The Brooklyn-based arts organizations BRIC and Haiti Cultural Exchange teamed up on the occasion of the visual art exhibition, Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas to ask four local thinkers of Haitian and Dominican descent to write about their personal experiences of border between the two nations. What ideas did they grow up with, and what inherited notions are challenged by their experiences living 1,500 miles from the island once known as Kiskeya? The responses grapple with issues of identity, race, stereotypes, and heritage, and share the personal perspectives of novelist Ibi Zoboi, scholar and professor Edward Paulino, immigration activist Albert Saint Jean, and community organizer, artist, and herbalist Suhaly Carolina-Bautista. Read Suhaly Carolina-Bautista’s essay, originally titled HaitianDominican, below.
– Régine M. Roumain, Executive Director at Haiti Cultural Exchange and Jessica Sucher, Senior Manager of Community Engagement at BRIC
In 2012, I started a Tumblr blog called, “HaitianDominican Art.” It was late. I was restless, living with my mother, and feeling unproductive. I’d just moved back home to New York from Paraguay, where I was presumed norteamericana, not Dominican. I was sinking my heels into being a Dominican-York all over again. I published 40 posts of artworks by Haitian and Dominican artists on this blog, researching artists I’d never heard of and falling in love with Haitian and Dominican art for the first time. I had never actually seen Haitian art in my then 26 years of life. I spent time with Fernand Pierre’s mermaids, Fritzner Alphonse’s blue black women, Luce Turnier’s melancholy oils, and sat with the way the people in all of the paintings were familiar to me, as if they’d all been born from the same mother.
Somehow, I amassed more than 250 followers in just a few days, but the project didn’t last. At the time, I wasn’t disciplined or focused enough to give the blog what I felt it deserved. I was motivated by a fleeting whim to discover, uncover, remember who I was at a time when I was feeling lost. Subconsciously, I was feeding a need to go behind the veil of what I was told about Haiti and Haitians by my anti-Black Dominican mother. I wonder what HaitianDominican Art would look like today if I’d kept it going; if I’d nourished that curiosity just a bit longer. I also wish I knew what 2012 me was thinking when I created this blog. Was I trying to mend something that I presumed broken? Was I breaking up a fight in my mind, attempting to virtually seal a bleeding wound, responding to a disconnect I didn’t understand but knew existed?
In the Tumblr page title, I remember purposely avoiding a hyphen between the two words, Haitian and Dominican together, turning them into one, unified word: “HaitianDominican.” But when you type the address into the search bar, the Internet takes the liberty of placing a hyphen between the words Haitian and Dominican – breaking us up, despite my intentions. I wanted to show that our art reveals we are the same, born to the same mother, but the words were still ripped apart, like two pages of a book glued together that both tear when you try to unravel them.
I remember the day my Ancestry.com DNA results came in. Knowing what I now know, I would have never volunteered my DNA, but the plague of Diasporic bloodline quest got the best of me and ultimately, that ancestral curiosity was exploited. Even still, I was excited to see what I already knew “on paper.” The test “revealed” I was more than 52 percent African, which I thought was clear, historical, traceable fact. I called my mother to tell her my news and she ignored me. She moved on to a separate topic, as New Yorkers would say, “with the quickness.” She didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to hear any scientific confirmation that I was Black. It would mean that somehow she was Black and, consequently, that there was Blackness in our bloodline, tainting our bloodline, spoiling our bloodline, blackening our blood like tar. Our Blackness was something that she wanted to continue denying, hiding, avoiding – the same way she had ignored me on the phone. She thinks if we ignore it, it will somehow go away.
I called my cousin in the Dominican Republic today. She is the daughter to my mother’s only sister, my aunt, who passed away in a tragic motorcycle accident in the Dominican Republic before I was born. Sometimes, my mother calls me by my aunt’s name, Xiomara. It only happens when she’s waking from a dream or when she calls out to me passionately about something. This non-coincidence always fills me with a nostalgia that doesn’t belong to me.
My cousin tells me that after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she adopted a 12-year-old Haitian girl; that she is 20 now. This is the first I’m hearing of my cousin’s Haitian daughter. I wonder if anyone else in our family knows about this. It’s not exactly the kind of update that would make it into the WhatsApp family thread that I took myself out of. When they go on vacation for Semana Santa, the rest of the family treats my cousin’s daughter like the servant girl. I instantly want to know her, love her, hug her, and remind her that she is beautiful and worthy. Before I hang up, my cousin says she’s had trouble raising her Haitian daughter. “Esa raza, son muy rencorosos.” I bite my tongue. I want to remind her that my mother is dying of a cold, bitter, hardened heart, but I don’t say anything.
There is a photograph of my grandmother that I have seen a thousand times. In it, my grandmother’s hair is tied neatly in a silky white scarf. It is one of only two photos of my grandmother I’ve ever seen. It was sitting on my mother’s altar the last time I went to visit. Yesterday, I learned that my mother is from a neighborhood in the Dominican Republic now called, Pequeño Haití. Why did my mother leave that part out when she told me her story? Maybe everyone wrapped their hair where my ancestors lived. When I first started wrapping my hair as a young girl, my mother said, “Te pareces a una de esas africanas.” I knew that wasn’t a compliment coming from her lips. She once made me hold open a garbage bag and, as she poured the trash in, said to me, “This is what Black people are to me.” I am a Black woman. I am married to a Black woman. The strange part is that, with time, my mother learned to love the way I tied my hair up like an African woman and now she tells me she wishes she could wrap hers too. Should I read this as my mother’s longing for her mother? Perhaps it’s time for a visit back to Pequeño Haití.
Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas is on view March 15 to April 29, 2018 at BRIC | Arts Media House. Join the essay writers, along with moderator Carolle Charles, Ph.D, for an in-person discussion on Saturday April 28, at 4 p.m. This program has been developed by BRIC and Haiti Cultural Exchange.