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.
For this installment, Ninaj Raoul spoke about how connections and history can strengthen our struggles. She is a member of the Grassroots International Board of Directors and is a co-founder and community organization for Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR).
What are you organizing around, and how did you get connected with the delegation?
We organize largely around immigration, and we do workers’ rights advocacy as well. The legal work has taken over. We have a lawsuit set up against Homeland Security, based on racism around the TPS cancellation, that we’re doing together with NAACP Legal Defense Fund. So we should be hearing back from the government any day now.
We also raise a lot of awareness of the situation in Haiti around how the US imposes their policies in Haiti and how it hurts Haiti. Often times, people reach out to us when there is a disaster in Haiti and they want to know how they can help, send solidarity. It’s a good opportunity for us to speak to schools and students and media in general, about the good problems in Haiti. Because the focus is always that Haiti is so poor and not why Haiti is poor. So it gives us an opportunity to go back to the history and explain why. And to let them know how US policy has been hurting Haiti. So that’s also part of our work, raising awareness.
We also do some solidarity with women’s groups, women run groups. And we have also organized around the issue of denationalization of people in the Dominican Republic of Haitian immigrants. We did a documentary on the birth rights crisis. We spent 10 years documenting things.
[block]When we meet together with the Hondurans, the Salvadorians, the folks in other countries that have TPS like Nicaragua, the Central Americans are talking about the history of Haiti and the resistance, as well as their own histories.[/block]
Certainly denationalization there has its parallels in this country.
Yes, there are lots of parallels nowadays. Even though we’ve been working on that film since 2005, we often go into schools to share our documentary. And folks over here, kids, relate this to their current situation. Whether it’s their families being immigrants, whether it’s gentrification and their landlord pushing them out, they would connect with it. A lot of folks immediately connected the issue to the US-Mexico border and would draw the parallel there.
Given your long-standing work with Haiti, what’s your feeling about the significance of this particular delegation?
I go to Haiti often, but this particular delegation was really special. I loved the approach of the delegation — that this was a group of black women organizers who were going to Haiti to learn about the Haitian experience, to learn about the history of resistance and hopes that they can affect their work over here. This was very different from a lot of the delegations I’ve been on.
I’ve been on some delegations that were cultural, but this was different. I’ve been on some where people go to learn about dance and drumming, and some history. But this was different because we got to sit with different groups in Haiti who organize around different issues, and learn about their current work. We also went to maroon spaces where we got to learn about that history.
As I mentioned, people will go down to Haiti during disasters. They often ask me “do you have any suggestions,” and I always say, “listen to the Haitian people, learn from them, connect with the organizers on the ground. Don’t go down there and thinking you’ll tell Haitians what to do.” A lot of people think “we’re going to help, we’re going to show them how it’s done.” But this delegation was the opposite. This was about learning from their experience, and recognizing the resistance of the Haitian people since the revolution.
Visiting the maroon spaces was very special. I had been to some before, but going with this group in particular, it was good to see people learning this stuff for the first time, in some cases. Some of us were Haitian-Americans. We may have known the history, but going with this group, with this purpose, it was very powerful, the dynamics were very powerful. Going to the Citadel, I walked the whole way. Most people take a horse up. And going to Bois Caïman, was powerful to hear about the experiences of the slaves, being in the caves where some of them hid out. We learned about the brutality of the slave system. There was a particular thin bridge the slave-masters forced the slaves to walk across. The slaves would fall into the river, and it became a river of blood. They used that blood to make their bricks red.
It sounds like you learned from both Haiti’s past and present.
Right, and everywhere we went, every group we spoke to, whether the women’s groups, the LGBT group, Grassroots International partners like PAPDA, the MPP, that history was woven into their presentations too. Folks got to go to the museum and go to Bois Caïman to where the revolution was organized and started. They saw that huge Citadel fort that was built. But hearing from the people who are organizing now, they talk about the history and the resistance constantly. They go back to the beginning. Haitian people do that in general.
I experience that in the Haitian community here as well, but also with other communities when I’m doing immigration work. Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees is part of the National TPS Alliance. When we meet together with the Hondurans, the Salvadorians, the folks in other countries that have TPS like Nicaragua, the Central Americans are talking about the history of Haiti and the resistance, as well as their own histories. We all go over the history, and the impact that the U.S. has had on our various countries — mainly imperialism. In the same way, that’s what was being done on this delegation. It’s not just about visiting the current organizations and their current work, but seeing how the history has had an impact and it really fueled their resistance. It was inspiring for me. You see the parallels of the struggles.
What’s so critical about making these connections, both with the past and between movements in the present?
Certainly the fact this was a group of black women, that there’s this history of slavery in both countries, when we talk about Haitian history we understand more about our own. Like in Haiti, once you have a revolution you have to defend it forever. It’s not just, “we won. Let’s go on with our lives.” Because the powers that be are going to come back and try to mess your country up.
We learned as African-Americans. We learned about the history from the Haitian people, about how their revolution scared the colonists here. The U.S. didn’t recognize Haiti’s independence for over 60 years, because they didn’t want the slaves to realize a revolution against slavery was possible.
In the US we have folks that work with domestic workers. It wasn’t until 2010 that New York state Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed. When the U.S. passed labor protection laws in the 1930s, they left out domestic workers and farmers because of course those are the two jobs that slaves had. So I think any time you talk about resistance movements against slavery, groups like domestic workers can relate. The fight is still there.
