Black and White Together?

by Chloe Jeffreys · 16 comments

in Haiti

black and whiteAll throughout the drive through Haiti’s capitol of Port-au-Prince, and the long trek up the windy mountain road to the city of Hinche, the only white faces I saw were the other three women sitting inside the cage in the back of the pink jeep with me. In fact, the only other white faces I ever saw during my entire time in Haiti were those belonging to the other volunteers for Midwives for Haiti.

Seeing the World in Black and White

I realized while in Haiti that never in my life have I ever considered “white” as a go-to adjective I’d use to describe myself.

Blonde? Yes.

White? No.

But driving around a country where I stood out in sharp contrast, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, white and black was all I could think about. Why exactly are the poorest people in the world black? And what does my being white have to do with that?

Slaves No More

Haiti stands second in the triumvirate of important revolutions (In order: American, Haitian, and French) that changed colonialism forever. In 1804, Haiti became the first–and remains the only–successful slave revolt in the history of the world. (Sorry Spartacus, I know you gave it a good effort.)

While the American and French Revolutions were organized and orchestrated by highly literate, upper middle-class men who knew a lot about the history of government, and had clear ideas about how they wanted their newly formed governments to work, the Haitian Revolution was carried out by primarily illiterate slaves who did not know how to establish a healthy, functioning government. All they knew was that they didn’t want to be slaves anymore under what is said to be one of the most egregiously brutal slave systems ever known to man.

The Road to Haiti is Paved with Good Intentions

As I passed by the hundreds of black faces lining the roads, pausing from their daily activities to watch our pink jeep filled with white women drive past, I wondered, “What do these people think of us white do-gooders? Are they glad we’re here? Or do they resent us–maybe even hate us for our interference in their lives–and wish we’d just go away and leave them alone?”

I couldn’t help but remember that scene from the Tick cartoon, The Tick vs Pineapple Pokopo, where three secret agents show up at The Tick’s front door and say, “We’re with the government.” and Tick responds with, “Well, no thanks, we’ve got all the government we need.”

Has Haiti had all the white do-gooders it needs?

I wondered, was I really even needed in Haiti, or was this simply a macabre sort of tourist trip engineered to assuage my previously unexplored sense of white guilt?

As we drove by, a few people smiled and waved at us, but mostly the people just stared. Some even scowled and looked downright angry. Maybe they were just angry at the way the jeep kicked up dust and blew it into their faces. I don’t know. My creole isn’t too good.

Why had I come to Haiti? Did I fancy myself the great, white savior coming to help these poor, pitiful black people? Did my color or their color really have anything to do with anything? Isn’t suffering colorblind? Wasn’t I just a skilled healthcare worker here to help Haitians gain the skills necessary to take care of their own? Wasn’t I teaching a man to fish? Isn’t that good?

Even more troubling to me was my wondering whether or not suffering really is colorblind.

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee

After years of foreign control and interference in Haiti, and crazy embargoes imposed by my own government that resulted in the starvation and death of infants, were the Haitian people ultimately being punished by the entire white world for being black and having the audacity to say NO! to white domination?

I have no answers to these questions. I am afraid to even write them out loud. What I do believe is that my government likely sponsored the military coup d’etat that unseated and deported the only legitimate democratically-elected president of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide. What’s up with that? Isn’t my country supposed to stand for freedom and democracy? Or am I supposed to just turn a blind eye and trust that my government knows best even if that means that its actions might be contributing to babies dying of starvation?

What is my complicity in the miserable situation in Haiti, and could I do anything about it?

Was my being in Haiti part of the solution, or was my presence contributing to the problem? I really just didn’t know as I pondered these questions on my way to Hinche.

About 20 minutes before we arrived at our destination, we were hit by a heavy rainstorm, and all my doubts and questions were washed away. What did it matter what color I was, or what skin color had to do with anything anyway? I was already in Haiti; it was too late for questions like that.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim October 31, 2013 at 9:13 pm

It amazed me when I traveled to Cambodia in 2000 how even in the worst conditions people can do so much with so little if they can just acquire some basic skills and resources that we in the US have in such abundance. What you will be teaching them is one such set of skills and it will change lives. Not a nation maybe but that’s not really your mission anyway.

And I just have to golf clap the Tick reference. Well played, ma’am. It isn’t often I encounter a fellow Tick fan. :)

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Chloe Jeffreys November 1, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Thanks Jim for this encouraging comment. I did come to feel that my purpose there was for good, but on that first day I really wondered what the heck I was doing there. It’s like being handed a Dixie Cup and told you have one week to empty the Pacific Ocean. But once I began to focus on doing just one thing at a time it got much better.

