Every year, Black August serves as a month of reflection, resistance, and education for the Black liberation movement. Initially created in 1979 by movement leaders jailed in California to remember fallen comrades, the month has grown in importance in recent years.
Grassroots International is commemorating the month with a series of reflections from our recent delegation to Haiti. In June, Grassroots and Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD) brought a team of Black women activists to learn from Haitian social movements.
Gina Athena Ulysse spoke with Grassroots International Communications Associate Chris Morrill. She is a feminist artist-anthropologist-activist and self-described Post-Zora Interventionist, and she currently teaches anthropology at Wesleyan University.
Can you talk a little bit about why the delegation was significant for you?
First of all I’m Haitian. Second of all, I’ve studied Haiti and have written about Haiti. So I’m very familiar, maybe too familiar, with certain things in Haiti. So going in with a delegation, with people who may not have had that knowledge, there was some trepidation on my part. But there was such genuine care, conscientious effort put into setting the stage for the delegation to be successful. That was amazing, and the preparatory work was so important and significant.
The team that worked on this delegation understood that. I’m in academia where people are in their heads too much. The way things were set up allowed for the human element to take hold. You can only prepare so much. And that only gets done when the parties involved are determined to let the experience be and not overwrite the experience that you might want it to be. That says something about the organization. It says something about Grassroots that you are going to go in this delegation not to have a particular kind of experience but to have whatever experience we can.
That’s two different things. That means you’re letting “the field” speak: you’re not going to frame the field in such a way that there is only one point of entry and one point of exit. This is also a big shout out to Mina. I told her, “You did it with fashion sense.” She’s so centered, genuine. She and Denise [from BOLD] created the kind of space both physically, emotionally, mentally, and with a level of awareness to then allow for all of us to be whatever we wanted to be? That’s a huge accomplishment. Haiti ended up shining and then Grassroots and BOLD ended up shining: to have people with the openness and humility to be grateful, respectful.
Mina mentioned you have strong ties to PAPDA and through this delegation you developed a real passion for the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP).
I’m MPP for life [laughs]. Because you’ve got to be able to dream. I teach a course called Haiti Between Anthropology and Journalism. I give students access to journalistic writing in Haiti and anthropological writing about Haiti, to look at the different approaches so we can figure out what’s really going on there. One of the books features MPP, but I’ve never really been on the ground with MPP. I’ve known about them, I’ve read a lot about them, but I’ve never been on their compound, let alone had the kind of interaction that I had with them on the delegation.
Especially with what’s happening in the U.S. right now, watching this implosion of late capitalism, this extreme wealth, and colonialism and empire building, it was so important to have MPP as an example of what its meant to be in the long struggle. We can learn from the folks that know. Like their motto says “organize or die;” we are literally seeing that happen right now. If you’re not organized your death is imminent.
Seeing what they’ve managed to do hit a very personal place for me, as someone who is ready to leave teaching. I think we are failing young people, the more the university system has become this neoliberal machine. Teaching is no longer a higher vocation; it’s no longer about humanity. It’s about getting skills and tools. But what’s at the heart of MPP? Education. What they said to us is that, “if you don’t know how to read then we’ll use storytelling. If that doesn’t work then we’ll use parables.” At the end of the day the thing that is going to work is extending your consciousness. It’s about opening up your mind, so you have a sense of the world that’s global, but also personal; that’s structural, but also individual.
I imagine it must have been really profound to see them utilizing every tool to raise consciousness and build their movement. given the profound crisis in Haiti that has its similarities, and its roots here, That must have been really incredible.
And people were so kind, so thoughtful. It was a lesson in solidarity in practice. In the US we talk about solidarity, and on some level, in some way, in certain circles, it’s just something you pay a service to. And then there’s the reality of what that really means. In practice, you show up.
Talk a little bit more about that. How important was this delegation in building and facilitating that solidarity?
Solidarity requires time. One of the things that came out of this whole delegation is first, “I see you.” Seeing yourself in people and having other people see you. And that happened. A stage was made for something to happen that may not happen tomorrow. It may not happen for a while, but we were transformed in our own ways. What came through was that when a group of people show up at 5 o’clock in the morning for a meeting with you… If you didn’t know what it meant to be in conversation with people who are all in the same struggle, you know now. You’re forced to see the privilege you have. The time you have. And the comfort you had, to be able to take your time… people waited for hours. For them, the connection is that critical. Though we have our own struggles, the minoritized position in this country is still a U.S. privilege in Haiti.
How has this delegation redefined your blackness, your black feminist identity?
One of the things that was beautiful about the trip was that we all made space for each other. It allowed us to engage with Haiti wherever Haiti was. Denise from BOLD was very deliberate in this. There was a care team, there was a debriefing team and a gathering team. That made us responsible for each other, aware of each other, cognizant of each other. There was an element of care that was not rhetoric. I don’t believe for a moment these connections are over.
How we got prepared, all the phone calls, all the reading we did, there was an awareness. People were open to the complexity of Haiti. That’s a testament to how you all do your work. When USAID or the International Monetary Fund go in, they go in with their narrative. If you have a grassroots perspective, you respect people. If that’s your center, that’s your point of entry, it’s going to be different than “they’re like this, so get me this story and get me that story.”
Thinking about moving forward, what sort of lessons do you hope this delegation brings to the movements in this country. How do you think those lessons and experiences can be projected outward?
Everyone who was in this delegation was transformed in our own way. One lesson is having that kind of exposure to the ground, and appreciating the ground. I was so close to the earth for so many days — being in nature, and seeing the significance of what the land means to people in Haiti, how people care for the earth. 90 percent of the country is not Port-o-Prince, but people don’t know that. So being exposed to the countryside was significant.
Another lesson came from seeing MPP and others’ commitment to achieve another possibility. If you don’t actually think in a more positive way, if you don’t have a vision, you’re not going to build anything. You need to have hope. Even in the worst of situations, you need to find that space where a little light can go.
The other thing that came through is the commitment to the long term. Grassroots’ work, real work — we’re not getting out in one week. It’s a long-term struggle. There was an appreciation for how time impacts things.
But I also think what came out of it was the common theme of global capitalism. We are all facing it. We know it in theory but now we got evidence. In creating pan-africanist, global black diasporic consciousness — this delegation really contributed to that in a big way. That’s not a small thing. If we think about moments in history where there was global black consciousness, it has always helped us to make a shift, to understand what it means to be in solidarity. It didn’t matter if the person was working in domestic violence, or with Resource Generation, Domestic Workers Alliance. We came to recognize that if you’re poor, if you’re a particular class, this is the lot in life you end up with. How then do you intervene and make a change? Solidarity is essential.
Volunteer transcription provided by Leonie Rauls.