Art Really Does Save Lives

I would usually be the last person to ever claim that anything that I do in Haiti actually saves lives. I would also be the first person to roll my eyes when some other non-Haitian would claim something so dramatic. Whether it may be technically true or not, the white savior narrative is so problematic in this country that it doesn’t need any extra fuel to bolster it. So I usually try to avoid such hyperbolic and cliché proclamations. An experience that I’ve gone through this past week, however, has revealed to me the life-or-death gravity of certain situations that really do need discussed. And so I want to talk about it here, not because I am saving lives, but because you who are reading this, can save lives, and you can do so by buying art and by supporting the work of Haitian artists. You may read that and think that now I really am being dramatic. I mean we’re not curing cancer or feeding starving children, we’re creating art. How is that saving lives? Well, I’ll explain. But before I do, please know that it has been very difficult for me this week as I process my feelings on this to know how best to share these stories while also protecting the privacy and dignity of the artists and my community here that trust me. So I’m going to try to do so in a way that illuminates the seriousness of the issue while not betraying that trust that they’ve given me.

I’ve been serving as the executive director of the Jacmel Arts Center now for a little over a year, and many of the artists here I’ve known for years before that. But being the executive director here entails much more than just the administration of a calendar full of arts programming for over 100 member artists. I also often end up serving as a therapist, a mentor, and a chief cheerleader for those artists. For many of them, this family of artists that they have here is the greatest system of support that they have in their lives, so when life gets challenging they look to us as a family for the strength to make it through.

At least once a month I have had an artist in my office telling me about how they are seriously considering suicide as an escape from the difficulties that they’re facing. In those moments, I have to try my best to make sure that they know that they are loved and they are valued as part of our family. I try to help them realize the tools that they have available to them to help them process their feelings and express the stress and depression that they feel trapped in. But sometimes that’s not enough. On one occasion I ended up having to call the girlfriend of one of the artists to tell her how worried I was about him and warn her about the dark place that he was in, knowing that she was his only other source of support.

This week, though, we came far too dangerously close to actually losing one of our artists to the darkness as he attempted to take his own life.  Fortunately he didn’t succeed, thanks to, in large part, two other artists from our center that were with him at the time and were able to save him and get him to the hospital. He was able to recover and seems to be on a more positive path now, but if it wasn’t for the support of our family of artists that we have built for each other here at the center, things could have turned out much different. This artist was in my office earlier that day, having that conversation with me that has become all too familiar, telling me that he didn’t see a way out. I talked to him but also made sure that he wasn’t going home alone.

Here’s the thing, being an artist is hard. It’s hard in any place and any cultural circumstance. Those of us who were born into the unavoidable current that pulls us into a life of the arts never choose this life because of its ease, we simply allow the current to pull us to where we need to be. Many people who’ve never felt the gravity of that vocational call to be an artist might look at us and simply say, “If things are so tough, then why not get a real job?” And sure, in some places it is possible for an artist who is not professionally or financially successful to get a part-time job to help make ends meet while they pursue their art. In other places, like Haiti, however, that is not an option. If you’ve discovered your natural allocation to be an artist, then you feel like it would be a spit in the face of the God inside of you to deny it. The Art that is within you needs to be created no matter what. And when, despite all odds, you find a way to create that art, you create it not for yourself but because society itself depends on the existence of that art.

Being an artist is hard, but it is necessary. No place knows this better than Jacmel. Known as the arts capitol of the country, its very identity depends on the arts and the artists who create the art. Without them, Jacmel would cease to be Jacmel. This country, itself, needs these artists now in this moment in history more than ever as it is them who can transform the narrative about their culture and share a more positive and true story than the one that is being shared through the media and from the houses of power abroad. It is these artists who are responsible for the identity of the city and the public perception of their country. This culture needs them, and yet they still struggle to survive on a daily basis and still find it impossible on many days to find any hope. They still find themselves in my office trying to brainstorm alternatives to suicide. It is one of the great paradoxes of art that while living the life of an artist can lead into really dark places where the darkness threatens to consume you entirely, it is also only the art itself that has the power to draw you out of that place and save you.

Creating the art is a process of creating life. But also selling the art is an essential part of providing for life and can either be the most encouraging or the most discouraging part of being an artist. That’s why it’s also important to buy art well. When you buy a painting, paying the artist a fair price for their work also saves lives because as artists we paint our very being into each work of art that we create. Those works of art are reflections of ourselves and they define our own value as human beings. If you buy a painting but pay much less than what it’s worth you are not only diminishing the value of the painting but the value of the human being that made it. This is why I sometimes get a bit feisty with people who try to negotiate lower prices on paintings at our center. I know that the artist would accept less because they are desperate, but I often refuse to accept less on their behalf because I know who truly pays the price in the end when they receive the message that their work, and by extension, their life, is not worth what they thought. Once your painting is on your wall you never see the long-term effects of paying less for it. You might feel like you got a great deal, but you have no idea how much that bargain cost the artist who had to give up so much for your deal. Haitians already receive plenty of messages trying to cheapen their worth as humans. Paying them fairly for their art that they have invested their time, money, and soul into, really does save lives.

