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US Media Have Distorted Narratives on Haiti Since 1804. It’s Still Happening.

The treatment of the hundreds of Haitians at the border is cruel, inhuman, undignified and racist.

A Haitian migrant boy and his father wait in line to give Mexican immigration officials their information at a shelter in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on September 25, 2021.

As I watch footage videos of the countless Haitian immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, my heart is broken. I feel helpless. As a dear friend, who is a writer, reminded me recently, “It is exhausting work to confront tangled injustices/griefs of this magnitude.”

Watching the images, what struck me the most was the simplistic misrepresentation and the lack of humanity. These are my people. Each one could have been my brother, sister, cousin, aunt, mother or father. I could have been among them. In search of a better life. In search of dignity. In search of community. In search of hospitality. In search of hope. In search of care. In search of love. In search of a future.

It is ironic that many etranje (foreigners, generally white people), especially white folks who have lived in or traveled to Haiti, can describe how they have received unconditional hospitality from Haitians (especially those who reside outside of the capital city of Port-au-Prince), who have shared their food and their homes.

I know that individual hospitality is simpler than seeking refugee status. It is not my goal here to analyze in detail the ways in which immigration laws and processes work. I know immigration policies are complex. However, as a humanist, feminist, parent, sister, cousin, aunt and Black woman, I also know that the treatment of the hundreds of Haitians at the border is cruel, inhuman, undignified and racist.

In the last few days, I have been asked by several American and international journalists to help examine the current narratives at the border, to help think through more respectful ways to represent migrants.

As a start, we must note that the narratives that arise when dark-skin bodies are at the border are very different from the narratives of other immigrants. What disturbs me is that there appears to be one single story of the Haitians at the border. One representation. One perspective: These are just poor immigrants who are coming to the U.S. to “take” something (whatever it may be) from U.S. citizens.

I am conscious of and grateful for the proactive and responsible journalists who are trying to reach for larger, more nuanced narratives — for those who are trying to write in a humane way, but also with complexity.

Here is what is still missing: I’m concerned that so many of the stories are still overly simplistic, focusing only on the present situation, when there is a larger historical context that needs to be addressed.

One journalist asked me: “How did they get here?” Another journalist asked: “What happened? What are they looking for? What are they trying to find?”

There are so many untold stories. What if we accept that we must view this crisis from various perspectives: historical, geopolitical, social and economic?

We need to begin with the United States’ refusal to recognize Haiti after its independence in 1804. For over 60 years, while the U.S. was still a slave-owning nation, Haiti, as the world’s First Free Black Republic, was ignored and punished. That early refusal to recognize Haiti’s independence was a failure to acknowledge the humanity of Haitians — and a failure to acknowledge the humanity of enslaved people within the United States as well. Responsible reporting about Haiti needs to start here: with that lack of humanity.

Most people do not know the story of the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915–1934 or that of the resistance movement led mainly by the peasant group known as Les Cacos, as well as by students and intellectuals, which forced the U.S. to end the occupation. But the damage to Haiti’s constitution was already done.

Haiti has been referred to as the “Republic of NGOs” because of the large number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Haiti. The majority of these NGOs contribute directly and indirectly to weakening the Haitian state by focusing on the interests of the country and organizations that they represent and not working with grassroots organizations to have a real impact. Of course, it is too simplistic to just blame the U.S.

The deep corruption of the Haitian government is connected with the 2 percent of Haitians with foreign passports who own Haiti and are constantly capitalizing on the ongoing disasters (both human-made and natural) so that they can maintain their privilege. These 2 percent who work behind the scenes in what we usually refer to as a “politique de doublure” are supported by the superpowers (U.S., Canada, France, United Nations, etc.). For instance, during elections the elite usually work with these superpowers to ensure that their chosen candidates become president so that they can better control Haiti.

Let us not forget the neoliberal economic policies that contribute to food insecurity and prevent food sovereignty, forcing peasants to leave their lands and move to urban areas in search of a better life, but instead enter a cycle of worse poverty.

There is the complicated story of the Creole pigs in Haiti that were slaughtered and destroyed in the 1980s by the U.S. to prevent the spread of African swine fever into the United States. The pigs represented a savings bank for the farmers, but the indigenous pigs were replaced with imported animals that were ill-adapted to the tropical climate. The wholesale death of rural livestock subsequently dismantled the livelihood of countless numbers of farmers. This impacted the Haitian economy so much that there was a direct impact on children’s education, since farmers were not able to send their kids to school because they couldn’t afford tuition and uniforms.

In 2010, former President Bill Clinton apologized for the trade policies that destroyed the livelihood of rice farmers in Haiti while enriching Arkansas farmers. The apologies did not help. People continue to starve and have to look for other alternatives.

Some Haitian migrants must take treacherous routes from Brazil and Chile to Mexico. While crossing borders, there are economic advantages for these countries because these migrants have to pay for food and accommodation, and the flights from Port-au-Prince to Chile and Brazil contribute to these countries’ economies.

There is the old myth stemming from colonization that dictates that Black bodies are inferior. Let us be clear and honest: If the Haitians were lighter skinned, would they have been given the same treatment? Probably not.

The current treatment of Haitians at the border, and the use of whips and horses, is inhumane. Do those who think it’s acceptable to treat Haitians this way see them differently because of their Black bodies?

Many Haitians are hard workers. There is currently a labor shortage in the United States. What if we could get past the narratives and the images and think that perhaps, just perhaps, some of these Haitian migrants could possibly be able to contribute to the workforce? What if we could identify skill sets that they may have and provide language and acclimatization training so they can contribute these skills for the greater good?

In 10, 20, 25 or 100 years, I wonder what story we will tell of Haiti. Will people remember that since the 1700s, enslaved people in Haiti — well before “Black Lives Matter” became a rallying cry — demonstrated to the entire world that our Black lives matter because we are ready to live free or die? What if we accept that neutrality is not an option and make a choice? What if for one moment we pause and think that perhaps we are all climate refugees on this planet called Earth? Haiti’s ongoing climate crisis started during the period of colonization with the French exploiting its natural resources. It continues today in the forms of deforestation, earthquakes and hurricanes (both man-made disasters and disasters resulting from capitalism, neoliberalism, inequity and greed). All these are contributing factors that push people to migrate. Perhaps then we could look at the women, men and children at the border with our hearts, minds and souls. Perhaps then we will be open to really seeing the Haitian migrants with dignity, compassion, care, empathy and humanity.

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