Nurturing our Youth with Knowledge of Haitian History
Nurturing our Youth with Knowledge of Haitian History Keynote Address at Halo’s2nd Annual Unity ConventionMarch 3, 2007
Thank you for the privilege of addressing you this afternoon. I would liketo start by thankingDr. Gousse and the entire leadership of HALOfor their efforts in creating this organization. I think as a community we have already begun to reap the benefits of HALO. I’m sure that there are many heretoday who have already extended their network of friendsthrough their participation in the HALO conventions.I was here last year when Ms. Gepsie Mettelus gave an uplifting keynote address, and although at the timeI could not have imagined that I would be asked to follow inher footsteps,I can tell you honestly that speaking before you today is a lot easier because of Ms. Mettelus’ fine example.
After her speech, I walked up to her and gave her a copy of the book I wrote Bicentennial: Haiti’s Gift to the World not knowing that it is for writing that very book that I would be given the honor of addressing you today. In looking at you in the audience, I know you are active in various disciplines, I known many of you are or will become leaders in your field and I look forward to being in the audience listening to your keynote addresses in years to come.
Many many years ago, when I first came to this country as an immigrant child, I was painfully shy and ill at ease when interacting with American peers.My classmates would look at the teacher in the eyes and in Haiti we do not do this. Timoun pa kale je yo lan je granmoun. My behavior was different from theirs. Maybe I did not have some social skills. Certainly I could not speak English, I turned to books.Fortunately my friendship with bookswould proveto be an advantage – it made me literate in standard English. I did not have many friends, but I quickly learned toread and to write English well enough to pass all the important school literacy tests. ( Back in those days in New York, these literacy tests were called Regents Exams but they were not punitive, high stakes tests like today’s FCATs- You didn’t get left back because you didn’t pass a Regents- they were simply assessments used strictly to measure eachstudent’s level of literacy in math , science, history, etc...)
Literacy.It is is a very loaded and important word in our society. A word that demands that we pause for a moment to reflect upon its meaning. In the US south, literacy tests were a barrier used to bar some people fromvoting. These practices had to be repealed before paving the road for all people to be able to cast their vote. In Haiti, I have seen people denied access to literacy and later the society turn against them and use literacy as a measure of worth. What does it mean to be literate? And of what value is your literacy? Some people would have me believe that my little seven year old boy is now a more valuable person because he now has become literate- he can read and write- Well if this is the case, does that mean that when I gave birth to him, he was a beast? analfabèt implies bèt? Where did this idea come from? Since when did knowing how to read and write become the measure of a person’s worth? Or the measure of a person’s value as a human being? Having been schooled is a reflection of having enjoyed some social privilege. It is in no way a measure of your intrinsic human worth.
Consider this: The mostcourageous and brilliant generation of Haitianslived at a time whenaccessto literacy was denied to all but a handful who were sent to France to be schooled. During 200 years of colonial rule, the French did not build a single school or university on the island.The literacy rate of therichest colony on earth wasperhaps less than 5%.Today, at best, the literacy rate in Haiti is about 50%. We ‘ve made progress. (Let me repeat this fact) The most courageous and brilliant generation of Haitians lived at a time when literacy was denied toall people of African descent- by law.And it was this same generation ofso called illiterate Haitians who made the Haitian Revolution. These people had to think of a way out of slavery. They had to motivate and organize and communicate with others to form alliances. They had to make important decisions that determined whether they would live or die.And they had to solve a number of problems from how to forge a new society to how to protect themselves against re-enslavement by the “literate” and dangerous superpowers surrounding their nation. Unfortunately, we do not repeat this fact often enough. Instead we say Haiti was the Pearl of the Antilles.French colonist broke our great-grand-parents back, thousands died at work and were replaced with newcomers. This was done to generate fabulous wealth for France. For our forefathers Haiti was really the Pain of the Antilles. No other island received more Africans. No other island killed more Africans.
Haitian history therefore truly begs the question:What does it mean to be literate? And of what value is your literacy ?Of what value is literacywhen you haveliterate people usingliteracy as a tool to deny others their land, their rights, their liberty, theirhumanity?Of what value is literacy when salesman uses it to defraud people of their homes? Of what value is literacy when you have politiciansusing literacy as a barrier to deny people the right to vote?Of what value is literacy when you have adults, who should know better, using literacy as a weapontoparalize children and crush their self esteem? ( I’ve heard of horror stories of students being held back 3 times for failing the FCAT literacy test. Can we really allow this to happen to our children? If a system fails, we need to look for another intervention.)