This is why what we do at the Jacmel Arts Center is so important and why by supporting what we do here is actually saving lives. These artists need the network of support that they have here in order to survive and honestly, they need that network to be stronger. I don’t ever want to get a call again from the hospital, or God forbid, the morgue, saying that one of my artists is there because they thought dying would be better for them than living. That’s why I’m writing this, because before I ever receive that call, I want everyone to truly understand how severe the situation is. I want people to realize this every time that I try to sell a painting or ask for donations. I am not writing it to exploit their pain for the sake of donations or sales, but to simply provide you a context for the greater impact that those donations and sales make. You may think that there are more important things to use your money for. After all, cancer needs cured and starving kids need fed. But investing in the arts also saves lives.

I may not be the best therapist in the world because feelings aren’t really my thing and dealing with people’s personal problems isn’t really my idea of a good time. What I can do, however, is sell their art and continue to build an inclusive and positive environment for them to feel valued and supported as artists and as human beings. That is what we’re trying to do at the Jacmel Arts Center, and that is why every time you buy a work of art from us or make a donation to support what we do, you are saving lives. Art saves lives. Be a part of it.

Jacmel Arts Center Website

Jacmel Arts Center Facebook Page


Best of Books and Podcasts 2017

I didn’t get the time to write my full review posts of my top books and podcasts from 2017, but I still wanted to share my recommendations from the year anyway.

Best Books

1. The Nix by Nathan Hill

2. They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery

3. Hunger by Roxane Gay

4. Exit West by Moshin Hamid

5. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

6. Swing Time by Zadie Smith

7. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

8. The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

9. Pond by Claire Louise-Bennet

10. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry


Best Podcasts

1. 1A

2. S Town

3. It’s Been A Minute with Sam Sanders

4. On Being

5. Pod Save the People

6. Larry Wilmore Black on the Air

7. Here Be Monsters

8. A Piece of Work with Abbi Jacobson

9. Levar Burton Reads

10. Missing Richard Simmons

11. Unhappy Hour with Matt Bellassai

12. The Ran Down with Robin Theade


Resignation Speech Template for Politician Accused of Sexual Abuse

This week we’ve seen more politicians resign from their jobs in a single week then since the Civil War (when states were seceding) . This all due to their nasty habits of treating women like garbage. I was glad to hear that Al Franken was resigning but was disappointed in his speech, thinking that he really could have used the opportunity to make a much stronger statement and contributed to pushing the issue forward in a bolder way. He didn’t. It was a weak moment that proved we can do better than Al Franken anyway. So, since there’s guaranteed to be more of these resignations coming as soon as other names hit the papers, I thought I’d go ahead and provide a suggested template for any politician to use when making their announcement.

Good Morning to all of my fellow colleagues here in the [Senate, House, wherever].

I’ve asked for the opportunity to speak here today because as we all know, over the last couple of months our society has seen a new wave of accounts becoming public from brave women and men testifying to the acts of sexual harassment and assault that men in powerful positions have committed against them. These accounts have implicated many who serve in our government, including myself. To those women how have come forth with their stories of how my behavior towards them in the past has left them feeling uncomfortable and even violated, I would like to simply say, I’m sorry. Period. I. Am. Sorry. I am sorry for what I did. And to all women, I am sorry that we have sustained a structure in our society that continues to protect men in power at whatever costs and disregard the dignity of women at all levels. I am sorry that we have allowed a toxic culture of masculinity guide us to a place where women cannot feel safe in the work place or even be in many public spaces without the fear of harassment. I am sorry that it has taken so long for you to feel heard.

But we hear you now.

Today I am doing what I think is right and announcing that within the coming weeks I will be resigning from my position as [Senator, Congressman, President, etc]. Serving within this institution for the last [number] years has truly been the greatest honor of my life. However, at this time, it is clear that my continued presence here would only serve to further sustain that structure that too often leaves men without consequences for their actions and leaves the victims of their actions silenced. I refuse to send that message to the many victims around this country who are waiting for justice for the acts perpetrated against them. We can do better as a country and we must do better, America. That is why I will be stepping down.

