Opinion: The Message of the Debate Over ‘Little Haiti’

(Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre via The Haitian Times)

In the early 1990s, Una S. Clarke was a councilwoman representing the 40th district in Brooklyn who said that “Haitians were the Hasidics of the Caribbean community,” while addressing a meeting of a group of Haitian-American professionals in Manhattan.

What she was trying to convey was that we were seen in the larger community as being deeply insular and anti-social. While I remained quiet during the meeting, I took offense at those comments. But those words gave me much to ponder.

Were we really that insular? Were we misunderstood and if so, why? Later in that decade, those words still haunted me and they were one of the catalysts that drove me to leave my comfortable perch as a reporter at the New York Times to launch The Haitian Times.

I truly believed that unless we open ourselves to the larger community, we would always be seen as an awkward group of immigrants who keep to themselves. I could see why someone who considers herself a friend of the Haitian community would be candid in her assessment of us.

That sentiment reared its ugly head once again last week when a political operative in Brooklyn took offense to an effort to officially name a swath of Flatbush, “Little Haiti.” The problem is that there is already a movement underway to designate the area as “Little Caribbean.”

Ernest Skinner, a political operative in Brooklyn, wrote a scathing letter to Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, who is pushing the Little Haiti effort.

“This is very misguided! When did Haiti stop being part of the Caribbean?,” Skinner wrote. “This is the same insularity, which sunk the fledgling Caribbean Federation. Sowing division may be why Haiti has never been able to reach its full potential and why it is considered a Fourth World country despite the noble start it gave to the Independence movement among people of color. In Brooklyn, for many years now there has been TALK of a Little Haiti along lower Nostrand Avenue. What have you Haitians done to advance THAT?”

Skinner is variously described as a crabby septuagenarian and a iconoclast who speaks his mind. That all may be true, because I don’t know him and have never met him. But it is clear that he holds Haitians in contempt.

Haiti may be a fourth world nation, but Haitian-Americans are showing what happens when audacity meets opportunity.

The problem for us Haitians is that unlike any other Caribbean groups, we came here in the early 1960s as exile fleeing a brutal dictatorship. In our mind and hearts living in the cold climate of New York was always a temporary stay. As soon as the dictator left, we would return home to resume our laid-back lifestyle. Haiti had become a place where people lived in constant fear of the authorities so the less contact with officials, the better off you were. Another challenge we faced is that we weren’t native-born English speakers and we kept to ourselves out of a sense that we lack command of it. The prejudice that comes with the color of our skin also made us uneasy.

So with these three strikes against us, we kept to ourselves. But New York is never kind to those who resist the lure of assimilation as we were doing. So as a new generation of highly-educated Haitian-American professionals were emerging, I decided it was time to open up ourselves to the great mosaic that is New York City. The Haitian Times was part of a coterie of organizations and people who felt that the larger community should know more about us, particularly our cuisine, art and music.

Haitians, particularly the youth, begin to wear the flag proudly. We got so involved that the organizers of the West Indian American Carnival Parade held on Labor Day at Brooklyn’s majestic Eastern Parkway began resenting our participation. In an ironic twist of fate, they said our numbers and lack of elaborate costumes was taking the shine and pageantry away from their parade.

Haitians also began to flex some political muscle during that time, first by supporting candidates and later by fielding candidates of Haitian origins, eventually winning a few seats in the New York State Assembly and one New York City council seat.

But the enmity against Haitians reared its ugly head again when one of those elected official Rodneyse Bichotte sought to have a swath of Flatbush Avenue officially named “Little Haiti.” The area, which encompasses Nostrand Avenue, Clarendon Road, Flatbush Avenue, Church and Ocean avenues in Flatbush, is often affectionately referred by that moniker and I suppose Bichotte wanted to make it more meaningful.

But that effort, whatever one might think of it, unleashed Skinner’s vitriol. Skinner is a political mentor of Councilman Jumaane D. Williams.

What is interesting is that the usually outspoken Williams, who is running for City Council speaker, has said little on the controversy. He issued a comment to The Haitian Times and Kings County Politics calling the language in Skinner’s email “hurtful.” Williams has presented himself as a champion of the Haitian community and has hired a couple of Haitian staffers and is widely liked by the Haitian community.

What this controversy shows me is that despite the efforts we’ve made, the road remains rocky and lengthy. We should take Skinner and what he represents as a challenge for us to rise up and cast aside internal petty differences and unite to build a stronger community.

A lot of energy is being spent on this controversy. What we need to do is channel our effort where it truly matters.

While I’m elated at the progress we’ve made in the last 20 years, this new generation has to realize we still have a long road ahead and we need to turn our attention to economic empowerment, the ultimate arbiter of an assimilated group that is not divisive.

This story was originally published in The Haitian Times.

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