I took my first steps on my grandmother’s 69th birthday on November 13, 1993.
That date also marked the tenth day of my 19-year old stay in the United States.
I am a member and a child of the Haitian Diaspora. I am proud to be a member of the ‘tenth department’, and I am proud of my heritage, my nationality, and the fact that my story will – and does – make up one part of the larger Haitian narrative. In Haiti, there are nine departments (analogous to states in the United States). Members of the Diaspora, or the large-scale emigration abroad, are referred to as the tenth department. It is estimated that nearly one in every six Haitians lives abroad.
I believe that being a member of the Diaspora comes with a degree of cultural rootlessness, of liminality. For me, my existence on the margins of two societies is a direct result of my upbringing. My subjectivity has grown out of my experience of marginalization and unstable relation of difference in the dominant society in which I live.
Furthermore, geographic distance and an inability to travel have compelled me to reconstruct the object of my affections as an imagined place, a pastiche of other people’s memories, pictures, and offhand comments. The Haiti I know is both real and unreal; it comes to life through my lived experience, but I have never known the physical island itself, only in what it has produced.
On January 12, 2010, I was the first person in my family to learn of the earthquake. As I sat idly before a computer, periodically pressing the browser’s refresh button, a new headline appeared that I took to be another typical NYT human interest story. The stories written about Haiti were always infuriating to read: bent on providing one-dimensional tales of woe and famine for a largely removed Western audience, the articles did much to further stereotypes and perpetuate an oversimplified narrative that did not do much to further real progress.
And at first glance, the article seemed to be just that. It was more of the same paternalistic writing on Haitian catastrophe that would provide another opportunity for pity and profit for the opportunistic, but it wasn’t personal. My rock-solid belief in my family’s immunity from tragedies in Haiti portrayed in the media helped me stay removed from the events unfolding before my eyes.
But when my aunt called with the news that our family house in Port-au-Prince had collapsed, things quickly changed.
It has been three years since my grandmother’s body was pulled from the rubble of the house we thought would never fall. Three years, a cholera epidemic, a few hundred thousand tents, innumerable volunteers and donors, hundreds of simultaneously indignant and mournful articles, panels, symposiums, and millions of words.
We must not let our lust for progress, nor our desire to be seen as something other than a country fit only for disaster tourism, cloud our eyes to the risks in recreating a purely tourist haven that lacks productive industries.
As members of the Diaspora, we have a duty to lend our strength and knowledge to efforts to invest in our homeland. But we must form our vision in partnership with those who have remained in Haiti. It is not money that will make real gains, but cooperation and institution-building in place of bric-a-brac nonprofit efforts. BrandHaiti is a valuable organization in that it provides an invaluable platform for people who can help to bring about real, sustainable change in Haiti: businesspeople and entrepreneurs, young professionals, students, academics, and Haitians at home and abroad who would like to change the dominant perception of Haiti.
However, we must remember that for our country to succeed and for the status quo to change, we cannot allow exploitation to be the price of progress. For all those who lost their lives on January 12, let it one day be said that 2010 was the beginning of the end of our unnatural disasters.