The ranks of professors at historically Black colleges and universities are filled with caring and loving mentors who nurture one’s academic ambition and intellectual curiosity. One of my favorite professors at Florida A&M University, where I studied history, was professor Dr. Theodore Hemmingway, who was also my advisor.
In his classes, Dr. Hemmingway would often refer to the American status quo as the “Sophisticated Manipulator.” The white male patriarchy, which operated in subtle ways to keep you in check. He would often remind us that even though we were in the early 1980s’ and no one was calling you “boy” or putting up “No Colored Allowed” signs, they had ways to keep you back.
Dr. Hemmingway, and the other professors, went beyond rhetoric. They gave us roadmaps on how to deal with the Manipulator. One of the things they emphasized is that Black people should develop strong institutions in our communities and keep our resources and money within, before moving beyond. As future leaders, they told us, we should focus stealthily on ways to build institutions and create fabulous wealth.
Last week, I was reminded of the “Sophisticated Manipulator” after a conversation I had with a Haitian-American physician who has a fairly successful practice in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
As is often the case when Haitians get together, the conversation centered around the troubles plaguing our beloved homeland and our so-far unmet aspirations in America. The physician, who appears to be in his early 40’s, was passionate about both. His take on Haiti is that the United States has had an iron grip on Haiti for generations and is at the core of all that ails Haiti. The Americans decide and Haitians follow suit, whether or not it’s in our best interests.
To him, the dominance has continued here as well. In the United States, us Haitians face the evil of gentrification that is driving us away even from once hardscrabble neighborhoods like Flatbush. Our children’s schools are subpar, and we are the poster child of so-called underlying health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes, that made us vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic that has ravaged Black communities like ours. He has a point.
I listened raptly because this was not what I expected to hear from a successful physician and entrepreneur. At one point, I asked, “So what can be done?” He replied nothing because we don’t have anything.
This is where we disagreed.
I told him that I have never felt more optimistic about our lot in America than I do today. I took him back to the 1980s, back when Haitians were stigmatized. When children were embarrassed to be Haitian. When those who could deny their heritage, did so.
I told him that today we have elected officials. While our business community is sorely in need of modernization, I said, we have made some strides. I challenged him, saying his generation was well-placed to take the community to the next level.
I asked him if he was a member of the Haitian Medical Association, or AMHE. He told me no, that these guys were not serious people or leaders. To him, they are country club types who are more interested in their fancy European cars and manicured suburban homes than the well-being of the Haitian community.
I shared his assessment of AMHE, which despite being around for almost 50 years, doesn’t have an office or an executive director. It is more of a social network than a serious organization able to bring resources to themselves and the community.
I told the doctor that he should consider corralling his contemporary colleagues and start a new physician association that can advocate for the interests of the community and bring resources to Central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens, where the bulk of Haitians in New York live.
I also shared with him my story of leaving the New York Times to launch The Haitian Times. It was out of a sense that I didn’t see myself reflected in the newspapers that were prominent back in the 1990s when my generation was coming of age.
While these newspapers commanded the community’s attention, they didn’t speak to me and the generation coming behind me some 25 years ago. The Haitian Times, I explained, is positioning itself to be relevant today and beyond. We’re trying to figure out how to engage with millennials, Gen Z and as-yet-unnamed future generations.
Relevant. That is what I told Macollvie Neel, a former intern and reporter at The Haitian Times who now leads our editorial department, when she asked what I’d like The Haitian Times to be in another 20 years. I’m counting on her, Vania André, Cherrell Angervil and others of their generations who choose to contribute to our community when it’s time to spend most of my time soaking up sun and rum somewhere in the Caribbean — preferably Haiti. But who even knows if that will be possible one day? Given what our leaders in Haiti, or maybe the American government, have in mind?
The Haitian community, despite its successes, faces a reckoning. It is high time that not only physicians unite, but Uber drivers, school bus drivers, engineers, nurses, nurses’ aides, all of us to create organizations that can put some pressure on state and federal officials to do right by us. Currently, we have enough numbers in important states to change the policy that is keeping Haiti at bay.
We need to pivot from a victim mentality to a can-do attitude. It is the American way. We shouldn’t act like sheep being herded to the gallows.
How do we do that?
Imagine having the leaders of these strong Haitian organizations that between them represent hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members asking members of Congress and the Senate for meetings to lay out our position vis-à-vis Haiti. Imagine providing them with a comprehensive and cogent plan that addresses Haiti’s problems and provides solid ideas on how to solve them.
I can’t think of any smart federal legislator who would not react positively to such outreach. I guarantee you they will be on the phone with the State Department, and other concerned agencies asking for hearings on the U.S.-Haiti policy and demanding that our ideas be implemented. They are savvy enough to know that in these states, they can lose their cushy jobs if we decide to exercise fully our rights to petition our government.
Another theory that Dr. Hemmingway would impart to us is the notion of the Talented Tenth, the 10 percent that makes the crème-de-la-crème of any society. In short, the leaders. We owe it to ourselves to empower ourselves and build wealth, financial or otherwise. That’s the only way to tackle the “Sophisticated Manipulator.”