“Oh my,” we gasped when the picture above flashed throughout the news recently. Some prayed, others swore, and others turned away after a few seconds of curious “rubbernecking.”
“Rubbernecking” is the act of staring at something that got our attention. It is the physical act of craning one’s neck to get a better view. It has been described as a human trait associated with morbid curiosity and is often the cause of traffic jams. After a few seconds of rubbernecking, we drive on – or in this case, look on – thankful that “it didn’t happen to me.”
Which takes us to Haiti, more to the point, the men in the picture. The two Black men – someone’s fathers, sons, brothers – seen fleeing are among thousands of human beings – I repeat, human beings -sheltering in the shadow of Texas’s Del Rio bridge. (Now as much as I’d like to, I’ll pass on saying anything about the man on the horse).
Now this piece will put a face on a nation and the Haitian, retrieve him from the caricatures and present him as a red-blooded human being, no different from any of us save for the color of their skin. So in the lines that follow, let’s “visit” the nation of Haiti and learn a little bit more about its history and people.
Haiti is located to the east of Cuba and Jamaica and south of The Bahamas. It occupies the western three-eighths of the island which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Haiti is the third largest country in the Caribbean and has an estimated population of 11.4 million, making it the most populous country in the Caribbean.
The first Europeans arrived in Haiti in 1492 during the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. The island was claimed by Spain and named La Española, forming part of the Spanish Empire until the early 17th century. However, competing claims and settlements by the French led to the western portion of the island being ceded to France in 1697, which was subsequently named Saint-Domingue.
French colonists established sugarcane plantations, worked by vast numbers of slaves brought from Africa, which made the colony one of the richest in the world.
In the midst of the French Revolution slaves and free people of color launched the Haitian Revolution, led by a former slave, Toussaint Louverture.
After 12 years of conflict, Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces were defeated by Louverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines who declared Haiti’s sovereignty in 1804—the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the first country to abolish slavery, and the only state in history established by a successful slave revolt.
Apart from the first President, all of Haiti’s first leaders were former slaves. After a brief period in which the country was split in two, President Jean-Pierre Boyer united the country and then attempted to bring the whole of Hispaniola under Haitian control, precipitating a long series of wars that ended in the 1870s when Haiti formally recognized the independence of the Dominican Republic.
Haiti’s first century of independence was characterized by political instability and the payment of a crippling debt to France. Political volatility and foreign economic influence in the country prompted the U.S. to occupy the country from 1915 to 1934.
François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier took power in 1956, ushering in a long period of autocratic rule that was continued by his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier that lasted until 1986.
Nearly all of Haiti’s population are of African origin. A small minority of people of mixed European and African descent (called mulattoes) constitute a wealthier elite and account for most of the remainder. There is also a small number of people of European descent. Haiti has differentiated itself ethnically, linguistically, and culturally from other Caribbean and Latin American countries, notably the Spanish-speaking and the English-speaking countries of the region.
Back now to the bridge in Texas. How did thousands of Haitians end up there? Let’s not forget that the devastating earthquake in 2010 snuffed out the lives of hundreds of thousands of Haitians resulting in them moving to South America, then, eventually to our southern border in pursuit of a better life. As of this writing, hundreds of Haitians are being deported back to Haiti against their will.
Truth is that when we rubberneck Haiti, we risk running into the rear end of stereotypes and ignorance (remember that it was not that long ago when a now an ex-president referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” during a meeting at the White House).
In the end, the inevitable next time you find yourself “rubbernecking” an accident while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, think about those less fortunate, the fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers who may someday be yours.