By Chantalle F. Verna, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History and International Relations, LACC Associated Faculty Member
Born and raised in Caribbean-centered Queens, N.Y., my family encouraged me to be proud of my Haitian origins. By the time I was nine years old, I was well into the habit of identifying as Haitian-American. I celebrated my roots in a culture with amazing food, music, dance, stories, and art. I cherished having a beautiful place where I could enjoy Carnival and tropical summers. Many people around the world celebrate the richness of Haitian culture. At the same time, many lament the challenges that Haitians face on a daily basis, whether it is combating ignorant representations of Haitians in the media, establishing quality governance in Haiti, and relatedly, ensuring that the basic needs of Haiti’s majority are met. In the wake of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and weeks of aftershocks in Haiti, the need to recognize the richness that already resides in Haiti and to adequately address the needs of Haitian society are greater than ever before.
During my many childhood visits to Haiti in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I too struggled to understand scenes and circumstances that surrounded me while in Port-au-Prince: Why were so many smiley-faced white men and women gathered alongside us at the airport eager to enter the country? Why were there Haitian children begging at our car window? Why was my mother shhhhh-ing me when I asked her questions about Haitian society while standing openly in the capital city streets?
Some of the silence around these and other questions seemed to break in 1986 when then-Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted from power. But, the frequent political turnover in the late 1980s and 1990s still led me to join the impatient and frustrated chorus: “Again?,” I would ask, with a sinking heart. “When will we ever get it right?”
It would take nearly two decades before I began to seriously search for and find more satisfying explanations for the realities that were so unsettling about my homeland. And, perhaps more importantly, it would take that long before I began to ask questions that didn’t oversimplify Haitian history and society.
My opportunity for new knowledge emerged when I began my graduate studies in history in 1997. As my professors introduced me to the intersections between African American, Caribbean and Latin American history, I kept finding myself face to face with Haiti. I began to discover that the intersections were not simply driven by race. Rather, studying Haitian history soon meant understanding U.S. American history, French and British history, and gradually, I recognized, world history. Those intersecting histories included the engagement of Haitians in political debates and revolutions around the world during the 18th and 19th centuries, the prominence of Haitian commodities in the 19th century world economy, and the participation of Haitians as founding members of international organizations such as the present-day Organization of American States and the United Nations.
In becoming aware of these historical links, I have come to understand that the “we” in “When will we ever get it right?,” is not simply about Haitians in Haiti or Haitians abroad. We is the entire world. Many of present-day Haiti’s most pressing challenges echo issues that we grapple with here in the United States, as do other communities around the globe: how to provide opportunities for education, employment, health, and shelter across social classes; how to plan the development of our urban, suburban and rural communities; how to ensure that our governments remain accountable to the interests of all citizens not just the wealthy and well-connected; how to respect diverse sources of knowledge not simply privileged North Atlantic traditions; and how to value the contributions of our society’s laborers, as we do our professionals and capital investors. Working with Haitians for solutions in Haiti holds the potential for identifying solutions across the world, including here in the United States.
When the world stops looking at Haiti with eyes of pity and begins looking at Haiti with eyes of possibility, true collaboration and positive change can really take place. While there certainly are an abundance of resources and many knowledgeable people from abroad who can contribute positively to Haitian society, these resources and experts must work in collaboration with the resources and expertise that already exists in Haiti. The greatest challenges following the earthquake are less about funding and physical reconstruction, and more about maintaining open and respectful dialogue with a cross-section of individuals from Haiti and the international community. This cross-section of individuals should include established leaders from the public and private sector, as well as lesser-known figures and ordinary citizens whose voices and visions are central to any successful and sustainable redevelopment project.
At this dawn of a new era in Haitian society, much remains to be discovered and better understood in order to fully appreciate Haiti, in general and in relationship to the larger world. We can each identify those possibilities by pursuing ties to Haiti that relate to our respective passions. For me, some of the most important resources for further understanding Haiti are in the underutilized and undervalued collections of Haiti’s public and private libraries and archives, which I first explored as a graduate student in the summer of 2001. Scholars and lay persons alike commonly ask me, “Is there anything in Haiti worth consulting?” The question is an extension of widespread presumptions about “poverty” and “lack” in Haitian society. The gems of knowledge in Haiti’s libraries and archives are a metaphor for the richness, abundance, and positive developments already present in Haiti.
In 2001, I made it my charge to affiliate with individuals and institutions who would help to support the efforts of Haitian citizens and public administrators who for decades have been working to preserve and provide access to Haiti’s public, congregational and family collections. This led me to begin serving as an advisory board member to the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) in 2005. The Digital Library is a dynamic project administered by FIU and the University of Florida, in conjunction with academic, library and archival partners in the United States and across the Caribbean. The National Archives of Haiti was a founding partner in this project, established in 2004; and, since, several other Haitian libraries and archives have joined the project making Haiti one of dLOC’s leading and most active partners.
Today, the vision which came to me in the summer of 2001 is now an evermore urgent mandate to respond to the post-earthquake needs of Haiti’s libraries and archives. While the four main patrimonial libraries and archives remained standing (despite a range of visible damage) immediately after the earthquake, the heads of these institutions continue to work diligently to complete formal assessments of the structures and their contents. These assessments will allow for a locally-driven and internationally-supported approach to helping to preserve the collections and bring the libraries and archives back into service for the long-term. Through my work with dLOC, I am able to contribute to a multi-institutional and international effort that is helping to secure the future of Haiti’s cultural patrimony, a source of world knowledge. As a faculty member at FIU, I am able to use this knowledge to create unique learning opportunities for students; to guide Florida public school teachers on how they can develop their own courses; and to share such knowledge with the larger community through speaking, writing, and public history projects.
In these settings, individuals who receive their education from FIU or participate in FIU-affiliated programs remain ahead of the curve when Haiti is thrust into the headlines and the world finds itself seeking answers to critical questions about Haiti — critical questions that when we begin to explore carefully can also teach us so much about our own assumptions and our own societies. These are professional experiences that allow me to be proud not simply of being Haitian-American, but also to be proud of being a professor at FIU.