Thy Kingdom Come: Hidden History and the Fall of Haiti

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The story of Haiti, is the story of a fallen champion. Today, Haiti is tagged as, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. However, this tag it is unfair, incomplete, inaccurate and therefore misleading, as it proclaims Haiti’s present, without giving a full scope of its past.

Why don’t headlines ever talk about how Haiti was once, one of the most prosperous colonies in the world and one of the world’s leaders in coffee and sugar exports? Why don’t headlines emphasize how it was the first Black republic in the world and for that, it was isolated, punished and blackballed by its former colonizers and their slave-holding allies? Why don’t the headlines report how Haiti was occupied by the United States military for nearly 20 years and how the Haitian people were exploited for cheap labor against their will? Why don’t the headlines mention how the United States government sponsored Jean- Claude Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc,” one of the most ruthless and notorious dictators of the 20th century with money and arms to rule Haiti for decades under pure fear and terror? I don’t hear many headlines tagging Haiti for having its already fragile economy destroyed in the 1990’s by Bill Clinton’s backdoor deal, that bankrupted and pushed out Haitian rice farmers, while subsidizing farmers from the Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. And more despicably, the hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake that the American Red Cross used to build gated communities for its workers, instead of homes for the victims of the actual earthquake. Oh yeah! What about the United Nation “peace keepers” who have impregnated hundreds if not thousands of Haitian girls and women, while leaving them to raise a generation of children on their own.  Did I mention how those same “peace keepers” brought cholera to Haiti, by contaminating the Haitian water supply with their human waste and feces, leading to the deaths of thousands of people?

To continue to simply tag Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is like watching Mike Tyson’s last fight against Lennox Lewis and deciding that Mike Tyson’s legacy would be cemented from the results of a fight, that should have never happened in the first place. Tyson had been far beyond his prime and to say that he was damaged goods, would have been a compliment. Tyson was merely a shell, a shadow of what his name meant to millions, who watched him in his prime destroy anything that dared to stand in the square with him. And let us rest assure, that his fall from glory, was not by happenstance. The untimely death of his mentor, coupled with his exploitation by the infamous Don King among others; lead one of the greatest fighters the world has ever known, to his back on a canvas mat, in an arena filled with perplexed eyes, pitied hearts and the realization, that this once great boxing warrior-god, had been reduced to a mere mortal. But still, in his downfall, Tyson will always be recognized as one of the greatest. We do not honor hour heroes in their defeat, but in their glory. We should do the same for Haiti.

Haiti has been down for quite some time now, but its true historical and cultural narrative, still outweighs its current calamitous present.  The black sheep, the dark child, prodigal son, the underdog. All these metaphors hold the real story of a nation that continues to fight for its rightful place in the history books and in a world that is quick to forget and dismiss the mighty legacy of the land where black people actually came together to achieve the unspeakable and the unthinkable… FREEDOM.

Many nations have built tremendous wealth on the backs of the oppressed. Just over 200 years ago in 1804, when New World slavery was at its relative peak in places like Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, 1000 miles away, nearly half a million slaves had flipped the script. Greater than any March on Washington, Million Man March, Emancipation Proclamation, Thirteenth, Fourteenth Amendment or Black Lives Matters hashtag… Just as the Patriots had defeated the British, the Africans on the island of Hispaniola had defeated the French army.  Inscribed on the Haitian flag you will find the quote, L’union fait la force, In unity there is strength; which is a kin to the motto of the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution… “Join or die.” To be Haitian is to know that you come from the same ilk of the only nation on earth to ever lead a successful slave revolt and to know that running in your veins is the same blood of men in women, who were the original freedom fighters. This is what Haiti should be known for. Because if not, then to be fair, accurate and transparent, we must tag those countries responsible for Haiti’s economic demise … France, the country that still owes Haiti billions in reparations. England, the country that colonized and enslaved millions of people and bled their resources dry until the mid 20th century. The United States, the wealthiest country in the world by inheriting a lucrative slave economy from the British and continued to profit for nearly a century from free labor and has yet to provide reparations to the families of former slaves, while the families of former slave owners continue to thrive from generational wealth.

With the recent landfall of Hurricane Matthew, today, Haiti is clinging onto the ropes. The combination of natural disasters, political and economic sabotage have taken its toll on Haiti. Her opponents have hit her with every hook, jab, uppercut and combination imaginable. She is hurt, wounded and bloodied. And though she has been knocked down and knocked out, she continues to pick herself up and fight again. What a mighty people! What a mighty nation! Haiti, the strongest country in the world, the champion of the people. 

