When I was in my first year of university I began actively studying all of the people and cultures that I learned nothing about in high school.
Indigenous Studies, African, Caribbean and Latin American history.
I had a particular interest in trying to understand the cause of genocide and injustice in the world. As a mixed race Trinidadian born girl who immigrated to Canada as a small child, there was so much that I didn't understand. And even the best public education chose only to highlight the travels, conquests and achievements of white Europeans. It wasn’t until second year right before I walked out of post secondary that I began to get a perspective that would change my life.
I was voracious, I finally found maps that gave me insight on how it was possible to have a maternal Venezuelan Arawak grandmother, an Indian grandfather, a paternal Black grandmother hailing from Dominica and grandfather who was a Scottish sugar plantation owner. Understanding the historical ethnocultural makeup of a country is integral to understanding contemporary racial dynamics and the governments political motivations.
I learned about the resistance of the Cormantee nation in Jamaica, the stories of Tupac Amaru and a long legacy that continues today.
But what most struck me was Haiti.
Haiti was my hero.
The story of Henry Christophe and Toussaint L’Ouverture, who hoped that the French would be compassionate after their own revolution, but ultimately had to collectively expel the colonial power after tirelessly trying to negotiate with them.
I felt so much pride at the little country that could, but found that victory came at an enormous cost with a long legacy of neocolonialism and vicious Antihaitianismo.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic are both on the island of Hispaniola, but you wouldn’t know it from the stark differences between the image of the two nations. Edwidge Danticat’s award winning historical fiction gives incredible human context to the racist violence targeting Black Haitian people across the island. It’s these stories that are so important. Often in corporate media there is an absence of any divergent humanizing narrative; of individual stories and perspectives that generate empathy coupled with accurate honest reporting that prioritize the voices of the most marginalized.
In the late 1930s, the ethnic cleansing campaign committed by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo claimed over 20,000 Haitian lives. For decades onwards, public education in the DR promoted a form of nationalism that was hateful towards Haiti and it’s people. Dominicans were painted as proud but modest campesinos, the product of Spanish conquistadores and native Tainos, while Haitians were depicted as physically grotesque, backward and Black Africans.
In reality both Haiti and the Dominican Republic were home to generations of Africans who had been enslaved by the island's European settlers.
Today, Danticat along with another U.S.-based Caribbean writer Junot Diaz are calling for protests, including travel boycotts against the deportations of residents of Haitian descent. For the Dominican-born Diaz, the blame lies in the “indifference to racial and political tensions” that exploit and dehumanize Haitian migrants, “who are attempting to save themselves from the ruin inflicted by other people.”
I am struck by the way that injustice is legislated. Whether we speak of the Holocaust, Apartheid or Jim Crow, legality has been used as a political construct that validates human rights abuses and absolves lawmakers of the moral depravity of their actions.
Creation of nation states are always accompanied by a hierarchy of personhood and one that is not exclusive to the Caribbean. With Canada and the United States both finding migrant workers fit to produce the bulk of the food supplies, even recently bringing in dozens of Mexican firefighters to Edmonton, Alberta to help battle wildfires in northern Alberta, but without affording any of the rights and protections given to a citizen.
As someone living in North America, but born in the Caribbean this resonated with me on a personal level. As an immigrant whose family traveled to another country for the promise of new opportunities, we are collectively accountable for applying social and political pressure to ensure the rights of others are protected. There are many layers to the ways that we maintain a connection to our home country. We send money, maintain cultural bonds and we stretch families out over oceans. From ‘Rasta Pasta’ in Toronto to Flatbush in Brooklyn, we transplant and germinate growing new culture amidst communities from around the world. These networks are both personal and political.
Country is not only a fixed place, it is collective imagination, cultural practices and sustained belief. It is also a political entity that is shaped and manipulated by the public, the government and the globe.
I have been thinking a lot about what Blackness looks like both within and without borders. We have intersecting experiences of racialization, while maintaining incredibly nuanced lived realities. We have so much to learn about each other in order to better understand our relative contexts. Barriers including a longstanding absence of public school education reflecting the cultural diversity of immigrant communities coupled with xenophobic reporting severely limits our capacity to organize across countries. It is deeply important to access that knowledge directly while questioning the reporting (or absence thereof) from corporate news sources.
Out of our homeland and in the global north, we have to be intentional about the way that we use our influence to impact countries in the global south. This isn’t about nationalism, it’s about solidarity and about ensuring that #BlackLivesMatter is a global movement. This means that we have to seek out local news sources that are committed to including the stories that are deliberately excluded and actively countering the dominant racist narrative. We have to complicate the prevailing notions of Blackness by expanding our solidarity collectively beyond colonial borders. Just as been true in the North American movements, broader organizing must be accountable to those with a local, intimate context. We need to maintain those direct networks across regions so that none of us are left behind.
International backlash appears to have temporarily halted a plan by the Dominican Republic to expel Haitian immigrants from the country, but human rights advocates say it is essential that attention remain on the issue in order reduce the likelihood deportations will take place.
Kim Katrin Milan is a writer, multidisciplinary artist, activist, consultant, and educator. Milan is the co-founder and current executive director of The People Project, a movement of queer and trans folks of color and allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration.