Celebrate Haiti Week with a letter

To The University Community and Friends of Justice:

In 1804, our neighbors in Haiti undertook a project of self-determination. Their ambitions sprang out of a two-fold slavery-a terror-based oppression and a searing racial hierarchy. Born to an order reducing them to property, they dared propose a creed of equality. They labored to unify a nation under the conviction that L’union fait la force- unity endows strength. Yet ten score and four years of struggle have left this work not only unfinished, but greatly unfulfilled.

Today their descendents inherit a life where the plantation has not been marginalized, but deeply naturalized. A nation conceived in liberty smolders under the old regime of the people, by the people, and for the people of the Big House. Haiti echoes William Faulkner’s haunted insight that “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” Concerning these grim continuities, I am compelled to relate my profound, recent experience of Hispaniola.

This story could never be told without the passion and drive of Professor Herns Marcelin. A native Haitian, his present work speaks powerfully about the need for change in his homeland and our own. With his class-One Island: Two Nations-he built a bridge between the raw misery of Cité Soleil and our University campus. He organized a ten-day trek across the geographic and social boundaries segregating humans within the island of Hispaniola. There we witnessed the reality books and words fail to render believable, we directly engaged our brothers and sisters, students and professionals-Haitian and Dominican.

This convergence opened a cooperative dialogue among our class qualitatively different from a mere classroom discussion. It represented an opportunity for us to explore the contours of transnational issues, to grapple with the defining questions of the Caribbean condition and struggle, and to reflect on their implications for Greater America and humanity. Vital to this project was not just becoming informed on matters of racial and social injustice, economic inequality, migration, etc., but to see, walk, and experience those spaces for ourselves.

Once the pearl of the Antilles, Haiti’s current despair cannot be understood until you have tasted and breathed it in yourself. The shanty town Cité Soleil has been declared by the UN the poorest and most dangerous area in the Western Hemisphere, but that observation is a mere shadow of the real horror. Back before our trip a faculty member searched for words to relate this tragedy; he was reduced to tears. For anyone that refuses to surrender a belief in the human soul, in compassion, hope, justice, love, and pride, this experience is an education, perhaps an essential part of an education.

Born to another gem island of strife, William Butler Yeats cast education as “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” By definition, education derives from the Latin, “to lead out,” to crack open the capabilities and generative powers of the individual. To educate is to tease out what’s inside oneself.

Driven by a confluence of educational and corporate instincts, the University of Miami is enmeshed in a fundamental conflict, a clash of values that the University shares with most of our world. The higher callings of education compete against calculations of cost-benefit and bottom-line profit. It would seem easy to have vetoed this class as too dangerous and simply not worth the business risk. Reflecting the mission of education, however, the university took the leadership to make the hard choice.

In a New York Times article last September, Andrew Delbanco referred to the promise of tying “traditional modes of learning through reading, lecture, and discussion” to community engagement as offering the potential to effect “profoundly transformative experiences that bolster the motive-indeed, the need-to live a life of civic engagement.” I agree with Delbanco that paramount to determining the value of a college should be the consideration of “whether it’s a place that helps students confront hard questions in an informed way.” The courage the university took in this venture merits our pride and support. Confined to this space I cannot say enough to honor the extent to which Marcelin’s class embodies the spirit of education.

The masterful writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez lamented a Latin American solitude. It’s just an hour-and-a-half flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince. Yet this encompasses a descent from the pinnacle of opportunity into the depths of marginalization. The maddening proximity of prosperity and despair is mirrored within Haiti: filth-ridden zinc hovels lay yards away from million-dollar mansions. This is the scale of solitude. A cacophony of NGOs and foreign aid groups seem only to alienate Cité Soleil’s citizens from a solution to their condition. The UN invests 20 million dollars into the slum and still the poor subsist on sun-baked cookies of dirt. This is the crux of that solitude.

When one meets the eyes of the damned, surviving in the Dominican bateyes, when one confronts the smiles of fourth-generation orphans of humanity, these disowned “congos” herded into internment camps: one recognizes the faces of solitude. But we cannot disown the truth. As a great Civil Rights warrior enunciated it, “their destiny is tied with our destiny. their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

It is to this truth that my colleagues and I here devote our project, Youth Movimiento Soleil. By setting up a community educational center in Cité Soleil we hope to engender a transnational culture of cooperation. While the scope of the effort cannot be fully detailed in this space, this will not be another flimsy promise of paper. Ours will be a solidarity fortified into “concrete acts of legitimate support for all the peoples that assume the illusion of having a life of their own in the distribution of the world.” We here dedicate ourselves to a union without borders, to empower all future generations to the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. From this foundation we now resolve to engage our collective powers of creativity; we dedicate ourselves to crack open our generative powers; to give a new birth of freedom-a sweeping, unconditional freedom where we bury the past, a freedom where all children are born to the promise of opportunity, a freedom which lives out the centuries-old hope for a New World.


Austin Webbert