Gros Morne: The Other Side

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My mother was raised in a home similar to this pink and green wooden shotgun style house in Gros Morne, Haiti. (September 2014)

She never talked about what had happened in Haiti. She never talked about why she left home. She did not mention her family much. As a result, I never met my maternal grandparents, my mother’s older sister or her younger brother. She had left Gros Morne, when she was in her late teens, for the Bahamas and then Miami, back in the early 1970s with my father.

Haiti had been tumultuous during most of my childhood. My parents had come to the United States to seek a better life. However, Mommy, as we all call her, never spoke of the people back home. It was as if they never existed. As if she only had us, her four children. I only saw her as my mother, not as anything else.

After more than forty years, it was time to return with her children. She wanted us to finally to meet our “other side.” Her side. I’ve been to Haiti several times, but never to visit her family, only to visit my father’s people, in Port-de-Paix. In recent years, I have also had the opportunity to work with a Brooklyn-based non-profit, that is building a school in Petit Goave, which is a town located an hour and a half southwest of Port-au-Prince. Ironically, I have visited more parts of Haiti than my mother has, and she was born and raised there.

My sister, mother, grandmother's good friend and auntie in Gros Morne, Haiti (September 2014).
My sister, mother, grandmother’s good friend and  my aunt in Gros Morne, Haiti. (September 2014)

But I had never been to Gros Morne. The place where she had grown up. And so in early September of this year, Mommy, Lisa (my sister) and I, met in Port-au- Prince. They flew in from Miami, while I flew down from Brooklyn, to meet her younger brother Charlie, at Toussaint L’Overture Airport. We then set forth on a four-hour journey by car, north, to my mother’s hometown.

I spent the next few days meeting family and friends of family, in Gros Morne, a town of about 7,000 in the Northwest region of Haiti. Gros Morne was a small but busy place. It sat between beautiful green mountains, Trois Riviere, acres upon acres of farmland and rice fields. The women went to the market to purchase fresh food and other items for the household by day, while the men were entrepreneurs and bread winners.  My uncle Charlie was a barber,, farmer and landlord and had a shop in his living room. While his wife Jacqueline was a stay-at-home wife and mother. They had two children together, Sadel, 8 and Nathaline 12.

But most interestingly enough, my mother had an older sister Mirae, whom I had seldom heard my mother talk about. I knew my mother had a sister, but I did not know what she looked like, spoke like, or even how old she was. It was hard to imagine another women in the world that could resemble my mother or even act like my mother, but she did. I had discovered an entirely new family in Haiti. It was like being given a different identity. I had only seen myself as Toussaint, but I am also an Altidor.

Unfortunately, grandma and grandpa had died back in the early 2000s. I never got a chance to meet them. I would have been in college when they passed away. The story is, grandma died in ’01 and two years later, grandpa joined her. They are buried next to each other in the town cemetery, less than a five-minute walk from the home in which my mother grew up. Grandma and grandpa loved coffee. They drank it everyday. I wish they were still alive. I’d like to see if I had their traits. I’d like to hear stories about my mother as a child. I would have loved to ask them questions about our family history and how to make a marriage last for so long.

And all this time they knew about me us,  They watched us grow up through the photos  and audio cassettes that my mother had sent them over the decades.  They knew who we were, but we knew very little of them. I still have yet to sit with my mother and ask her why. Why did you keep us apart for so long? Nonetheless, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to finally connect with my family in Gros Morne.

Gros Morne, from the rooftop of my uncle's house. (September 2014)
Gros Morne, from the rooftop of my uncle’s house. The town of 7,000 sits between beautiful mountains and Trois Riviere, in northwest Haiti. (September 2014)

The Haitian Mother

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. My parents migrated to Miami, Florida from Haiti in the early 1970s to escape the notorious Duvalier regime. In those days Duvalier ruled Haiti with an iron fist and terrorized anyone who would dare oppose him. He and his tan tan makout left Haitians living in constant fear, from Port au Prince (Haiti’s capitol) to Port de Paix (My father’s hometown in Northwest Haiti). Like millions of immigrants before them, they came to the shores of the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Since I can remember, they had always instilled in us the importance of education.

Every morning my mother woke us up at the crack of dawn. We did not attend our neighborhood schools because they were some of the worst schools in Miami. Our parents sent us to school in the white and Hispanic suburb of Miami Springs, from elementary to high school. This meant we had to wake up extra early to make sure we made it to school on time.

