Why Can’t We Have Microwaves and Racial Justice?

I have a couple of very close Haitian friends who have recently returned to our community in Haiti after spending a significant amount of time in the US. Now that they’re back, of course, many of our other friends like to hear about their American experiences and often fantasize about visiting sometime themselves. As these conversations evolve under the mango trees and amidst the songs of chickens and crickets, it never takes long for the guys who have traveled to issue a warning along the lines of, “But being a black guy in the US isn’t always as sweet as it sounds” Then the others look to me for some sort of explanation.

Although I can’t say what it’s really like to be a black man in the US, I find myself taking a deep breath and doing my best to explain the complicated mess of race relations that currently exist in our country. I try to explain to them the stories of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III. I try to explain to them how those stories can exist in the same country as the stories of Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce, and Wyclef Jean. I try to explain how Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspiration to millions but he was also shot for being so inspirational. And how some people think that inspiration isn’t supposed to come from certain colors I try to explain how in the US my Haitian friends there can indeed use the same water fountain as me and sit next to me on the bus, but the KKK still exists and functions freely. I try to explain to them that although, if they did come to my hometown, they would be welcomed in the community and greeted with kindness, they’ll also just as often be presumed to be thugs, and thieves, and gang members, and drug dealers. That if they decided to protest with me in the streets I might get some eyes rolled at me but they’d probably get spit on.

I try to explain all of this and still justify how we can call ourselves the land of the free and the home of the brave. I try to explain to them that the only real way to be completely free and brave in our country is to be white, Caucasion, heterosexual, employed, not poor, and speak fluent English. Anything else and there will be plenty of people finding plenty of reasons to hate you. And then they’ll defend their hatred in the name of the Constitution and the God that they claim to believe in. We’ll hate you if you’re Mexican, Arab, Muslim, Voudouist, Queer, Trans, homeless, handicapped, depressed, or just a little weird. We won’t say that we hate you because of those things because that would just expose our ignorance. We’ll say we hate you because of other less obvious reasons but essentially they all boil down to hating you because you’re different. Because you don’t fit the status quo that we’ve imagined to define our country’s alleged greatness. Because our ingrained prejudices and our undeniable Privilege suggest that your differences weaken the curve.

I try to explain this to my Haitian friends hoping, that me standing there among them, the only white in a varied spectrum of browns, makes me somehow immune to the injustices that we normalize in our US American society. I try to explain this hoping that they’ll recognized how ashamed I am to admit this reality of where I come from.

My friends who’ve been there have seen the stories on the news and have been able to imagine their own image in the place of the victims. But then they come back to Haiti and all of their friends think that they’ve just returned from the Promised Land. How does one explain something like that? How do we reconcile what we’ve created with what we claim as our identity? I’ve struggled with these questions as many have for a while now. I wrote about my feelings after Ferguson and then thought that somehow, leaving the US and coming back to Haiti would give me a break from all of the upsetting news. But now I just have to go over it again and again as I try to explain it all to my friends. And it still never makes any more sense than it did the first 100 times.

"2010 0515 rama 4 and sathorn 24" by Takeaway - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010_0515_rama_4_and_sathorn_24.JPG#mediaviewer/File:2010_0515_rama_4_and_sathorn_24.JPG

“2010 0515 rama 4 and sathorn 24″ by Takeaway – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

In the meantime, on the flip side, I am finding myself once again having to explain the riots in Jacmel to friends back in the States. How an entire city can be brought to a standstill for a week by burning tires and piled rocks and angry people and how at the same time that does not make the place a violent place. How most of the people don’t even know what they’re rioting for and there could be a hundred different reasons. This fiery roadblock could be because someone accidentally shot someone else in the foot while the one 100 yards down the road could be because teachers haven’t been paid at a local school and the next one could be because someone’s wife cheated on him. And all of that means that I’m not making it to the beach this week but it’s probably better because I’ve got plenty of housework to do. And somehow, you just get used to it all because it’s happened before.

I guess sometimes I wish the issues from the States were that simple. I wish that there were less complex reasons to our protests. I wish that we could say that people are organizing rallies just because someone’s donkey got stolen or a bridge is taking longer than expected to get built. I wish that talking about those issues resulted in nothing more than a temporary inconvenience to me rather than the more overwhelming realization that I come from a place that doesn’t value all human lives the same.

But of course, life can’t be that simple because we’re humans. In my conversations with my Haitian friends the ones who have traveled usually resolve their explanations with something along the lines of “But at lease the microwaves and washing machines and the departments stores and the internet are nice.” It would just be nice if we could have the microwaves and the racial justice at the same time. I guess you can’t have all. Maybe some day. MLK had a dream that we’re still waiting on and I’m gonna go ahead and keep dreaming too.