Haitian history informs us thatliteracy must be rooted in more than just mere understanding of reading and writing.It has to have a broader meaning that includes the understanding of the fundamental worth of every human being. Many of our forefathers and foremothers were not readers and writers, yet they had this essential understanding of the intrinsic worth of all people. They understood that there was one humanity and that all the members of that human family were of equal value regardless of ethnicity,wealth, or literacy.
Emperor Jean Jacques Dessalinesknew without the benefits of a bachelors degree or a PHD that we were all equal-Tout Ayisyen, kèlkeswa koule yo, nanchon yo, se yon sèl ras.Today, 200 years later, the scientific community and DNA evidence support Dessalines’ position. Today we know that the pale skin of anorthern European or a northern Asian is simply an environmental adaptation, and not a badge of superiority or inferiority.
Dessalines, who some historians considered“illiterate”, valued everyone exceptslaveowners. He made slaveowning a crime in Haiti -punishable by death. If you were a French slaveowner, you were considered a terroristwho merited capital punishment. Dessalines established security, prosperity, and human rightsas top priorities of his government and for doing the right thing, he has had a lasting legacy. Today, 200 years later,we can hear echoes of Emperor Dessalines' ideas in the voice ofMr. Kofi Annan who before leaving hisU. N. position as the leader of our global community, offered these parting words: ·In today’s world, we are responsible for each others’s security- This responsibility includes our shared responsibility to protect people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity… ·We are responsible for each other’s welfare- We have to give all our fellow human beingsat least a chance to share in our prosperity. ·Both security and prosperity depend on respect for human rights and the rule of law. If our communities are to live in peace, we must stress (also) what unites us: our common humanity and the need for our human dignity and rights to be protected by law. No community suffers from too much rule of law; many suffer from too little… Security, Prosperity, Human Rights.The Secretary General reminds us that these are central principles in our global community.Emperor Dessalines had the wisdom and the vision to establish them as priorities200 years ago. What does this tell us aboutDessaline’sliteracy and our own?Perhaps onelessonis this: literacy is not intelligence.Bèl Franse pa lespri...
It saddens me to know that there are many individuals who want to teach our youthto reject their African roots. Surely,“literacy”cannot mean the replacement of one culture with another. Can you imagine that in 2007, we would still have to combat REJÈT? If people want something to reject, there is so much in our world that is in need of change.We canencourage our youth toreject drugs,reject crime,reject ignorance, reject racism, reject sexism , reject isolation,reject apathy, reject the holding of restavèks, reject kidnapings. But surely, do not reject your culture.
Many of us are very proud of our Ginen ancestors. Afrik Ginen is the cradle of all of humanity. When I used to teach,I had a picture of Africa and her children in my classroom.In the picture,Africa’s children form a rainbow above her, and she, the kind mother/ racine of all humanity beams with pride, smiling at her progeny.In a normal world not distorted by racism and ignorance, all of Africa’s children would care for her well-being. Haitians would not be the only ones singing the praises ofGinen. The entire planet would join in the chorus andjoin hands to care for and protect the continent that gave birth to mankind. But this doesn’t happen because many want to distance themselvesfrom a continent that isregarded as “illiterate” and poor. Haiti too is regarded as “illiterate” and poor. There are thosewho believe that poverty in Haiti exists because we hang on too tightly to our African culture. ( My daughter easily refutes this by saying Oprah hangs on to African culture and she’s rich.)Nonetheless in the minds of many, it is Africa that is holding us back, In their minds,poverty has nothing to do withour history ofbeing enslaved and exploited.Poverty is just something that happens to people who honor African Lwas like Èzili or Haitian heroes like Boukmann.
Let me address this misconception by saying first of all “ malere pa dezonè”. Most Haitians and Americanshavegreath faith in a poor family they callJezi-Mari- Joseph. They know there is no shame in being poor. The real shame is in not knowing what brought about thepoverty.We need to make it clear to our children that we have been the victims of a great theft.The thieves who stole our rights and declared us to be their property, have never been fully held accountable except by Papa Dessalines. They stole us, sold us, and worked us without pay to create great wealth for themselves. They borrowed from banks using our familyas collateral.They even extorted money from our nation.Today, if we are not as wealthy as some of the descendants of those slaveowners, perhaps it is because , unlike them, we havenot pillaged and violated the rights of others. We must recognize that past wrongdoing have an impact on our lives today.
