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Detail from Roberson Joseph, Hurricane, acrylic on canvas, 2017

Dangerous Unselfishness

With Dr. King in Haiti and America

Edwidge Danticat

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  • Nick Doversberger

    Thank you so much for this very fine article. You have laid out the truth in a most forceful and constructive manner, giving me much to build upon and share in both words and actions.

Some years I celebrate my birthday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Though he was born on January 15, and I on January 19, depending on the year’s calendar we might end up with kind words being said about both of us on the same day. This year, though, was not one of those times. The Monday of the King holiday fell on his actual birthday and mine followed, just as it should, four days later.

For nearly a decade now, my birthday has been rather complicated. On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck my native Haiti, nearly destroying most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and a few other cities nearby. That earthquake killed a reported three hundred thousand people and left one and a half million homeless. Léogâne, the town where my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were born, was near the epicenter, and many people I knew there died.

Since the earthquake, January has been an agonizing month, though it begins gloriously with the commemoration of Haitian independence on January 1. On that day, in my family and many others, we drink a delicious squash soup, which was previously considered too luxurious for the enslaved and was consumed only by those who had enslaved us. On January 2 we celebrate Jours des Anciens or Jour des Aieux – Heroes and Ancestors Day – a day on which we honor those who came before, particularly the ones who fought and died for our independence.

When I was a girl, on Heroes and Ancestors Day, I and the other children in my family would dress in our finest clothes and visit our relatives, who would treat us to a piece of cake and a small dose of a bright red syrupy liqueur (likè) then hand us a few coins (zetrenn) which, after many such visits throughout the day, would end up in a windfall that would make us feel rich. January 6 was Les Rois – Three Kings Day or the Feast of the Epiphany – which honors the day the Magi arrived with their gifts for the baby Jesus. January 6 also meant the end of the Christmas season and a return to school or work. By then many people in Haiti would already be thinking about carnival, which would follow in a few weeks.

King’s life and death are about our bearing witness to one another’s survival.

January 12, like the King holiday, falls between those observances and my birthday, turning the first weeks of the first month of the year into a series of life-affirming celebrations mixed with commemorations of deaths. Both January 12 and 15 are days when I now stop to honor the dead. My cousin Maxo and his son Nono are the closest relatives of mine who died in the earthquake, but I also lost many friends as well as more distant family members. It might not seem fitting to put Maxo and Nono on the same plane as Dr. King – Maxo and Nono were not internationally known and they were killed by Mother Nature rather than men – but Dr. King’s life and death and the King holiday are not just about him. King’s life and death are also about the demise of thousands who came before him, his own heroes and ancestors, as well as those who fought alongside him, those whose blood also soak this land, which immigrants like me now call home.

The first King holiday was observed on January 20, 1986, the day after I turned seventeen. On that birthday, I went to church with my parents and three brothers, and afterwards we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. The following morning, in spite of it being the holiday, my mother went to her job at a handbag factory, while my father went to his as a freelance or “gypsy” cabdriver. My parents rarely had any time off, except on Sundays.

My brothers and I watched the first King holiday observances on television. There were marches in many cities around the United States. In Atlanta, after laying a wreath on Dr. King’s grave with Coretta Scott King, ­then–Vice President George H. W. Bush attended services at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s home church, alongside Bishop Desmond Tutu, who received the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize for fighting apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid had not yet ended in South Africa and Nelson Mandela was still in jail.

“We are going to be free,” Bishop Tutu declared. “We know we are going to be free. When we are free, we will remember who helped us to become free.”

Dr. King was certainly one of those who wanted to see South Africa free. In a December 10, 1965 address at Hunter College, he said:

Africa has been depicted for more than a century as the home of black cannibals and ignorant primitives. Despite volumes of facts contraverting this picture, the stereotype persists in books, motion pictures, and other media of communication. Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians.

In April of that same year, the United States had invaded the Dominican Republic over fears of communist expansion in the region. “We inundated that small nation with overwhelming force, shocking the world with our zealousness and naked power,” Dr. King said of the invasion of Haiti’s closest neighbor. “With respect to South Africa, however, our protest is so muted and peripheral it merely mildly disturbs the sensibilities of the segregationists, while our trade and investments substantially stimulate their economy to greater heights.”

He called for the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and other nations to boycott South Africa: “No real national interest impels us to be cautious, gentle, or a good customer of a nation that offends the world’s conscience.”

The world’s conscience, he seemed to suggest, should be offended by all types of injustice, no matter the victim nor the source. As he said in December 1965, “The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains.”

