The Haitian problem
IAN G. STRACHAN
On Friday May 20th , 2011 a group of Bahamian and Haitian-Bahamian artists, hosted an art exhibit and mini musical concert in Nassau at Jacaranda House, called “Nostrum Fabula” (Latin for “Our Story”). The event was under the patronage of the Bahamian Governor General and the Haitian Ambassador to The Bahamas; the Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture also attended. Leading broadcast journalist, Jerome Sawyer, served as the master of ceremonies. It featured Bahamian folk musical artists like the Region Bells and the disc jockey alternated between Kompa and Goombay music.
An untitled art piece by Bernard Petit-Homme, a 26 year old Bahamian born of Haitian immigrant parents, served as the cover art for invitations and promotional material for the event. The image features the Bahamian and Haitian flags. The flags make up the torso of a man who is both black and white; he is silhouetted by the orange and yellow sun; his arms stretch across blue waters of the sea. In the painting Petit-Homme seeks to reconcile his Haitian and Bahamian selves and acknowledge the mixed bloodlines of many as a consequence of slavery. He crafts a celebratory message of unity and brotherhood; a message that ran like a thread throughout the entire event, at which the Bahamian and Haitian national anthems were played.
However, the spirit of unity, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect expressed at the exhibit are not shared by everyone in The Bahamas. Indeed, it is safe to say, that despite their proximity, their many shared cultural practices and a long history of relations between Haiti and The Bahamas, the attitudes of most Bahamians towards Haitians is one of resentment, suspicion or outright hostility.
The Haitian “problem” in The Bahamas is shaped by a number of factors. Haitian migrants are a crucial source of cheap, reliable, motivated labor, particularly in the agricultural sector. Increasingly, however, as the middle class shrinks and the ranks of the Bahamian working poor swell, there is growing resentment toward Haitian immigrants and their children because they are now competing for jobs deemed above their social station. Where once a Haitain only worked as a gardener, farmer, grounds keeper or “handyman”—work young Bahamian men have looked down on for the past forty years—they are now working at gas stations, in hardware stores, and gaining employment as masons and carpenters, jobs Bahamian men have dominated. Many a Bahamian contractor prefers Haitian immigrant labor to Bahamian, not simply because it is cheaper, but because it is better.
There is also the real and perceived strain on national services, such as education and health care, created by the immigrant influx. And there are national security concerns, fed by the fear of Haitian immigrants “violent” people. Added to this are Bahamians’ fears of cultural erasure, and political/economic displacement due to the perception of Haitians as a lurking enemy intent on “taking over.” All of these factors make the Haitian-Bahamian encounter a vexed one; one that reveals class, color and ethnic fault lines.
The often bigoted public discourse in newspapers, on radio and television speak to the volatility of the situation. For a time I would cut out the more virulent letters to the editor I came across in the papers. One of the most memorable was entitled “Haitians Attract Flies.” The most recent was blaming the devastating quake in Haiti on devil worship. I grew up with certain received notions about the Haitian people; they have been the butt of jokes my whole life. There was no greater insult among us as children than to be called Highshun. There is a stigma attached to Haitian origins; a social/ethnic blemish that many young people try to hide because of the stinging ridicule and contempt heaped on them through no fault of their own. I remember a young man at COB who insisted on Anglicizing his name in my class and others who tolerated all sorts of mispronunciations because they at least didn’t sound French.
In this uneasy climate, many Bahamian artists attempt to resist the stereotyping of the Haitian people. Artists such as John Cox, John Beadle, Jackson Petit-Homme, Maxwell Taylor, and Eric Ellis, and writers such as myself, Telcine Turner-Rolle, Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, Keith Russell, Nicolette Bethel and others have attempted to prick the conscience of Bahamian society. My play “Diary of Souls” was a fictional treatment of a true event; the tragic death of Haitian refugees at sea in the Exumas in 1990. Sadly, these tragedies have been happening for a very, very long time and still happen.
At stake is the very notion of what it means to be a Bahamian. Haitian immigration challenges the core values/ideals of the Bahamian state, putting the people and the nation on trial, and calling international attention to the question of just how committed The Bahamas is to freedom, equality and justice for all.
But we are an itsy bitsy country. We cannot possibly be expected to have an open door policy. We have the right to protect our borders from illegal entry. We are not the continental United States or Canada; we are specs on the world map. And even in a nation the size of the US, illegal immigration from Mexico and further south is the source of heated debate and conflict.
But though we may protect our borders, Haitian immigrants and those of Haitian descent are here to stay. We may not all want them here but all need them here. We need them, as we have always needed immigrants, to help build our country by doing the things we can’t or won’t do. It makes no sense to drive a wedge between them and us, to create a hated, disenfranchised underclass.
The reality is that our citizenship laws ensure the imperilment, not the protection, of The Bahamas. Disenfranchising a person for 18 years or more, while they await entry into the exclusive club of Bahamian citizenship, creates frustration, shame, anger, alienation and bitterness in the hearts thousands of young people who know, have, and want no other home but this one. It’s simply inhumane, short sighted and stupid.
If we cannot bring ourselves to make citizenship automatic upon one’s birth for all those born here, we should at least amend the constitution to lower the eligibility date. Why not 10 years old instead of 18? Avoid creating frustrated stateless teens that can’t get scholarships, can’t fully participate in national life.
Of course, there’s always the other option. While picking up my son from school, a gentleman who was also waiting for a child, told me he had the solution to the Haitian problem. “I would blow their boats right out of the water when we find them.” And then he proceeded to carefully lovingly take a child’s hand and lead her out of the school yard.
IAN STRACHAN is Associate Professor at the College of The Bahamas.
Jun 02, 2011