At this very moment, my body is in Esperanza, Valverde, Dominican Republic. I work here and live here, temporarily. Every morning, as I walk to the foundation I teach at, I take a couple of moments to stare into the mountains of the Cibao. The view of these regional mountains seem pixilated, rich hues of green, brown, and blue are sharply cut by waves of what I believe is Crayola’s Purple Mountain Majesty, a purple that inhabited one’s childhood daydreams more than their physical reality.
Majestic. Majestic is a term I would also attribute to my skin color. I am painted with different shades of rich browns, all representing the different paths my ancestors took to ensure my visibility at this time and place. Just as I look at the mountains for its pixilated view, I spend some time every morning looking at my skin in its pixilated state. Granted, to the untrained eye, I am Black, confined to bland “Negro” color from the crayola box. Politically, I am oh so very Black. I am also cognizant of the fact that this “Black” I live in, is a new world creation due to modernity’s creation of the transatlantic slave trade. This Black is still affected by the plantation culture that is ingrained in our new world societies that thrive off the labor of the African Diaspora. And of course, this Black is not meant to live, certainly not to thrive, yet still survives.
I have internalized these thoughts, and use them to guide my perspective wherever I go in the Diaspora. Today, as I work with Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, I have pushed my thoughts to help me rectify my hate for this blatant state of Anti-Blackness masked as a national project to rectify national identity. I have to, because those that are invested in this project of Anti-Blackness do not consider themselves Anti-Black. And as the majority of this island called Quisqueya is of African descent, it troubles me to figure out why many lighter-skinned Dominicans are so quick to discriminate and oppress others that share a similar history- the same ancestors. While others blame ignorance, I know that, at a particular level, hate must be meant to protect or cover something larger- some type of confusion that people are seeking answers for and can’t seem to find.
Henry Louis Gates’ television special on PBS in the Dominican Republic and Haiti- sought to paint out a severely racist Dominican Republic, one that denies its Blackness (as if Dr. Gates does not practice this himself at times)! I argue that Blackness in the Dominican Republic is a visible and somewhat accepted, yet complex state of being. So much so that one without historical, political, and economical context, such as Dr. Gates, can fail to recognize it. Granted, those with darker skin are not particularly in the quintessential standard of beauty. That stance is not a Dominican issue, but a worldwide phenomenon. I believe to further contextualize what Black means here- one has to look back at the mountains of the Cibao. These mountains served as a space of resistance against Spanish and French colonial forces. African and Indigenous people rallied to the mountains to create their own communities and also strategize on how to free their fellow brothers and sisters. Other regions on this island, those more far removed from the general population, as well as spaces that shared natural resources with Haiti served as resistant spaces, or maroon communities, as well. The Dominican “Blacks” as Gates refers to are the descendants of these liberators. However, as they were in the mountains, those on the ground were subjected to state projects of creolization. By the turn of the 19th century, over 70 percent of the Dominican Republic claimed a creolized identity. This identity has been historically propelled by the state as a means to defend Black erasure, from national state projects by former leaders, to black genocide by General Trujillo. It is severely important to note, that within this matrix of race- through the process of whitening, there are numerous ways to conceptualize the color of one’s skin, from moreno, prieto, to claro- but of course, no one really wants to be Negro. Or maybe, no one wants to look like they are west African, or rather of slave descent.
Whatever the case may be, I am and look like I am of West African descent. For this, my body is hyper-visible in the New World, and initially confined to a role of subservience at first glance. This to me explains why A.) I was policed and questioned by the military about my identity during a routine check stop on the bus, B.) why I experienced severe social prejudice in my initial weeks here, and C.) why common cultural sexual harassment is racialized when it’s advanced toward me. Furthermore, my way of dress and speech juxtaposes the presumed Haitian identity I supposedly reveal at first glance, thus my body turns from hyper-visible to hyper surveillanced. I was stopped and asked for papers- not by the state initially, but by a group of lighter – skinned Dominicans who felt uncomfortable, and probably somewhat threatened by my presence on the bus. As I prepared to take the hour long journey into Santiago de Los Caballeros- I reassured myself that I would be treated fairly If I looked my absolute best- my foray into cognitive dissonance I suppose. From the time I left my neighborhood, to my relatively close bus stop on the main street of town, “LA NEGRA, LA MORENA” screamed from the mouths of the local men turned from its usual sing songy manner to a much more aggressive tone. I felt uncomfortable, but reassured myself that it was due to me taking public transit out of the town for the first time by myself. As soon as I went to pay, the older gentleman that took money, let me know he had never seen anyone like me before, “TU ERES BIEN MORENA, LINDA (you are very brown, beautiful)”, “De Donde Eres, Negrita”- to which I responded, “I am not from here, I am from the United States”. Just as one looks at they get a question right while playing jeopardy, he jumped and said “I knew you weren’t from here” and began to let everyone know of my identity. The bus conductor, “cobrador”, wasn’t buying the tale of the majestical black woman in his country- he retorted, “at most that woman is probably from France and moved to Haiti then came here.” I endured many glares and whispers about my appearance before I entered the bus. Just as the bus arrived, the cobrador and his friend, demanded to see my papers- to which I had none. In broken Spanish, I exclaimed that “papers are meant for international travel, and I am only traveling an hour into the closest local city” “I have no papers to show you”- I repeated under my breathe slowly as I search my backpack for anything that proved I was who I was. After seeing the confusion on my face, two women around me reassured the cobrador that I was American because my accent was so apparent. They let me onto the bus, and luckily one of those women that was elderly invited me to sit with her on the bus. During our bus ride, I felt the stares- interrogating me, demanding why this black body with seemly capital would dare disturb their commonality. As I sat with the old lady, she suggested that from that day on, I always carry my papers, straighten my hair, and “look forward”- to maybe suggest that I was Dominican. I looked on at the mountains, while sitting on the bus thinking about her words. I caught myself wondering what space I had just joined, wondering how my ancestors would perceive me as in that very moment, I did not want to be Haitian by all means possible- I did not want to be the black I was proud to be in this new space- but whatever I wanted did not matter, because, according to them I looked like I did not belong. Before I knew it, we were at the checkpoint stop, and I made no eye contact with anyone, just internally. The soldiers nodded, as if there was nothing to stop- and the cobrador jumped from the bus. Everyone stared as he struck up a laughing conversation with a solider. In that very next instant, the cobrador was on the bus pointing directly at me, saying” Haitiana or No”- to which the solider laughed and responded, “of course not.” The rest of my ride was filled with curious silence, and immediate smiles as onlookers noticed my book that was in English.
You see- my American privilege delivered me from what could have been a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, this so-called privilege does nothing for me if I am naked, and/ or mute. A bullet is a bullet, a soldier is a soldier- and when the state decides you are an unwanted foreign body- you essentially become dehumanized. The way I felt in that very moment, dehumanized, is a daily social occurrence with Haitians, and Dominicans of Haitian Descent in the Dominican Republic. From social harassment from other Dominicans, to state removal of citizenship- the rhetoric of Anti-Blackness, is best articulated as “Anti-Haitianess” in the Dominican Republic. My first couple of weeks, I witnessed a 3 year old Haitian boy without underwear returning home from helping his family sell fruits- on his way down a hill, a Dominican boy of about 12 or 13 years of age molested him, with a tree branch as he taunted the boy for the lack of underwear. I underwent passive aggressive racism when my identity was unknown, for at my local colmado (bodega) the owners would say things to other customers like “Stop acting like Haitians, before I think you stole something” and then look at me, unwittingly. I witnessed a police raid, which had a van full of Haitians (probably without documentation on their person) they were driving to the border. I even had a Dominican American expel to me that Haitians are backwards people- that something happened in their human development (which is inline with historical state propaganda). Amidst all this chagrin, I do not “blame” Dominicans as a whole as the source of this violence.
