“You are Red, not Black,” a diaspora in Haiti
That afternoon, on Aquin’s Cocoye Anglade beach, the succulent breeze caressed us voluptuously. We chatted about everything and nothing on disjointed and unconnected topics with some friends toasting coconut water with sips of rum. So relaxed, I was listening distractedly to the conversation when a veteran local lawer bluntly said to me, “You are Red, not Black.” Too serene to engage in such a meaningless discussion, I let myself be lulled by the music of the ebb and flow of the waves. However, his allegation put my brain on the alert, as it was not the first time this assertion had come to the fore.
The minister’s office at Bois Vernas neighborhood in Port-au-Prince reflected the authority of the chief. While in Haiti, I went to visit the minister, a friend I have known in Florida. During our conversation, he suddenly scrutinized me intensely and announced: “You are a mulatto.” – Who me? – Yes you! – And yet we had known each other for a long time in Miami. He replied: “I hadn’t paid attention to it.” His remark showed that the terms of reference might vary depending on the social space that will apply the value of judgment.
Indeed, the wide range of black skin shades, ranging from dark to golden to very light, in a predominantly white-skinned society makes these nuanced shades imperceptible. So, I consciously began to compare my skin color with that of my compatriots in Haiti where the majority of whom have very dark skin. Whether you call me red or mulatto, I could see a difference.
In the United States, a “white country,” as they say in Haiti, I am black, without question, not red. At Uncle Sam’s, black skin tones are simply termed “dark skin black” or “light skin black.” Skin color and social, historical, and cultural identity define whether a person is black even if they look like a thoroughbred white. In Haiti, calling yourself black when you look white wouldn’t even be funny, while in the United States, Rachel Dolezal, a white anti-racist activist, passed for black for nearly ten years. Conversely, Walter White, son of a former slave and director of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) from 1931 to 1955, indicated in his autobiography: “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The features of my race are nowhere visible on my face. “
So, why, in 1798, did Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a Creole settler and slave owner, in his book, “Description topographique, physique, civil, politique et historique de la part française de l’Isle Saint-Domingue” [Topographical, physical, civil, political and historical description of the French part of Saint-Domingue Island], classified “one hundred and twenty-eight possible black-white interbreeding combinations into nine categories: the sacatra, the griffe, the marabout, the mulatto, the quarteron, the mestizo, the mameluke, the quarteronné, the mixed-blood? For example, “the whites with the Indians give birth to mestizos; the whites with the negresses, the mulattoes; the mulatto with the white, quarteron; the negress with the mulatto, the caper, and the white with the quarteronné, the mixed-blood,” etc … Based on the proportion of “black blood”, Moreau de Saint-Méry’s objective was to create an “aristocracy of the epidermis” by placing white slave owners at the top of the social pyramid. Doing so would generate a segregationist structure between blacks and mulattoes that would benefit the numerically inferior white slave owners. In addition, in the slave market, the lighter a slave, the higher his selling price.
Closer to us, in the 1970s, Susie Guillory Phipps, a light-skinned 50-year-old woman from Sulfur, Louisiana, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of a slave and a French planter who settled in Louisiana in 1764, for five years, judicially fought to change her racial designation from black to white on her birth certificate. Ms. Guillory Phipps discovered that she was not legally white after applying for her passport application in Louisiana. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing a 1970 Louisiana State law, ruled that anyone with more than a thirty-second of black blood was legally black. This law was repealed in 1983 following the case of Ms. Phipps. Fees paid by Mrs. Guillory Phipps to her lawyers: $49,000.
For our Dominican neighbors, the skin color, on the surface, appears less complicated. During a conference in Santo Domingo with the US Army’s Southern Command, I told a black hotel employee that I was not American but Haitian by birth. – You don’t look like a Haitian, he said. – I thought you were Haitian, I replied. – I am “indio” [Indian], not black, he corrected me. By this indio surname, with all its variants ranging from light Indio to dark Indio, he referred to the Tainos, who were almost all exterminated and whose contemporary genetic contribution in the Dominican Republic is minimal. Instead of the word “negro” (black), reserved to describe and distinguish oneself from Haitians, the Dominicans use the synonym “moreno.” I was then able to understand the psychological tribulations of my Dominican classmates in New York when freed from mirages and imaginary representations of the cave; they discovered in their twenties that they were black. Somebody said, “for Americans, Puerto Ricans are black; for Puerto Ricans, Dominicans are black; for the Dominicans, the Haitians are black”; for Haitians, Haitians are black. Although the Haitians had embraced their negritude with pride, they nonetheless found a fallacy to confuse us. They adopted the saying of Jean-Jacques Acaau, a Haitian leader of the 1844 to 1848 peasant uprising to protest against the economic, political system and social then in place, “a rich black is a mulatto, a poor mulatto is a black.”
