Racism, Mike Brown and the Haitian Community

This post is also available in: Kreyol

Can we truly call ourselves the children of Dessalines if we remain silent in such cases of injustice?

Michael Brown’s death has haunted me since I learned of its details as they emerged that tragic August afternoon. With three brothers and two nephews, I immediately thought of their futures, how due to their skin they’d be considered subhuman instead of the sweet young boys my family has reared them to be. Being a first generation Haitian-American, I’ve grown up knowing that the Black struggle in America is a perilous one with no end in sight. I have grown to understand that mainstream society will draw conclusions about me before I open my mouth because my skin is dark and my features are phenotypically African.

But this is not a notion understood or accepted by many in the Haitian community across generational lines. And it’s not our fault. We have had to live with the negativity of the immigrant experience in both white and Black America. To the whites we are boat people from the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere”, we are “survivors” of coup d’etat after coup d’etat, and the stars of natural disaster porn for cable news channels. To the Black Americans we are dirty, we stink, we talk funny. If you lived in the U.S. in the 90s, Haitians were considered the origin of the AIDS epidemic. We were never truly welcomed anywhere and learned to be a world unto ourselves in the U.S., building communities in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Florida, keeping to ourselves striving for kids to be better, striving to purchase homes in the suburbs that would prove to everyone back home that the American dream could also be ours.

Yet the enclaves we built in the 80s and 90s are slowly being opened by our children. Hip hop, cable television, friends, and the surrounding culture have forced assimilation upon us whether we wished for it or not. I look at my 17 year old brother and he is a world of difference from our father and grandfather – he doesn’t speak Kreyol (though we’ve tried), video games are his pastime, and sweats, sneakers and hoodies are his code of dress. Just as Trayvon was marked as a target for George Zimmerman in Florida because of his hoodie, my brother could be the same for a racist cop in New York. Haitians can no longer give into the mindset that says we’ll be better off with the powers-that-be than our American counterparts. A racist cop will not ask my brother or nephews to say their names or where their family is from before attacking, and then simply give them a friendly tap on the shoulder and walk away upon hearing them utter “Jean-Charles,” “Ulysse,” and “Haiti.”

Haitians are a proud people and we have every right to be. Our history even up to the present day is one of Black pride, strong cultural identity and survival in every sense of the word. Though there are times when this pride has not been quite as beneficial as we’d like it to be. I was in college when I first came across the work of Malcolm Gladwell. It was an article from the New Yorker in which I was introduced to the phenomenon that is “good Blacks” vs. “bad Blacks”. In the article, Gladwell described how, due to our foreignness, Caribbean immigrants in North America (he was speaking from a Canadian standpoint) are perceived to be “good” Blacks to whites. Due to immigration patterns, many Caribbean immigrants to the U.S. and Canada tended to come from well-to-do families that were able to see to their education and their voyage to a new country. Encountering their new nation’s social classes and racist structures, these very people who were used to being middle to upper class on their home islands now had to live and work in lower-income/working class communities. Within this context due to their differences in education and culture Caribbean immigrants would be held to a higher standard than Black Americans.

It is a hierarchy built on racist, ignorant and classist ideals but we must face the fact that there are many in our community who have bought into them. I am sure that many of you who are reading this article remember a time in your childhood where your parents and other elders scolded and warned you sternly to not be like “those Black Americans”. And it is because of this shameful mentality that there are those among us who are not shook up by Mike Brown’s death, because to them it is a Black American boy who has died – not one of our own. Yet, history will show our “otherness” has not protected from racism’s barbarity when it comes to inflicting cruel and torturous acts upon Black bodies. In 1997, Abner Louima was taken into police custody in New York where he was raped and physically tortured by members of the NYPD. Following his attack, the Haitian community took to the streets and marched until the Brooklyn Bridge shook, but the message was already out – we were not safe. In 2000, Patrick Dorismond was shot and killed by an undercover NYPD officer. A grand jury failed to indict his killer – just like in Mike Brown’s case.

