I recently had the joy of attending my cousin’s beautiful wedding in Washington, D.C. Both bride and groom were born and raised in Haiti, as my parents were, and the entire event was a jubilant celebration of our culture, from the mix of languages to the music and dancing. When I returned from my trip, a friend asked, “How was the wedding?” I responded that it was amazing: “It felt like we were in Port-au-Prince.” Without skipping a beat, he asked: “Did anyone get assassinated?”
That stung, and I was completely at a loss for words.
I didn’t tell him that the United States owes a debt to Haiti because of the role the people of the island, then under French rule, played in supporting the American revolution. Or that the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse must also be processed in relation to all the deaths under his regime. I did not offer a lesson about Haitian history and politics explaining that activists in the popular uprising against Moïse were robbed of the opportunity to hold him responsible for his crimes and his rule by decree.
Instead, I said nothing. I just rolled my eyes.
My friend, who is African American, is not insensitive. I don’t think he realized that his comment fit into a long tradition of casual jokes made at the expense of Haitian people. In the 1980s Haitian immigrant children were taunted on school playgrounds and accused of having HBO (Haitian body odor). Today Haiti is still offhandedly referred to as a “banana republic” that is ungovernable or cursed. It’s accepted unquestioningly, as the scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot once critiqued, that Haiti is exceptionally weird.
My interaction with my friend reminded me of the frustration I felt as news of Moïse’s assassination spread, when well-meaning friends called and texted to relay their concern. “I am so sorry, you must be devastated,” one friend wrote to me on WhatsApp. How could I explain that the devastation I felt was not due to Moïse’s death as much as it was about the vulnerable people in Haiti whose future was now even more precarious? I received numerous texts like this one: “Just heard about the president of Haiti, you must be so sad!” How could I convey that I saved the ripples of my sadness for people like the feminist activist Antoinette Duclair, the student Evelyne Sincère, and countless others who were killed during Moïse’s presidency but would remain forgotten? How could I explain my fear that in the midst of rising COVID numbers in Haiti and lack of access to vaccines, the unrest that might result from the assassination was putting people at greater risk? I feared as well for the safety of my father, an octogenarian living in Port-au-Prince who is passionate about politics and might be enticed to join in conversations and convenings about next steps for the country.
My conflicting feelings about the assassination have been percolating since July 7. Upon hearing the news, I did not feel sad at all, and then I felt guilty as a result. I was at a loss for words when I needed to marshal them. Because of my professorial expertise in Haitian studies, I received several media requests to serve as a talking head filling the void of information. I hesitated and then turned down these invitations; given how much we still do not know about the situation, attempting to offer insight felt disingenuous at best.
What I do know is that the family of Jovenel Moïse deserves justice for his death, and his killers must be found. And, as Edwidge Danticat points out, all the Haitians who have suffered under his term also deserve justice.
Beyond that, as the case continues to unfold, what Haitians need from our siblings around the world are not jokes, sensationalizing, or mere sympathy. In the 19th century, when Frederick Douglass served as minister and consul general to Haiti, he exemplified what it looked like to think critically about Haiti from a perspective that valued both the Haitian and the African American experience. Douglass challenged US expansionism that took the form of imperialism and instead championed a form of Black solidarity with Haitians. What would that look like today? We need a genuine commitment to action, with pressure on Congress to endorse a solution with local voices at the center rather than foreign intervention. That would be true solidarity.
Régine Michelle Jean-Charles is dean’s professor of culture and social justice and director of Africana studies at Northeastern University.