As I do though, I would like to call upon my other colleagues who are facing allegations of their own to muster up a bit of integrity and do what they know to be the right thing as well. In this moment we cannot play politics. We must seize the momentum of this movement to create environments in our workplaces and public life where all women and men feel safe and respected. In particular I call upon Judge Roy Moore to drop out of the senate race in Alabama and acknowledge the credibility of his accusers. You, sir, have no place in leadership if you have left teenage girls questioning their worth and hurting emotionally. Similarly, I call upon President Donald Trump to immediately cease discrediting his own accusers and stop lying about the many times that he has admitted in the past to finding joy in the sexual assault of women. It’s true that the American people knew this about you and yet still voted in great enough numbers that you were able to be elected by the Electoral College to the presidency. But I would ask that you would cooperate with a full investigation into the at least 16 accusations of sexual harassment and assault against you and agree to take appropriate steps as a consequence of their findings. And if those investigations find President Trump guilty of sexual crimes, and he does not do the right thing by resigning himself, then I call upon members of Congress to do what they know to be right by pursuing impeachment. And if, by chance, the investigation did indeed find that all of those accusers were lying as President Trump claims they are, then at least we would know that we did the right thing in taking them seriously enough to investigate. It’s never a waste of time or resources to take such claims seriously, especially when we are talking about the one position within our society that should be held to the highest of standards, the presidency.

We claim to be a country based on liberty, but as long as powerful men continue to think that they have a right to touch a woman however they want, or to force a woman to kiss them, or to expect any kind of sexual interaction with a woman, then we are betraying our promise to Liberty for those women and for our country. Now is the time to make the change! We are on the precipice of creating a real transformation in our society regarding this issue. It’s time to stand up for accountability, integrity, and respect for women and all people in the workplace and throughout society. If we don’t start by cleaning up our own home here in government, then we can never expect change to follow in other sectors. In fact, many other sectors have already taken the lead on this and we are the ones lagging behind in our response because we value power over integrity. For far too long we have been the ones standing in the way of such a breakthrough. We have been the ones silencing the victims, justifying our actions, and paying settlements to try to make it all go away. The voices of this movement have made it clear that they are not going away and they will not be kept silent!

Today I encourage all of you who are still holding on to your story to speak out! You will be heard and supported. I echo what Senator Al Franken said, I may be giving up my seat here in the [Senate, House, etc] but I am not giving up my voice. To all of my fellow men who are serving in government, and in leadership positions across sectors, I would like to simply say, quit being perverts. Taking advantage of women and those under your leadership doesn’t make you stronger. It doesn’t make you funnier or sexier. It doesn’t make you better. It makes you pathetic and sad and disgusting. So just stop. And for the many Americans out there who are witnessing this movement right now and wondering what they can do, as well as to those who are speaking their truths through their accounts, I encourage you to run for office. I have a feeling there will be some more vacancies opening up. For too long power has been concentrated in the hands of too few and too many rich white men like myself keep thinking that it’s somehow owed to us. We need your voices in the halls of power to guide this country to a brighter future. A future where all of our sons and daughters understand what consent is and what respect truly means. A future where a woman knows her rights and isn’t afraid to stand up for them. A future where #MeToo can become a response to incredible accomplishments and noble pursuits rather than traumatic encounters. Where more and more women can say, “I am going to become a Senator, a Congresswoman, the President,” and throngs of other women can respond back, “Me Too!” Where even one female hotel employee can sit down on the bus next to a female restaurant employee and say, “I feel safe at work.” and the other can respond, “Me Too.” Where a woman can stand up and say, “I am powerful. I am in control of my own body and my own choices. I am worthy. And I am free.” And every other woman in this country can confidently respond back, “Me Too!”

To close today, I want to thank women like Tarana Burke who started the Me Too movement and others like Alyssa Milano and Ashley Judd who used their celebrity to bring the movement to a much wider audience. And to all of the women out there, of which there are far too many to name, who have used their voice to add to the chorus, yes even those who spoke out against me. My career as a [Senator, Congressman, etc] may be ending but this experience has forced me to interrogate my own actions in a way that I know will make me a better man in the end. I want to thank all of my colleagues here in the [Senate, House, Supreme Court, etc] who have worked alongside me for these [number] years. Serving alongside you has been a privilege. I want to thank the great people of the state of [your state] for electing me and giving me the opportunity to serve them. I hope for the most part that I have made you proud. And I want to thank my family [wife, kids, etc.] for standing by me through it all. Finally, I want to thank the leadership for allowing me the time to speak today. Thank you.

Let’s Chill Out Over TPS

In case you haven’t heard, this past Monday, November 20th, the Trump administration announced that it would be ending the Temporary Protected Status program that has allowed nearly 60,000 Haitians to remain in the United States since they came here after the earthquake of 2010 to escape the devastation that was overwhelming their homeland at the time. These Haitian refugees have now been given 18 months to make preparations to return to Haiti before risking deportation.