Yvan Lamothe, 14 Miles to Market, oil on canvas, 1989

Yvan Lamothe, 14 Miles to Market, oil on canvas, 1989 Painting reproduced by permission of the artist 

I thought of those words on January 11 of this year, on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. I might not have been thinking of that particular speech, had the president of the United States not been reported to have called El Salvador, Haiti, and countries in Africa “shithole countries.” A few weeks before that, the president was reported to have said that all Haitians have AIDS and that forty thousand Nigerian visa recipients would never “go back to their huts” after seeing the United States. On a day when we were supposed to be mourning our dead, Haitians and Haitian-Americans found ourselves responding to the president on whatever platform was available to us – radio, television, newspapers, the streets, and social media.

On January 12, an earthquake commemoration procession starting in a square with a statue of the Haitian independence hero Toussaint L’Ouverture in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood turned into a demonstration with Haitian men, women, and children decrying the president’s alleged racist remarks. Haitian Ambassador Paul Altidor, who just weeks earlier had published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Our Country Deserves Your Respect, Not Your Pity,” made several television appearances reminding American viewers that Haiti and the United States were the first two republics in the Western Hemisphere, that the two countries had strong historical ties, and that Haitian soldiers fought alongside American troops in the Revolutionary War. Ambassador Altidor also highlighted the contributions of Haitians and Haitian-Americans to today’s America, as hotel workers, taxi drivers, teachers, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and medical and military personnel. He mentioned that the first non-Native American settler of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was of Haitian descent. As was W. E. B. Du Bois, the African-American intellectual and founder of the NAACP. During an address at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 1968, on what would have been Du Bois’s hundredth birthday, Dr. King called Du Bois “one of the most remarkable men of our time.” “Dr. Du Bois was not only an intellectual giant exploring the frontiers of knowledge, he was in the first place a teacher,” Dr. King said that night. “One idea he insistently taught was that black people have been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies that depicted them as inferior.”

My uncle died shackled to a bed five days after arriving in the United States.

I happened to be at a conference with a group of writers and intellectuals from the Caribbean when the president’s statement was reported, and a few of them thought that his words were too contemptible to merit a response. Other friends, who were not at the conference, thought it a complete waste of time to exalt Haiti’s revolutionary past – including the fact that France’s defeat during Haiti’s battle for independence was what led to the Louisiana Purchase – or to laud Haiti’s great visual art, music, and literature, arguing that it would neither lead the president to change his mind about Haiti nor prompt him to apologize. They thought it was useless to try to prove our humanity to someone who’d referred to white supremacists as “very fine people” while denigrating others whose only crime was being born in countries whose human and natural resources had, in many cases, been plundered by a string of colonizers, imperialists, and invaders, including the United States.

I did not plan to respond directly to the president. I felt that the ambassador had done that, along with many other prominent Haitians, Haitian-Americans, and Haiti-philes. I wanted to write something that my nieces and nephews who were US-born and had never been to Haiti, as well as my own two daughters, who have traveled to Haiti many times and hold their own version of Haiti within them, would have to counter what the president had allegedly said about their parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ homeland.

I was also seeing how the president’s remarks about Haiti formed part of a particularly sinister immigration policy. In November 2017, the Trump administration ended ­Temporary Protected Status for nearly sixty thousand Haitians, leaving them open to deportation as early as 2019. Soon after, a quarter of a million Salvadorans faced the same fate, all while the president was allegedly bemoaning the fact that the United States was not welcoming enough immigrants from Norway. A few days after the president’s belittling remarks, the Department of Homeland Security announced that ­Haitians would no longer be eligible for H-2A and H-2B visas, which are available to low-skilled migrants, including seasonal agriculture workers. The president’s views were not simply being expressed but were being acted upon.

I also wanted to respond because in October 2004, my eighty-one-year-old uncle Joseph, a cancer survivor who spoke with a voice box, died in immigration custody after fleeing Haiti following a brutal United Nations forces attack on his neighborhood. My uncle had a valid US visa, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Miami International Airport detained him after he requested asylum. They took away his medications and, as his health deteriorated, accused him of faking his illness. Eventually he was taken to a local hospital’s prison ward, where he died shackled to a bed, five days after arriving in the United States.

Perhaps I am fooling myself, but I imagine: Is it possible that everyone my uncle encountered on the way to his death – from the United Nations forces who shot at his neighbors from the roof of his house, to the immigration officer who ordered that he be detained – is it possible that these people would have been empathetic, would have proved to be good Samaritans, if they had been more informed about both my uncle and his country? Perhaps then his life might have been saved.

Roberson Joseph, Refugees, acrylic on canvas, 2016

Roberson Joseph, Refugees, acrylic on canvas, 2016. Painting reproduced by permission of the artist

This year, on the King holiday, the president’s derogatory remarks were on many people’s minds, including Dr. King’s children.

“When a president insists that our nation needs more citizens from white states like Norway, I don’t even think we need to spend any time talking about what it says and what it is,” Dr. King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, told the Associated Press.

“Our collective voice in this hour must always be louder than the one who sometimes does not reflect the legacy of my father,” Dr. King’s daughter, Reverend Bernice King, told the congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.