Absolutely, you can see with the historic Haitian resistance movement and with present-day movements, the intersections of race, class, and gender.
Exactly. It’s important when we’re doing our organizing work here, to look at the history of resistance, to see it as just a continuation. We as Haitians look at what’s happening now as a continuation of colonization.
I also want to talk a bit about when we went to Central Plateau, the campus at MPP. Seeing how they are doing with the effects of climate change, and seeing women agronomists and leaders was powerful. They are not able to plan as normal to do farm work because of climate change. But they have found ways to resist, to be sustainable in different ways. They took us to lakes they dug out; they made their own irrigation.
Haiti has experienced many drought seasons and it seems like it gets worse every year. My husband is in Haiti right now, and he was saying how it finally rained the night before. It has been tough dealing with the drought.
Not only do they have the challenge of climate change, but they also face crop dumping from the US. Things that Haiti has never had trouble growing, like rice and peanuts, are now imported to Haiti. There’s no reason Haiti should have to have rice imported. So now you’re able to make the connection of why people have to leave Haiti, because they are being squeezed out of their country. It’s a direct connection with the immigration situation here.
You were able to see firsthand, the things the U.S. does to force people off their land.
Totally, and then you weave in the history to that. You learn about the different U.S. occupations of Haiti, going back to 1915 and 1934, when the US cut down three-quarters of the country’s trees. It wasn’t just any trees either. The best trees were chopped down and imported to the US for lumber.
A lot of times you’ll hear from NGOs that go to Haiti. They’ll say “oh, the peasants are cutting down the trees to use for firewood.” But they never talk about the big trees that were removed, these aren’t the ones that peasants could chop down with their machetes by hand. Over the years since the U.S. military occupations, the lumber companies have continued to take away trees. These are the things that cause erosions and disasters. When these disasters happen, people are really quick to blame the peasants for cutting down trees, but peasants are often cutting down branches and small trees that’ll grow back in six months.
It’s not culturally acceptable to cut down trees in Haiti, because trees are like church. People worship the trees.
You have to peel back that “blame the victim” narrative.
Absolutely. We know about these situations separately, but when you’re in a space hearing from folks, you see the different layers of colonization, how they all tie together. You can see how it really hinders people’s basic survival.
While we were in Haiti, on our way North, we came across a situation in Artibonite. People were angry because they are having trouble surviving. There are no jobs. There is inflation. They don’t see a way out. That’s why so many young people have left Haiti. You could see the anger and understand the anger.
That town, the Artibonite village, was a community that historically grew rice. It could’ve supplied rice to the entire country. But recently rice came in from Taiwan, that was contaminated with something and brought in an invasive rat that has been eating up the rice. You have to wonder why that happened. There are so many man-made disasters in Haiti, that we don’t know about enough, like the Cholera epidemic brought in from the UN Peacekeepers. Trees are chopped down and used for lumber. So when we have a natural disaster, it’s coupled with a human-made disaster, and it causes the erosion problem.
Right. You have the human-made disasters of our global economic system, and at the same time you have Haitians’ resistance to them. Just after you all got back there were gas protests.
I actually stayed an extra week in Haiti, and went to the southwest. There were a lot of protests about gas prices. It didn’t just come out of nowhere; people were upset. They warned that if gas prices went up, they would take the streets. And they did. Even though the current president rescinded the hike after the protests, the prices of food continue to go up. It’s really difficult for people just to survive.
Building resistance in each country and building connections between them — do you see this as the way forward?
Not only do we see the parallels between struggles; some situations are even identical. We’ve been meeting since we’ve returned, and it has opened up some doors for building resistance together. The movements in Haiti were able to hear some of our work as well. Since we were the ones in Haiti we learned more about them, so it wasn’t as much of a balance as we had planned. But it definitely allows us to form relationships and build international resistance together.
It’s so important for folks across the globe to always make these connections. Whenever I go to any other part of the world and we’re exchanging experiences from our movements, we find we’re in the same situations. Everyone is facing similar problems. Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees has a project called Haitian Workers’ Project where Haitians learn survival English and literacy, but we also bring folks from different immigrant communities to hear about their experiences. If we didn’t have these exchanges, we are always going to think, “oh, we come from a country with corrupt government, we just have bad leaders.” But when people exchange these stories, people realize the same things happened to them, that pushed them out of their country: how the U.S. came in to mess with your food, with your land, with your elections.
Right. It’s important to realize it’s not a particular leader here or there but that it’s a system of colonialism.
Yeah, that it’s coming from a higher place of power.
What was the most memorable person you met or experience you had?
I really appreciated the experience in Papaye. We had gone to a children’s village, and the kids there don’t have much land to grow their own food. So it was significant going to the Centro Plateau and learning about the ways they use the limited space to make gardens. There are lessons to be pulled from that. And we are talking about connecting the kids to Papaye, so that they can get a bit of training and have a more sustainable situation.
I’ve heard about the MPP for so long, but it was different being in the Central Plateau in Papaye, seeing how the folks were living, building houses, and lakes, and irrigation. What I liked was seeing how groups are coming from different parts of Haiti and coming to learn on their campus like we did. They have groups coming in and out, learning from the MPP. Even after our delegation was over, I ran into a student group that was on their way from the Port-au-Prince agronomy school to learn from Papaye. It’s one thing to set an example, but they are spreading it, spreading the knowledge. It’s very powerful.