Now ever since the announcement was made, my newsfeeds have blown up with posts about how cruel this decision is, how terrible it will be for these Haitians that have to return, and how it further proves that Trump is a racist tyrant hell bent on destroying the lives of people of color and immigrants. Most of these angry posts condemning the decision are coming from my fellow non-Haitians who live or work in Haiti and Haitian diaspora who haven’t lived in Haiti for years. It is not what I’m hearing from my Haitian friends when they comment on the news. So here I am, to offer my voice to say, “People, let’s chill out over TPS!”

The “T” in TPS stands for temporary. So for starters, anyone who thought that these Haitians would just get to stay in the USA forever don’t understand how language works. It’s been 8 years since the earthquake and they have been given another 18 month grace period. They were never promised citizenship and they were never promised indefinite amnesty. This announcement should confirm absolutely all expectations that anyone should have had about this program from the beginning.

But that’s just the most obvious reason why we should chill out. Here’s my bigger issue with freaking out about this as some sort of injustice: Haiti is not that horrible of a place, sending them back there is not a death sentence. It’s actually a pretty great place, and these people should be proud to return. Every time that we share our disgust in the administration’s decision to send these Haitians literally “back to where they came from” we are perpetuating the misleading stereotypes of the country being nothing but a miserable, impoverished, dangerous, crime-ridden, hopeless portal into Hell itself. It’s not! When we do that we make the same mistake that my Grandma Dorothy always used to make, confusing “Haiti” for “Hades”.

Some of us work very hard to try to market this country as a place where tourists should want to come, where businesses should want to invest, and where artists and innovators create a culture worth wanting to experience. How on earth do we ever expect outsiders to want to visit if we are going to say that making Haitians themselves come here is some sort of cruel and unusual punishment? For the sake of the 9 million other Haitians that are already here and have been here all through the last 8 years and before that, we have to stop acting like these 60,000 will never be able to survive living like the other 9 million of them again. We have to stop acting like living like those 9 million is the worst thing that could ever happen to those 60,000, like now that they’ve tasted the good life in the US they should never be expected to have to live like the rest of us poor unfortunate souls back in Haiti ever again.

Those 9 million lived through the same exact tragedy as those 60,000 and they stayed and they survived. Yes, it’s true that some 300,000 did not survive, and every day we still mourn them, but 9 million did survive and continued to persevere and work to rebuild their country while 60,000 escaped and got to live a different life in the US for 8 years. Millions of those who stayed watched their own homes crumble to the ground, some of them even being trapped by them, losing limbs and suffering extreme injuries, having their friends and family die under the rubble, and they didn’t have the chance to make it out afterwords. Instead they lingered in the horror of it all. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s not much sympathy for those who did make it out and now have to return. Boo hoo.


In Jacmel after the earthquake, January, 2010

The Haiti of today is not the Haiti of after the earthquake. I know that there are reports of Haiti being the second least livable place on earth, after only Yemen. Yes, the effects of poverty and injustice and a lack of development still make life extremely difficult for many people in Haiti and still take a devastating toll on many families. But the Haiti that these 60,000 people left behind is not the Haiti that they’ll be returning to. There are plenty of homes for sale and for rent. My newsfeeds are also full of announcements about available properties. If they don’t want to buy or rent, 18 months is plenty of time to build a comfortable home and it’s not that expensive. If I can do it on my starving artist income, anyone who’s been working for the last 8 years in the US should be able to do it. In addition, infrastructure has improved. Roads and bridges have been built, new businesses have been established, security has increased, and there has been a lot of investment in education in the country. Are things perfect? No. They’ll still be returning to a place that is at a much less developed state than what they’ll be leaving behind in New York, Boston, Miami, or wherever they are. If they get sick they’ll still be hard pressed to find a hospital with a working medical staff. If they want consistent electricity they’ll have to invest in solar energy (outrageous!) But they’ll be able to find a home, probably be able to find some work, and it’ll take some adjustment, but they’ll learn how to live in Haiti again.

But what about the children!!!!??!?!? (I hear you screaming at your computer screen.) They’ll be tearing families apart! Again, chill out. Haiti’s a great place to raise kids. Bring them along. They’ll be fine. If they were born in the States, traveling for them will already be easy enough, but again, they’ve got 18 months to start figuring out the legal processes that they’ll need to go through. They all knew full well when they decided to have a child while on “temporary protected status” that eventually this would happen. So it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Of all of the things going on in our world to be outraged at, this should not be one of them. Like I said, none of my Haitian friends are posting about this on their newsfeeds, because it’s not a surprise to them nor is it an injustice worth making noise about. They’re ready to welcome those 60,000 back into their country. You know what my Haitian friends are posting about that no one else is? Slavery in Libya. That’s what they’re outraged over. Their West African brothers and sisters who are trying to escape legitimately life-threatening circumstances in their homes are now being sold as slaves in Libya before they make it to freedom. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you probably don’t have enough Haitian Facebook friends. That’s what they’re currently outraged over. Check out the CNN report on it if you haven’t yet.

