31 January 2009

Migration and Human Rights

I've been working on this piece for the past couple weeks. I am responding to an article published in The Tribune Insight (Nassau, Bahamas) on Jan 12th about Haitian immigration (if you want a copy, let me know, I can email it to you).

Trying to figure out the best way to respond has weighed on me... because it is so important and because it was/is hard to write. While I wrote this as a letter to editors of newspapers in Nassau, I plan to continue the writing and turn it into a longer article. And so I see it as a work in progress... there is so much more to say about these issues and concerns. I hope, like others, to create more dialogue and more exchange and more space for us to talk about these issues -- especially my fellow Bahamians and the rest of my Caribbean brothers and sisters.

The Tribune; The Nassau Guardian; The Bahama Journal

Dear Editors,

In response to the recent and ongoing debates about Haitian immigration in the Bahamas, I urge my fellow Bahamians to think about these issues from a place/space of justice and humanity. More specifically, in direct response to John Marquis’ article on the 12th of January in The Tribune’s Insight, I offer a challenge to his racist colonial engagement with history and culture. As a Caribbean scholar, writer, and cultural critic, I feel a great sense of obligation to enter these debates. While I live and work abroad, my spirit is also at home. The work I do as a teacher and community worker is rooted in the struggle for liberation of all people, especially people of African descent and communities who are marginalized. In the university courses I teach, I often discuss issues concerning immigration broadly, particularly in the Caribbean context. I also share my ideas and feelings about these issues at home and abroad, mostly among friends, family, and fellow writers, artists, and scholars. But I have been too silent about the experience of Haitians in the Bahamas in my writing; hence, why I write this letter, knowing full well that you, the editors of our Bahamian newspapers, may not publish it. I know this because other letters in response to these debates, challenging John Marquis particularly, have not been published. But I write this letter anyway—to you and to my fellow Bahamians, in support of the rights of Haitian migrants and Haitian Bahamians.

We in the Bahamas traffic in ugly and hateful language when speaking about Haitians and Haitian Bahamians. Our government policies on “illegal” immigration and the detention of Haitian migrants in the Bahamas is too often inhumane and violates the most basic notions of human rights. We criminalize and deport Haitian migrants who seek refuge in the face of grave danger and the social and political unrest in their country. We depend upon the labour of Haitian migrants everyday, even as we deny them legal rights and/or status to be in the country. We even deny rights to the children of migrants, who are by birth Bahamian citizens. But due to an outdated law that grants automatic citizenship only to those who have Bahamian parents, many Haitian Bahamians remain stateless in their own country because of the difficulty in securing their status. They (like all children of migrants in the Bahamas) have to apply for citizenship at 18—which can take years, especially if one does not have access to legal help. On top of the legal challenges that Haitians and Haitian Bahamians deal with, they are socially stigmatized—from slurs and racial stereotypes to poor treatment at our clinics and hospitals, Haitian people bear much blame for a variety of social ills in Bahamian society. When times are rough, tourism is down, crime is on the rise, and/or people are getting laid off, Haitians are the scapegoats for our troubles, crime, and strapped resources.

I have heard too often from my fellow Bahamians that Haitians are “different” from us, that they are “violent,” and that “they taking over.” I respond by trying to reason with people and call for a sense of humanity. I point out the obvious: that we as people are connected, as Caribbeans, as neighbours, as having common histories and ancestry. But my conversations halt or take a different turn once I indicate my belief in the rights of Haitian migrants to seek political asylum and the rights of Haitian Bahamians to their birthright of citizenship. Sometimes we have arguments, and other times, people say things like “they don’t belong here” or “they need to go back to their country” or “we can’t help and why should we.” I respond with a slew of reasons why we should help and why they do belong here, grounded in human rights, a sense of justice, and also in history. During these moments, it occurs to me that part of the problem here is our lack of knowledge—what we don’t know about the related and connecting histories between Haiti and the Bahamas, and what we don’t know about the region and global relations of power, and how all these are linked to the effects of slavery and colonialism. Some of what we don’t know is the lack in our education systems; some of what we don’t know is because of silence and fear.

