NOTE: All quotes, unless specified otherwise, were made by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I’ve just finished watching Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, an amazing discourse on the dangers of only seeing a person, or a group of people, in a single light and the ills that are perpetuated by that sort of thinking. We are all susceptible to single stories; no one is immune. It takes a concerted effort to pry away from the habit of subjecting oneself to a single story. Whilst watching this TED talk and hearing Miss Adichie’s recollection of some of her own experiences as a Nigerian woman in America, I found myself thinking about the “single stories” in relation to my own people: Haitians.
I am the son of Haitian parents. My mother was from the capital of Haïti, Port-au-Prince, and my father was from Cap-Haïtien. My parents had their first child, my sister, in Haïti before coming to the United States where they then had my younger brother and myself. He and I are first generation Americans. Growing up in Queens, New York, I never really considered myself as anything else but a Haitian. It was the only thing I knew. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by our people and our rich culture. At home, Haitians. At school, Haitians. At church, Haitians. Retrospectively, I’m fairly certain that, even though I was born and raised in this country, English was not my first language. At home, when speaking to our parents, we primarily spoke in Haitian Creole or kréyòl ayisyen, as it is called in our language. We also spoke in French, Haïti’s other national language, but it was mostly with my father. He felt and often said that speaking French was symbolic of one who was educated, one who was an intellectual. So, he definitely enforced the learning and speaking of French within our home.
Growing up in such a culturally saturated environment, it wasn’t until much later that I became aware of other “black” cultures. I wasn’t conscious of what an “African-American” was. I didn’t think much of it. To be quite blunt, I couldn’t care less about the minutia of demography: we were all black, as far as my young mind was concerned. I wouldn’t say that this was a “culture shock” for me, by any means. It was just…different. With this cultural enlightenment also came the exposure 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; nothing but a healthy dose of pubescent banter. It builds character.
“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.”
Looking back now, however, I can’t help but think about how these stereotypes were, and still are, fueled by the “single story” of Haitians. Countless times, I’ve heard comments about voodoo, referencing the extremely strong influence this religion has within the Haitian culture, and it’s almost assumed 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”, people that come to America on rafts and makeshift flotation devices seeking a better life than the one they 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. Truthfully, I’ve made some of these jokes as well. 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 practiced by about half of the country! I’ve heard many stories from my parents, who never practiced voodoo, 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. There are many Haitians that don’t “look” the part. They are not “black.” I knew a young, Haitian woman who, even after she told me, I refused to believe was Haitian. I even demanded that she say something to me in our native tongue to validate her claim! When she finally spoke to me in kréyòl, I was floored! She was mixed, part Haitian and part German, and was extremely beautiful. She was fair skinned, had green eyes and smooth, flowing, brown hair. I couldn’t believe she was Haitian! I would have never guessed she 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. Even I, much like Miss Adichie, fell victim to the “single story” or the single perception of my own people.
“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 flood our society. 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 the pretty side. 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 regarding Haïti. The people in power are the ones telling the story; they are the ones who are writing our history books. So, we continue to see the bad side of Haïti, the ugly side of Haïti. When the earthquake hit in 2010, our televisions and computers were flooded with images and videos showing flooded streets, decimated buildings, homeless people, lifeless bodies, extreme poverty and the like. How often, though, do we see 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. Few people know that Haitians were the very first black republic in history and the very first successful slave revolution. Not only did we end slavery in Haïti, with no outside help, but we got rid of French occupation completely! 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.
“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.”
Whenever I think of development, I tend to think of infrastructure and the built environment. That’s the trained architect in me speaking out. I think about rebuilding broken communities and revitalizing declining cities, paving roads, improving water quality and health services. Essentially, I focus on the cosmetics of development, 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 sucked into the graphic images we see in the media of people in less than favorable situations, either dead or dying, with little clothing on their bodies and even less food in their stomachs, referred to by some as poverty pornography. 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, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, 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 yes, 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.
Development, progress and freedom for my people and my country will not come only in the form of the revitalization of hard and soft infrastructure, but in the decolonization of the mind.
“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