Haiti and the Dominican Republic Share a Common Hero: Anacaona

Nyugen E. Smith, 'Bundlehouse: Borderlines no. 6,' 2018. Courtesy of the Nyugen E. Smith and BRIC.

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 Ibi Zoboi’s essay, originally titled Anacaona’s Legacy, below.

– Régine M. Roumain, Executive Director at Haiti Cultural Exchange and Jessica Sucher, Senior Manager of Community Engagement at BRIC

I’ve always known that the island-nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic were a microcosm of what has happened to people of color all over the globe. We’ve been taken from our homes, forced to live with new people, and embrace a new land and climate. Our coming here was supposed to be a unifying predicament – and it was for some time and continues to be – but the ultimate goal of our oppressors was to divide and continually conquer over and over again.

The first time I was able to makes sense of what had become of my beloved Haiti in relation to her sister nation, the Dominican Republic, was in Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones. The island of Hispaniola had a dark and light side, according to Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator who wreaked havoc on the lives of Haitians during his tumultuous overt and covert reign from 1930 to 1961. His legacy of hate and anti-blackness continued decades-long after his assassination. Before reading The Farming of Bones, I’d heard about the Parsley Massacre, where Haitians in the Dominican Republic were forced to say perejil in order to gauge their Dominicanness. But this story placed fictional names, faces, and entire lives into this moment in time. A generation of men, women, and children were lost to this flawed idea of racial purity. Even Black Dominicans suffered at the hands of their own leader, including the Mirabal sisters who were fighting against the Trujillo dictatorship.

In June 2010, I visited Haiti for the first time as an adult. It was six months after the devastating earthquake, and on my flight there, I ran into historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Later I discovered that he was in Haiti to film his documentary, Black in Latin America, about the triumphs and struggles of people of African descent. No other country highlighted in the series revealed the prevalence of anti-blackness as much as it is in the Dominican Republic.

While I didn’t visit the Dominican Republic on my trip, I did encounter a few street peddlers who spoke only Spanish. Dominicans who might as well have been Haitians.

This border of ours is a line blurred. And the only thing that continually keeps us divided is this long standing legacy of colonialism and slavery.

My late father had married a Dominican woman. She was fair-skinned with a headful of thick, curly hair. So I have a half sister and half brother who are half Dominican. This is my only connection to the sister nation. Skin color is a divisive thing in a country like Haiti. Lighter skin is a reward, a direct ticket to success. This is an old relic from colonialism and we hold on to it as if our lives depend on it.

I once taught at a middle school in the South Bronx. The student population was mostly Dominican and West African. I’d never seen so much divisiveness among middle school girls. There was a clear line down the middle. The Dominicans interacted with only Dominican girls and the West African girls stayed together. I thought it was so ironic that a country that prided itself on its proximity to Spain and its distance from all things African, including Haiti, would have its daughters face-to-face with girls from Senegal, Guinea, and Ghana – all of whom have some of the most beautifully, rich brown complexions I’d ever seen.

History has a way of healing itself, only if we see it that way and allow it.

Amara La Negra, a Dominican recording artist, has gained national attention as a star on the show Love & Hip Hop: Miami and has been speaking out against colorism in mainstream media. Her presence as a dark-skinned Dominican who embraces her sensuality has been a healing balm. Haitian artists like Michael Brun have also defied expectations of what Haitians look like. Overall, artists from both sides of the island are raising their voices and slowly stripping away these remnants of oppression.

It’s my hope to continually write about Haitian and Dominican teens pushing back against destructive ideas and policies that affect their lives. This will then become part of the larger conversation around white supremacy’s effect on young people all around the world. It starts with naming the problems, defining them, and dismantling them: colorism, anti-blackness, internalized white supremacy, and even antihaitianismo.

After all, Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a common hero: Anacaona, the Taino chief who averted Spanish invasion on the island for over more than 10 years. She ruled the independent province of Xaragua until she was the defeated by the Conquistadors. We are duty bound, together, to uphold the resilient legacy of Anacaona. It’s mandated by the land, the mountains, and the rivers we share.

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.