When we started talking about Haiti, my usually goofy and jocular college homeboy turned gloomy. Every word and every movement a brew of desperation and despair.
When he lived in Haiti in the 1980s, everyone seemed to be poor but at least they had food, he told me. But times have changed and folks are starving—STARVING, he yelled; starving, he continued to say with his inflection toning down.
"My father even called me asking for money," he said in a conversation that took place weeks before the April food riots in Haiti. "And he has never done that because he's the most stubborn person and the most proud person I know."
I remember asking him what he and the rest of the Haitian Diaspora was doing about the problem. The result was a long, drawn-out exchange about whether and how he could have some impact. "They will kill me," I remember him shouting at one point. "The elites will not allow me to do anything for the poor." He told me about an orphanage that was built for homeless kids. "They burnt it down with all the kids in it," he screamed in fury, all the while evoking both powerlessness and hopelessness.
I tried to emphasize that those deplorable acts were intended to take away his will to make change. "Why would you let them take away your will?" I remember asking. Back and forth we went—for hours.
Over the last few months, every time I read another headline, another article and heard another story about the dire situation in Haiti, I thought more and more about this conversation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that everything I was telling my friend that day I should have been saying to myself. Everything I was chastising the Haitian Diaspora about, I should have been chastising African Americans about as well.
Instead of asking what Haitians abroad are doing, I am now asking what African Americans are doing to lend a helping hand to Haiti? Where is our will to make change?
African Americans should be teeming with urgency to rectify the appalling situation in Haiti, not only because of our Pan-African connection, but also in tribute to the important role that Haiti plays in our own liberation narrative. During the 12-year Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791, Haitian people defeated the local white slave-owners, the soldiers of the French monarchy, an invasion by Spain, and British and French armies each with about 60,000 men—all to gain their freedom, which helped to inspire a 19th century abolitionist movement in the Americas that led to our liberty as well. As W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote, "The red revolt of Haiti struck the knell of the slave trade."
Haiti and Haitian people are part of the African-American liberation story, and black America should focus on rectifying the wrongs in Haiti. In part, we owe the Haitian people our freedom. Now, when they need more help than ever, it is time to pay up.
So what are we doing? The Congressional Black Caucus supported provisions in the Farm Bill, passed over a presidential veto recently, that is supposed to ameliorate the conditions in Haiti. But this is, at best, a short-term solution to a long-term problem created in part by America's agricultural policies, which have undermined "agriculture in developing countries." The U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund forced Haiti to cut its tariffs and destroy its local food market as a condition for accepting loans in 1986 and 1994. As one writer put it, "Globalised Haiti, no longer able to feed itself, was at the mercy of the world food prices," which have shot up recently, leading to the food crisis in Haiti.
What's needed—what African Americans should be using our political muscle to advocate for—is a program that will make Haiti self-sufficient once again. Haiti should be feeding Haiti. It seems to me that the Farm Bill will not do this, so African Americans should be applying serious pressure to create a bill that will. The desperate cries of poverty in Haiti need to be matched with demands on our government that take on a similarly fevered pitch. People in Haiti are so poor and food prices so high that they have resorted to eating dirt to stay alive. Dirt!
Let me allow you to react to that, as you think about another human being eating dirt as you read this essay. Hopefully, you feel compelled to do something. But then a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness may take away your will just like it did my friend and sometimes does me.
We must remember that these are our liberators being forced to eat dirt! The Haitian people were the flame that grew into a firestorm that burned the chains off of our four million ancestors. I will never forget that flame of humanity. African Americans should never forget that flame. We have a pressing obligation to it.
Ibram Rogers is a doctoral student in African-American studies at Temple University.