My Top 10 Books of 2014

I read more this year than I ever have before and mostly it was because I encountered books like the ones on this list that reminded me why I love to read and what a good story can do for a person’s soul. These are my best 10 from the year. It might be a bit redundant for me to list them because I’ve already quoted many of these books or even written full reviews of them throughout this year on this blog. But they were all good enough that I want to make sure to recommend them again to all of my readers. If you need a good book to read over the holiday break or to start your new year off, all of these are worth checking out. One of my new year’s resolutions will be to read even more so that maybe next year’s list will be even more competitive. Not all of these books were published in 2014, they are just books that I happened to read in 2014. They are ones that if you haven’t yet, you should happen to read in 2015.

Claire of the Sea Light1. Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

There is so much to love about this book. Most of all, Danticat’s incredible use of language and storytelling are such that they make me want to be a better writer while at the same time letting me get completely lost in the story as a reader. The brilliant way that she layers so many different convergent stories all centered around the innocence and optimism of one little girl, Claire. The setting that she creates in the fictional town feels so real, especially for someone from the Jacmel area, I could visualize every step the girl took. My absolute favorite part of this book, however, was a part where Claire sings a song about a hat falling into the ocean. About a week after reading the book, I was riding in the back of a tap tap and a group of teenage girls in the truck with me started sing the same song!

Radiance of Tomorrw2. The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

Set in a fictional village in Sierra Leonne that is trying to rebuild itself as refugees return to it after the war ends, paints a picture of conflict that is seldom seen. Although it’s fiction, Beah writes with such sensitivity and infuses his words with such a unique African style, that the entire story feels very real. And knowing Beah’s background from his own memoir, Long Way Gone, you can feel how personal each character is. As the community fights for dignity and the chance to be seen as more than disposable your empathy as a reader is pulled to the absolute limit. Beah leaves you as a reader wanting to find the radiance in tomorrow almost as badly as the characters in the book themselves. You keep thinking maybe on the next page, or the next chapter, the light will come, but you’re never given the real relief that you’re looking for, and it’s in that realization that you feel the pain of the characters and the truth of what it may be like for so many in the world who have to face such situations after being displaced by war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

This breathtaking story creates such a beautiful yet tragic atmosphere where poverty and wealth, politics and religion all collide through very relatable characters that are all trying to make life better for themselves in the slums of Mumbai, India. It’s hard to believe that the story is based on real events lived by very real characters because it is so well told and so extreme in its representation of the clashing forces that define this society. And yet it’s full of so many snippets of real life that can be applied to the struggles of people anywhere in the world. No book has made me root for the underdog and feel sympathy for seemingly sympathetic characters like this one.

Letters Left Unsent4. Letters Left Unsent by J

As I mentioned in my blog post about this book, it was definitely the most quotable book that I read all year. If more people in the aid world thought like the author of this book and more people outside of the aid world realized even the tiniest drop of what he’s talking about, it would be possible for a new era of aid work to take hold in the world. It unashamedly calls for more professionalism in aid, honestly questions how long we can allow good intentions to be the basis for bad aid, and it also reveals that when aid is really done well, it ends up sucking the soul from those who do it. It removes the façade of fluffy good feelings about humanitarianism and asks us all to get real with ourselves.

Unbroken5. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I just finished this one. And although I’m not usually attracted to war stories, Angelina Jolie convinced me to give this one a try since she made it into a movie. It illuminated so many parts of World War II that I had no idea about and shared the harrowing and extraordinary story of Louis Zamperini. From childhood bad boy, to Olympic runner, to Air Force bombardier, to tortured POW, Zamperini survived it all and eventually came away full of forgiveness and a greater zeal for life than he’d ever had. So much courage and resilience and strength of the human spirit coming through this story. If any of your resolutions for 2015 include complaining less or having a more positive outlook, then this is a book that will help you accomplish those. I know that as soon as I finished it and put it down, I looked at my life and the world that it’s lived in a little differently.

Savage Harvest6. Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

Maybe “lost at sea” was a theme for my reading in 2014. This one, like Unbroken and even Claire of the Sea Light could fit into that theme literally where as some of the others more metaphorically could. But Savage Harvest is full of themes that drew me in: art, adventure, anthropology, and spirituality. They are all packed into the story of Michael Rockefeller and his search for “primitive” art among the Asmat people of New Guinea. The Asmat, known for cannibalistic rituals but also their beautiful and raw artistic expressions of their spiritual experiences, drew Rockefeller to them searching for items to take back to his father’s museum in New York. He mysteriously disappears on his voyage and the author of the book retraces his steps and weaves a very plausible and intriguing story of what might have happened to him.

Redefining Realness7. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

I learned so much from reading this book about the journey that a transgender person goes through but even more than that, it’s simply a story for us all to have the courage to be real with ourselves. I had been attracted to the book because I was acquainted with Mock through some of her television appearances, but never knew her personal story. My favorite part of the book, however, was showing the cover to my roommates here in Haiti and hearing them all fawn over what a beautiful woman she was and then see the look on their faces when I told them that she was born with male anatomy. In the rural mountains of a country as LGBTQ-phobic as Haiti, of course they freaked out at first, but it also opened up some very interesting conversations with the guys and gave me a chance to share Mock’s story with them as well which let them see into the experience of a person that they would never take the time to think about otherwise.