When it comes to a bunch of people who’ve lived the majority of their lives in Haiti being told that now they have to live some more of their lives in Haiti, that’s not really worth being outraged over. A bunch of people being given a year and a half to plan the rest of their lives in a beautiful Caribbean island nation with a vibrant culture is not a tragedy. It’s simply the end result of a program that was always intended to be temporary. The quicker that we accept that reality, the quicker we can get back to working together with these 60,000 that will be returning to build a future for the country that everyone can be proud to be a part of. So let’s chill out.

Don’t Read This Unless You’ve Already Read A Bunch of Articles by Writers of Color on Charlottesville

It’s been over a week now since the events of Charlottesville and I’ve remained fairly quiet about it all. I’ve been busy and haven’t even sat down in front of my laptop all week to type anything out. When something traumatic like this happens I always need to sit and linger with my feelings a bit before crafting any sort of meaningful response. That being said, I can’t say that what I’m about to write will actually be meaningful in any way. I feel like most of what can be said or needs to be said already has been said by others much more eloquent and informed than me. But I’m still gonna write what I can because 1) maybe everything’s already been said, but it hasn’t all been heard or absorbed by everyone that needs to hear it and maybe adding my voice will reach an extra ear or eyeball or two. And, 2) “writing it out” is always a necessary reconciliation for myself between my mind and my heart whether or not anyone else reads these words.

It’s also been a daunting prospect to write because simply, my soul is weary and overwhelmed. My privileged white soul is weary and overwhelmed even though I never have to worry about being the victim of racism myself. The most overwhelming part is the knowledge that my brothers and sisters of color in this country have been screaming into the void, trying to get us to wake up, for ages, but they continue to have to fear for their lives everyday in a country that pretends to be for all people as they watch their sons and daughters continually killed, imprisoned, and oppressed. How much greater the toll a week like this has on them and yet they continue to be denied and dismissed. No matter how many politicians “condemn bigotry and hatred” people of color in this country know that condemning the neo nazis with the tiki torches in the streets is not going to ultimately change the policies that make everyday life for them a head on battle with discrimination. The racists in the polo shirts were yelling their racism out loud in blatant and unavoidable language. But for years our government has been legislating just as appalling of racism with laws suppressing the votes of black people, and making sure that black people are more likely to go to prison and serve longer sentences, and making it more difficult for black people to own homes and get jobs, and creating access to quality education only outside of communities of color, and turning a blind eye when those communities of color are poisoned by their drinking water . Everyone’s angry that the president defends white supremacists as fine people, all the while our vice president and secretary of state and senators can say that the KKK is a scourge on our society, but we all know that the next day they’ll be signing laws that the klansmen would applaud, just with sneakier, less outrageous language. But the end result is the same.

People of color have known these things forever. The difference now is that the events in Charlottesville have held a mirror up to white people to show them that the racists actually look like them and it’s forced many white people to start to acknowledge their own complicity in the system. It’s come out from under hoods and shed the robes and it looks too familiar. This is a white people problem and we have to accept our duty to dismantling the system that benefits us. Speaking out in times of crisis is not enough. We have to actively deconstruct the inherent system of supremacy that has skewed the balances of power so far in our favor. How do we actually do that? I don’t really have the answers but there are resources out there with good suggestions if you Google it. But I would start by stopping the tweeting about monuments and what Donald Trump said. Those things are important but mostly symbolic at the end of the day. Start looking at how you can do your part to change the system. That means looking at how you vote, it means looking at what organizations you support, it means rethinking about where and how you volunteer in your community, it means being conscious of the media and news that you consume, it means considering your involvement with your children’s school and keeping your chosen place of worship accountable for social justice issues. It means having actual conversations with people of color who are affected by the systems everyday and actually listening to what they have to say without trying to advise them or help them. Amplify their voice if possible. It means, if you’re white, being willing to take a back seat in conversations about race. In fact, if you’re reading this, I hope you go read at least 5 articles by writers of color on the issue, their voices matter more than mine here. Maybe at the end of the post I’ll include some suggestions.

Now I’ve made it this far in my blog post and I’ve completely deviated from the content that I set out to write because once I started typing I guess I just needed to rant a bit.  I intended to write about the nuanced intersections of racism in the United States and effects of global racism on the little country of Haiti where I live, but I guess maybe that will have to be a completely different blog post. Now I’ve passed the point of no return. And I need to continue to rant a bit as I still wrestle with how to understand the situation myself and what my own role is in the big picture.

