Haitian Ambassador Paul Altidor wants Americans to help him dispel the notion that Haiti, the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere, is rife with disaster and always has her hand out for aid. But Haiti experts say Altidor faces an uphill battle on changing the island’s image in the United States.
Altidor spent the District’s first-ever Haiti Week in May educating the public about Haiti’s contributions and enlisting residents to help him correct misperceptions about the island, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
In this April 27, 2017 photo, students at the Hoteliere D’Haiti chef school julienne carrots in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In recent years a new generation of Haitian chefs here and abroad has begun reimagining the country’s cuisine.(AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
“No more ‘Haitians are eating trees,’ we don’t eat trees in Haiti,’” Altidor said, alluding to controversial comments made in 2016 by a Weather Channel host to explain deforestation on the island. “As part of this movement, the next time somebody says this, whether it’s the Weather Channel, whether it’s on CNN, I’m asking you guys to ask them to take it back.”
That won’t be enough, said Elizabeth Ferris, a research professor in the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. The embassy should specifically reach out to Americans who have been to Haiti.
“If I were designing a strategy to change the narrative for Americans, I would focus on the dynamic Haitian-American community and the vibrant Haitian art scene,” Ferris said via email. “Many Americans who have traveled to Haiti come away with lasting positive impressions of the people.”
Chantalle Verna, an associate professor of history and international relations at Florida International University, applauded the ambassador’s efforts, and cautions against putting out positive narratives that romanticize and oversimplify Haiti. People on the island face real issues, including rape, violence and food insecurity. In addition, the island has been demonized since slavery, she noted.
“We do want to celebrate and recognize the depth and the complexity of the Haitian experience,” said Verna, who is Haitian American. “Let’s not just celebrate our fashion and our food and our music and our art, but let’s also celebrate our ingenuity, our intellect our critical eye in understanding the issues that are taking place, and the people who are living on the island.”
In May, the embassy of Haiti teamed up with Busboys and Poets to offer an entire week of cultural exchanges centered on supporting Haitian entrepreneurs, the arts, cooking lessons, intellectual panel discussions with leaders and intellectuals of Haitian descent, and more. The events took place in various locations, including the embassy, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Busboys and Poets. The movement culminates with a trip to Haiti this summer, and the embassy will continue its outreach to the public.
“Haiti, it’s very rich in history and culture and everyone talks about ‘Let’s give to Haiti,’ but Haiti has really given so much to the world,” Byrd said. “That really resonated with Andy .”
Scholars, thought leaders and historians unpacked the deep ties between Haitians and African Americans. Haiti’s successful revolution against French slaveholders for its independence from France in 1804 is said to have inspired various slave insurrections in the United States.
In the 1930s, American artists and writers, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, went on fellowships to Haiti to immerse themselves in the culture, said Joanne Hyppolite, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Hurston wrote her famous novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” while she was in Haiti.
In the 1940s and 1950s, an increasing number of Black tourists visited Haiti and found themselves received with care and a level of sophistication, which made them reflect on how poorly they were treated in the U.S., said Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University. “That experience of understanding that Blackness has a different definition across borders is so fundamental in the strategies that African Americans used in the Civil Right Movement,” Chatelain said.
People of Haitian descent have been contributing to the U.S. for centuries – according to the 2009 American Community Survey. According to the survey, 830,000 Haitians call the U.S. home.
Several Haitians have influenced American culture, geography and politics, such as Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, who founded the city of Chicago in the 1800s; W.E.B. DuBois, who helped establish the NAACP in the early part of the 20th century; and Wyclef Jean, who helped revolutionize hip-hop. U.S. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) became the first Haitian-American woman and the first Black female Republican elected to the U.S. Congress.
“We’re been part of this fabric of this country for a long time,” Altidor said. “We’re not passing through here.”