How to be Black8. How to be Black by Barathunde Thurston

On the back cover of this book it asks, “Have you ever been called too black or not black enough? Have you ever befriended or worked with a black person? Have you ever heard of black people? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book is for you.” I couldn’t agree more. Especially with all of the tragic, upsetting news around race relations in our country right now, a book like this can help us to understand each other while being very funny about it. It takes so many stereotypes and turns many of them on their heads, reveals the absurdity of others by placing them so in your face and embraces others as unavoidable but still harmless.

I know why the Caged Bird Sings9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I bought this one after hearing of Maya Angelou’s death and realizing that I’ve never actually read anything of hers. I’m glad I did. I like to think that I’m a better person because of it. Although sometimes difficult to even read in it’s authenticity, still beautifully written and leaves the reader with a sense of redemption and wholeness. The hatred an pain that comes through the story, although set years ago, still resonates with what we as a society have to confront today. Ultimately though, it brings each reader to a point of acknowledging the strength that lies within themselves and gives them a reason to fight through their struggles.

40 Chances10. Forty Chances by Howard Buffet

This is a collection of stories by Howard Buffet sharing his experiences doing humanitarian work all over the world through his foundation that was built through his father, Warren Buffet’s, fortune. Much of the book is pretty typical humanitarian do-good feel-good help people kind of stories. But there’s a whole section where Buffet outlines some of the biggest failures that he’s encountered along the way and the mistakes that he’s made and learned from that I found particularly refreshing in its honesty. It’s kind of comforting to know that even someone with access to as many resources as Buffet does things wrong sometimes. But it also comes back to provide some substantial basis for how to do aid work better.

What were your favorite books this year? I’d love suggestions of ones I missed that I should add to my bookshelf for 2015.

When Deeper Parts Embrace

Just a few days before I returned to Haiti I went out to eat with my parents and a couple of family friends. Where I come from in Iowa, we don’t go out to eat at restaurants, we go out to eat at towns, depending on what food we’re in the mood for. Merrill for Mexican, Remsen for steak, Marcus for a burger… you get the picture. On this night we were going out to Germantown for fried chicken. And the family friends that we were going with are some of Mom and Dad’s best friends from back in their high school days that they have remained friends with to this day. The husband, in fact, is such a good friend to my father that my middle name is in his honor, Daniel. And I’ve always liked these friends of my parents and see them frequently whenever I’m back home. One of the things I like most is getting in political debates with Dan. I’m not sure that there’s a person in this world who could be farther on the other end of the spectrum from me on our social views. And Dan’s a guy who loves to stir the pot whenever he’s in a group and say something that he knows is going to be controversial.

This night in Germantown was no exception. When he said that Barack Obama was a dirty Socialist hellbent on destroying our country and Ben Carson would make a much better president, I let it slide because I knew I was outnumbered on that one when a table full of drunk guys behind us cheered him on. When he claimed that Obamacare was taking away everyone’s freedoms I told him to quit making stuff up but left it at that knowing how uncomfortable it makes both his wife and my mom when I engage him and really get him going. But when he started in on Michael Brown, the moment the words “thug” and “monster” were used, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. We continued on for the next 10 minutes in a passionate, but respectful debate about the characterization of the victim and real underlying issues that prompted the worldwide protests to the situation. Neither of us convinced the other of anything, but we laid our points out in front of each other and at least let each other know that we were not okay with what the other was saying. We had a discussion that didn’t change either of our minds but presented both perspectives not just to each other but to everyone around us at the bar that night who was listening. Eventually Dan’s wife kicked him under the table and told him to let me finish eating my chicken. And that was that. We went back to talking about football or something.

Dan’s not a bad man. I wouldn’t even call him a racist, because I know how much that label hurts and believe in personal evolution and redemption (Although I did consider calling this post “The Embrace of a Racist” because I knew it would get more clicks). But he is the type of man that, if I encountered him on the internet, possibly though an opinionated comment on my blog, I would probably think hateful thoughts in my heart about him and all of the other people who contribute to making the world a worse place, even though I know that’s not true. Dan’s not a bad man. He’s just a man that disagrees with me. But that too is not the whole story.

Lee 362

My Haitian internet won’t let me upload the photo that I want to upload, so I’m recycling this one from my last post.

When we went to leave the restaurant that night, knowing that it was the last time I’d see them before leaving for Haiti, Dan gave me a big ol’ man hug and told me, “Now you take care of yourself over there and know that I’ll be thinking about you a lot. And I’ll be praying for you too. I always do.”

And the beautiful thing was that I knew he meant it, with his whole heart. From the absolute deepest part of him, I felt the sincerity and allowed it to call out to the deepest part of myself where I knew that it made a difference to me to have his prayers behind me and feel his thoughts with me every day. Beyond the politics and the opinions and the people that we associate with and the cable news channels that we watch, I hold a deep gratitude to this man for the love that he shares with me. And I am happy to reciprocate it. When deep calls out to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.

