Navigating the Tropic by Scherezade García
A report by Albert Saint Jean for Remezcla.
The Brooklyn-based arts organizations BRIC and Haiti Cultural Exchange teamed up on the occasion of the visual art exhibition, Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas to ask four local thinkers of Haitian and Dominican descent to write about their personal experiences of border between the two nations. What ideas did they grow up with, and what inherited notions are challenged by their experiences living 1,500 miles from the island once known as Kiskeya? The responses grapple with issues of identity, race, stereotypes, and heritage, and share the personal perspectives of novelist Ibi Zoboi, scholar and professor Edward Paulino, immigration activist Albert Saint Jean, and community organizer, artist, and herbalist Suhaly Carolina-Bautista. Read Albert Saint Jean’s essay, originally titled Kiskeya for Short, below.
– Régine M. Roumain, Executive Director at Haiti Cultural Exchange and Jessica Sucher, Senior Manager of Community Engagement at BRIC
Ayiti-Kiskeya-Bohio. That is the indigenous name of the island Spanish colonizers dubbed Hispaniola. For a long time, many Dominicans I knew thought the concept of Kiskeya was something exclusive to them. They had no idea that on the other side of the border the same name is applied to schools, roads, landmarks, and so on. Many are still not aware how significant Kiskeya is to us Haitians. They often feel they have an exclusive claim to the Taino legacy on the island, forgetting that the word Ayiti itself is an indigenous name. Over time I came to learn that this was a product of indoctrination, of systematic brainwashing that leads a large swath of people in the Dominican Republic to ignore the obvious and believe there’s absolutely nothing in common culturally, racially, or religiously with Haiti.
Even to this day, that narrative is perpetuated by the mostly white outsiders who when describing Haiti and the Dominican Republic in documentaries, like to say that Haiti has a largely African culture while the Dominican Republic is more European. I found this to be bogus when thinking about the Dominican friends I had growing up. Their food, music, skin tone, and even small idiosyncrasies were recognizable to me and other Caribbean folks and had Africa’s fingerprints all over them. However, many of my Dominican friends thought those attributes were purely Hispanic. Decades under the rule of Rafael Trujillo and then Joaquín Balaguer had taught their parents and grandparents that to embrace Africa is to embrace Haiti, to be Black was to be Haitian, and for Dominicans, nothing could be worse.
Many Dominicans I knew had wild misconceptions about Haitians, but the more exposure they had to us here in the United States, the more those misconceptions began to erode. One of my friend’s late father once recounted to me his time here in the United States. He came to Boston from Santo Domingo in the early 1960s before moving to New York and then Florida. “Most Haitians I’ve met are very smart and ambitious. They take education very seriously and carry themselves with a lot of pride and dignity. Anyone who says otherwise,” he declared, “is a fucking idiot!” Dominicans I knew from the island who had either been to Haiti or had close relationships with Haitians in the Dominican Republic recognized the similarities between the cultures and people, and they usually had no issue embracing their own Blackness. I was in a long-term relationship with a woman from Barahona, whose whole family had all identified as Black without exception.
But still, I had many friends who continued to deny their Blackness, and I had many more who had misconceptions about Haitians and saw me as an exception. Upon meeting me, some didn’t want to believe I was Haitian and continued the same dialogue with every Haitian-American they encountered. “Really!?” a baffled Kiskeyano would say, “pero no pareces haitiano.” I’ve heard many Dominicans say this more than once to Haitians they meet; what they encounter contradicts their indoctrination. Although most tend to get hip after the first meeting or so, there are those who continue to cling to their propagandized reality.
To acknowledge what was in front of them meant not just a dismantling of their belief system, but also a deconstruction of their identity. Since Trujillo, antihaitianismo has been well ingrained in Dominican identity, so much so that there are even two independence days. February 27 marks the end of the 22 years of Haitian occupation, and is more widely celebrated than August 16, which signals the end of 300 years of Spanish rule (with brief interruptions). I’ve had Dominican friends attribute the Dominican Republic’s Blackness solely to the presence of Haitians. When asked to explain their complexion, one friend told me it was due to Haitians raping Dominican women during the occupation — a myth perpetuated by former President Balaguer, who made it part of the curriculum of indoctrination. A small yet powerful minority of “white” Dominican elites dominated the historical narrative and conversation around identity for generations. Haitians became to Dominican identity what Russians were to US patriotism during the Cold War, or what Jews were to German nationalism in the 1930s. I often heard words like “cocolo” – a derogatory term for Black – fall from lips just as thick as mine, from people with hair as kinky as mine and skin a few shades lighter than mine.
So pervasive and intense is the anti-Blackness projected on Dominican women that they’ve become specialists in hair straightening, hence the popularity of Dominican hair salons in Black neighborhoods in New York. However, as Haitians and Dominicans increasingly interact with each other and people from other parts of the African diaspora, I note how many Dominicans, and Dominican women in particular, are reclaiming their Blackness and embracing their natural hair.
Many Dominican-Americans I know have moved away from anti-Blackness and antihaitianismo as a way to construct their Dominican identity. Instead, they’ve come to embrace their own unique brand of Africanness as a foundation for their identity. They are embracing their spiritual ties to palo and honoring ancestors. They’re increasingly understanding their role in the African diaspora and their familial bonds with the rest of us in it. They are taking ownership of their country’s cruelties toward Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent and understanding that we have far more in common than either of us had assumed. But if popular sentiment among the diaspora reflected policy at home, then both Haiti and the Dominican Republic would look a whole lot different. Both diasporas must share what we’ve learned with our families back home. Some Dominicans claim their Blackness but still defend their country’s right to expel people that have lived there for generations when ironically the Dominican Republic receives more deportees than any other Caribbean country. If they understood the dynamics behind race and criminalization here in the United States and how it affects Dominican-Americans, they could begin the work of asking themselves some hard but real questions. Ayiti-Kiskeya-Bohio, Kiskeya for short.
Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas is on view March 15 to April 29, 2018 at BRIC | Arts Media House. Join the essay writers, along with moderator Carolle Charles, Ph.D, for an in-person discussion on Saturday April 28, at 4 p.m. This program has been developed by BRIC and Haiti Cultural Exchange.