Sunday, January 25, 2009

No Human Being Is Alien

It is five days since the inauguration of a Black man to the United States presidency and I can feel the tremors of a new era as they ripple across air and land and my own body. I am in Oakland, California, but my eyes and heart are resting uneasily on an article written for the daily Tribune, in Nassau, Bahamas, almost two weeks ago. I’ve read it several times, even written a letter in response, but the thought that comes to me now is that ideas are perhaps the single greatest threat to the future of the Bahamas. Not people. Not guns. Not fists. Ideas. The presence of some ideas; the absence of others. By the same token, ideas are also our greatest hope. And ideas, of course, belong to all of us.

The following is my response, then, to John Marquis’ column “Insight”, published in the Tribune on January 12, 2009:

Dear Editor,

Just because a man studies the history of a people, this does not mean he is able (or willing) to interpret it in a way that does justice to the people he has studied. John Marquis has made this clear in his gross attack on Haitian people in his weekly column “Insight” (sic) that appeared last week in the Tribune. In fact, if indeed Marquis is a scholar of Haitian history, as he claims he is, what is most apparent is that his own privilege, as a white English man, has prevented him from seeing this complex history clearly; he sees instead through the thick and warped lens of the imperialist, making judgments rooted in white imperialist values that do not fundamentally care for the people he has ‘studied’.

Marquis writes that it is “mass illegal immigration” by Haitians to Bahamian shores that poses the “single greatest threat” to the future of the Bahamas. He defends his position by promoting two basic ideas: the supposed inherent differences between Bahamians and Haitians and the claim that Haitians are intrinsically a violent people: “(Haiti’s) people are from a different tribal background than most Bahamians and they are notoriously volatile in settling their political and domestic differences.” Marquis goes on to compare Haitians to “pit bulls” and Bahamians to “potcakes” and hopes that this metaphor will show the reader the potentially devastating effects of becoming “a creolized extension of that unruly nation to the south.”

Marquis further laments the creolization of the once “greatest country on Earth” (England) whose transformation (post colonization of the Caribbean, India, Africa, the Middle East?) has turned the suburbs of many major towns and cities into immigrant ghettoes.” It must be this tragedy (I wonder what Africans thought of their own great nations prior to the invasion of the English, Dutch, French and Portuguese who cut and carved these nations into colonialist ghettoes and mass graves?) that forced Marquis to get on a plane (or boat?) and travel far from home to this small place, only to be confronted again by the ills of postcolonial unrest – Haitian women and men seeking a dry, safe place to make a way for themselves and their families. When will it all end?

In Marquis’ world view, one which sees Haitians and Bahamians as dogs, and racial and ethnic monotony as superior and preferable to ‘creolization’, the solution to the “Haitian problem” is understandably black and white: Haitians are “aliens” who must not be allowed in. At least, this is what this reader infers from Marquis’ final assessment: “To counter the dangers, Bahamians need to display the will to force firm action.”

Regardless of his final assessment, Marquis’ primary objective (he spends 99% of his column doing this) is to cultivate fear of Haitians and Haitian Bahamians to manipulate non-Haitian Bahamians to use their “will”… to do what? To send Haitian Bahamians back to Haiti? To create and enforce stricter anti-immigration policies? To fear and hate our Caribbean sisters and brothers, so many of whom have been living in this country for generations now and are an integral part of the complex fabric of Bahamian community and culture? To stir non-Haitian Bahamians to violence against Haitian Bahamians? Doesn’t this sound disturbingly familiar?

I am not a scholar of Haitian history. But I understand enough about the Caribbean’s colonial past, racism, the brutality of poverty in the wake of colonial oppression, and the struggle to survive in an adopted country that refuses to grant statehood to children born on its shores, to know that life for Haitians in this country is its own kind of hell. Haitians leave their country to escape to places like the Bahamas because they want to survive. (My own grandparents left their homelands for a similar purpose after World War II.) They are not “invaders”. If they are angry, it is because we have treated them with the kind of fundamental disrespect that has been so crassly articulated by John Marquis. If they are angry, it is because we continue to ignore the history of Haiti, and act like we are not their sisters and brothers. If they are angry, it is because they understand more than we do that regardless of national borders, the struggle to survive as Caribbean people (with all our tribal and ethnic backgrounds) belongs to all of us.

In Marquis’ world (and his own words) it does not take much imagination to predict what colonizers have always feared: oppressed people will surely rise up. It takes a little more imagination, however, to see that oppression and division will always create more of the same. It takes more imagination still, coupled with radical love for one another, to see that Haiti’s problems are our problems, not simply because there are generations of Haitian Bahamians living alongside Chinese and Greek and Indian and English and African Bahamians, but because our survival as human beings depends on each other’s survival; we are still none of us free until we are all free.

Marquis’ words –his ideas- are dangerous, and, for any human being wanting peace and a compassionate country in which to live, his words should not be taken lightly and they should not be accepted glibly as ‘insight’; they should be questioned and held up to the light of our best imaginations, all the better to shape a society in which all our best interests are recognized and cared for. Haitian Bahamians are Bahamians. Haitians are our Caribbean family. Bahamian immigration policies must be firmly rooted in a plan to assist in bringing justice to the lives of Haitian people and should be part of an overall plan to make life better for all Bahamians, not regardless of, but in celebration of our respective differences.

And, if indeed we are in the early moments of a new era, I suggest it is time we let go of the use of the word ‘alien’. No human being is alien. It is a word that prevents us from seeing the ways in which we are connected to each other as human beings, and prevents us from seeing the possibilities of how we can make a way together, instead of engendering new kinds of apartheid, in the name of nationhood.

Helen Klonaris
January 25th, 2009
Oakland, California