Today I visited that waterfall that I shared a photo of in my last post. It’s one of the most famous places in Haiti and also considered to be one of the most spiritual. In the pool below the cascade they say the water is 87 feet deep. I wasn’t able to plunge into the water today because I’m still healing from the health issues that I had in the US, so I just sat on a rocky ledge across from the falls and listened beyond the roars of the water to hear the deep call out. The result, Gratitude. Peace. Strength.

Doves and Ravens in this World

I have two tattoos on my wrists: a raven on my right and a dove on my left. I got the two permanently etched on my skin in 2009 as a representation of the many opposing forces that define our lives on this earth and a reminder to try to always see both sides. A dove, traditionally serving as a symbol of peace and hope; with the raven, a classic metaphor for death and fear. And somewhere in between lies the truth about what life really is. I like my tattoos, but it has always also bothered me that I had to have a white bird to represent the positive and a black bird to represent the negative. Somewhere shallow just under the surface of the symbolism of these two birds is also a tragically expected expression of racism. White = good. Black = bad. This is not why I got the tattoos, to prove these equations correct in the case of our human identity, but because this color theory symbolism permeates every facet of our culture from our art and our music and our literature and cinema to even psychology and religion. And there’s scientific basis for it. Walk into an empty room painted all white. You’ll feel much differently than if you walk into an empty room painted all black. tattoos But human lives cannot be defined by a Color Theory 101 course. Human beings are not empty rooms or words on a page crafted into poems to inspire emotion or paint on a canvas crafted to draw out feelings from a gallery viewer. No, this flesh that wraps up who we are, body, mind, and spirit, cannot be defined by such simple chromatic extremes. Because the flesh itself does not define who we are. And yet in this world, or at least in this country, it seems that people still like to think that the doves and the ravens can be captured in cages of stereotypes. But then we somehow find it justifiable to let the doves fly off to freedom while we kill the ravens because we’re afraid of the lies that we tell ourselves about what they might be.

And because of this, everything that’s been happening in this country the last several weeks has got me feeling sad and angry and all kinds of unexplainable. I am feeling upset and trapped by our human weakness because we are spending so much time looking for ways to justify killing rather than discover life. I am feeling scared because 12-year-old boy isn’t free to walk outside of his home with a BB gun without being killed but a middle aged white man can carry his loaded rifle wherever the hell he pleases and be considered an example of freedom. I am feeling lonely because we live in a place where an entire race of people have been made to feel that they are considered expendable. I am feeling betrayed because I speak a language where somehow, the word “son” has evolved into “thug” and “victim” has become “monster” and “he” has become “it” and “father” has become “target”. How have we allowed this to happen? How have we come to this? So many questions and so many feelings, but no answers and no consolation. Only more bodies and reasons why we’re supposed to believe that they were supposed to die.

Lee 362I’ve tried to find answers or some sense of consolation amidst it all. The week after this world lost its child named Michael Brown, I was scheduled to give the message at my parents’ church in Iowa. In preparation for this message I spent some time dwelling in the end of Psalm 42 where the question is asked multiple times “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” And the response lies somewhere in “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All of your breakers and waves have swept over me.” I wish that we all on this planet together could allow the deepest part of ourselves to call out to the deepest part of every other individual we encounter on our path in life. Beyond the skin colors and the clothing and way one might talk. Beyond even the cigarettes that one may have stolen or tried to sell or whatever item might be held in one’s hands. When the deepest part of me calls out to the deepest part of you, we are able to see something much more real and experience something much more sacred. If you believe in God then you have to believe that that’s where They dwell within a person, in The Deep. And if we get to that part, that’s when Love and Understanding can sweep over us and we can finally get lost in the deafening roar of Justice falling like a waterfall.

I still believe that. And dammit, I’m going to keep believing it no matter how many news stories might give me reasons to believe otherwise. But simply believing isn’t going to make it real. So I will continue to support those who are protesting and actively fighting to bring about the justice that they deserve. Your struggle is legitimate and I echo your cries. I will also continue to support the many good and brave police men and women who are giving their all to uphold justice in a system that is broken. Your service is appreciated and your sacrifices recognized. And I will continue to hurt and mourn alongside those who have been more directly affected by the injustices and those who were born without the privileges that I was born with as a white male in a middle class family. Your scars are deeper than anyone else can pretend to understand. Perhaps I don’t know what else to do but contribute to the dialog that needs to happen in the way I know how.

While saying all of this, I also acknowledge my own cowardice. Writing words on a blog is not the same as protesting in the street. I may get a negative comment or two but I won’t get pepper spray in my white face or handcuffs on my tattooed wrists. But it’s what I can do at this moment. It’s what I can do from these airports where I’m writing before taking my chance to get out of the USA for a while. After the last several weeks, I need a beak from America and I’m taking it. That doesn’t mean that I won’t remain in solidarity with those fighting for justice from wherever I am. Every time I look down at the birds on my wrists I’ll say a little prayer and send out the deepest part of me to the deepest part of you.