I’ve made genuine Dominican friends- who are not as brown as I. The foundation I intern at, which supports majority Haitian youth, has employed two wonderful, loving, Dominican women as teachers. I have gone to working-class barrios of the town I work in, where I’ve found Haitians speaking Spanish, and Dominicans speaking haitian creole (to a lesser extent of course). There, of course, is not a utopia by any means, but there is an acknowledgment and an understood level of respect for all bodies. The mixing, or rather realigning of Dominicans and Haitians has continued since the beginning of both nations. Til’ this day, the border that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a false illusion by the State, for these Afro-Indigenous people of Quisqueya and Ayiti- move about to find livelihood, to work, and to survive. Thus, I believe this high level of violence against the Black Body in the Dominican Republic is a fault of the current State. The constitution stands now (as of September 2013), that those born to non- citizens from the year 1929 are not eligible for citizenship. The months that ensued publicly for the government at large were horrible (in terms of PR relations), as the state was forced to confront their anti-black, racist statute. However, the latest bill that has passed as of May 2014, has started the procession for citizenship solely for Dominican born children (granted, those that carry a birth certificate). This process should bring light to those who were not eligible before to gain citizenship. Regardless, even this new regulation, organizations such as MUDHA (Movimento de Mujeres Dominico Haitiana) fear that this could create a vulnerable population, as there would still be those ineligible to receive an ID- and of course you need a national ID to do virtually anything legal. In day-to-day life, this translates to loss of employment opportunities, denial of school entrance- public and university, difficulties with legal documents such as inheritance, marriage licenses, etc.
I could relay the countless times the state has been Anti-Black, but that would do a disservice to actual Black Dominicans that have resisted and struggled against such thoughts in their country. That exercise would also fall on deaf ears- as all States in the Americas have had at least legal commentary about disenfranchising its Black population. Rather, this essay proves to shed light on the day-to-day social ills that anti-blackness facilitates in this country. Even though the law has changed, as of last week- I was made aware of an important youth that had his family’s mode of transportation impounded because he had no papers on his body as he was driving his neighbor’s daughters to school. I have also made a friend, who is Dominican of Haitian descent without an ID, who is considering taking a risky boat trip to Puerto Rico so he can fulfill his dream of becoming a nurse. And of course, without bargaining opportunities- the Haitian domestic woman works long hours for very little pay with little hope of the cycle stopping with their children. We know that law usually changes society, but the question is how long will we wait- how long will we as people, especially people of this Black Diaspora be cognizant and critical without action done against the state, or rather those who perpetrate this violence?
I also document my experience in this way as a form of apology for not standing forthright in public with my Haitian brothers and sisters. Although there is a language barrier, our gestures are the same, our humor is the same, even West African aesthetics of beauty and child bearing prove to be a basis of commonality and familiarity. I am Haitian as they are African. Nevertheless, the sheer terror, or rather proximity to death that I would experience if I were to negate my American identity amongst particular Dominican communities has turned me into a coward. That identity is my crutch as I travel around the world allows me to remind people that I too, am Human- and once they see a positive capitalist relationship to my identity-their frowns usually turn upside down, their questions become lighter- necessary help becomes accessible. Alas, as those within the Black Radical tradition saw fit in the 60’s and 70’s, the purpose for this travel is to create sustainable networks of support. Thus, I hope these words see fit to inspire, and support the organizing that is being done on the ground. Racialized oppression is a worldwide phenomenon- we should strive to make an example of the Dominican Republic, for if such racist State measures can be combated here successfully, they’ll serve as a catalyst in the international struggle.
For Further Reading:
2011 “The Onion of Oppression: Haitians in the Dominican Republic.” In Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora. Regine O. Jackson, editor. Pp.51-70. New York: Routledge.
2003 “Not a Cockfight: Rethinking Haitian-Dominican Relations.” Latin American Perspectives 30(3): 80-101.
Katherine McKittrick. ‘Plantation Futures,’Small Axe: A Caribbean Platform for Criticism, 3 42, (November 2013): 1-15.
Sylvia Wynter. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review3.3 (2003): 257-337. Project MUSE. Web. 12 Jun. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.