We can’t continue to condemn the actions of the racists in Charlottesville in such ways that we pretend it’s some far off novelty carried out by a small group of wack jobs. No matter where we live in the United States, there is racism in our backyards and there are systems in place that affect all of us that maintain white supremacy. We have to be prepared to have the uncomfortable conversations, with compassion when possible, but with severity when necessary. We need to confess the places where we’ve embraced the benefits that white supremacy has afforded us, and as my pastor in Iowa said this weekend, repent and change our minds about how we live within those systems moving forward.

There are a lot of white people these days who have begun to admit that they benefit from white privilege, but it’s much more difficult to actually accept that that privilege is a product of white supremacy and the systems that uphold it. We may not be in the streets yelling out that whites are the supreme race, but we willingly welcome the better education access, the better protection from the law, the freedom from being followed and side-eyed at department stores. I, myself, have benefited greatly from my white privilege. The very work that I do and life that I live would not be possible if I weren’t a white, middle-class, college educated, cisgendered male. I love being able to work as an artist and community organizer in my region of South-eastern Haiti and collaborate with such dynamic groups of Haitian artists on both a local and international level. But if I had been born a black man, to a single mother, in Detroit, and decided in my late teens that I had a dream to do work similar to what I do now, there’s no way, NO WAY, in this country of the United States, that fulfilling such a dream would actually be possible. Because of where I come from and what I look like, when I began to pursue working in Haiti through the arts, it was very easy for people to assume that I was going to be “doing good”, “helping others”, and “making a difference”. And because of that, I was able to get the support that I needed to actually succeed in that pursuit and make a life out of it. I won’t say that it was easy to do so, but it was an absolute breeze compared to how difficult, nay impossible, it would have been if I had come from a more urban, less economically advantaged place, and had darker skin and different life experiences.

My white privilege allows me the opportunity to do work in Haiti that Haitians themselves aren’t able to do in their own country because of the inherent white supremacy systems that impact access to resources and power. Early on in my career in Haiti when I was young and starting out, I was enthusiastically encouraged on all sides to pursue specific projects, but when young Haitian men, my own age, with just as much intelligence and potential, attempted to do the same exact projects for their own communities, they would be criticized as being too ambitious, only out for their own good, having ulterior motives. Everything from their sex drives to their taste in music would be used to discredit them while at the same time I would be praised for changing lives. Seeing this, I made it my mission to raise up those same young men as leaders in their communities and empower them to prove the naysayers wrong while trying to take a more supportive, less dominant role in the community work myself. And yet, no matter what I try to do to push them to the forefront and communicate that they are the ones doing the work, I usually end up getting most of the credit, because our systems of white supremacy have taught us to assume that white people are the saviors even though history would suggest that white people are usually the oppressors.

And now I’ve taken this post in a different direction again and gotten away from Charlottesville with my rant. But maybe that’s the point. Charlottesville was not an isolated, insidious incident. It was a symptom of centuries old structures that affect our lives every day on a national and a global level. And for centuries the victims of those unjust structures have been calling out. It’s time for those of us who benefit from the structures to stop and listen to what they have been saying and to actively work to break down those structures with them so that together they may be rebuilt in a more equitable and just way.

As for suggestions on voices of writers and commentators of color to check out, my good friend, Gwenn Mangine, put out a blog post this week about listening to priority voices with some good suggestions. Gwenn’s not a writer of color, but it’s easier to share her list than make my own. So check that out here. I’ll add podcast recommendations for the most recent episodes on Charlottesville from Politically Re-Active, It’s Been a Minute, and Black on the Air. For articles, check out this one from my girlfriend, Roxane Gay, and this one from Vann R Newkirk at the Atlantic, and this interview with Patrisse Cullors. Also, although not directly commenting on Charlottesville, I recommend reading Kara Walker’s most recent Artist’s Statement. It is brilliant and tremendously relevant to the situation.

Is This Artist African American?

This is a post that I wrote for my art blog but wanted to share it here as well thinking that it might be interesting to my Green Mango audience too. I am sincere when I say I hope to open conversations around these topics, so I welcome any feedback my readers might have on the subject.

The Art of Lee Rainboth (Concepts Blog)

I’m back in the US for a bit, showing my art in some shows again here in the Midwest, which always makes for new challenging interactions and feedback from viewers of my work. I don’t mean challenging in that the interactions are difficult, but they challenge me to reconsider what my art means to different people in different contexts. This is good and necessary for me as an artist because I get used to creating the work in my usual Haitian context and the immediate feedback that I always get on my paintings are from the Haitians themselves. But once I remove the work from that context and exhibit it in a different place with different histories and relationships to race, religion, culture, and community, and each person that views the work has their own personal histories and relationships, the art can send a very different message.