Let’s Take A Moment to Talk About George W. Bush, the Artist

I haven’t been writing much on this blog lately because being in the US, many of my thoughts had been consumed by the recent election we had and I was resisting the urge to get into politics with the blog. Anything I would have wanted to write would have boiled down to “VOTE FOR THIS PERSON, NOT THAT PERSON!” And that’s not what this blog is about so I just wrote nothing. But now that the election is over, I’m returning to writing, but in a roundabout way, I still can’t completely get away from politics. But that too feels weird to me because I am about to do something that is completely out of character. So, prepare yourself, because it may never happen again. I am going to defend George W. Bush, while at the same time disagreeing with John Stewart. What-whaaaat? Yes, you read right, for the sake of this one, single, blog post, I will be taking the side of George W Bush, the president whose policies I disagree with in a very overwhelming fashion, rather than John Stewart, the political comedian who I respect and depend on daily for my news and dose of common sense and satirical take on the world we live in. And I am standing in this strange territory because today I am not writing about politics, but I am writing about art. George W Bush’s art, to be exact.a_560x0“But Lee,” you might be saying, “This has nothing to do with Haiti or nonprofits, or those things that you’ve made the Green Mango all about.” Well yes, I know. But I haven’t been in Haiti for several months because my back decided to get sick and instead I’ve been spending a lot of time with American news and so at this moment this is what I want to write about, so just go with it, ok? And during this time of following American news, this past week I’ve seen a lot of George W Bush’s media tour for his new book, which has also led a lot of interviewers to dive into his latest artistic endeavors. The Today show actually took viewers into his studio for an interview and other programs such as the CBS morning show have discussed his artwork as well and what it means to him. This renewed spotlight on Bush’s art has, of course, brought many critics out of the dark corners that they hide in to pounce on the opportunity for a cheap laugh by pointing out how bad his paintings really are. Some however, have taken it a step further to even insinuate that the former president’s new interest in art is actually a shameful pastime to pursue and a complete waste of time. This is where Jon Stewart decided to take his joke, as others have, but Stewart’s hurt the most to me as an artist, because he is a guy that I love so much otherwise. When asked about it he belittled Bush’s hobby by pointing out that Jimmy Carter’s “like 108 and he’s out in Africa pulling guinea worms out of children’s feet,” while George W is looking for bowls of fruit so he can paint another still life. I can forgive Stewart because he’s a comedian, not an artist, and he certainly isn’t the first person to dismiss our profession as useless. However, I wanted to make my voice heard still to say that I am proud of George W Bush for ignoring the critics and painting his little heart out anyway. I am proud that the thing that I have chosen to devote my life to is the same thing that one man has chosen to devote his time to once he was done being the most powerful man in the world.

The truth is, when I saw the interior of his studio on that Today show interview, with the newly primed canvasses lying around on the floor, some with pencil sketches on them waiting for paint to be applied, others in various stages of images emerging, and realized that the man that sat in front of that easel is the same one that once sat in the oval office, I was, for the first time, a George W cheerleader. Lord knows I’ll cheer on anyone willing to pull guinea worms from kids’ feet too, but if George W chooses to sit in his studio and paint what’s on his george-bush-painting-4-DMheart, or just what’s in front of his face, then I say, more power to him! I, as an artist, embrace him and welcome him into our world. Does that mean that his art is incredible? No. He, himself, acknowledges that he’s a novice, but he’s not doing it to be the next big thing in the art world. He’s not doing it to make money; he doesn’t need to. And he’s not doing it for any grand conceptual mission. He’s just doing it to chill out and express himself. And for that I say, Amen! Sure, we could go on for days critiquing his compositions, or his proportions, or his understanding of light and value, blah, blah, blah. Although I really do have to say that I am impressed with some of his uses of color in his more recent pieces. And I can also say that if you look at all of his work you can definitely see improvement from where he started, so that makes me excited to see where he goes in the future with it all.

But all of that is not the point. The point is that the man finds enjoyment in it all. And the point is that we, the American people, put him in a position for 8 years that was extremely stressful. Probably the most stressful of any job in this country. And now that he’s free from the burden of being in charge of these crazy United States, he just wants to relax and paint. And for that, I think he deserves to be encouraged. The truth is that I have spent the last 8 years in a pretty stressful position myself. (That’s right, I brought it all back to Haiti anyway. Someone give me a blogger gold star!) Not as stressful as the President of the United States, but still, pretty heavy. And so I understand the desire, once one steps out of that stress, to just want to paint. It helps, it works. It helps because there’s a lot of power in the act of painting. There’s power in the creation, in the bringing to fruition of your idea. There’s power in having control over that one thing that’s in front of you. But there’s also liberation and there is also peace in the process. And shouldn’t we all wish for each other to be able to find that for ourselves no matter where we might look. Whether we live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or on a farm in Iowa, or a ranch in Texas, or in some shack in the mountains of Haiti.

