Among the first things diaspora Haitians like to tell you about themselves by way of personal preamble is that they are inheritors to a great Revolution. (Next comes why they or their parents left Haiti at all, but that story usually comes after introductions.) “First black republic, world’s only successful slave revolt” – the schooling of the unschooled about our origins is a primal diasporic scene, told on the regular by each of the almost 1.5 million Haitians in the Dominican Republic, the US, Canada, France and so on. (Our diaspora is as wide as the Atlantic and almost as tall.) Past glory can be a useful balm for any present ache and, as a result, there’s not a thinking Haitian alive who can’t rehearse the underlying argument for the pays natal’s exceptionalism on a moment’s notice. “You may find me today relatively anonymous and blown by the winds of fate to this misbegotten corner of the globe, but do not be fooled: I come from generals.”
In a culture where the dead are never truly gone – in my house growing up whole generations of deceased relatives and acquaintances would be ritually invoked and re-invoked daily, their names like rosary beads worked smooth by wrinkled-but-expert fingers – the epic, singular deed of the forefathers and foremothers has the power to confer a curious kind of grace. Watching my family as a child I will confess to thinking more than once that it was a somewhat unmerited grace, that these people did not quite live up to the stories they told about themselves. What did this block in Queens have to do with Batay Vètyè, exactly? That is not Toussaint’s horse you ride to work father, but a dented, grey mid-70s Nova. In addition to not realizing at the time that casting a baleful eye on your parents is a common rite of perceptual passage, it would also be a long time before I understood that lamenting the (de-)evolutionary fall from the days giants is a perfectly Haitian pursuit. Diaspora Haitians are always particularly post-lapsarian when it come to Haiti even when (particularly when?) they’ve found their personal Eden overseas. Ours is by definition the kind of automatically conferred birthright that we always suspect the previous generation has somehow squandered and that we may be called upon to re-earn. That responsibility to justify our own ancestral beginnings comes with no expiration date and respects no territorial boundary. Indeed, the moment that nagging survivor’s guilt that we have not done enough for the homeland stops ghosting us across the water/border is usually the moment we stop being Haitians and become Dominicans, Americans, Canadians, and so on. Temporarily, at least, while they’ll have us. Or until the next reminder that something awesome and terrible and unexpected and still largely unresolved happened in Haiti once upon a time and binds us to it still.
The earthquake one year ago today added another thing diaspora Haitians like to tell you about, which is where this or that family member in Port-au-Prince was on January 12, 2010. Our personal versions of that tale are anguished but potentially guilty: “I was not there, where I should have been.” For example, I was in Los Angeles, not just “not there” across the water but a whole continent, and for weeks afterwards I was not there” in front of my television, online, on the phone. In those first days, like almost all Diaspora Haitians I watched through a screen, horrified and helpless, my anxiety fed by the incompleteness of newsfeeds and unreliability of digital chatter. If all Haitians are equal inheritors to the Revolution, we were not all victims of Goudougoudou in quite the same way. While it’s true that every Haitian family was somehow touched by the earthquake, it’s also true that distance and economics and power immediately tossed the rubble into predictable, perfectly legible configurations, glyphs signifying unequal patterns of suffering, access to immediate care, ready exit. If the Diaspora can be said to have fared better over the past year than their island-bound brethen, this is not just a self-evident, practical observation but a political one, especially when an entertainer who cannot speak Kreyol becomes the instant frontrunner to lead the country on the basis of his transnational profile, when daily Diaspora Haitians are called to return to Haiti and reverse the so-called emigration “brain drain,” when serious thinkers argue for extending the Haitian franchise to those who have chosen not to live in Haiti for decades on the theory that our remittances constitute a form of taxation without representation. Already having played the roles of refugee, exile, success story, social problem, hard-working immigrant, minority and so on, the Diaspora now contemplates the role of the prodigal.
Over the next few months, the National Black Programming Consortium will be hosting a conversation about what it means to be part of the Haitian Diaspora. That conversation begins tonight with the airing Michele Stephenson’s “One Day, One Destiny,” the New York based Haitian-American filmmaker taking a look at the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and will continue through a series of online discussions about Diaspora identity. The first will be held January 19th, and will ask “What does it mean to be a citizen of Haiti living outside the country? What social and cultural responsibilities come with this role? And what complexities do Haitians abroad face as they shape a multi-faceted identity?” Subsequent panels will consider “A President for the People? What Does New Governance in Haiti Look Like?, “The Recovering Children” and “Dambala in the Diaspora: Religion & the Haitian-American.”
In the meantime I’ll be blogging here through the end of April. As a diaspora Haitian who works with new media, my questions will be a bit more narrow and selfish: how did technology and social media shape our understanding of what happened in Haiti last year? How are they shaping what comes next? To start things off I’ll throw a question back to you: If you were “not there” on January 12, 2010, how did you use technology to get closer, to connect? Use the comments below to tell us, or, if you’re Youtube friendly, share your story using NBPC’s “Share Your Haiti Story” tool.
Thank you for participating in this journey and conversation. As Edwidge Danticat recently recalled it takes a year and a day for the process of rebirth to begin in the Haitian tradition. One year later, reconstruction has been minimal, our politics are a shamble so let us hope she is right; it would put us all right on time.
These blogs on Haiti are part of a larger multimedia project entitled “Haiti: One Day, One Destiny.” Click here to see short and feature-length video from the series, even upload your own stories, and vote for which Haiti non-profit gets a $2,000 grant from us.