January 1st is special for Haitians not only because it is the first day of the new year but also because it the date Haiti declared its independence. To commemorate Haiti's 210th anniversary of independence, Bertin Louis (@MySoulIsInHaiti) started the hashtag #ShamelesslyHaitian as a way for Haitians to express pride and educate others about their history and culture. Global Voices spoke to Louis to find out more about the hashtag and his academic work.
Global Voices (GV) : Let us know more about your background.
Bertin Louis (BL) : My name is Dr. Bertin M. Louis, Jr. and I am an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee. I am also the son of Haitians who migrated to the United States in the mid-1960s. Growing up in Staten Island, New York I didn’t really identify with my Haitian heritage until I went to Syracuse University for my undergraduate studies. In the first semester of my junior year, I took a course called “Caribbean Society Since Independence” taught by Dr. Horace Campbell, a Political Scientist of Jamaican descent and a Pan-Africanist. The first book we read was “The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution” by Trinidadian labor historian C.L.R. James. The book had a deep impact on me. When something has a big impact on you, we say in Haitian Creole “Li frape m fò (literally “it hit me hard”). To know that the only successful slave revolt in human history was part of my heritage made me confident in who I was, at the time, and I became more interested in studying more about Haitian history and culture. It really put on the path that I am on today researching and studying the Haitian diaspora and Haiti.
Because the Haitian Revolution was the beginning of the modern human rights movement #ShamelesslyHaitian
— Bertin Louis, PhD (@MySoulIsInHaiti) January 1, 2014
— Bertin Louis, PhD (@MySoulIsInHaiti) January 1, 2014
GV: Were you born in Haiti or are you part of the diaspora? How much of a difference do you think it makes?
BL: I am part of the diaspora who was born in the United States. This makes a big difference because I live in the Colossus of the Western Hemisphere, which has its advantages and drawbacks. For example, I currently study religion (Evangelical Protestantism) and statelessness in the Haitian diaspora of the Bahamas. I interviewed many Haitian migrants as well as their children, who were trying to find a way to live in the United States, where they had family and better prospects for employment and better opportunities to lead dignified lives. My American citizenship is a privilege that they don’t have. Since I am in a privileged position, as a University professor and an American citizen, I feel that it of utmost importance to use my voice, to use my privilege to speak up on the behalf of those whose voices are silenced, like Haitian migrants and their stateless children in the Bahamas, in order to draw attention to their plight. So it makes a big difference as to where I was born because if I was born in the Dominican Republic, I would be stateless and unable to take advantage of the opportunities I currently benefit from as an American citizen.
I'm #shamelesslyHaitian because I make my Epis in a pilon. Not a blender. Take the time to make it right.
— Yve (@yvethepoet) January 1, 2014
Im #ShamelesslyHaitian because when haitians were lying n saying they weren't haitian so they don't get beat up I ALWAYS stated that I was 1
— CassieLaCheri (@Cassie_Xtassy) January 1, 2014
GV: Could you please tell us something about your academic area(s) of interest?
BL: My teaching and research interests span the African diaspora and I interrogate the concept of diaspora through my transnational study of the Evangelical Protestant movement among Haitians in the Caribbean (Haiti and the Bahamas) and the United States. Specifically, I combine multi-sited ethnographic research (in the United States, Haiti, and the Bahamas) with a transnational framework to analyze the practice and growth of Evangelical Protestantism in the Haitian diaspora of the Bahamas. This research has resulted in my first book, My Soul is in Haiti: Migration and Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas,” which will be published by New York University Press in 2014.
My next research project is about stateless Bahamians of Haitian descent, sometimes referred to as “Haitian-Bahamians.” Statelessness refers to an individual who is not considered as a national by any state and affects an estimated 12 million people worldwide. Stateless people do not have a country that they can call their own, lack access to basic political and social rights, such as the rights to vote, marry, and own property, and are also denied access to employment, educational services, and health care. My research will produce a book and articles that should advance theory in citizenship, diaspora, human rights, and statelessness studies and contribute to current Bahamian public policy debates.
#ShamelesslyHaitian The infamous metallic silver cup. Every Haitian house has one.
— Baeroy Lindo (@KayJayFDU) January 1, 2014
The ceremony at Bois Kayiman was presided over by a woman that lit the spark for us #shamelesslyhaitian
— Josephine Baeker (@Vivaciously_Val) January 1, 2014
GV: What particularly inspired you to create this hashtag #ShamelesslyHaitian?
BL: On December 21st, I participated in a hashtag called #ShamelesslyCaribbean and people tweeted interesting and funny comments about the shared experience of being Caribbean/being of Caribbean descent. As the days drew closer to Haitian Independence Day (January 1), I thought about doing #ShamelesslyHaitian to draw attention to Haiti, which is not respected by other nations, and people of Haitian descent, who are not treated like human beings in other nations, as the Dominican Republic’s recent court ruling demonstrates.
Much of the news we learn about Haiti and Haitians is wholly negative. We learn on the news that Haiti is in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with no explanation of how it got that way in the first place. Haitians are denigrated, excluded, and, in some cases, criminalized in the Bahamas, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and the United States (remember the AIDS crisis in its early years in the U.S. and Haitians were one of the 4Hs identified by the CDC as HIV-carriers?). And I thought that there was some potential in creating and circulating a hashtag that gave people of Haitian descent, and their allies, the opportunity to present a different and informative narrative about Haiti and Haitians, that didn’t focus on natural disasters, coup d’etats, governmental instability, stark poverty, AIDS, etc.; a narrative that celebrated Haitian achievements, recuperated the importance of the Haitian Revolution to humanity, and also as a way to educate people about a place and a diaspora that has been grotesquely distorted, demonized, in some cases, in Western history and Western media.
So I floated the idea of contacting some people of Haitian descent to some Twitter friends, asked them if they would participate, and chose the 210th anniversary of Haitian independence to launch #ShamelesslyHaitian at 12 noon Eastern Standard Time.
GV: What has been the impact of social media on the issues you are most concerned about?
BL: I find that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter offer opportunities to learn about issues that are important to me. It’s also a way to be part of a larger community, albeit virtual, based on similar interests and ideas, as these Twitter hashtags demonstrate.
Check out #ShamelesslyHaitian. Lots of gems. Its time we told our own stories that do not start and end with us being the poorest nation.
— Brenda Fady (@cakeandeggs) January 1, 2014
Because without Haiti's help there would be no Louisiana Purchase. #ShamelesslyHaitian
— Sister Outsider (@FeministGriote) January 1, 2014
GV: What is your reaction to the way the hashtag took off? Were you surprised by the way it grew? What does it tell you about the Haitian Diaspora?
BL: I was hoping for some participation with the hashtag and I am glad that it took off in the way that it did. I was mildly surprised but not shocked by its popularity. Based on my research and work in the Haitian diaspora, there’s a sameness of experience, a similarity of experience among people of Haitian descent that forces them to draw on their heritage in the face of discrimination and prejudice. Many tweets dealt with being proud to be Haitian despite the discrimination and teasing kids in the Haitian diaspora experienced growing up.
I think the popularity of the hashtag demonstrates that whether it is in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, the United States, Canada, Haiti, or anywhere else we find Haitians, 210 years after Haitian independence, after the Haitian Revolution, Haitians are still trying to lead dignified lives and that they are struggling to do so.
The image in this post is courtesy of Bertin Louis.