So, Mr. President,  from my creative soul to yours, congratulations and keep up the good work! Because no matter what:tumblr_inline_neocenIcWe1r8sbjv

 

Why Ferguson Matters To Me and Mizak, Haiti

It’s been almost 4 weeks since Michael Brown was shot by police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking protests and rallies for justice in that city and across the nation. At the time, I did not add my voice to all of the commentaries on what happened beyond sharing a few links to other articles on the net, but my silence was not due to any apathy on my part. The fact that I hadn’t written about Ferguson yet was not because what happened there did not hurt me deeply as a human being, or anger me as an American who depends on the same system of justice that Michael Brown did. I hadn’t written simply because I got busy doing other things and got lazy with my blogging. I allowed my voice to go unheard and continued to contemplate these events internally while I renovated an old farm shed into an art studio, and spent time with my adorable new niece and other family, and focused on writing cover letters and updating resumes for the job search that I’m currently engaging in. But now that the shed’s all cleaned out, my family has moved on back to their lives, and all my applications are sent in, I wanted to sit down and share some feelings on what happened to Michael Brown and what has happened to our society. I share these thoughts now, knowing that it will never be too late to do so because such incidents will continue to occur as long as we collectively allow them to fade quickly from our consciousness and into a jumbled bag labeled “THAT’S REALLY TOO BAD”

Although it might be hard to really put a finger on the feelings that have come out of this situation, for myself, I think that most of them have to do with this guy:

Sony

This is Sony. He is the 22-year-old reason that I’ve stayed active in Haiti as long as I have. He became my friend very early on when I first moved there in 2007 and hasn’t left my side since. He is the one who taught me how to speak Creole, how to play kasino, how to navigate the market and who to buy the best freezy pops from and how to understand the culture on a deeper level. He has helped me build my home, build a photography business, build deep relationships within the community, and build a network of collaborators for a number of projects. He was with me when I made my first hike to the southern coastal community of La Montagne, and he was with me when I danced behind my first sha at Kanaval, and he was there when I had my first Prestige on the beach at Raymond. He was also there by my side the moment that the earth shook on January 12, 2010. And he’s still there every morning to see what my schedule is for the day and how he can be involved in it. He’s my standard motorcycle driver, my house manager, my dog caretaker, my comic relief, and my constant dose of reality. He is my roommate, my good friend, and my brother. I have many good friends in Haiti, but none truly quite like Sony who have been through so much with me. He is one of my favorite people in the world.

And yet, some people can’t understand why he’s one of my favorite people in the world because he is also, undeniably, one of the rudest, most stubborn, and most self-centered people in the world. He is unapologetically honest in his opinion, often to the point of seeming cruel. He won’t hesitate to tell you that you look like horse vomit or a zombie fart if he doesn’t like your outfit or your hairdo. And if he thinks you’re being selfish or unfair, he’ll be the first to call you out on your white privilege and criticize you for treating poor people like dirt. He boldly believes that he deserves to be treated like a human being and treated just like any wealthy white person should, which comes off as an offensive sense of entitlement to anyone who doesn’t believe that of a young Haitian man. He can be abrasive and obnoxious and will sacrifice a supposed friendship with someone long before he compromises or apologizes for who he is. When he’s confident that he doesn’t need to be your friend, he’s not going to go out of his way to become such. Still, I couldn’t be more thankful that he decided to become mine.

Sony is the type of guy that once you really get to know him, you can’t help but love him. But if you don’t take the time to get to know him, you’ll probably want to shoot him. He’s the type of guy that if a police officer pointed a gun at him and accused him of something that he knew he was innocent of, he’d probably tell the officer exactly where he could shove that gun of his while insulting his mother in the process. He wouldn’t get belligerent or resist violently, but he also wouldn’t lay down and wait to be cuffed and he certainly wouldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Sony is the type of young, black, male who, if he was stopped by a racist cop in the US for some reason (or walked onto a racist gun owner’s porch to ask for help, or tried to buy a toy gun in Walmart) would have a high likelihood of getting killed just for being young, black, and rude. I know it’s likely because in this country even the nice, polite, young black individual’s get killed for no reason. So Sony, with his big mouth, would have no chance of surviving a racist here.

And that’s when I’m thankful that out of all my roommates, Sony is the one who honestly has no desire to ever come to the United States. The others might get lucky with their attractive smiles and gentle demeanors if they were confronted by an American gun-wielding racist, whether in uniform or not. But Sony would be so easy to criminalize that if he was the victim of such a shooting, that he too would have thousands of people taking to Facebook and Twitter saying that he deserved it and calling his killer a hero. He too would be called a thug and demonized for the many aspects of his youth that so many in this country somehow believe justify his death. He wouldn’t have a whole lot of people in his corner but he would have plenty of people coming up with lists of reasons why this happened when the truth is that there is no reason.

And if that happened it would be me in the position of Michael Brown’s mother. Except for the fact that I would have my white privilege that would allow many more people to listen to my words and take them seriously when I said “No more.” If I said, “Justice.” They would be interpreted differently coming out of a white mouth. And yet, I know that if I was actually in that position, there is no way that I would handle it with the composure that she has. There is no way that I would be able to “protest peacefully” like so many in the Ferguson community and beyond have done in the wake of Brown’s death. I would be the first one lighting tires on fire in the streets and throwing rocks at the swat teams. I wouldn’t be able to contain my fury. I’m too patient and reasonable of a person in the rest of my life, if I had to deal with something like this personally, I would become unhinged so quickly and so dramatically that I’d probably be giving them a real reason to arrest me before I had a chance to speak out.