I’m currently participating…

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10 Reasons Why Haiti hasn’t Broken Me Yet

I am knocking on wood here. Because Haiti is a place that destroys people. The majority of outsiders that come here don’t last long and the ones that do last a while are broken by the time that they leave. It’s why Haitians themselves are frequently described with the detestable label of “resilient” because they find ways to survive and find joy in life despite all of the odds against it. When we say “Haitians are so resilient” what we really mean is, “I just don’t understand how they live in such a hellhole!” Those who come in from the outside come with a privilege that makes them much less resilient, because when things get tough, they can always choose to leave. And most do. I, for some reason, however, have not. After ten years, I am still here. It is certainly not because I am any stronger than others who have tried, but it seems that fate has simply aligned in such a way that I have managed to avoid many of the circumstances that often lead others to be broken. This does not at all mean that I haven’t experienced my fair share of trauma here (um, hello, earthquake) but my certain combination of Haitian traumas have never been enough to break me to the point of no return, and that has to do much with the way that I have chosen to live and the community that I live with. But also, because I have never had to deal with the following ten things that many, many people have encountered and each one chips away at resolve and the chance for resilience.

  1. I’ve Never Felt Unsafe

There are, indeed, reasons why Haiti is still under a travel advisory from the US for security reasons. Even though I personally have never been a victim of those reasons, there are plenty of others who have been. I live in a rural area where crime is low and everyone looks out for one another, even those who aren’t from around here. There are places in this country where the sound of gunshots can be as common as the sound of donkeys braying here at my home. I’m one of the rare white people in this country that doesn’t live in a large walled in compound with an armed guard at the gate 24/7. I don’t even lock my doors at night or when I leave. And I’ve never once thought twice about it. My vicious guard dog, Buttons, has to keep herself busy by harassing school children and old market ladies because she has nothing to actually guard me from. A lot of people say that I should be more careful, but Haiti has yet to give me a reason to be.

  1. I’ve Never Gotten Anything Valuable Stolen from Me

After ten years, of course, I’ve had a few inconsequential things stolen from me: a telephone and some cash in the middle of the carnival crowd, an inverter that was a hand-me-down to start with, and one of my favorite t-shirts (right off of the laundry line). But that’s about it. We had two solar batteries stolen from Living Media once, which was expensive to replace, but not all that devastating. So after ten years, I count myself very lucky on this front. It also is worth stating that I have never had anything stolen from me from someone that I trusted, which is a very frequent story that I hear from other expats. But it’s also hard to have your stuff stolen when you live with an attitude of sharing absolutely everything anyway. My roommates and I have no boundaries when it comes to sharing. Underwear? When laundry days don’t line up, sure. Toothbrush? When we’re away from home and in a bind, yep. So when nothing’s really for me anyway, it’s hard to ever really consider anything stolen.

  1. I’ve Never Gotten the Worst Diseases or had Traumatic Hospital Experiences

There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t have had malaria, or dengue, or chikungunya by now. I take no precautions, I don’t use bug spray, I don’t sleep under a net, nothing. I have been daring mosquitoes to upset my health for years, and what do they do, give me a little zika for a day or two? C’mon! Even beyond mosquitoes, I’ve gotten off easy. The one time I had TB, it remained inactive and I got it treated before it ever gave me any symptoms. I’ve never once had to be hospitalized for anything here, and thank God. The horror stories of trying to get treatment here alone are enough to make someone give up on everything. Among expats who live like I do, it’s usually a sort of badge of honor to be able to compare who’s survived the most exotic diseases, and all I can say is, “I had some bad lobster once that made me puke a lot”.

  1. I’ve Never Been in an Abusive or Destabilizing Romantic Relationship

This one, people. Many of the other things on this list are purely fate that I have been able to avoid them and have come despite all of my efforts contrary to what is considered prudent, however, this one. This one right here, I get to say is because I make good choices. I have seen way too many good people get destroyed here because they give their heart to the wrong person, they get in bed with the wrong person, and they sacrifice their trust for the wrong person. Haitians are beautiful, passionate, sexy people that make you want to fall in love with them. And some of them are worth falling in love with. But this culture makes legitimate love and healthy relationships almost impossible no matter who it’s with (just ask the ones who have been able to make it work). But far too many foreigners here have gently laid their hearts in the hands of a Haitian only to have it ripped apart because of cultural differences and that choice carries consequences on every other part of their life, often destroying the other good work they are trying to do.

  1. I’ve Never Gotten in a Serious Moto Accident

I don’t need a lecture about wearing a helmet, thank you. It’s certainly not because I haven’t seen the gruesome results of tragic moto accidents though. Close friends of mine have been victims and others have fully positive experiences in this country until they’re thrown to the pavement and the pain and injury of the collision breaks not only skin and bones, but also their devotion to the country. It becomes such a more attractive option to return to where the streets actually have rules and cars have airbags and streetlights actually work.

