. It is a remarkably common part of the way people in this country talk.
It is but one example of the kind of attitude and language that we all have a responsibility to make wrong for people to talk that way. I have no doubt that every one of you reading this, know someone who has used that adjective to describe a people and a place which they look down upon. It describes poverty, and it usually describes the people who live in that poverty who are of a different race or nationality. The term is mean and ugly and of course racist.
And, also let’s be honest, as people stir their morning coffee or tea, they never think about the people who broke their backs to produce the coffee, tea, or sugar that they enjoy.
“Pearl of the Antilles”…”shithole”…these terms are the terms of arrogance and callousness.
It is the responsibility of anyone who claims to lead in public to unify, to do everything possible to eliminate meanness and ugliness among the people of the nation. It is the responsibility of all of us, parents, teachers, citizens, and certainly public officials to do the same.
President Trump has committed a crime by referring to people of Haiti, or anywhere else as living in a “shithole”.
What is the crime?
It is the crime of propagating disrespect for anyone, anytime. Such propagation of disrespect is at the root of the history of our nation and many other nations. Dominant nations continue to turn places where people are born into places that they are forced to either leave or live without the capacity to live a full life. This happens at home and abroad.
It is the scourge of modern times.
The language used by the President is language that all people must resist if it means anything to live in a decent society. As the person holding the highest office in the land, his use of this term makes him not only unfit to hold office. It requires all of us to explain his comments to our children and grandchildren and great grand children and tell them the truth about people and the world we live in.
Like everywhere else on earth, Haiti is a place where children are born with their innate and indescribable beauty, strength, and curiosity. They have a home, no matter how meager or how splendid, and that is where most people live out their lives.
People are not born wanting to leave their homes. But all through history, especially the history since the beginning of colonialism and the industrial revolution, people all over the world have been forced to leave their homes. They leave due to religious, political, social, and economic persecution. They leave due to natural disaster. They leave due to war. They leave for the unknown…they leave reluctantly because in almost all cases they leave family, the familiarity, and the love of home behind. It is rarely a happy experience.
Then there are the facts…
After the Revolution and Declaration of Independence that created the Haitian Republic, the French demanded reparations for their losses. By 1900, 80% of the national budget of Haiti was spent on repayment of these “losses”. That left virtually nothing to build a country.
In 1911, U.S. forces put down a revolution and occupied the country for 20 years. By 1957, after decades of revolt and upheaval, the U.S. helped install the dictator Duvalier, “Papa Doc”, and for 28 years, he and his son ruled the nation, murdering at least 50,000 people, and terrorizing everyone else.
In brief, Haiti suffers from institutional poverty and underdevelopment ONLY because of a history of repression and violence on a scale that is unmatched anywhere in the Hemisphere. Through all of this tragic history, Haitian people have contributed literature and art and are a people who love education. Haitians know who they are.
The devastation from hurricanes and earthquakes compounds this tragic history in the extreme. In 2010, 200,000 Haitians died in a gigantic earthquake. Another 10,000 died of cholera.
Just prior to that earthquake, the country experienced four severe hurricanes. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti with 145 mph winds.
93% of the billions in aid sent to Haiti in response to these disasters never reached the people of Haiti, instead remaining within the structures of aid agencies including the United Nations.
Most people in the United States have no idea. If they even know where Haiti is, far too many think of it as a “shithole”. President Trump is the person holding the highest office in the land who represents the ignorance, dismissivness, and racism that too many others also believe. Let’s be honest, in every place in the country, too many still think of places in their own community that way. This sense of superiority, arrogance, and ignorance is deeply ingrained. Too many see the world through such eyes.
Elia Kazan made a magnificent film about immigration in the 1960’s called “America, America”. It is the story of a Greek boy living in Turkey at the time of the Armenian genocide. He sees his family of Greek merchants collaborating with the dominant Turk hierarchy and is both appalled by this, yet torn emotionally because this after all is his family.
For the rest of the film, we follow the young boy’s journey…to do most anything to scrape together enough money to get on a boat and sail for America, to escape both the injustice of his homeland, and his own experience of hopelessness grounded in seeing the inhumanity of one people against another. He believes that America is a place where such things don’t go on…he will do almost anything to get there. And we see the boy debasing himself, nearly dying to do what ever necessary to get to America.
And when he finally arrives in steerage, after taking a name given him by the Immigration Officers, he becomes an American, Joe Arness. We see him shining shoes on a street corner as the camera takes us back to Turkey, where endless lines of people are waiting to get on boats to come to America. Elia Kazan’s voiceover says…”People are coming, people are coming, people are coming”. As the film ends we understand that leaving home for the ideal of America is a tortured journey from there to here and in this case to the street corners of New York in the early 20th century.
But it is the same story today. People are coming, people are coming.
They come from places of devastation.
Our Haitian brothers and sisters have suffered more than all the rest.
We must love them…love them all. That is the only way to defy our President, and the only way to teach our children.