And for that reason my heart remains with the family of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson who are almost out of the public eye already because Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos were leaked. For that reason my heart is constantly going out to the victims of senseless racially motivated violence in this country, most of whom never get to be in the public eye at all and never get their cries for justice to be heard. My heart is with them because my heart for so long has been with Sony and so many others like him who deserve a chance at life no matter what color their skin is, what age they are, what mistakes they’ve made, or how likeable they may or may not be. Because we all deserve that chance no matter what.

11 Ventures I’d Like to Start in Haiti

“So what is it that you actually do here in Haiti?” It’s a question that I get from every foreigner that I meet in the country once they learn that I live here. My first answer is always, “Well, I live here.” “Yeah, but…” they repeat, wanting to know what NGO I work for, what classes I teach, what orphans I care for, or what crime I committed that I’m hiding from. And lately it’s been tough for me to answer that question. I can tell them what I’ve done for the last 4 years working for Living Media, and the 2 years before that with HAPI, but now… now I’ve just been living. And it’s refreshing, but most people don’t believe it. Especially when I say that I’m an artist and a writer because obviously that can’t possibly support me to live here, so there must be some other reason. Well, newsflash, it doesn’t support me to the extent that I need. So I have, in fact, been looking at options lately that would require me to move away from Haiti for the time being. But at the same time, I’ve had plenty of wild ideas of things that I’d love to still do in Haiti if I was able to stay. Things that if I had the time, resources, and skills to do, I think that they’d be neat things to start here that could, in most cases, be good for the community too. So, not that any of these things will ever actually happen, because that time, resources, and skills thing can be tricky, or maybe they all will, who knows? Mostly they’re just fun to think about. But I’m sharing them anyway as a piece of my own process as I reflect on what my own next steps might be. Also, because I needed to post again and this one’s been sitting in my drafts for a while. So if any of my readers out there feel like investing in any of these ventures, let me know. Or if you just want to come drink some wine on my porch sometime.

1. Bookstore

The only ‘bookstores” here are ones that sell textbooks for school in elementary and high school. You can’t find a bookstore that sells a good novel. There are always a few vendors out in the streets with a random assortment of second hand books published decades ago, but I’d love for there to be a cozy little bookstore in downtown Jacmel with books available in multiple languages. On one hand, as an expat here, I know that it’s something that I’ve heard other expats comment on how we wish we could find more books available that we’d want to read and have an opportunity to share with each other what we’ve been reading. Books are too heavy to bring in luggage when we travel and electronic versions just aren’t the same. But also, I really wish that books were more valued and available for Haitians. There is such a rich history of Haitian literature that students study in school but outside of that, they never come to understand books as being valuable or even enjoyable in real life. The literary culture of this country deserves more promotion in general. But then that also brings up a question of a lack of publishing sources here for young writers and others wanting to participate in that culture and become a part of that history. There are a couple options, but it would be great to be able to offer publishing services locally as well to contribute to expanding the literary tradition here.

Mandarin Festival Date2. Winery

A while ago we held a mandarin festival here in Mizak with LaVallee de Demain, during which an experienced agronomist was the featured speaker and he discussed all of the potential that mandarins hold for creating different products. When he mentioned the delicious wine that they make, I was immediately inspired. Haiti has no wine. What they have is imported and tastes like Welches grape juice that sat on the shelf a little too long. It’s sad for a country that loves it’s gwog as much as Haiti. They’ve got great rum (and fresh coconuts and pineapples to drink it from) and a beer that’s won the World Beer Cup Gold medal twice, Prestige! But wine, nothing. And they have so much fruit that could make it, it’s really tragic that it hasn’t been invested in. Now, I know absolutely nothing about how to make wine, but ever since I heard that agronomist mention it, I’ve had visions of a mountaintop winery with a gorgeous view, a large patio with soft lighting and mellow Haitian folk music playing on the weekends. All with a variety of wines made locally from produce grown in LaVallee to sip on as folks relax from a week long of trying to survive in this crazy country. Ahhhh.

3. Performance Space / Gallery

This is one of the items on the list that is inspired simply because there is a perfect building for sale for it. Down in Jacmel in the historic district with all of the French architecture and giant iron doors, there’s a place that I looked at a while back that’s for sale and it just screamed “performance hall” to me. There aren’t many of those here that are really versatile and open to public use. And I know lots of groups in the area working in programs of theater and music that are constantly wanting a good performance space to use for their concerts, shows, and events. And this location would be just perfect so that there could also be an art gallery built into the space under the raised theater seating. All of that, and of course, there would also be a rooftop terrace for people to sip on their wines from #2. On the nights that there isn’t a performance or a gallery opening going on, people can still chill out on the rooftop wine terrace with a view of the ocean and the same soft lighting and mellow music.

4. Storytrippers

This would be a combination of my ideas from this post and this post. A more personal way to do mission trips and charitable donations.

