I’ve been blessed to spend most of my life living and working in “shitholes.”
I was born in New York, moved to Kenya when I was three and spent the next 12 years there. My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago – a country that’s likely on President Trump’s “shithole countries” list – and I reported in Haiti in the four years following the 2010 earthquake. My initial response to President Trump referring to Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries as “shithole countries,” in a discussion on giving legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, was fatigue. Dealing with racism is exhausting, and the fact that it comes from the leader of our country, delivered in such tired, simplistic narratives – “Haitians have AIDS,” “Nigerians live in huts” – makes it doubly so.
Trump’s supporters say he’s simply speaking the truth: “Those places are dangerous, they’re dirty, they’re corrupt, and they’re poor, and that’s the main reason those immigrants are trying to come here,” was Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s explanation.
There are indeed places in these countries that are dirty and dangerous, and there is poverty and corruption. But those words do not describe the whole, and they don’t provide context. These are countries that have had to undo the damage done by colonization, slavery and U.S. policies. Haitians not only fought for their freedom from the French, overthrowing them in 1804, but then had to contend with the American occupation from 1915 to 1934. American leaders seem to have always had a very dim view of Haiti. During the occupation, then Secretary of State Robert Lansing said: “The experience of Liberia and Haiti show that the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization and lack genius for government. Unquestionably there is in them an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature.”
American governments actually helped fuel the very flight to the U.S. that Trump is now grousing about. Many of my Haitian-American friends are children of those who fled the country during François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship. The American government initially supported Duvalier, giving him millions in economic and military aid, as he presented himself as an ally in the fight against communism. Duvalier used much of this aid to fund his lavish lifestyle, and created his personal army, the infamous Tonton Macoutes, who collected unofficial taxes from people and brutally disposed of thousands of his critics.
When I reached out to friends in Haiti on January 10th, the day after Trump’s derogatory remarks were reported, they were all on their way to services to mark the eighth anniversary of the earthquake, which left over 220,000 dead, about 300,000 injured and 1.5 million displaced. Gary Lubin lost a cousin and his best friend in the earthquake, so he woke up feeling the weight of that grief. And then he checked his phone and saw an article from Le Monde with Trump’s statement. “I was shocked because he just doubled my pain,” says Gary. “It was shameful and racist and at the same time I said ‘Well, it’s not the first time that he has attacked the Haitian people’s dignity.'”
Gary is the director of Tamise, a cultural organization that sponsors artists and events in promotion of Haitian culture. He has no interest in emigrating to the U.S., and says Trump’s words should be a wake up call for Haitians both at home and in the diaspora. Trump made his bigoted views pretty clear even before the election, Gary says, and handwringing over the president’s offensive comments won’t change anything – Haitians’ energy would be better spent rebuilding their country rather than talking about Trump. “We’re supposed to focus on ourselves,” says Gary. “You cannot change people, but we can change our future.”
The former prime minister of Haiti, Michèle Duvivier Pierre-Louis, spoke at the memorial service Gary attended in Port-au-Prince’s Martissant Park on Friday. She sent me the part of her speech she added to address President Trump’s remarks: “His vulgar words express his profound ignorance and lack of historical context and world culture,” she wrote. “And his main purpose is to undo everything that was done by President Obama. And we know why: because President Obama is black.”
My reporting in Haiti focused on things some would use to justify Trump’s words. I wrote about the many women who had been raped, children who’d been orphaned by the earthquake and forced into prostitution to survive, and people with HIV who, now living in tents and under tarps, were struggling with their illness. But within these stories were tales of resilience and grace, joy and love. I met people who have far more fortitude than I, who had the courage to be honest and vulnerable. One woman who was HIV positive was in despair when I met her shortly after the earthquake; she was pregnant and did not know how she would support this new child and her one year old. A few years later, she’d repaired her cracked and crooked home and opened a beauty parlor on her front porch, earning enough to support herself and her two children.
The unfortunate reality is that many Americans – including some of those condemning the president’s comments – see these countries as he does. They might not use the same language, but there’s this notion that everyone who comes to the U.S. from the so-called developing world is fleeing poverty, war and disaster, and that when we come, we’re a drain on the society.
But, about 73 percent of black immigrants 16 and older are in the work force, compared with 64 percent of native-born Americans, and just over a quarter of black immigrants 25 and older have bachelor’s or advanced degrees. According to the Pew Research Center: “When compared with U.S. immigrants overall, foreign-born blacks are less likely to be in the U.S. illegally, more likely to be U.S. citizens and more likely to speak English at a higher rate.”
I wish someone had asked President Trump why he sees people from Haiti and Africa as having such low worth. I suspect it’s pretty simple – to him they’re all poor and black, and thus lack potential. What the president doesn’t realize is that being poor does not limit one’s ability to be successful. If anything, I’ve seen poverty spur people to excel. And most Caribbean and African immigrants, whether rich or poor, will tell you – the expectation from their parents, and for themselves, is excellence.
Poverty, in terms of monetary wealth, also does not determine what my mother calls “nobility of the mind,” nor is it a measure of wisdom.
Several years ago, while working on a documentary in Kenya, I spent the night at the home of Leah, a 22-year-old living in the Kariobangi slum. Each family in her building had a single room, about 10 feet by 10 feet, and the shared toilet was a hole in the floor. I watched that afternoon as Leah helped her 4 year old, Soledad, with her homework, guiding her hand as she wrote out three-letter words. Leah cooked a simple dinner of chapatis – an Indian flat bread made of flour, water and salt – and a leafy green called sukuma wiki, which, because it is cheap enough to eat daily, translates roughly as “stretch the week.”
I asked Leah if she considered herself poor. Her response was much the same as those I’ve heard in Haiti, Liberia, India, Sierra Leone and all the other countries I’ve been where people are black and brown, many are poor, but one’s wealth can be determined by character as opposed to material things.
“We are poor, but we are rich. We don’t have television, we don’t have radio, but life is not all about television or radio,” Leah said. “Our neighbors have some speakers that can break your ears, and we say they are rich because they have these things. We cannot provide ourselves with a television for now. But I feel that we have something. We have life. We are living.”