Veteran Pittsburgh journalist and author Erv Dyer, PhD, along with other local journalists, will travel to Haiti in October. Dyer explains the significance of his upcoming trip, in the first of a monthly series of Courier stories leading up to the departure
Why go to Haiti?
I have to begin to answer that question with another: why go to the Hill District, Homewood, or Harlem?
Because Black space matters.
Haiti, like its smaller cousins, the urban Black communities of Harlem, the Hill District, and Homewood, has long suffered from the gaze of those who look at these communities and see nothing—except the resources that can be exploited and extrapolated: people, culture and art. Or too many see it only through the lens of biased media, where centuries of long, dark narratives show Haiti as a destitute nation that offers nothing but disease, death, and deprivation.
My friend and Haitian scholar, Yven Destin, has studied how media images and coverage shape such a bleak and blighted frame about Haiti. In his work, he discovered the mainstream media often focused on Haitians as being needy boat people, HIV carriers, and uncivilized. A steady media distortion that left Haitians framed as threatening, polluted, and primitive.
I first became more intimately aware of Haiti a little over a decade ago. Leon Pamphile, a Haiti native, worked as a teacher and preacher in Pittsburgh. At the time, I worked as a local reporter and he called to see if our paper could put in a notice about local celebrations recognizing Haiti’s anniversary of independence from France.
ERV DYER, PhDThe more I chatted with Pamphile, now a bishop serving some of the most impoverished communities in Haiti, the more I became interested in his own climb from rural Haiti to holding a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh.
By the end of our conversation, I had encouraged Pamphile to let me write a feature on his own life. We became friends. Eventually, Pamphile invited me to Haiti, to see the work he was doing to bring literacy, medical care, and hope to the people in the valley and hills where he walked as a child. Led by his Christian faith, he founded the Functional Literacy Ministry of Haiti, or FLM-Haiti, to give back to the people of his homeland.
Another invitation to Haiti came from a more unusual source: Langston Hughes. The Black American poet has had a deep influence on my life and writing career. Hughes had come to Haiti in 1932 and met the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain. The two stayed in touch and wrote about race, class, and oppression among the people of the African diaspora.
Hughes, in Haiti, discovered the joy of spending time with what he called “the people without shoes,” the hardworking everyday folks whose culture and lifestyle he embraced. I wanted to discover these people and find this joy, too. I wanted to walk where Hughes walked and be inspired and renewed by taking the same journey.
So, about a decade ago, I went to Haiti.
Like people who only know of Black spaces in the narrowest of ways, I feared it. It was largely unknown. I knew the country had a long history of oppression by western powers, from slavery to rebellion and freedom, then to United States military occupation and a debilitating cycle of political coups and conflicts. And then, of course, the earthquake. My family prayed. And, I boarded the plane for Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
But after visiting Haiti for a week, I felt at home. There was something familiar about it. Visiting the rural areas was like visiting my grandmother’s farm in Hanover County, Va.
Most intimately, what I saw was a people and a culture who reminded me of my grandmother and her way of life. I recognized the grace and fervor with which Haitians sang their worship hymns. I recognized the rice and chicken that was served for dinner. I recognized the way that, amid such insecurity, family and neighbors bonded to care for each other.
I learned that Haiti, despite its complicated challenges, is defined by the rich and vibrant culture of its people and not the dark, one-dimensional media depictions.
But more broadly, Haiti reminded me of Harlem, the Hill District, and Homewood. What I saw in Haiti was the same spirit I see in many Black spaces: a determination of its people to survive and live free. I saw their beautiful art, heard their beautiful music, and heard their pleas to work in partnership with others to make their nation better.
In this Black space, I found my mission.
It is to share the story of Haiti, and other Black spaces, as fully as possible. When we travel there in October, it will be my fourth visit to the land of Toussaint L’ouverture, the Haitian independence leader who chased away the enslaving French. We’ll be visiting spaces where Haiti children are writing their own stories. We’ll visit museums where Haitians tell their history. We’ll visit the fortress the Citadelle, one of the most awe-inspiring sites in the world. And, we’ll have conversations with the locals, hearing in their voices what they think of their nation’s politics, culture, and challenges. With luck, we’ll have these conversations over rice and beans, reminiscent of the meals and spirit we shared at my Grandmother’s house.
History, culture, faith, food, and hope. Yes, Black spaces matter.
That’s why we’re going to Haiti.
To read the second part of this Courier series, click the link below.
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