5. Regional Nonprofit Coalition

This would not necessarily be a network of required collaboration (although it’d be nice) but moreso awareness of others’ activities. It would be a group that nonprofits could belong to that could commit to a certain number of collective goals for the region that everyone could agree on working towards no matter what domain of intervention their nonprofit focuses on. Whether the organization worked in education, the environment, child care, the arts, social justice, or whatever it may be, they could all agree on some bigger picture sort of objectives for the region that they all agreed to uphold and some principles that they would agree to allow guide their work, one of which might include collaborating with other nonprofits when possible. It would provide a pool of skills and ideas that would edify the work of all of us while at least admitting that yes, we all are in fact here and we are all in fact working for the greater good, and we all want what is best for the population of our region. Sometimes it seems too many nonprofits are functioning with the imaginary belief that none of the others even exist. It’s not healthy for anyone. I think it would be beautiful if there was a more unified force moving between them all. There have been efforts towards this sort of thing but nothing ever really sustainable materialized.

6. Community Charitable Association

This would be an opportunity for local businesspeople to have a say in what charitable activities take place in their own community. It would provide them a platform to make their voices heard in deciding the priorities of community projects as well as getting involved directly by helping to provide and raise the funds needed to carry out such projects. It would put the control in their hands to guide the direction of the development that is happening in their own neighborhoods while providing them access to the network of international aid that often overlooks them as resources that are already locally available. It may be a bit of a pipe dream to believe such a thing would actually be possible, something that would require collaboration between the profit and nonprofit sectors, the local and international sectors, when collaboration seems impossible enough just within each of those sectors on their own. But I’d love to give it a try and I think in my community here the right individual’s exist that would at least be willing to give it a try with me.

7. Hotel on the Beach

This is another one that is inspired purely by the perfect location oozing with potential, certainly not because I have any particular skills in the hospitality industry. And, maybe there isn’t really a demand for another one of these, there are other very nice hotels in the area, a couple even on the beach. But the two beautiful, large, hotelesque buildings for sale right next door to each other that I drive past every time that I go to the beach are begging to be transformed. And sure, there may be others, but mine would have delicious locally made wine available to sip while you lay in hammocks on the beach, with better music and art than the others.IMG_2545-001

8. Real Estate Firm

I have a sickness. Its symptoms include wanting to buy or rent absolutely every building in the Jacmel area that I see marked as available for such. There are so many beautiful buildings for sale or rent here and each time that I see a sign hanging out front of one I immediately start thinking of all of the things that it would be perfect for. (Prime example, #3 and #7 on this list). I was recently sitting on the beach enjoying my Sunday Funday when a Haitian woman (diaspora) handed me a business card for a reality business in Les Cayes Jacmel which I received politely with a smile on my face, but inside I was thinking, “Screw this, I could do so much better!” Why could I do better? Because I am an expert at taking things that other people see as lost causes and seeing the hidden potential in them to bring out the beauty that lies within. There are places in this area that no one else would mess with because they’re still damaged from the quake, or they are overgrown with weeds and mildew. Being an artist I’m able to see what they could become rather than getting stuck on what they are. And with a little elbow grease, this region is full of places that could become absolutely extraordinary locations usable for a number of reasons and the region itself is exploding with reasons for new people to come invest in it and move to it. All it would take is the funds to start with one building.

9. Soccer Field

I’ve been begging my soccer team to help me make this one possible for a couple years now, but there just isn’t the land available in our area to do it. There’s money to be made in it, and also a need in the community, not just as a soccer field but also as a performance space, but it would also require a large investment upfront to actually create the space since it would require some heavy duty machinery to make a flat space large enough. The only field that the community has right now for soccer is much too small and the family that owns the land are never very cooperative when it comes to its use for community soccer events. Ever since I’ve been here people have been talking about how they need a better soccer field but so far, even though I’ve looked into it, it certainly wouldn’t be easy. But not impossible, so I still keep it in the back of my mind.

10. Spiritual Retreat

I wrote about this idea a bit in my Soul Poop post. It might even be an idea that I will have the most trouble letting go of or ever admitting that it’s not reasonable. When you stand there on that bluff and look off into the distance, it’s impossible not to have some sort of spiritual encounter. And it’s one thing that I think would be very different to the other types of accommodations available to visitors to the area. Rather than just a place for tourists to stay, it would be a place for people to actually search out for the spiritual experience of being able to feel closer to God, closer to yourself, closer to the earth and the energy that moves through it. Yes, I think that it needs to happen and it just might be possible that I’ve already priced plots of land and drawn up building plans and picked out the tile that I’d like to have on the dining room floor, but it’s all still just a nice idea. A nice idea that makes my soul feel so damn full that I can hardly contain it.

IMG_245211. Honey Production

Okay, I’m already doing this and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Contact me for orders. The honey is delicious.

So there it is everyone, I’ve welcomed you into my process as I try to figure out what it is that I really do here. Do you like any of those ideas? Want in on any of them? Contact me to talk about any of them. Leave me a comment if there’s something you think this country could use but no one is doing yet. I’m probably crazy enough to give it a try.