How did we get into its imbroglio? Seven to eight million years ago, in equatorial Africa, our skin was covered with thick fur. Over the years, to adapt to changes in temperature, this fur has gradually disappeared, still leaving a few sparse hairs on our skin. As a result, once exposed to the sun, our skin begins to darken to adapt to climate change. Our skin is made up of a) the epidermis, which contains four pigments that determine its color: oxygenated hemoglobin (red), reduced hemoglobin (blue), carotene, (yellow-orange) and melanin (black) which protects the skin against the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and b) deeper, the dermis which contains connective tissue with fibroblasts, immune cells, blood vessels, nerve endings, and lymphatics.
As homo sapiens have spread all over the planet and each region does not have the same exposure to the sun, the skin has adapted by adopting different colors to protect itself from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. For example, populations near the equator, such as those in African countries and Latin America, tend to have darker skin that protects from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, while populations farther from the equator, such as those in the Nordic countries, tend to have fairer skin because their need for protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays is reduced.
Subjectively, the lawyer saw me red and the minister mulatto, while I saw myself black. So, objectively, who am I? I decided to learn about my genetic code molecular composition through a DNA test (deoxyribonucleic acid) which would allow me to know a little more about myself, such as the color of my skin, physiognomy, and hair, etc.… The DNA, theoretically unique to each person, is made up of 4 coded elements: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C), half of which are transmitted by our father and the other half by our mother.
Surprise, Surprise! I am from these different regions of the Planet Earth. Africa: 64.1% – West Africa 62.3%:Nigerian 41.6%,Sierra Leonean 14.3%, West African 6.4%- East Africa 1.8%: Maasai1.8%. Europe 35% – South Europe 24.1%: Iberian 17.1%, Italian 7%- North and West Europe 10.9%: North and West European 8.8, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh: 2.1%. America: 0.9%, Native American: 0.9%.
This genetic salad of a chameleon man is the scientific image of one components of my identity. The other social and cultural component will integrate me into a civilizational identity that carries values, rites, and beliefs. These values, traditions, and ideas provide everyone with a well-stocked reference toolbox. These tools will integrate the individual into a group and a territory structured by codes, laws, habits, and customs. This will allow everyone to live and develop both individually and collectively.
Therefore, skin color is undoubtedly crucial because it indicates one’s own belonging to a group. However, it is not sufficient to determine the core identity of a human being. It would be a mistake to think that skin color is the main determining factor and make it an absolute reference. However, there is a great temptation for some to use skin color as the only criterion, thus allowing them to erase the cultural content of knowledge and skills from others. Limiting ourselves to skin color is focusing on the lowest common denominator.
Therefore, the alterity or otherness, the recognition of the other and its difference, will be reduced to a minimum. In a way, this minimum will facilitate insidious or overt forms of segregation. This problematic of alterity is not only that of one’s identity but also that of his belonging to a society either small where one resides as in a “lakou” in the Haitian countryside, or larger like the State-Nation through which we identity as a citizen, and in even larger groups of a civilizational nature.
On one hand, our problem confronts the universal identity that ultimately bears a unique matrix from our DNA and our cultural and social heritage that makes us a fantastic being, and, on the other hand, the multiple perceived identities and judgment by others. This dialectic of alterity continuously activates and confronts this constitutive ontological identity of the human being. Therefore, it is a relative notion, and, in this sense, it should lead us to appreciate it and, if necessary, defend it. This ontological dimension, in fine, is not in abstracto but in concreto.
Were the lawyer and the minister aware of the facets of this alterity? Why and what reasons pushed them to bring out this “visible” criterion of skin color? Did they need to believe that this difference gave them a specific existential condition? Was the process of social organization by caste and hierarchy induced by power or human relations a stake so substantial for them that this dimension came so spontaneously and unconsciously? Wasn’t this questioning simply an archaic jolt of a society bruised by these issues of power and struggles between various categories of persons whose skin color was a signal of identity that dates to Haiti’s creation?
Everyone is aware of their personnel identity. Sometimes, this identity corresponds to somebody else judgment or sometimes deviates from it because of the different terms of reference generated by distinct appreciation. This dichotomy, between felt personal identity and identity resulting from alterity, can lead to deep questions or simply minor interrogations. In fine, everyone has a remarkable identity that commemorates their belonging to humanity. Everyone is above all a unique being endowed with a unique skin color. Everyone will mainly and fundamentally be typified by the attributes of the human condition and there are many of them.
Aldy CASTOR, M.D., email@example.com
President, Haitian Resource Development Foundation (HRDF)
Directeur, Emergency Medical Services for Haiti Medical Relief Mission, Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad.
Membre, United Front Haitian Diaspora
Philippe FRANÇOIS, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ancien administrateur territorial en France
Consultant auprès du bureau du président de la HRDF,
Diplômé en sociologie de l’Université Paris IX, Dynamique des Organisations et Transformations Sociales