Starting with Second

NOTE: This original piece was inspired by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s exceptional TED Talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”. Having first been written in 2013 for a graduate course in international planning, this essay has been edited and formatted for this platform. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes were made by Miss Adichie.

Cover Photo Credit: Alexis Hannah Fogel

I am the proud son of Haitian parents. My mother was from the capital of Haïti, Port-au-Prince, and my father was from Cap-Haïtien (or Okap). Mom and Pop had their first child, my older sister, in Haïti before coming to the United States where they then had my younger brother and myself. Growing up in Queens, New York, I never really considered myself as anything else but Haitian. It was the only thing I knew. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by our people and our rich culture – at home, at school, at church, walking the streets of Jamaica Queens, NY. Growing up in such a culturally saturated environment, it wasn’t until much later that I became aware of other “black” cultures. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t see other black people other than Haitians. Rather, at my young age, I was not privy to all the labels we have for different racial and ethnic groups and I didn’t think much of it. In fact, to be quite blunt, I couldn’t care less about the minutia of demography: we were all black, as far as my juvenile mind was concerned. Throughout my formative years, as I learned more about the variances between ethnic groups within the larger “black family”, I came to realize that they had their own stories, stories that often began with “secondly”. Admittedly, I could say that this was a bit of a “culture shock” for me. It was just different. It was new.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

With this cultural enlightenment also came the exposure as to how other “black folk”, and other ethnic groups, perceived Haitians. I can recall many slick comments and jokes aimed at my direction because I was Haitian. It was all in good fun, mind you. After all, I dished out my fair share of zingers to some of my friends as well. That’s the way my generation grew up. Teasing and bullying were very much the norm; nothing but a healthy dose of pubescent banter. It builds character. Things have changed quite a bit since then.

Looking back now, however, I can’t help but think about how these stereotypes were, and still are, fueled by that “single story” of Haitians. How many of those stereotypes carried over from the “jokes” and “jabs” from our younger years? Countless times, I’ve heard comments about voodoo, referencing the extremely strong influence this religion has within the Haitian culture, and the assumption that every Haitian practices it. I feel this tends to be the most common or the most perpetuated stigma associated with my people and one of universal ire. Countless times, I’ve heard comments about how Haitians are “boat people”, a reference to how some Haitians come to America on rafts and makeshift flotation devices seeking a better life than the one left behind in their native land. Many jokes were made about how you could tell how “Haitian” someone was by the amount of “salt” behind their ears in or their hair. Sarcasm and wit in its purest form, I say sarcastically. Countless times, I’ve heard comments about how “dumb” or “stupid” Haitians are, referencing the overall poor quality of education, or the complete lack thereof, in some cases, that many Haitians have. Some have come to the United States and literally do not know how to read or write. Countless times, I’ve heard comments or remarks stating how someone “doesn’t look Haitian”, referencing the perception that all Haitian people are dark skinned or “black.” That last one tends to strike an extremely sensitive and angry chord by many Haitians, particularly those of my generation, who are mixed. It’s gotten to a point where being Haitian is almost an insult.

“Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.”

It’s not to say that none of these stereotypes aren’t true because they are. Voodoo is huge in the Haitian culture and is widely practiced by a significant portion of the country! I’ve heard many stories from my parents about things they’ve seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. Such stories were more than enough to frighten a young child. Many of my people have come to the United States by way of boat and many of them do not know how to read or write. True, there are some of us who don’t “look” the part; we are not “black”. I once met a young, Haitian woman who I refused to believe was Haitian even after she told me. I demanded that she say something to me in our native tongue to validate her claim. When she finally spoke to me in kréyòl, I just stood there, agape, like a fool. She was mixed, part Haitian and part German. She was fair skinned, had green eyes, and smooth, flowing, golden-brown hair. I honestly couldn’t believe she was Haitian. All my life I had been around Haitians but they had always been within a designated pigmentation range, with little to no variation. I would have never guessed that this young lady was Haitian! It’s not to say that there are no beautiful, dark skinned Haitian women. All evidence to the contrary! I just found it hard to believe that she could be Haitian.

