Finding My Place in Haiti’s Development as a “Dyaspora”

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As I sat on the beach, listening to the waves crash against the sand, I wanted to yell. I wanted to run into the ocean and swim until I couldn’t swim anymore. Instead, I just sat there with tears streaming down my cheeks, replaying the scene in my head over and over again. Did he really call me a boy? Did I really strike him across his Adam’s apple? I didn’t even try to keep my emotions in check.

Later, when my friends asked me why I’d gotten so angry. I told them that I wasn’t going to let a blan disrespect me in my own country. The truth is that I wasn’t even that angry with the Peace Corps volunteer who had had too much to drink and tried to put me in my place. I was upset at myself. I was getting ready to leave Haiti again, and this time, it was my decision. When I was twelve, my mother made the decision to move to the United States. I had always sworn that I’d return to Haiti the first chance I could get and I did. Here I was getting ready to leave again. I had come to Jacmel to celebrate my last weekend in Haiti. In a few days, I’d be heading back to Boston after living in Haiti for four months.

After graduating college, I accepted a job as a quality control consultant at a manufacturing company (I could never call it a factory). It was my first real job offer in Haiti and the pay was good, so I accepted. After a while, my discomfort with the job grew and I couldn’t find anything better. Maybe I was impatient or too picky, but I decided it was best for me to come back to the United States and pursue a career in education. I knew it was the best decision for me, but I felt like shit. I was betraying Haiti, betraying my dream. 

Then here comes this blan savior telling me, “You speak English well, little boy.” I reacted violently and demanded an apology. He apologized, but the absurdity of it all wasn’t lost on me. I was the djaspora who is getting ready to leave Haiti, for the second time, assaulting a Peace Corps volunteer because I felt the need to defend Haitians’ honor. My reason for moving to Haiti was to help, give back in the way that I thought was best, be a member of the society, and contribute to its economy. Was that why I was so angry? That someone, this person with no deep connection to my country was making contributions in ways that I would not be able to?

* * *

The phone call came as I was pulling out of a car wash.

 “Have you heard what happened?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Are you near a television?”

“No, I’m not”

“There’s been a terrible earthquake in Haiti, so far not much is known because communication is down, but the images I’ve seen so far are bad. I was thinking about you and wanted to make sure you were okay.” 

It didn’t really hit me until I saw the images myself. The emotions came flooding back, guilt, shame, anger. It’s like I was on that beach again in 2001. I spent the next few weeks in one of the deepest funks of my life. Like many others, I did things to make me feel like I was helping. I volunteered, visited friends and family. Most importantly, I spent a lot of time in Haiti.

This time however, I kept things in perspective. By this time, I had already established roots in Boston and I couldn’t just get up and leave. I decided that through Twitter and a blog I’d establish a virtual presence in Haiti. After the earthquake, there were a lot of conversations about Haiti’s reconstruction. It was an exciting time. There were legislative and presidential elections, Jean Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti and soon after Jean-Bertrand Aristide also made his return. There was a lot at stake with these elections. I wanted to be there, be a part of it, volunteer for a political campaign, or vote, but I couldn’t. Instead, I used the tools available to me. Little did I know that I’d have to defend my right to speak as a Haitian.

Connecting with an online community about Haiti was great at first. It didn’t take long to connect with people with similar interests on Twitter, and more people than I expected were noticing my blog. I was involved in debates about Haiti’s present, future and past. I felt more connected to Haiti than I’d been in a long time. However, as it became known that I lived in Boston I started to feel a backlash. I thought it was my right as a Haitian citizen to speak out against what I perceived as its shortcomings. However, many of the Haitians living in Haiti (let’s call them Homelanders) began to dismiss my comments and blog posts. I was accused of being an outsider who was overly critical of Haiti, of being out of touch with the country. To me, it raised many issues, mainly, who gets to criticize Haiti? Or more importantly, does the diaspora give up its right to be a part of the political landscape at home?

At first, I felt the need to defend my right to be a part of the conversation. I wanted to bring up the fact that I visit Haiti as often as I can, that I’ve spent a lot of time researching the country’s history. I am still a Haitian citizen, after all. However, after giving it some thought, I decided against trying to uphold my right to be critical of the country I love. I didn’t see the point. Eventually, I stopped blogging and made a conscious decision to avoid getting into any political debates on Haiti. There are many factors that led to that decision but part of it was that I didn’t feel the need to defend my Haitianness to other Haitians.

For a while I was surprised by my response. I assumed that I had stop engaging in this battles because I was mellowing with age. But the more I reflected about my hiatus, the more I realized that it was not age that was fueling my attitude. I still have the same fire that made me lash out at the Peace Corps volunteer. I realized I had begun to look at myself through the same lens as the Homelanders. I had begun thinking that to be a “real” Haitian means living in Haiti. But in the end, this is a silly idea. We all have different perspectives based on our experiences and each is authentic in their own way.

Every Haitian, diaspora and Homelanders alike, should contribute in the most effective way given their circumstances. This may mean working on issues that affect Haitians in the United States, or lobbying elected officials in the United States to pass legislation that are friendly to Haiti. Conversely, this could also be as simple as sending money to a friend, or taking your next vacation in Jacmel or someplace else in Haiti. It certainly does not mean that only Homelanders can make a meaningful difference or reserve the right to be critical.

I haven’t given up hope on returning to Haiti. You see, Haiti’s my true love, the one who got away. I hate that I can’t be with her the way that I want to, but like they say, when it comes to relationships timing is everything.

Reginald Toussaint

Reginald Toussaint was born in Port Au Prince, Haiti. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager and spent the rest of his adolescence in Mattapan, the mostly Haitian section of Boston. He is an educator and has worked as a teacher and administrator in the Boston Public Schools for over 10 years. He has blogged about Haiti and is an occasional contributor to the Boston Haitian Reporter opinion page.

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