January 21, 2010 @ 10:06 am by Jacqui Lewis
In a lovely book, The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, edited by Edwidge Danticat, there is a poem in chapter one called “Present, Past, Future”. Penned by Marc Christophe, these are the opening lines:
What will I tell you my son?
What will I say to you, my daughter?
You for whom the tropics are a marvelous paradise
a blooming garden of islands floating
in the blue box of the Caribbean Sea
What will I tell you when you ask me
Father speak to us of Haiti?
What will the fathers and mothers who survive the aftermath of the devastating earthquake tell their children about Haiti? What will they say about a place named Ayiti Quisqueya, Bohio by its inhabitants? A place of mountains whose beauty was captured by the French and the Spanish? A place whose people were killed off by disease; a land inhabited by kidnapped Africans, whose land was tilled by forced labor? What will they say to their children about Hispaniola and Saint-Domingue-identities forced upon a land by colonial presences?
What will they say about slave rebellions and Francois Macandal and the Six-Year War? What will they say about those who fought in the American Revolutionary War and who went home to fight in their own? What will they say about François-Dominique Toussaint L’ouverture and the abolition of slavery in 1794? What will they say about January 1, 1804, the equalizing meal of soup, and Black Independence.
What will they say about Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, a free Black man, the son of a French mariner and an African-born slave mother? What will they say about his time in Peoria and the way he founded Chicago, Illinois? What will they say about how his father took him to France to be educated? What will they say about a man who had the diplomacy necessary to befriend the area Native-Americans who considered him one of their own; who spoke several Indian dialects, as well as English, French, and Spanish? How can they speak about this Haitian American Hero?
What will they say when they speak of Haiti and of this time and of the reaction of the world-their neighbors? How will they speak of 40 seconds of terror, of two aftershocks and the aftermath of the crumbling of buildings and the crushing of bodies and souls? What will they say about the promises of an American president and a people? And when, more than a week later, there is another aftershock – a devastating 6.1, what will they say of how their spirits were rocked? What will they say about how the fault lines of race and class collided to crumble an infrastructure before the earth quaked?
And what will we say to our children, and to theirs?
A history of a people is just that – a story. Some of it is true; some of it is shaped and retold by those in power. In this month where we celebrate the African diaspora in America – African American History month, we think about how race is “storied”. We know there is only one race – the human race – but ethnicity and culture get “raced” in our country, and in other places around the globe. Race, skintone and color become signs for who is privileged and who is not; who holds the power and who does not.
How will we, on this soil, on this land help shape our history, and support and encourage the Haitian people to shape theirs? How we respond, what we do in these times can help reinforce the scars of a colonial past or help heal them. To be sure, money is the best way to help in these early days. Money can buy needed supplies and water, and money can flow over the internet; it needs no transport, airfield or road on which to travel. But in the days and weeks to come, as Haiti rebuilds and as we help, the way the world puts the power to shape policy, to name priorities; the way the world pardons debt and gives grants rather than loans – these tactics will help to create a story of hope, power and agency in a critical time in history.
Let’s do all we can to help write this chapter of history with love, grace and generosity. The Collegiate Churches of New York have made a first strike at this tragedy with a grant of $50,000; you can join in this grant-making by sending a check to Middle Church marked “Haiti Relief”, or you can go directly to www.churchworldservice.org and make a donation there. In time, we will do more – with our resources, with our time, with our love, prayers and support.
Let’s make African History Month a time of African diasporan connection. We all come from the same cradle of civilization – Africans, Europeans, Asians and Indians. So Haitian history, African American history, Chinese history – all of it belongs to all of us; and our future story is ours to write, together.
About This Blog
Preparing ethical leaders for a just society. Posts by Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister.