Flesh of my flesh, Zoe of my bones — Am I my brother’s gatekeeper
May 18th is a special day for Haitians around the world. It’s the day we commemorate the creation of our flag, a moment of great significance in the birth of our nation. As the story goes, on May 18th of the year 1803, at a meeting of high officers of the indigenous army, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (full-time visionary, part-time vexillographer) seized a french flag and cut out the white middle strip. Through this highly symbolic act, he sought to give a tangible representation to the union of blacks and mulattoes against the common enemy of white colonialism. While historians, as is their wont, have long held debates over the accuracy of the dates and the veracity of the acts that took place, in the Haitian psyche there is little room for debate over the importance of that date and these acts. And as such the commemoration and celebration of that date holds nearly as much importance as our independence day.
Said celebrations take on many forms, in Haiti this usually entails a day off from work and school, with parades in all the major cities and a speech by the president. Until recently, for the most part, those outside of Haiti have not been fortunate enough to see this celebration extend beyond their homes, and community if fortunate enough to live in an area with a large Haitian community. However with the increase in size and prominence of our diaspora, more and more places have begun to recognise Haitian flag day and its significance for us, over the last two decades various cities in the US have even made the month of May the month of Haitian heritage. These new developments, coupled with the advent of social media, mean that Haitians outside of Haiti now have a number of new ways in which they can express and celebrate their “Haitianness”.
One of the new ways in which this is expressed entails jubilant and rambunctious celebrations over social media, by bookending any and every post and handles with Haitian flag emojis, throwing together any number of kreyòl words and sentences they know, and through, I am told, the expression “Zoe shit no hoe shit” [sic]. This mostly harmless way of celebrating, however, is not always met with unanimously positive response. In fact, some sentiments which have been expressed with growing frequency have been derision and, dare I say, disdain. Those of us living in Haiti, or who boast a more direct connection than through what was transmitted by parents, have not entirely taken to the ways in which our brethren in the diaspora chooses to express its pride. We feel that some take this celebration too superficially, aren’t “cultured enough”, or to put it succinctly, they don’t rep the set like that. They are those considered “Haitian-flag-day-and-soup-joumou-Haitians”, “Haitian-flag-in-their-social-media-bio-Haitians”, “griyo-and-too-much-gouyad-to-a-konpa-song-Haitians”, or even “Haitian-with-an-eagle-on-their-passport-Haitians”.
It is stating the obvious to say that we argue over things that are important to us. Cultural heritage and representation are valuable to us in ways which we cannot readily express or quantify, and are thus extremely touchy subjects that are the sparks which light the fire of many arguments. They are part of the way we constitute and present ourselves to the world, and as such we want to see them expressed and portrayed in ways that we feel dignify us and do us justice. Only, the issue is that there is no unique dictated way of expressing one’s culture and affinity for it. While it is the purview of the group to decide and define the big lines of what is and isn’t part of said culture, attempting to do so at an individual level is counterproductive. A culture is as dynamic as its members, things are added, forgotten, replaced, changed, remembered. When we further consider the different environments in which Haitians in Haiti and those in the diaspora grow up and live, it seems even more unreasonable to expect expressions of our culture to be the same.
A number of members of the diaspora have had to construct their Haitian identity through parents, relatives, and a smaller community. Some did not even have the privilege of having access to a community, and could only go off what they received from their parents, with any biases and shortcomings that may entail (Haitian parents who, as we all know, are renowned for their infallible objectivity). That means that they’ve had fewer lemons to make their lemonade, fewer examples of what it means to be Haitian, and the different ways in which that can present. Those new identities are by nature different from the ones with which those raised and living in Haiti are familiar. However they are similar enough in the most important way, that is, no matter how many hyphens they contain, they are Haitian identities. They are new ways forged through adversity to respond to a fundamental human need, that of belonging to a larger group. Furthermore they do not detract from or dilute the existing ones, but rather add richness and complexity, like pieces in a mosaic. When we create new ways of portraying and celebrating a culture, it doesn’t run the risk of being forgotten or getting “diluted”. It simply offers new ways of being, celebrating, and remembering us. Culture, like knowledge, expands as it is shared.
When we consider this perspective, the concepts of gatekeeping or “purity tests” are antithetical to culture. They are a game of reduction where we seek to make distinctions between those we consider to be like us and those in whom we choose to overlook the similarities. The game usually ends with one group making the “us” circle as small and hermetic as possible, to the detriment of the “them”. While there are, to be sure, important conversations to be had about the negative aspects of reducing a culture to a few simple elements like food, music, or a caricature of an irate mother’s accent, we must also guard ourselves from swinging to the opposite extreme and conflating the haitian experience and the amount of struggle and hardships one had to overcome. At the end of the day, all those things are attempts at coming to terms with and holding onto an identity and should be recognised as such. When someone is outside and fumbling with their keys, the response from those inside should be to open the door to let them in, not simply tell them they have the wrong keys. No one chooses where and how they are raised, whether in Haiti or outside of it. Relations between a local people and its diaspora can often be tense due to a number of factors including the different realities which both groups face. While these tensions often manifest in the form of disagreements with each other, they ultimately stem from a collective discontentment with our country and our realities.
I would never be so presumptuous as to pretend to have the solution, and we should be skeptical of anyone who would. However if I were to venture an educated guess, I’d suggest that any attempt at a solution would need to go through a process of healing and reconciliation. We are suffering from multiple ills, some of our own doing, others caused by outside forces. For the ones of our own doing, we have a responsibility to ourselves of not passing them on to future generations who did not ask to inherit our troubles. The role of diaspora, both socially and politically, in relation to the motherland is something that needs to be defined with input from both parties, on equal footing. We can sit at the table and discuss, but everyone needs to be granted a seat (*checks notes* even the cousins who throw too many gouyad… Look, no one said it would be easy). Grievances and frustrations on both sides can then be aired out and addressed, misconceptions can be cleared up, and those who need to can be educated. If we start from the basic principle that anyone who bears this country and culture no ill will, loves and respects either enough to claim as its own in good faith, shouldn’t be denied the right to do so, we can debate and come to an agreement on the finer details. Though we may disagree with each other, we must resist the urge to make the circle smaller.
We live in a world where for political and administrative reasons (also because colonialism), where you’re from and who you are gets reduced to a birth certificate or a passport, with all of the discrimination, frustration, injustices, and limitations that entails. We know through enough lived and shared experience that these are simplistic tools that cannot and do not come close to adequately summing up an identity. We also know that exclusion is not a solid premise on which to build a sense of cultural identity, it only leads to hurt and resentment. So there is no need to perpetuate it. Furthermore, attempting to do so is a direct affront to our ancestors’ actions, the genesis of the very flag we hold so dear, and everything it symbolises. If, due to life’s circumstances, we don’t all get to be Haitian in Haiti, we should at least strive to be Haitian in the way we embody and celebrate these values and ideals, wherever we might be on God’s green earth. In the midst of suffering the most atrocious injustices in human history, a group of people came to the realisation that they had more to gain by acknowledging the ways in which they were the same, the rest, as they say, is history. As we commemorate that history, let us also remember a simple enough lesson: “Nobody wins when the family feuds”.
PS: even if those appeals to higher values were to fall on deaf ears, there is no valid reason to not want to see more of ourselves around.
PPS: for real though, can we ease up on the excessive gouyad? It’s konpa, no need to do all that.