Once upon a time in Haiti, we were free. They say we are free in America. But there’s always a cost to Black liberation.
To be free is to be empowered and, unbound, Black people seem to scare this world. Look back at how countries worked to ravage Haiti of its path to self-sustaining freedom. See it in xenophobic deportation policies upheld by presidents, Democrat and Republican alike.
Haiti has been paying for daring to win its freedom for over 200 years. Black folk in America, though privileged by comparison, bear an expense too high to pay, as well.
Payton Gendron drove three-and-a-half hours to a grocery store in Buffalo and shot 13 people, killing 10. Eleven of his victims were Black. His did his research before he picked the place, finding the highest population of Black folk in upstate New York.
Replacement theory is what fueled his terrorism. Republican representatives like Matt Gaetz, Wendy Rogers, and Elise Stefanik have pushed this racist fantasy — insinuating that white people are being replaced with immigrants and people of color.
Replacement theory has been part of the American consciousness since they stole the land and enslaved Black people and Native Americans. The fear that free people of color could thrive and be independent of white power is why Thomas Jefferson refused to recognize Haiti.
As we celebrate Haitian Heritage Month, we must remember Haitians are Black, too. And our histories live together.
“I’m Haitian and I’m Black,” said Boston City Councilor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune, the first Haitian American elected to Boston City Council. She hosted the annual Haitian Flag Day breakfast at City Hall on Friday morning.
“There is this global identity of Blackness and there is so much that connects us. Unfortunately, so much of it is heaviness, but so much of it is beauty, too,” she added.
Farrah Belizaire, founder of LiteWork Events, a Black millennial social group in Boston, is also Haitian. Last year, she helped host Black Boston for Haiti. The party raised over $12,000 to benefit Partners In Health and other resources for Haiti.
“It’s important for us, who consider Haitian heritage to be that of their own, to be the ones who are mobilizing and giving back Haiti,” she said.
Belizaire, alongside Savvor restaurateur Eddy Firmin, and other Haitian Bostonians, were recognized for their community contributions at the Haitian Flag Day breakfast.
“I think it’s amazing Boston is home to the third largest Haitian community in the US. Whether Boston realizes it or not, it does hold a significant place in the Haitian community,” Belizaire said. “When you talk about Black Boston’s cultural influences being across the diaspora, Haiti is one of them.”
This year, Black Boston for Haiti will be at ICON on Wednesday for Haitian Flag Day.
As the world thrived off slavery, enslaved Black folk fought for their freedom in the West Indian French colony once known as Saint-Domingue. And won. Haiti rose.
On May 18, 1803, the Haitian flag was created to represent who they would be. The white band in the center of the French flag cut away. Freedom realized.
We should all celebrate Haitian Flag Day.
“We have given so much to the world as the first successful slave revolt and only country formed from a slave revolt,” Louijeune said.
“W.E.B. Du Bois was Haitian. Chicago was founded by a Haitian person [Jean Baptiste Point du Sable]. There is this perception of who Haitians are and who we can be in this country. That 13-year struggle really tells us our possibilities are infinite, even when the odds are stacked against us. When we work together, collectively, anything is possible.”
We must remember the possibilities of what can happen in spite of the oppression set up against us.
Thirteen years. The Haitian revolution began in 1791. The West Indian French colony once known as Saint-Domingue would officially be declared independent in 1804. But the world couldn’t support a nation led by formerly enslaved Black folk, the first nation to ban slavery.
About 20 years after the Haitian revolution, France, with warships ready, demanded 150 million francs from a nation in its infancy. Paying that price cost them their prosperity.
America worked hard to disempower Haiti and put them in poverty. Despite the Founding Fathers’ pledges that all men were created equal, a successful slave revolt was a threat to the American way.
In 1915, Woodrow Wilson sent Marines to occupy Haiti — 19 years of occupation, as many as 15,000 Haitians killed. Over a decade later, America still had a foot on the country’s finances. Haiti is now the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2022, America is still struggling to do right by Haiti in lasting and meaningful ways. America has yet to recognize and resolve the mistreatment of all its Black citizens. In the face of equity, a certain kind of empowered white person in America feels endangered.
So they justify storming the Capitol. They act as if the Buffalo terrorist is not a product of their xenophobic and racist rhetoric. They refuse to acknowledge the attack against teaching about racism in this country as anything less than supremacist.
We are on the brink of our nation overturning Roe v. Wade, which further opens the door to an attack against all of our civil liberties.
Haitian Flag Day is a reminder of the freedom that was, and the possibilities that can still be for Black folk worldwide if we start to move against injustice as a collective.
Louijeune hosted the annual Haitian Flag Day breakfast. Her work for the community happens daily. She helps bridge the gap between Haitians and city resources. She continuously fought to end Title 42, the racist Trump-era pandemic policy that permits the rapid expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers at the border. Set to end on May 23, at least 20 states are suing to uphold the practice.
For many, Title 42 reeks of the tropes many Haitians and other migrants grew up hearing.
“For a long time, Haitians have been stigmatized as carrying disease. Haitians here and (in) New York protested,” said Hervens Jeanbaptiste, 29-year-old founder of Success Is My Cologne consultant agency.
Jeanbaptiste came to Boston from Haiti as a baby with his uncle. His parents wanted a better life for him.
“Being an immigrant hits different. I have been through the system of getting permanent residency, of having family try to get here. I didn’t meet my parents until I was 10,” he said.
“I still get emotional about it sometimes. When I came here, I used to have to fight a lot. My last name is Jeanbaptiste. Couldn’t avoid saying I’m Haitian. It was tough in Roslindale,” Jeanbaptiste said.
Visibility changes things. With Louijeune as city councilor at-large, Jessicah Pierre as chief communications officer, and Brianna Millor as chief of community engagement for Mayor Michelle Wu, there is growing Haitian representation in City Hall.
Pierre believes diversifying leadership with intention will ensure no one gets left behind.
“As a Haitian American, my lived experiences are my guiding principles as a public servant,” Pierre said. “When doing my job as the chief of communications for the City of Boston, I often think of immigrants like my father who came to this city with hope in their hearts for a better life, but oftentimes have had a hard time learning about and navigating city services. I’m constantly thinking of creative ways in which the city can do a better job at reaching and engaging all residents in Boston.”
And in the nation’s capital, Karine Jean-Pierre just took the post as President Biden’s press secretary. She is Black, gay, and a Haitian immigrant — making history on all counts.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to witness,” Jeanbaptiste said. “To get to see Haitians celebrated. It just amplifies the message that great things are achievable and we will continue to push the envelope.”
When we see the beauty in one another, and how our liberation is actually wrapped up in recognizing and respecting each other’s humanity, we don’t live in fear of replacement. Oppression is not a necessity for equity.
Once upon a time in Haiti, we were free.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.