And sadly, some of what we don’t know is miseducation, coming from the very sources that are suppose to keep us informed; case in point, Marquis’ imperialist and white colonial view of Haitian and colonial history, which he uses to “prove” his point about the “dangers” of Haitian “illegal” migration into the Bahamas. He uses a very skewed and racist vision of history to support his unfounded argument that Haitians “introduce a violent strain in Bahamian society” and that we come from “different tribal backgrounds,” which is frankly ridiculous and wrong. In the article, he repeats an analogy that he has used before and insists on using again—Haitians entering the Bahamas is like pitbulls mixing with potcakes. By comparing both Haitians and Bahamians to dogs, Marquis participates in a long colonial tradition, started during slavery, one that sees Black people as animals (i.e. scientific racism), and one that views creolization (the mixing of African & European people, languages, & culture) as contamination. Miscegenation (racial mixing) was a threat to colonial white rule during slavery, but European planters and slave owners also depended upon and encouraged the rape of Black women to control the enslaved population, as well as to “produce” and “breed” more bodies for slavery. Marquis claims to have studied Haitian history, yet it is clear he only looks at history and politics from a white colonizer’s perspective, while leaving out and ignoring so much. Marquis’ words are dangerous (as Helen Klonaris has expressed already in her letter to the editor on January 25th), not only because of his racist and imperial gaze on history and culture, but also because he creates and sustains hysteria with his words. He feeds on people’s fear of difference and manipulates the anxieties that Bahamians have about the economy, crime, and migrants straining resources. He predicts that the Bahamas will be “ruined” because of “illegal immigration” in just 10 to 15 years, and he uses false claims about Haiti and Haitian people to support his prediction. He relies on distorted colonial views of history to form his opinion about the current socio-political climate in Haiti and the Bahamas.

We must silence these false claims and inaccuracies. We must do our own research of Haiti, the Bahamas, and the rest of the Caribbean. We should think about how many of us have migrated and sought refuge (for education, for work, for family, for love, for better opportunities) abroad. We should think about how many of us desire to move and live abroad. We should ask ourselves how we want and expect to be treated if/when we migrate. We should really think about what it must feel like to have to flee/escape one’s own home because one has no other choices. To do this, we must think about migration rights and human rights—perhaps migration as a human right. We ought to ask each other questions and uncover the silences and culture of intolerance that bind us. And then maybe we can face certain truths and histories, reflecting on how close we are to Haiti and how long our stories as places, colonies, and countries have crossed.

We need to remember that Haitians have LONG migrated into the Bahamas and have LONG time been a part of the Bahamas and Bahamian culture. If one supports migration rights and human rights, then we cannot support how our government deports Haitians, and we cannot support the statelessness of Haitian Bahamians. We should call on our government to offer more assistance to Haiti. We need to recognize the problems in Haiti are our problems too – people are suffering. We should not discuss the “return” of Haitian migrants until more efforts are made to truly support and help free Haiti from the chains of debt and poverty (these efforts should be led by the Bahamas along with other countries in the region). This should not be seen as a handout, but as genuine regional solidarity and public acknowledgment of our commonalities and complicated histories.

Haiti does not exist in a vacuum. It did not suddenly become destitute or mismanage resources on its own. There are many reasons: tied to all the ways in which global capitalism works and how the Global South feeds/sustains and keeps wealthy the Global North. There are many reasons why Haiti is in political and economic crisis, why it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Some of these reasons have to do with the violent dictatorships and corrupt governments since the 1960s, BUT many have to do with regimes of power (like IMF & World Bank), United States imperialism and their support of dictatorships, and a long history of interference. A history and silenced past too long and complicated to recount here, but I offer a list to begin/open the conversation: The Haitian Revolution in 1804 sparked intense fear across the Caribbean, in the United States, Latin America, and Europe. As a result, Europe and the United States worked to destabilize Haiti; to name a few examples: France demanded 150 million in gold to recognize Haiti as a nation; the U.S. Occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934; Haiti not fully recognized as a republic until well into the 1900s; United States through their Munroe Doctrine continuously interfering in Haiti’s economic and political landscape for their own military and resource interests for over one hundred years.

Haiti like the rest of the (post)colonial world has a context – slavery, colonialism, and new forms of colonialism. This historical/political/social context must be taken into account as we try to understand the present, and as we work towards a better future. A future where we embrace each other regardless of our differences, a future where we love and support each other, a future where we can all be human and free.

Angelique V. Nixon
Postdoctoral Fellow, Africana Studies, New York University
January 31, 2009, New York, NY

20 January 2009

for those who do justice & love

The Inauguration was so uplifting and incredibly special... and while I wish I could have been in D.C. for the big day or surrounded by my peeps and loved ones at a viewing party... a part of me is content that I watched it alone, feeling reflective, having time to let it all sink in... and wash over me. And so now I can write it down and really engage in my thoughts. While it would probably be most appropriate to talk about Obama's speech, which I thought was really good with some surprising moments & expected moments, I want to talk about the benediction and the poem.

First the poem by Elizabeth Alexander - "Praise song for the Day" - at first, I was disappointed, I felt it was too subtle, too broad, not culturally specific enough. I wanted more fire, more energy, something more. I was waiting for this during the reading, as her beautiful metaphors ran through my mind, I was waiting for her to take me somewhere and leave me feeling moved by her message of love. I was not moved until I read it on the page. Now that I have had time to reflect on the piece, I feel its power, its subtle rage, but I still wanted more specificity. I do like that she talks about words and the everyday: "We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider." I like that she speaks of people fixing things that need to be fixed, people wanting more, wanting better lives. I like that she says people are making things - music - "with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice." Subtle in its references to Black cultural production, yet somehow inclusive... praising creativity & daily work.