From day one, education was a priority in my household. There was only one thing greater than education, and that was God. There was zero tolerance for doing poorly in school and even less tolerance for heathenism. As a result I received numerous perfect attendance awards throughout elementary school. Ironically, I probably traveled further than any of my classmates each day. Most of the students at my elementary school lived within in the school’s boundary however, my siblings and I lived about 6 or 7 miles away in a neighborhood known as Allapattah. Mommy would drop us off on her way to work or she would leave bus fare for us to catch the MTA (Metro Transit Authority).

School started at 8:30 a.m., and our commute was about 30 minutes by car and about 45 minutes by bus. Not only did we get to school on time, but we arrived at least thirty minutes early in order to take advantage of the free breakfast.  Therefore, Mommy would wake us up each morning at 6 a.m. She’d first knock on our door like a drill sergeant, as if we were new cadets in basic training. Then she would flip the light switch and yell out to us in Haitian Creole, Leve’, leve’, leve’, li le pou nou al lekol (Wake up, wake up, wake up, it’s time for school).

From kindergarten to my senior year of high school, Mommy was my alarm clock. Even when she stopped barging into the room at the crack of dawn, I could still hear her floating through the house, washing up and making her daily cup of Bustello Café’. This was our morning ritual and we never missed a beat, we were always in school.

Today, I still have a long commute, but I do not let that stop me from being there and on time for my students each day.

Like all cultures, the importance of parental guidance and support is crucial in ones development. I was blessed to have two parents and my mother was a true disciplinarian. The portrait above demonstrates the unbroken strength of Haitian mothers.

Ayisyen on Campus

I speak in front of people all the time, but for some reason I was a little nervous tonight. The first speaker was a young professional Haitian-American by the name of Jean Pierre-Louis. His organization  Capracare Haiti is fairly new, less than two years old. His work is familiar but not taken for granted.  He is rebuilding and changing Haiti, one step at a time. Jean’s vision is written powerfully at the bottom of his business card, mete men nou ansanm pou nou viv an santé ( promoting health change through individual acts of courage).

Then it was my turn. I had been up since five in the morning, worked a full load teaching and debating with  7th graders about whether Christopher Columbus should receive credit or acknowledgement for discovering America, when in actuality he thought he was in Asia. Furthermore, my principal decided that we are going to have professional development on Fridays; afterschool.  After a less than inspiring P.D. session, I grabbed my materials hustled out of the building, ran across the street to the local bodega, grabbed a Nutriment and hopped on the 4 train.  I was tired from a long day and a longer week. But the idea of being able to talk about two of my passions for a few minutes in front of an intimate audience at NYU gave me the surge that I needed. What an incredible way to end the work week!

So I introduced myself, loosened the stoic crowd with some of my subtle humor, and it was on. The Community2Community video was a hit as always, and I used it to bring a real connection to what we are all doing in some form or another. There is something for everyone to do and that was my message this evening. “Give a man a fish…” I’m not a fisherman, but I am teacher and a coach; educating young people is what I do. Tonight I had the esteemed privilege of educating and informing others about the great work that Community2Community has been doing.

As the evening moved on and other groups presented, you could feel the energy and passion in the room begin to emerge. After the last presentation by Artists Village, we were all on our feet, inspired, energized, ready to mix, mingle and share ideas. They had just come back from Haiti, less than a week ago with an inspiring message of love and hope. It was beautiful.

The high point of the evening for me,  was when one of my former students walked into the room with about 20 other young men. Instantly, I knew was the leader. It was powerful to see. I could see my own influence and work after eight years of teaching begin to manifest, right before my very eyes. His name is Gerald Jean-Baptiste, he was a student of mine at North Miami Beach Senior High School, where I taught for six years. He is now a senior at NYU and the president of an organization on campus called Gentlemen of Quality.

At first he did not see me, but when he did, he immediately introduced me to his group of 20 or so gentlemen and the networking exploded. They all signed the Community2Community Volunteer Sheet and have agreed to help out whenever they can. Before long the once small, quiet, stoic room, turned into a buzz of life, laughter and excitement. I am more than proud of the work that H.A.S.A. is doing. They are bringing like-minded people together to work towards one cause.

I look forward to next year’s event. It will be a testimony to the work that we are all doing. This year’s event has already done that and more. Our dreams will not be deferred, for they are being realized each day through the great efforts of our young brothers and sisters on NYU’s campus.