A Mirror Called Haiti

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I have spent over a week trying to put my trip to Haiti into perspective. I have been searching for the words that would not only convey my affinity for the nation but would also speak to the very real feeling of precariousness that is currently gripping her. What I have come up with is this—close your eyes and imagine that Deep East Oakland is an entire country. Now open them. What you see is Haiti.

 

There is at once so much pride in the people, so much righteous resistance in the history, an enormous amount of potential, and a nearly extreme amount of dysfunction. One day after going up a mountain to see the very stunning Citadelle Laferrière and the ruins of the Sans-Souci Palace we stopped by a cultural center in the town of Milot. They welcomed us with African drummers and upon entering we washed our hands with the assistance of a female member of the center. Much to my surprise they were in the process of cooking for us. The lead organizer of the center, a black Haitian man of about 60, explained to us that he didn’t know what exactly was being prepared because he didn’t know what the fisherman caught that morning. He went on to say that they had been without power for several days—which isn’t unusual for Haiti. What that means, he went on, is that we don’t have a refrigerator therefore we must eat whatever we can catch on any given day. Then the next day we fish again.

 

After giving us an introductory history lesson on the town of Milot the food was brought out. It consisted of fried plantains, beans, rice, and two different kinds of fish one grilled and the other fried. The fish was extraordinary. It was way better than anything you can buy at a grocery store. What I found to be even more amazing is that even after having seconds I still felt very light. Unlike the meat here in the U.S. the food didn’t weigh me down at all.

 

As we we ate the food the lead organizer thanked us for coming. I was accompanied by a small group of African-Americans and one Haitian tour guide. The people at this center had cooked for all of us, went out of their way to make us feel special and this man still insisted on thanking us for visiting Haiti despite the unrest that was taking place all around the country. I felt a sense of kinship and belonging that one can only feel in a predominantly black country. It was almost emotionally overwhelming for me.

 

Then on the way back to our hotel the tension of national instability grew thick once more. Apparently, the disgruntled police force set several fires on one of the two bridges that leads to Cap-Haitian. They were upset because they believe they are being underpaid and instead of paying them the government was set to spend what the police thought was an excessive amount of money on the annual Kanaval celebration. So they decided to do everything in their power to shut Kanaval down (ultimately, they succeeded). We traveled over the other bridge which they had emptied several dumpsters full of trash and debris upon in an attempt to block it as well. Luckily for us we were in a larger vehicle that had the ability to drive over the makeshift roadblock. While sitting in the backseat the bumps from driving over all of the junk made me feel as though I was off-roading up a mountain in a Jeep—it was wild as hell but we made it back safely to the hotel.

Growing up in East Oakland I remember parties being shut down just like Haitian Kanaval while I was in line waiting to get in because a kid got jumped or someone pulled out a gun. I remember sideshows being descended upon by police the second I turned my engine off and got out of the car. I remember, on multiple occasions, feeling like my community couldn’t have anything. And when we would get something nice such as a new store, apartment building or transit center, I would just wait for it to be torn up by my people. These same feelings washed over me on the way back to the hotel that afternoon. And they troubled me in the exact same manner that they did when I was a teenager in the ghetto.

 

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My trip to Haiti was full of black power highs and post-colonial lows. There were moments of bliss when I would be in total awe of the oldest black republic in the western hemisphere that would be immediately followed by the fear that it could all implode at any given second. Haiti, in this regard, is not unlike the South Side of Chicago or the West Side of Philadelphia or Deep East Oakland. Haiti does not pretend to be paradise. Haiti is no tropical escape for black people either. Haiti is a mirror for the descendants of African slaves. And finally, Haiti does not lie to make tourists feel more comfortable. It is for these reasons that I love her.

-Roger Porter

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