Friday, January 15, 2010

A song of the Haitian spirit in "Flatbush," story of a homeland tragedy

Earthquake and America in Haiti
Saving lives and a nation
by Mike Marcellino

In the aftermath of the earthquake, President Obama is acting swiftly to bring critically needed aid to Haiti.  

But, with this massive natural disaster, the president has inherited a dismal American record in the world's first black republic created by former slaves.  The legacy includes occupation, rejection of  political refugees and neglect in nation building in the world's first black republic, less than 700 miles from Miami.
Haiti lies in ruins with estimates of 250,000 or more dead. 

Does the U. S. and United Nations grasp the enormity of the situation?  After 72 hours without water, food and medical attention, the survivors will start dying, according to experts. In addition to reaching people trapped in rubble in Port-au-Prince, other cities, like coastal town of Jacmel, are isolated as roads have collapsed.  

Military officials have already ruled out air drops of supplies citing concerns of causing chaos and violence, though 10,000 U. S. troops will be in Haiti or off the coast by Monday.

While all human disasters are equally tragic and disturbing, this one hit me personally as I recently spent time living Flatbush, Brooklyn, one of the largest Haitian American communities.

This working and middle class neighborhood is majority West Indian, especially Haitian.  They live in a flat plain founded in the 16th century by the Dutch whose graves remain, though faceless, outside a church filled with Haitians, who still practice voodoo.

Dutch graves in a cemetery outside a church in Flatbush, one of the largest Haitian communities in the U. S. photo by Mike Marcellino

Walking my friends' white dog around the block, going to the supermarket, buying some meat pies, getting to the train station or just wandering, I was struck by the kind, respectful and happy nature of my Haitian neighbors.  I rarely saw another white person, yet never felt like a minority.  

The spirit and nature of Haitians and others from countries like Grenada, Trinidad and Jamaica inspired a song I wrote and recorded simply called "Flatbush."  Now I feel my friends are in trouble and need help.

(If you wish, you may listen to the recording "Flatbush" on the music player on top of this blog) 

Haitians will survive, you can feel it.  They have "demele, " a Creole word that means "to manage life in the face of hardship." 

Haitians overcame slavery and founded the world's first black republic in1804.  They have survived dictators, being turned back by the U. S. Navy in their boats seeking political refuge, abject poverty (Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere) and hurricanes.   

The outpouring by the American people and organizations is encouraging.  You can even donate $10 automatically by texting the Red Cross on your cell phone. Folks in Miami are appealing on Facebook for volunteers to load supplies for Haiti.  A benefit concert, "Hope for Haiti," is already planned.

The sight of American troops on the ground in Haiti and a aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is America at its best.  Will we act quickly enough, or will get bogged down by red tape and the lack of imagination?

This disaster may have a silver lining if it serves as wake up call for the U. S. to stay the course in Haiti.  

The U. S. controlled Haiti for nearly two decades ending in 1934.  Marine Corps commanders governed the provinces.  More than 2,000 Haitians died in a revolt crushed by U. S. forces in 1918.  Marines killed 10 Haitians protesting economic conditions in 1929. 

Before the U. S. departure, a commission appointed by President Hoover, recognized material improvements during the occupation, but pointed out that Haitians were excluded from decision making  in the process.  The commission concluded:
"The social forces that created [instability] still remain--poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government." 

A bad example of helping build a free and prosperous nation.  

The New York Times Friday, published a debate among Haiti experts, "Is the U. S. Doing Enough for Haiti?"  In the article, University of Chicago professor Greg Beckett makes a case for "a long term commitment for durable change."

Beckett, a Harper Fellow in social sciences studying the environmental, urban and political crisis in Port au Prince, further states -

"The U.S. has a long, strained relationship with Haiti, and more than any other country it has a political responsibility to lead efforts to rebuild the country. In the past, the U.S. has occupied and administered Haiti, given support and financial assistance to governments, trained the military, led stabilization missions and shaped economic policy.

"The occupation of 1915-1934 centralized military and political authority in Port-au-Prince, but left little in the form of infrastructural improvement. Economic policies have left Haiti dependent and persistently poor. Aid initiatives have bypassed the government and contributed to the weakening of state and social institutions." 

Today, despite of the United Nations' peace keeping force of 8,000 troops and the presence of 10,000 humanitarian workers, Haitian mothers still commonly make "dirt cookies" for their children to eat. They can't afford food.

Yet, the Haitian spirit endures.  Haitians still pound shape beautiful metal art from recycled steel drums. Now they wonder whether any buyers will be able to reach them in the devastation.   

When the Marines open the roads again, let's hope the United States gets nation building in Haiti right this time.

The fate of rebuilding Haiti lies with America's first president of color.  But for now President Obama has a more pressing question to answer.  The Marines have landed in Haiti and they are asking, "Who's in charge." (source, Christian Science Monitor, Jan, 14, 2010)

copyright Mike Marcellino 2010

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