Dangerous Unselfishness With Dr. King in Haiti and America

Plough, by Edwidge Danticat, April 4, 2018

Edwidge DanticatSome years I celebrate my birthday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Though he was born on January 15, and I on January 19, depending on the year’s calendar we might end up with kind words being said about both of us on the same day. This year, though, was not one of those times. The Monday of the King holiday fell on his actual birthday and mine followed, just as it should, four days later.

For nearly a decade now, my birthday has been rather complicated. On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck my native Haiti, nearly destroying most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and a few other cities nearby. That earthquake killed a reported three hundred thousand people and left one and a half million homeless. Léogâne, the town where my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were born, was near the epicenter, and many people I knew there died.

Since the earthquake, January has been an agonizing month, though it begins gloriously with the commemoration of Haitian independence on January 1. On that day, in my family and many others, we drink a delicious squash soup, which was previously considered too luxurious for the enslaved and was consumed only by those who had enslaved us. On January 2 we celebrate Jours des Anciens or Jour des Aieux – Heroes and Ancestors Day – a day on which we honor those who came before, particularly the ones who fought and died for our independence.

When I was a girl, on Heroes and Ancestors Day, I and the other children in my family would dress in our finest clothes and visit our relatives, who would treat us to a piece of cake and a small dose of a bright red syrupy liqueur (likè) then hand us a few coins (zetrenn) which, after many such visits throughout the day, would end up in a windfall that would make us feel rich. January 6 was Les Rois – Three Kings Day or the Feast of the Epiphany – which honors the day the Magi arrived with their gifts for the baby Jesus. January 6 also meant the end of the Christmas season and a return to school or work. By then many people in Haiti would already be thinking about carnival, which would follow in a few weeks.

King’s life and death are about our bearing witness to one another’s survival.

January 12, like the King holiday, falls between those observances and my birthday, turning the first weeks of the first month of the year into a series of life-affirming celebrations mixed with commemorations of deaths. Both January 12 and 15 are days when I now stop to honor the dead. My cousin Maxo and his son Nono are the closest relatives of mine who died in the earthquake, but I also lost many friends as well as more distant family members. It might not seem fitting to put Maxo and Nono on the same plane as Dr. King – Maxo and Nono were not internationally known and they were killed by Mother Nature rather than men – but Dr. King’s life and death and the King holiday are not just about him. King’s life and death are also about the demise of thousands who came before him, his own heroes and ancestors, as well as those who fought alongside him, those whose blood also soak this land, which immigrants like me now call home.

The first King holiday was observed on January 20, 1986, the day after I turned seventeen. On that birthday, I went to church with my parents and three brothers, and afterwards we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. The following morning, in spite of it being the holiday, my mother went to her job at a handbag factory, while my father went to his as a freelance or “gypsy” cabdriver. My parents rarely had any time off, except on Sundays.

My brothers and I watched the first King holiday observances on television. There were marches in many cities around the United States. In Atlanta, after laying a wreath on Dr. King’s grave with Coretta Scott King, ­then–Vice President George H. W. Bush attended services at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s home church, alongside Bishop Desmond Tutu, who received the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize for fighting apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid had not yet ended in South Africa and Nelson Mandela was still in jail.

“We are going to be free,” Bishop Tutu declared. “We know we are going to be free. When we are free, we will remember who helped us to become free.”

Dr. King was certainly one of those who wanted to see South Africa free. In a December 10, 1965 address at Hunter College, he said:

“Africa has been depicted for more than a century as the home of black cannibals and ignorant primitives. Despite volumes of facts contraverting this picture, the stereotype persists in books, motion pictures, and other media of communication. Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians.”

In April of that same year, the United States had invaded the Dominican Republic over fears of communist expansion in the region. “We inundated that small nation with overwhelming force, shocking the world with our zealousness and naked power,” Dr. King said of the invasion of Haiti’s closest neighbor. “With respect to South Africa, however, our protest is so muted and peripheral it merely mildly disturbs the sensibilities of the segregationists, while our trade and investments substantially stimulate their economy to greater heights.”

He called for the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and other nations to boycott South Africa: “No real national interest impels us to be cautious, gentle, or a good customer of a nation that offends the world’s conscience.”

The world’s conscience, he seemed to suggest, should be offended by all types of injustice, no matter the victim nor the source. As he said in December 1965, “The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains.”

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Edwidge DanticatEdwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously, and Claire of the Sea Light. She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow. Edwidge Danticat is Haitian-American.


Categories Education, Haiti News | Tags: | Posted on April 5, 2018

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