- A Conversation at the Haitian Studies Association MeetingOctober 15, 1994
While President Aristide was preparing his return to Haiti after three years of exile, the 1994 Haitian Studies Association conference was taking place in Boston on October 14 and 15. To the Haitians and Haitianists who attended this event, the gathering offered unlimited opportunities for formal as well as casual speculation about what this return would mean to Haiti. Not surprisingly, most of the conversations focused on Haiti’s recent past and its future. One conversation, however, was singular: it was recorded for Callaloo. This conversation brought together four Haitians from different generations and backgrounds, who now live in the United States. Reflecting on what it means to be Haitians in the diaspora, they shared their feelings about the Haiti they experienced, the Haiti they miss, and the Haiti that they would like to see rise from its present crisis.
First, a brief introduction to locate ourselves as Haitians. I’ll begin: I was born in the Northern part of Haiti, east of Cap-Haïtien, but my parents moved to Port-au-Prince when I was nine. I left Haiti in 1973 to attend College in the United States. At first, I had every intention of returning to Haiti, but when I completed my Ph.D. and made inquiries about teaching in Haitian universities, my options were discouraging; in fact, in the late 1970s, Haiti was very hostile to academics with my interests. So I started a career here, and I’ve been here ever since. Now I teach Twentieth-Century British, African and Caribbean literature at a small liberal arts college in Vermont.
I am an activist, and for three years I have worked for a non-government organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because political repression was rising, I left Haiti in 1992, shortly after the coup against President Aristide. I am currently the Program Director of Haitian Teens Confront AIDS (HTCA), a peer education project of Partners in Health. The goals of HTCA are to educate Haitian teens and adults about HIV prevention, to reduce risk behavior and develop their leadership skills and cultural identity. We also help Haitian teens confront issues of discrimination and racism, and we build bridges between Haitian and non-Haitian youths and adults.
I am a Haitian who has lived in the Unites States for twenty-seven years. The longer I am here, the more Haitian I get; and when I go back [End Page 439] home, my family and friends say, “Oh, my god, you are more haitian than the last time we saw you.” This is in conjunction with the kinds of racism I’ve faced here in the last twenty-seven years, the kind of political consciousness that I evolved, and which of course, started in Haiti. I am, indeed, Haitian by culture; I happen to have U.S. papers, but I’ve always distinguished between citizenship on the one hand, and nationality on the other. Though my American colleagues get offended sometimes, I say, “Look, I will die Haitian, and this has nothing to do with which papers I choose to carry at any one time.” Presently, I am professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and chair of the Department of Africology. That’s the most marking thing in terms of an introduction at this time.
Patrick raises a lot of questions for me, because my experience is a transnational one. I, also, have been here for twenty-seven years, and I have been involved in political issues related to Haiti. But I have also participated in struggles within the Haitian community in North America. My concerns have centered on changes in gender, race and class inequalities. I would define myself more as a transnational Haitian, because my spheres of intervention have been both around Haiti and in the United States. When you take that transnational perspective—a perspective of Haitians living outside Haiti, in the diaspora—when you look at the ways in which there is a continuous intersection of struggles both in Haiti and in the States, then the issue...