  1. I’ve Never been Touched by a Death that I couldn’t Grieve Healthily

Death has crossed my path plenty of times in Haiti. It is one thing that you have to get used to. You become a professional at attending funerals. Some of those deaths have even been violent or unexpected. But through it all, Death has stayed out of my most intimate inner circle. In my entire time here, I have not lost any of my closest friends, my Haitian family, my staff or co-workers that I’ve come to depend on. That is a rare, rare gift in this place. I try to never take it for granted because I know how much harder those deaths can hit in this context. The culture of grief here is so different that for those of us who must straddle cultures, a death like that can topple everything that holds us together. I know that none of us are immune, however, so I’d be perfectly happy for all of those closest to me to outlive me and those who don’t, to die comfortably of old age. But I know Haiti doesn’t give that gift to anybody forever. Besides, if I ever lost one of my roommates, I don’t know whose underwear I’d borrow when I forget to plan ahead.

  1. I’ve Never Been Betrayed by Staff

I know a lot of expats will read that and think, “He’s lying. He can’t be serious. That’s not possible in this country. What kind of magic does he possess?” I’m going to tell you the truth, without trying to sound arrogant. I honestly don’t think it’s because I have always worked with or chosen staff in my organizations that are any more pure and trustworthy than any other Haitians. I have always had incredible staff, but they have always still been susceptible to the constraints that this culture puts on them, and sometimes, in other cases, that leads local staff to make decisions for the sake of their survival or their own integrity that makes expat staff feel betrayed. I think I have never been on the receiving end of this because I’m a very good listener and I have always made space for my local staff to feel like their voices are heard and I always let them guide as much decision making as possible. This isn’t always possible in all situations in other organizations, but because I’ve been able to do that, I’ve never had a staff member feel like they’ve had to do something behind my back or betray my trust. I’ve always been ready to accept and adapt to the culture where others would simply see betrayal because they are looking at things through the lens of the culture that they come from. This results in certain situations where, if others were in my shoes, they might feel like a line had been crossed, but my lines are always blurrier than anyone else’s. What’s black and what’s white, what’s betrayal and what’s fidelity, is always more fluid with me.

  1. I’ve Never Felt Taken Advantage of

This is closely related to the previous one, but even outside of work situations, as a white person, it’s easy, even common to be taken advantage of here. From beggars in the street, from vendors in the market, from participants in your programs, it seems Haitians are always looking for ways to exploit you as a person from a place of means or exploit their relationship to you for access to those means. But whether they are or aren’t actually taking advantage of me, I’ve never felt taken advantage of. Because here’s the thing, Haitians, as a whole, come from an entire history of being taken advantage of and exploited by the rest of the world. And to many of them, I represent the rest of the world and its history of exploitation. My skin color does, my language does, my passport does, and my privilege does. So I’m usually prepared to understand where they’re coming from. This doesn’t mean that I make myself a doormat, a healthy sense of sarcasm and measured use of Creole profanities helps with that, but I never fault a Haitian for trying to benefit off of my foreignness because it’s usually more of a survival tactic than it is malice.

  1. I’ve Never Felt like a Failure

Sure, I’ve had plenty of small failures along the way on specific projects but I, myself, have never felt like a failure in the bigger picture. Have I been disappointed? Plenty of times. But I learned early on to temper my expectations so that the successes, when they do happen, can shine brighter and have more power in defining my experience. In those times when I have failed in smaller ways and I lament those failures to my friends, they usually remind me that no one asked me to do what I was trying to do anyway. They remind me that the success of the community as a whole does not and never did depend on the success or the failure of my projects. They point out that they, personally, don’t care one way or the other. They’re just glad I’m here. As an American who grew up in a society that measures everything by results, it’s taken some time to adjust to such a mindset, but it has helped me keep a clear head about my reasons for being here and avoid breaking down when things don’t go as planned.

10.  I’ve Never Felt Alone.

After the earthquake, as an American in the situation, isolated and cut off from the rest of the world with no one from my home culture who could really understand what I was going through, I experienced one of the most immersive senses of loneliness possible. Yet it was at that same time that I was woven into the most intimate and indescribable sense of community and unconditional support from the local Haitians that were going through the situation with me. That is why I can say that I’ve never felt alone. No feeling of loneliness could ever compare to what I felt at those moments and yet it was the least alone that I ever felt because of those around me who were all going through the same thing, or even worse. And because nothing could ever compare to that, I know that as long I am here with this same community, I will never feel alone because I will never be alone.

That fact by itself is what has kept this country from breaking me. I’m not alone. I’ve got people. A lot of people, actually. The best people. And they’re all there no matter what happens. Even if I do get in a terrible moto accident or I lose control and fall in love with the worst person or I get everything that I value stolen from me. They are there and I know they will continue to be. To make me laugh, to make me believe in my purpose, to loan me underwear, and to hold me together when I’m in danger of breaking under the pressure of this country.