That same day, thousands of Haitians marched. In New York, hundreds gathered for a rally in Times Square. In Miami, Haitians walked on the Martin Luther King Boulevard during the Martin Luther King Day parade, a festive pageant full of local dance troupes and high school marching bands that I have often attended with my family.

In West Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, where the president was spending the long weekend, about five hundred Haitian and Haitian-American demonstrators demanded an apology. According to the Florida Sun Sentinel, the organizer of the protest, a Haitian-American radio-show host named James Leger, said, “If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be here marching with us.”

Putting America first means openly stepping on the bodies, souls, dignity, and dreams of others.

I don’t know that Dr. King, if he were alive, would have had the energy to show up at every protest or march, but he most likely would not have remained silent in the face of such an insult to the continent of Africa and members of the African diaspora. This is also why I responded to those alleged remarks in two radio interviews and a lengthy Facebook post, denouncing what was said and exalting the virtues of the country of my birth and those of my heroes and ancestors.

My uncle Joseph who died shackled to a bed was, like Dr. King, a Baptist minister. My uncle was not world famous, but in Bel Air, the poor neighborhood where he lived for fifty years, he ran a church, a health clinic, and a school. He was born in Léogâne in 1923 when Haiti was, along with the Dominican Republic, under US control, and he also died under US control, as a prisoner of the Department of Homeland Security.

One of my uncle’s favorite Bible stories was about the Good Samaritan. It is a story that appeals to a lot of preachers, both the less political ones and the more radical, because it is one of the best illustrations we have of the Golden Rule: to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. These days, America’s golden rule – as stated by the current president – is to put America first. Perhaps this was always the case, but in my thirty-seven years of living in the United States, I have never heard it stated, implied, and flaunted as often and as clearly as now: that putting America first means openly stepping on the bodies, souls, dignity, and dreams of others. It has never been so clear to me that in the realm of immigration, it means having no qualms about separating spouses from each other, and children from their parents. Families are considered “chains”– as in “chain migration” – a term reminiscent of the slave trade, during which our ancestors were transported against their will from our mother continent to others, in, yes, chains.

When I think of my uncle and Dr. King together as two ministers I respect, I think of both their Good Samaritan sermons. My uncle, who died for lack of a Good Samaritan in his path, had often preached about this traveling stranger who was beaten, robbed, and then left for dead, a man who was first ignored by some passersby but who then was rescued by the compassionate Samaritan who took him to a safe place and paid for his shelter. My uncle used to stress that we should all be Good Samaritans because we are just as likely to be in the place of the traveling stranger, and if we act as if those who are considered outsiders, or have fallen on hard times and are in need of help, are vile, guilty, or underserving of empathy, then we have also reduced our own humanity. Dr. King’s Good Samaritan sermon echoes my uncle’s somewhat, but goes even further in a way that I find as radical as choosing to love under impossible circumstances.

I often return to this vision of empathy, sympathy, and compassion for one’s neighbors and the courage it takes to not only declare ourselves our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers but to actually act with what Dr. King called “dangerous unselfishness.”

Dr. King delivered his final version of the Good Samaritan sermon as part of his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, the day before he died. This was a speech in which he also advocated for economic boycott and encouraged black people to support black-owned institutions and businesses.

“Be concerned about your brother,” he urged. “You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

In the Good Samaritan story, those who had not stopped to help the injured man might have been asking themselves a whole series of questions, Dr. King said.

They had found the traveler on a dangerous road. What was he doing there? Might he have been faking being hurt in order to trap them? The ones who did not stop to help might have asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the Good Samaritan asked himself, “If I do not help this man, what will happen to him?”

Roberson Joseph, Hurricane, acrylic on canvas, 2017

Roberson Joseph, Hurricane, acrylic on canvas, 2017. Painting reproduced by permission of the artist

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen to the most vulnerable of immigrants now, the ones from the countries the president has disparaged, as well as those being shut out by the president’s ban on refugees, particularly those from predominantly Muslim countries, and those who are already in the United States, the thousands who can no longer count on Temporary Protected Status, and the youth who were brought to the US by their parents as children, and whose DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) safeguards are in limbo. Let us not forget the eleven million undocumented immigrants who have been living in the shadows for so long that they might be too afraid to accept help from good Samaritans, for fear that they might be reported and deported.

As long as this assault of words and actions continues, we, like Dr. King and those who fought alongside him, might soon be put in the position of having to be dangerously unselfish and to offer even our bodies as sanctuary, especially as more local municipalities are turning undocumented people over to immigration officers. Or as men, women, and children are being dragged out of cars, buses, trains, or out of their own homes, or are being followed and seized while walking down the street. Will we find the courage to be the Good Samaritans who ask what will happen if we do not help? What will happen to them? But also, what will happen to us, and to our humanity?


All art used to accompany this article is from Migrating Colors: Haitian Art in New England.

Contributed By Edwidge Danticat Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books. Her memoir was a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award. She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow.

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