Even before we launched The Haitian Times in 1999, I knew we wanted to be part of the Labor Day Carnival parade. Over the preceding years, I had heard grumblings from the parade’s organizers that the Haitians were sullying the colorful procession by donning “shabby” T-shirts instead of costumes.
I was determined to change things.
We scoured barbershops, churches and community organizations to recruit people to be part of our defilé walking besides or on the decorative float. One year, we managed to get a handful of young men and women to join our float.
I felt like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill for eternity. But since I wasn’t being punished by Zeus though, I let the ball roll down, left it there and walked away. I had more than enough to do anyway to focus on taking a recalcitrant community to a place they didn’t want to go.
So this week, I was pleasantly surprised when Haitian American elected officials and community leaders decided it was time that we showcased our artistic prowess. They organized several floats for the festivities, which featured people in colorful folkloric peasant and bourgeois attire.
In the last several years, I had not gone to the Parkway, a shortened name for Eastern Parkway, the expansive Brooklyn thoroughfare that the parade route follows. I’ve had more than my fair share of the bacchanal and, in recent years, I’ve spent that end-of-summer weekend at a beach or lakeside retreat. I’ve truly been enjoying spending more time with my family, unlike the excuse politicians use when they fall from grace.
Coming back to the Parkway felt validating. It might’ve taken us Haitians 20 years to really show up, but better late than never.
The confounding part is we never lacked the tradition or the skills to play mas. After all, we do have carnival in Haiti, and Haitian art is sold and displayed throughout the Caribbean. What we lacked was determination and will.
To me, this evolution from curmudgeon to affable — adhering to the parade’s organizers wish of a colorful event — is a metaphor for who we are as a people. It also underscores my notion that if Haitians want to change the country’s political and social chaos, we can.
I’m also astonished as to why we refuse to settle our differences and move forward for the benefit of a better country. Recently, Haiti made Forbes magazine’s list of the most beautiful countries in the world.
My son Cameron, who is teaching English in Vietnam, sent the family some pictures he took from Nha Trang, a coastal city. He described it this way:
“The water here is the perfect temperature. Not beautiful like in Haiti but otherwise the Vietnam coast reminds me of there a lot. Especially with the mountains behind.”
Whenever people comment about the natural elegance of Haiti, I often retort that it is a God-made beauty, but a man-made disaster.
It is not by coincidence that Cameron’s reference point is Haiti. I hope that my work for the last 25 years has influenced him and that he and the hundreds of thousands of young Americans born of Haitian parents are thinking of ways they can restore Haiti’s shine.
The question that I often pose myself is when we Haitians are going to decide it’s time to reclaim our original moniker of “The Pearl of the Antilles” and bury the offensive “Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere” once and for all.
It is a truism that journalists and lawyers don’t ask questions that they don’t have an inkling of an answer to. Well, allow me to answer my own question. I believe we’re about a generation or so away. This Haiti renaissance will be led by a diaspora that’s savvy and sophisticated in a respectful partnership with their sisters and brothers in Haiti.
Colleges from Columbia to the City University of New York to Harvard, and other colleges and universities across the U.S. (of course, Florida A&M University, my alma mater) are educating thousands of Haitian Americans.
Hopefully, they read The Haitian Times and have been following the trials and tribulations of their ancestral homeland, taking notes and yearning to make a difference. Once they take their rightful place on the leadership ladder, they will help turn things around in Haiti.
This is not a novel idea. North American diasporas like the Irish, Italians and others have exerted their wealth, influence and connections to turn their home countries’ standing in the world. Ireland was not always the bucolic and idyllic green isle that it is today. At the turn of the 20th Century, Irish and Italians migrants left in droves, settling all over the U.S. and Canada. Italian culture is infused throughout Latin America in countries like Argentina and Uruguay, to name a couple.
Today, we Haitians are unwanted everywhere we seek refuge. Even as we’re being deported to Haiti daily from the U.S., Ireland and Italy provide us with a glimpse of our future.
Last week, I noticed that Haitian flags were becoming more and more visible in Central Brooklyn’s pre-Labor Day activities. It seemed as if we dominated the unofficial flag waving competition. Young women and men wrapped the flag on their heads, on their backs as they stroll along Flatbush Ave.
Many of them don’t have the facial features and the mannerism that we’ve used to define a Haitian person in days past. They look and act as part of the African American community that they are, but of Haitian ancestry. That is yet another mark of optimism for me and what lies ahead.
There is a change in attitude and a pride of the culture that is mushrooming among the young people in the community. It should be embraced and bottled into a movement to show the world and ourselves that Haiti can be better than that.
The Haitian presence in this year’s carnival has provided a small but significant step in the beginning of a new dawn for Haiti and its diaspora.
I will not end this column with a reference from a System Band song as I often do. But trust me, System has a song for this.