And as far as I’m concerned, The Tick was one of the great philosophers of the 20th Century.

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Tammy October 31, 2013 at 10:38 am

So grateful for the sharing. Blessings to you, my friend, for all you do. Respect! Loved reading the adventure!
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Chloe Jeffreys November 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Thanks Tammy! That means a lot to me. It was an adventure of a lifetime.

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Laura Lee Carter aka the Midlife Crisis Queen October 30, 2013 at 8:22 am

Yes, Chloe. Your experience, so well written about here, is one of the main reasons I wish every American could go be a minority in some other country for just a week. I had that experience in Thailand near the end of the Vietnam War (“Yankee Go HOME!”), and in Taiwan and in rural China in the 1980s. Being the only European-American some have ever seen is a memorable experience. It puts it all in perspective really. Growing up in such a large, prosperous country, where everyone speaks your language, can give you a very unrealistic view of life on earth. Get out and see the world most face everyday!

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Chloe Jeffreys October 30, 2013 at 8:48 am

Laura, this is very good advice.

I remember my first trip to Italy and learning that other people in the world have great lives (better than Americans!) and wonderful cultures (better than Americans!).

It is easy to become myopic in America, and start thinking that we’ve got all the answers when we really don’t.
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A Pleasant House October 30, 2013 at 7:59 am

All good questions. Let’s try to answer them…
Why has Haiti’s experiment in democracy been fraught with failure? Bc the men who fought the revolution had no ‘plan’ for democracy. You need a plan.
Do the Haitians resent whites?Yes. Whites remind them of their inability to thrive under their own rule.
Why do people come to Haiti to help? Because there is need.
Why do people come to Haiti at all? Because they think they can make some kind of long-term difference.
Does any of it matter? Yes. But probably not in the long-term.

But we will keep trying.
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Chloe Jeffreys October 30, 2013 at 8:53 am

I think these are some valid answers.

One can hardly blame the original revolutionaries for not having a plan, or being able to formulate one. All they wanted was to overthrow their slave-masters. That, in and of itself, is a worthy goal, but clearly wasn’t enough to create a functioning society. It sort of reminds me of what happens when children of alcoholics grow up and get married and recreate the mess of their own childhoods. They really don’t want to do that, but they don’t know any better way.

Of course, Haiti needs help. Desperately. These are the questions I asked myself on my first day there, and not the conclusions I ultimately drew from the experience.
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Connie McLeod October 29, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Theses are very important questions to ask. While Ii don’t expect you to have the answer, I am interested in hearing about what opinion you have about Haiti now that you’ve returned.
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Chloe Jeffreys October 29, 2013 at 9:29 pm

I want to tell the stories of what I saw and did before I attempt to describe any conclusions I’ve come to. Haiti is a very complicated place, with extremely complicated problems. I’m not sure they’re solvable in our lifetime.
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Julie Chenell DeNeen October 29, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I often have the same feeling about youth sponsored mission trips. How much do they help, and how much of it is for the sake of getting a “good” medal to put on one’s resume? Of course, not helping? Can you imagine a world without missionaries and do-gooders? That would be scarier…God works even through ill-intentioned people (though the fact that you even ponder these questions means you are self-aware enough to not just parade your Haiti trip around like a gold medal and can actually be an agent of change in this world).
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Chloe Jeffreys October 29, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Julie, I’ve thought this too. All the money spent sending kids on short-term mission trips. Would it be better to just send money?

But sending money to Haiti is NO solution at all. I do think the work Midwives for Haiti is doing is exactly the sort of work that needs to be happening. Equipping Haitians to solve their own problems is most likely to yield real results in the long term. At least that’s what I think.
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Stephanie November 2, 2013 at 7:07 pm

“Equipping Haitians to solve their own problems is most likely to yield real results in the long term.”

Yes, this.

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Magnolia October 29, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Interesting questions. Probably inevitable when you see human suffering. I’m not one to jump on the “my country is so awful and look what it did to these poor people” bandwagon, however.

I do not recall much about Aristide, but I have my doubts that he was above reproach. Haiti has had more than their fair share of political tyranny. I don’t think we are the source of it, however.
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Chloe Jeffreys October 29, 2013 at 9:32 pm

I think it is very difficult to hold a starving baby in your arms and not ask yourself these sorts of questions. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mags. It means a lot to me.
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