from Columbus to Port-Au-Prince
Sermon 7-3-11 "Citizens of a Heavenly Nation"

From African to American: Haiti and Race

    I had a unique experience among those in my group of being the only African American in the group. It sounds like there aren't many African Americans that make the trip to serve the country. That's probably in part because black churches don't tend to "do missions" the way that white churches do, but that's another subject for another time. 

    While African Americans may not necessarily make their way down there, African American culture certainly has in many ways. Were you to simply judge by dress in certain spots, you'd think that you were in parts of any American city. You could also hear plenty of rap being played in the streets and in the homes. There's a clear sense that Haitians want to emulate what they see of black Americans in media. 

    There's another similarity between blacks in Haiti and in the states. When you looked at billboards and other advertisements, the faces you saw weren't those of people the same color as the ones you saw on the street. They were much lighter. It was sad to learn that the Haitian sense of what is "beautiful" has been imported from the States and Europe. If light skin is the standard of what is attractive, then the vast majority of Haitians must live with an inferiority complex. I happened to see a lot of very beautiful and very dark men and women. (I have to confess, as a black man with a white wife, I often wrestle with my own conceptions of beauty) 

    I wasn't sure how I was received as an African American in Haiti, mostly because I never asked. The over all impression I got was that I was just another American and that my skin color didn't matter to them. I can't fully believe that that is the truth. I'm sure if the only African Americans they see are of the celebrity variety, then someone like me must be a wild disappointment! 

    The story of Haiti is largely the story of colonialism that played itself out all over the world. Haitian slaves won their independence in 1804. The US refused to acknowledge Haiti as a legitimate state until after our Civil War, largely out of fears of legitimizing slaves receiving their freedom. The US occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, a fact I did not know until my trip down there. This was under what is known as the Roosevelt Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine whereby the US felt it was it's role to help stabilize the economic affairs of smaller nations. (sigh) A Haitian author claims to have never heard the word "Nigger" before US occupied them. Another great American export. 

    There is no way to say that the results of raced-based slavery/colonialism are distant when you look at a nation like Haiti. To a large extent, the narrative that dark skinned people are inferior is alive and well, in some ways reinforced by well meaning white Christians coming to "save" Haitians. (more on that later). As a black man I can't help but feel some solidarity with the people of Haiti, but as an American I can't help feel somewhat complicit in much of what has kept that nation impoverished (more on that later as well). There needs to be widespread repentance for the sins of colonialism. I don't know what that looks like. It's a distasteful business when you recognize that much of what we call "civilization" has been built on the backs of unwilling participants. You can't just dismiss that as "the past" as many would like and yet there has to be forward motion as well. Reconciliation is a messy business. It requires both repentance and forgiveness. 

    This trip reopened some of the internal struggles I have had about race throughout my life: being the black kid at a white school, being interracially married, now raising a biracial child, serving a predominantly white church. I'm a mess. And yet I have to put my personal struggles aside and ask how my skin color puts me in solidarity with others of the same hue, particularly those in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. I believe it gives me a unique voice to challenge my nation and our congregations to care for the "least of these" in our global neighborhood.

Still processing.... 

 

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