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


Nicolette Bethel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicolette Bethel said...

I removed the last post because it was incomplete.

What I said was: we need to understand some history of our own. Specifically, we need to understand John Marquis' history with The Bahamas and know that his position may not be unbiased.

During the struggle for majority rule, when it became evident that the idea that black Bahamians could rule themselves, the white minority government took various steps to affect the democratic process. One of those steps, taken with limited success, was the encouragement of the immigration of numerous British expatriates who could be naturalized and who could become voters in time, and thereby balance out the so-called "radical" movement towards "black supremacy". Another was the engagement by the Nassau Guardian, the establishment paper of the time, of a young British reporter whose job was explicitly to write editorials in support of the regime. His name was John Marquis, and he left The Bahamas following Majority Rule.

The rhetoric he employed then was not unlike the rhetoric he employs in his discussions about Haiti. Reading his Guardian editorials from the 1960s will provide interesting comparisons with his editorials now. I do not regard him as an unbiased eye. Rather, I suspect he has an all-too-palpable bias. Human beings are not all equal; rather, they are tribes who are distinguished by collective, racial, inherited characteristics that determine the way in which they behave. It's an obsolete view of the world, but it's still influential.


Helen Klonaris said...

Thank you Nico; that is a very interesting piece to this story, and to understanding Marquis' perspective. I'm curious: how does knowing that alter or complicate this dialogue for you? By suggesting (confirming) the complicity of white Bahamians in the perpetuation of the perspective he espouses? Showing the intricacies of race and how they are playing out in our reactions to Haitian refugees? Thank you for this...

Lynn Sweeting said...

Helen, I have not read the editorial in question, but I'd like to respond to your report of what was said. My first question is, is there really a mass ilegal immigration of Haitian to the Bahamas going on right now? If there are masses of Haitian boats landing right now I have not heard of them. This sounds like a wild, unsubstantited statement, bad journalism indeed. And did he really call Haitian refugees the single greates threat to our future? In my opinion, it is our country's indifference to the women and children who are starving to death in Haiti which threatens us more. And what is up with his fear of creolization, with his old, dinosaur self? He needs to get a grip and understand that yes, we Caribbean people are indeed already creolized, as we should and must be if we're all going to survive. And let me say , I'm disgusted that he would refer to us in animal terms. Doesn't he know what a cliche Colonial racist this language shows him to be? I totally support your condemnation of his so-called insight. I'm grateful for the internet and for citizen journalism which is ending the era of elitist editors like Marquis and their corrupt domination of news and opinions.
Thank you for your voice.
In hope.

C.J.B. said...

What seems sad to me is, not just the complicity of white bahamians, but most bahamians, in this kind of thinking. There is little mainstream challenges to the explicit xenophobic and racist premises in his writing as there is to his political bias', responses which still pretty much accept these basic underpinnings. I am reminded of something someone said to me once when I was ranting about how Haiti and Haitians are marked as some kind of pre-colonial 'savage africans' which obscures not only history but the actual real work we face in creating both an inclusive and viable civil society- 'it's true you know, if haitians looked more like cubans we would probably like them more.' Putting aside the whitening of cubans, I thought this was one of the most sad and yet in some ways true, statement I'd ever heard.

Lofton Newton said...

Wow.. I went to school with John's daughter. I was aware that he's known for writing controversial pieces, but I wasn't aware he was there during the UBP days. That's very interesting. Helen, please shoot me an e-mail. I'm live in the bay area as well, and would love to connect.