I am sure there are examples of other cases, but these two make my point. We must wake up and realize that as long as we are Black in America, racism will color and mar our lives. We cannot see our cultural differences as reason enough to remain silent when Black boys who do not share our lineage are gunned down in acts of cowardice by racists. Our boys and girls are growing up in this country – we are doing them a grave disservice to keep our outrage for when they are targeted. Can we truly call ourselves the children of Dessalines if we remain silent in such cases of injustice?







A link to the Gladwell piece mentioned in this article

A link to Gladwell reading about the concepts of “Good Black, Bad Blacks” on NPR’s This American Life

Valerie Jean Charles

Valerie Jean-Charles is a Communications Manager and writer in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her @Vivaciously_Val for daily musings on pop culture, politics and reality TV. Read more of her work at girlaboutbk.wordpress.com.

  1. Finally someone wrote this. I remember growing up, as a second generation Jamaican-Haitian American, and seeing American “blacks” as other. Yes, I faced discrimination from them for being half Haitian (something I was proud of and couldn’t understand why it was met with negativity) but how much of their ignorance is OUR fault for not stepping up as leaders and promoting African history? Our histories converge. We are the descendents of the strongest most resilient Africans in the world. After 500 years of torture, the western African diaspora are the most influential minority on earth. From hip hop to jazz to blues to funk to dub to reggae to MLK to the dances, foods and spirituality, art, culture, what other completely oppressed and undervalued group has accomplished so much in a matter of a couple decades? We need to respect each other and start valuing the power of our voices and creativity. We don’t communicate. We don’t uplift our best. All we do is hate our hair, try to be bourgeois and in the process erase significant reasons to be proud at all. We are one family. All of us. And playing this game of disunity is a reflection of why the slave trade destroyed the west African kingdoms that were making money off of our suffering without knowing about it. Disunity led to wars, fighting, mistrust and superiority complexes among our elites. We are doing the same thing that landed up in eternal prisons as our ancestors. We don’t respect our ancestors enough to critique their past mistakes. If we allowed room for discussion, real discussion, we’d have our own economies, we’d be rich. I’m a second generation Haitian, and I can’t speak kreyol and that literally hurts. I’m learning because I want to give back to Haiti. I want to go and help people and remind people of our glorious past and even brighter future. I feel disconnected from Haiti more than from Africa. It’s like I’m excluded from a secret club, a club that forever fascinates me because my blood ties me to it, it is a ribbon that leads under that doorway and is tied to something behind that door, but who will let me in so that I may see what that ribbon of lineage ties me to? We need to value our culture, history and creativity. We need to tell our brothers and sisters that they too, are more than welcome. That the youth, the kids born here, are welcome. Otherwise we will remain misunderstood and studied by people who don’t see us as human. Who see us as aliens, mythic beings, people to be stolen from and profited off of. Slaves. And we need to start caring of we want other tribes to start caring about us. In 2015 there’s been a boom in interest in Haiti. This makes my heart swell with joy. After Ferguson, a pan-African spirit has swept over afro-diasporic people as a whole. It has connected the Caribbean islands with south America, north America and Africa. People are finally seeing us for who we are. Danny Glover is trying to make that Toussaint film despite rejection for it not having any “white heroes”. Our voices are more than just Edwidge Danticat and the late Basquiat.

    1. Gele I thank you for sharing your thoughts ever so beautifully and poetically. I am an African woman in America and alot of the things you’ve mentioned echo within me too. There is a fire burning within African souls throughout the world. I can feel it within myself and I can see it all around me. I can hear it in the expression of your thoughts. It is not new and yet it is. Each generation has it’s work cut out. There have been many mistakes in our past but there has also been many lessons and examples. One of the things that stand out when we look back at the heroes of our history as black people is their emphasis on UNITY. We must, must come together as ONE PEOPLE. So as Marcus Garvey said: “UP YOU MIGHTY RACE!”

  2. Great Article Valerie. @ Gele Gyal you are absolutely right about everything you said. We need unification like Marcus Garvey always said. I wish we would be united like the Jews are doing or the Chinese.

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