I am happy that she reminds us to "Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of." For me, this not only an important (re)memory of the labor by African Americans during enslavement, reconstruction, and segregation, but it's also diasporic in its scope (for Africans enslaved in the Americas and their descendants), and casts a wide net to include the many immigrant communities (particularly Asian & Latino/a) that labored and continue to labor in the United States.

I love that she uses "praise song", which is not only an African poetic form, but it also resonates with people who are religious and/or spiritual. I like that it's a "praise song" that is somber as it calls for love to be the root & will for change. But it's a praise song, and I didn't feel that in the poem or the reading. But I find it radical that she asks us to imagine if love was the mightiest of words, what if love was more than marriage, family, and nation... love beyond comfort... asking us to think about love as a radical act. Perhaps this is too touchy-feely for some, perhaps this is too simple, but maybe it needs to be that, maybe we need to start looking at the most obvious solutions... maybe she calls us to create the change we want in our individual lives, in the everyday. (Clearly connecting with Obama's call for being the change we want in the world.)

Surely there is too much hate in the world... so I ain't mad at her for her call of love, her asking us to think about love. I see "love that casts a widening pool of light" as healthy love... love that is not weighted down with obligation or expectations or pain. Maybe this is all too idealistic, and for sure, my cynical self screams out - we need more than love! - and yes, we do need more than love, but I'm willing to start with love.

I've been thinking a lot about how to stay in the struggle, being active in community work and service, being a writer/teacher/scholar/poet, how do we stay healthy, how do we avoid burnout? I feel like we have to take care of ourselves first, we have to stay healthy. Then maybe our work will be more productive, our minds/bodies/spirits will feel renewed & sustained. And that way we can better organize & recruit, and keep ourselves & our comrades/partners/friends in the struggle against oppression, fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and patriarchy - in all the ways that we can do that - in whatever our work is - from the day to day experience, from direct action & campaigns to teaching, writing, & community organizing.

So this brings me to Revered Joseph Lowery's benediction, (the best prayer ever) which I did not expect to love as much as I do. First of all, he started with a verse from the Negro National Anthem - so beautiful, so perfect for the moment! And second, he was brilliant and radical in his references to history and his call for change & justice. And third, he made it ever so clear that we ain't there yet, that we have work to do. I quote at length pieces from the prayer that I want to remember and reflect on:

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

I appreciate his acknowledgment of different religions and spiritual beliefs. I love his call for tolerance and justice. And finally, I am still trippin over how he ended it with such a specific Black cultural reference, and how much it worked for me, and how much I loved it - mostly cause he kept it in the future tense. He wants us to recognize the work we still have to do and understand that just because we have the first Black President of the United States, it don't mean racial injustice, prejudice, or racism goes away. I love that he made this Black vernacular saying so multi-racial, without taking away its multiple and deep meanings for Black people, while opening it up for people of color.

I felt like he built a bridge with his prayer and hopefully made people think about the work we still have to do. We need to push the boundaries of all that divide us, while recognizing & embracing difference, as the great Audre Lorde says, so that we may build strong alliances. This means we cannot ignore race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc. This means we have to do some hard work. It means we have to challenge each other and hold each other accountable, especially our leaders. I was happy to hear Obama say that his administration would be held accountable. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge that rich countries cannot ignore their relationships to poor/developing countries. I was pleased to hear his confidence and determination to make tough decisions - asking us to be a part of the change we want.

I've been curious about how the Obama administration would position itself on civil rights issues & other issues - their agenda is up on the web and very intriguing. I like the policy of transparency, use of technology, and how it seems that they want to keep people in the know about what they do. Time will tell, and these are only items/issues on an agenda... But I'm tryin to keep hope alive...

Check out the new white house agenda on civil rights

I want some of these to be more progressive, but I guess we have to start somewhere... and these actions are way past due...

So I'm sendin Obama a conscious vibration for his first 100 days! and for the next four years! Let's see what changes he makes and hold his administration accountable for what they say & what they need to do.

03 January 2009

taking flight

I dream 2009 to be a year of flight... to be a year of movement and completion. I want to wake up everyday with less fear, I want to sleep at night with accomplishment. I want to feel settled, but at the same time, I desire the freedom to move and travel as I need.

I have many goals, all the things & more that I want to finish, accomplish, and bring to fruition. Sometimes, I can't sleep, feeling all this urgency to do and be... This year I want to stop sometimes and simply enjoy... the rushing and urgency has its place - it gets me in the zone for my work, for my writing. But sometimes, I need space and time and me to fit in between. Being still is incredibly hard for me.

I feel the need to be still this year... to let what needs to happen, happen, but at the same time, directing my flight, and also letting the ancestors guide me.