I am likely the first Haitian you’ve ever met.
I am far from the poverty-porn, grief, and sickness that has come to define us by people who do not know us or abuse their proximity to us for their own interests. Thus, people often stare at me in bewilderment when I tell them I’m Haitian. Even unconsciously, most people have a sensationalized view of a marauding band of emaciated black bodies- barely distinguishable from zombies- when they think of Haitians. Don’t deny it. We’ve seen your movies. Believe it or not, we have even read every piece of sensationalized tabloid masquerading as journalism written about us. We find your gullibility amusing.
We know that Haiti is an anomaly in the Caribbean. We are a nation of black people-proudly black people- who fought for the rights of all people. We are the first free black republic on this earth, the first successful rebellion of enslaved Africans in the world, and only the 2nd nation in the Western Hemisphere to overthrow colonist powers after the US. We are the stone that the builder refused. That is honestly how we are taught to introduce ourselves as kids….I’m not even exaggerating. As you can imagine, it’s a mouthful on the first day of pre-school, but you get used to it.
We speak a language that interweaves the mountains that seemingly never end in Haiti, the skies that gently brush them each day, and the ocean that brought our African ancestors to this land, enslaved under the barbarity of the French into a linguistic melody filled with secret meaning. Often, we speak many languages, but we only truly communicate in our own- Haitian Creole. Our music, like our lives, focus on 3 things: love, longing for Haiti, and politics.
I told you first about Haiti before I told you about this particular Haitian because you cannot know me without first knowing where I’m from. Despite having been raised in Miami, I am Haitian. We are never just the “son of Haitians” or the “granddaughter of a Haitian”- a Haitian is always a Haitian no matter where they live.
Now, that you’ve understood this, as the first Haitian you’ve ever met, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is France Francois because my parents acutely enjoy irony and alliteration in a way that only Haitians can. Political activists in the 80s, they had just enough time to grab me and escape into the night as a Molotov cocktail went hurling through their home in Cap- Haïtien. Just like that, our lives were lost in the fire and we carried the ashes to Miami to join hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in exile to escape the brutal dictatorship of the Duvaliers and their violent secret police. Armed with a Masters in International Development and the self-righteous idealism of a liberal American university education, I returned to Haiti to work after the earthquake in 2010.
Holding an American passport is what has given me the privilege of being the first Haitian you have ever met- it is that hyphenated American-ness that opens doors for you to sit next to me at a bar in Seoul, Berlin, or Cairo and marvel (at and objectify) my Haitian-ness, even when I speak an English accented by Miami. As the first Haitian you’ve ever met, here are my answers to some of the questions I’m usually asked, no matter where I am in the world, and without regards as to whether I would take offense:
Are you really Haitian?
Well you don’t look Haitian…
-What does a Haitian person look like?
Oh…well…you know…Do you speak Haitian?
-No, I speak Creole.
Say something in Haitian!
-“Something in Haitian”
Is voodoo real?
-Is Christianity real?
Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you know him?
-You mean Jésus from 9th grade? He’s a cool dude. He used to sell bootleg CDs after class.
Creole isn’t a real language. It’s just broken French, right?
-Haitian Creole is one of the 2 official languages of Haiti. To exclude the languages that were created by people of color to survive and make sense of the hardships of a new world as broken dialects or just patois is linguistic imperialism.
Do all Haitians have AIDS? I mean, you don’t look like you have AIDS, but I read somewhere…
-Statistically Haiti has an HIV/AIDS infection rate of approximately 2%. It’ about the same as the Dominican Republic and lower than many Americans cities.
Is it true you guys eat mud cakes?
-What are we, 5 year-olds at the playground eating dirt?! No, it’s not true. That writer from the New York Times just lacks journalistic integrity. Unfortunately, many newspapers still promote the “Heart of Darkness” narrative around Haiti rather than challenge their own biases towards black people.
Do you guys even have food down there? My pastor/Chad, who went on a 2-week mission trip/ the old lady from my church/Susie from accounting told me that people are starving there.
-Haiti, like much of the Caribbean, is exposed to food insecurity and global shocks to the markets because it now imports most of the food Haitians eat. In these situations, the poorest people are vulnerable to starvation and food insecurity.
Well, Gwyneth said that Brad’s little league coach’s cousin’s friend’s next door neighbor from 2nd grade said that all Haitians are poor and hungry so we must give to the lesser amongst us as Christ commanded us to.
-…Christ told you guys that himself, huh? Well, why don’t you extend that kindness and assistance to Flint, Detroit, or the Appalachians?
Oh noooo, not those people. Well what’s Haitian food like?
-It’s amazing; It will change your life! Imagine a succulent blend of herbs, spices, and aromas so delicate that each flavor plays on your taste buds…
Then why is Haiti so poor? I gave $10 to the Red Cross. Why didn’t that fix everything?!
-Sorry, dude, it’s more complicated than that. Foreign aid and NGOs are inherently structured to do short term projects. Also, no one’s really monitoring how they spend your donations and tax dollars so a lack of accountability to donors as well as beneficiaries makes the industry particularly susceptible to incompetence at best and corruption at worst. Unlike the
automotive industry, for example, that has to innovate to survive, you’ll find organizations quite comfortable saying that they’ve been working in Haiti for 40 years and have nothing to show for it. Ultimately, sustainable development in Haiti must be led by Haitians themselves. It makes no sense to expect charity from the same countries that plundered Haiti in the first place to now “save us”. No one’s going to save us but us.
Do you have pictures of Haiti?
-Yes (shows pictures)
OMG. This is Haiti? Can I come to Haiti with you?
Bio: FRANCE FRANCOIS, OF MIAMI, IS A WRITER AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST. SHE HAS WORKED IN INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN. find her On Facebook, Twitter, and Ig: @1stclassfrance or at francefrancois.com