Therein lies the danger. Perceptions about a certain ethnic or racial group, often incomplete, tend to venture into and solidify themselves in the realm of reality, often false, which then dictates our attitudes towards and treatment of them, often terrible. Stereotypes are addicting because they are based on truth, in many cases, exaggerated truths. They come under the guise of pure, honest fun because we can see them with our own eyes. But do we ever think about how those stereotypes work on our subconscious minds? Do we ever wonder if they lock us into thinking and perceiving in incomplete or fragmented sentences? I had been so conditioned to seeing my people in a particular way that when I met one that didn’t fit the box I had created, I didn’t know what else to do but deny it and question its legitimacy; question my own culture and history. Even I, much like Miss Adichie admitted, fell victim to the “single story” or the single perception of my own people. There’s nothing funny about that.

“How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power.”

The media plays a major role in the single stories that perpetuate our society. Have you seen how Haïti has been covered during Hurricane Matthew? What has been said? What hasn’t been said? In a globalized world, cameras and satellites connect places that have long been “hidden” from us. Unfortunately, the images that we see usually portray a part of the story and, more often than not, it’s not pretty. The media networks that show these images are tied to the major powers of the world. I think primarily of the United States, who has a shady and corrupt history of foreign policy and “aide” regarding Haïti. The people in power are the ones telling the story; they are the ones who are writing our history books, as that old adage says. History is told by the victors. So, we continue to see the bad side of Haïti, the ugly side of Haïti; they side that they want us to see. When the earthquake hit in 2010, our televisions and computers were saturated with images and videos showing flooded streets, decimated buildings, homeless people, lifeless bodies, and extreme poverty. That’s all anyone could talk about. What you don’t hear is how the damage could’ve or should’ve been reduced, or altogether avoided, if we had the resources to build better buildings and more resilient infrastructure. What you don’t hear is how Haïti has been exploited for years by Western powers. How often, though, do we see, talk or hear about the good side of Haïti, the beautiful side of Haïti?

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

Few people know that Haïti was once called “La Perle des Antilles” (The Pearl of the Antilles) because of its tropical climate and natural beauty. Haïti was the prized jewel of the French Empire, a source of great wealth for them during their colonial occupation. How is it that we went from one of the wealthiest and attractive French colonies to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? We, the very first black republic in history and the very first successful slave revolution? That’s not an accident, friends. That’s not “bad luck”.

Few people know that news of this revolution spread to the United States and caused the whites there to worry that the same would happen within their own borders. Few people know that an influential figure in W.E.B. DuBois, a well know author in Alexandre Dumas and the founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, all have Haïti in their blood. Few people know that Haitians are by nature built to endure pain and suffering and are thus extremely resilient and thick skinned. Few people realize that’s why Haitians are so stubborn and hardheaded! This part of the narrative gets left out more often than not. All we are left with are the images depicting a sad, helpless and marginalized people. Oh, and children who eat trees.

“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.”

As a trained architect and urban planner, I tend to look at the world through infrastructure and the built environment. I think about rebuilding broken communities, revitalizing declining cities, and improving water quality and health services. Essentially, I tend to focus on the cosmetics of a community, the superficial elements. I feel this is the same approach we all tend to have towards Haïti, especially post-earthquake, and much of the developing world. We get bombarded by poverty pornography – the graphic images we see in the media of people, usually children, in less than favorable situations, either dead or dying, with little clothing on their bodies and even less food in their stomachs.

Our first thought is to “save” these people and we rush to donate our money or our time to some cause working to ameliorate the lives of the marginalized. We think it enough to give a faceless child a piece of bread or a shirt to wear. While this is not entirely a bad thing, we seldom take the next step, or the first step, and ask how or why these people are living in these conditions. We begin their stories by “secondly”. We see Haitians living in extreme poverty, made worse by the 2010 earthquake, and we don’t stop to ask how this came to be. We do not ask about the colonial occupation of the French, the period of slavery that ensued and the psychological and social damage it has done to Haitians, much like many other countries that have fallen victim to colonialism. We don’t ask how or why there exists tensions between the classes and between those who are fair skinned, or mulatto, and those who are dark skinned. We don’t ask how or why Haitians are still suffering from imperialistic foreign policies and occupation from countries such as the United States, Canada and France. We just accept the images we see as truths, or the complete story, and form our opinions and decisions from them.

Our picture, however, is incomplete.
Our story is being told in fragments.
Our story is not being told from the beginning.
Our story is not being told by us.
Our story is being told for us.

“If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and start with Secondly.'”
— Mourid Barghouti, Palestinian poet