We are not screaming victimization. Rather we recognize history and its impact for what it is.We know we must pick ourselves up and solve today’s problem in full recognition of how we got here. Our forefathers won against greater odds and today we must win our fight against poverty in Haiti and improve our lives.
Regardless of her poverty, Haiti will always be the mother of liberty and equality. It is the first modern nation to abolishslavery, the black code, le code noire, and to uphold the universal rights of all people. Haiti’s moral code rooted in liberty and equality for all has become universally accepted.In reviewing our history, we can look upon our contributions to humanity with pride. We have a proven track record of upholding the dignity of the poor, and of the oppressed . Our nation is a symbol againstracism, injustice, and inhumanity. Today, we need onlyto build upon the solid foundation that our ancestors established.
Leaving Haiti and looking at the United States, we see thathistory has left its scar here as well.According to somerecent statistics, approximately 50% of American children of African ancestry live in households in which one parent is missing.With lesssupport, the children in these families are less likely to succeed. These children need individuals and institutions to help fill the gap created by their less than ideal circumstances.
When we come to the US, it is primarily in African-American communities that we settle. Their neighborhoods are where we make our homes. Although we benefit from their welcoming, we also inherit their problems. Although we have had friction in these communities, we too call them home. The diminished achievement in academic performance in some of our communities is not acceptable. This is why I have been glad to see HALO step in and provide mentorship at our local schools.
African-American children areless likely to do well in school. They are more likely to not to be able to read and write standard English. Haitian-American students invariably end up having the same difficulties as their African-American peers. Sometime the language barriers are even more difficult for the Haitian students because they have tonavigate through4 different ways of speaking:Creole, French, Hip Hop English, and Standard English. A broader definition of literacy, that includes appreciation of a number of talents would probably be beneficial to all students . The term multimedialiteracyexamines literacy from a multitude of perspectives including knowledge of music, art , graphics, dance,sound,and text. Some studentsalso demonstratecertain skills that cannot be easily measured using a literacytest.
Two years ago, Edison studentsmade history.Withcourage and determination, they tolddecision makers in Floridaa simple message:Don’t shut downschools. Shut down drug houses, liquor stores,andgun shops--- butshuttingour school isnot an option. Theycommunicated this message soloud and so clear, it was published by the Miami Herald! Theymobililized and organized their community and motivated the decision makers to keep their school open. They achieved their goal and made history,forcing the State Board of Education to back down in its demand to close the school.Their actionseven prompted a former Edison teacher (Ms. Gepsie Mettelus) to run for a seat on the DadeCounty School Board.Our students know and cherish the value of education. It is up to all of us to ensure that the society delivers on its promise to provide them a quality education.
We want our children to be able to pass any type of literacy test.We want them to be fluent in standard English.But wealso know thattheir intelligence goes beyond being able to master a language. We are prepared to nurture them with information to help them become critical thinkers, effective communicators, great problem solvers, and wise decision makers. At the same time, we want to teach our children to place their literacy skillsat the service of humanity. When asked ,“What does it mean to be literate?”and“Of what value is your literacy?”we hope they will be able to answer in ways that shows them taking actionto empower their community. My message to youthen is torethinkwhat literacy means.Are you a literate individual?Are youfinancially, or technologically literate?Are you literate in Haitian History?Are you literate in Haiti’s oral traditions? It is in honor of that great oral tradition, that my spouse and I created our publishing company and the internet publishing site Bookmanlit.com.It is in honor of our great traditions and accomplishments that we wrote the book Bicentennial: Haiti’s Gift to the World. We live in a world driven by a knowledge based economy. Our people need to achieve the highest levels of formal education so as to be able to benefit from knowledge obtained anywhere in the world – knowledge that has been passed down in texts as well as orally.We need to educate ourselves and our population while not incorporating the racism and sexism that has pervaded much of the world’s written literature. In Haiti, when you have real knowledge, you have konesans.
Konesans: Real knowledge leads to intellectual humility because it recognizes the limitations of our own knowledge. Konesans: Real knowledge leads to intellectual courage because it empowers you to stand up for what is right. Our forefathers were equipped with konesans. Konesans: Real knowledge leads to intellectual empathy and allows you to put yourself in someone elses shoes and imagine life from another perspective. Often this is what is needed for innovation. I hope we can all join hands and seek the Konesans necessary to build a stronger Haitian community here and a strong Nation at home in Haiti. Such a strong nation will continue to uphold its founding principles- principles that it pioneered: The universal rights of all people. Thank you.