Edwidge Danticat (Plough) reflects on the legacy of Martin Luther King in the framework of the 50th anniversary of his assassination. She speaks about Haiti, stigma, the plight of immigrants, and the courage it takes to act with what Dr. King called “dangerous unselfishness.” See full article and illustrations by Haitian artists Yvan Lamothe and Roberson Joseph at Plough. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]
[. . .] In April of that same year, the United States had invaded the Dominican Republic over fears of communist expansion in the region. “We inundated that small nation with overwhelming force, shocking the world with our zealousness and naked power,” Dr. King said of the invasion of Haiti’s closest neighbor. “With respect to South Africa, however, our protest is so muted and peripheral it merely mildly disturbs the sensibilities of the segregationists, while our trade and investments substantially stimulate their economy to greater heights.”
He called for the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and other nations to boycott South Africa: “No real national interest impels us to be cautious, gentle, or a good customer of a nation that offends the world’s conscience.” The world’s conscience, he seemed to suggest, should be offended by all types of injustice, no matter the victim nor the source. As he said in December 1965, “The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains.”
I thought of those words on January 11 of this year, on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. I might not have been thinking of that particular speech, had the president of the United States not been reported to have called El Salvador, Haiti, and countries in Africa “shithole countries.” A few weeks before that, the president was reported to have said that all Haitians have AIDS and that forty thousand Nigerian visa recipients would never “go back to their huts” after seeing the United States. On a day when we were supposed to be mourning our dead, Haitians and Haitian-Americans found ourselves responding to the president on whatever platform was available to us – radio, television, newspapers, the streets, and social media.
On January 12, an earthquake commemoration procession starting in a square with a statue of the Haitian independence hero Toussaint L’Ouverture in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood turned into a demonstration with Haitian men, women, and children decrying the president’s alleged racist remarks. Haitian Ambassador Paul Altidor, who just weeks earlier had published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Our Country Deserves Your Respect, Not Your Pity,” made several television appearances reminding American viewers that Haiti and the United States were the first two republics in the Western Hemisphere, that the two countries had strong historical ties, and that Haitian soldiers fought alongside American troops in the Revolutionary War. Ambassador Altidor also highlighted the contributions of Haitians and Haitian-Americans to today’s America, as hotel workers, taxi drivers, teachers, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and medical and military personnel. He mentioned that the first non-Native American settler of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was of Haitian descent. As was W. E. B. Du Bois, the African-American intellectual and founder of the NAACP. During an address at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1968, on what would have been Du Bois’s hundredth birthday, Dr. King called Du Bois “one of the most remarkable men of our time.” “Dr. Du Bois was not only an intellectual giant exploring the frontiers of knowledge, he was in the first place a teacher,” Dr. King said that night. “One idea he insistently taught was that black people have been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies that depicted them as inferior.” [. . .]
[Image above: Roberson Joseph, Hurricane, acrylic on canvas, 2017.]