On June 13, 2020, the Vodou priest stood over the symbols traced in cornmeal on the hot asphalt in front of Overtown's Historic Black Police Precinct in Miami. The onlookers—some knowing, some curious—bowed their heads as he let forth a spray of droplets from different bottles over the crowd. Florida Water, fragrant and cooling, then spicy drops from a bottle of Haitian Barbancourt rum. He then used the rum to start a small fire, invoking Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a Haitian revolutionary leader who led the Haitian people to independence against the slaveholding French colonial power in 1804.
"1804!" the priest shouted in Creole. "Long live freedom! Down with racism! African lives matter!" Dessalines is a historical figure who has now been elevated to the status of lwa [spirit] within the Vodou cosmology, so his revolutionary presence is not unusual at Vodou ceremonies.
This was not a Vodou ceremony, however; this was a protest, and the melding of the two characterized the unique entrance of Miami's Haitian community into the uprisings of the summer of 2020.
The Miami protest was organized by François Alexandre, a Haitian-American man who was beaten by Miami police in 2013 and lived to tell the tale, though he continues to seek justice through the legal system. Alexandre emphasized that being born outside of the US, being middle-class, and having a college education did not protect him from the violence of the carceral state.
"Do I have to die," he asked, surrounded by posters of his own beaten and bloodied face asking the same question, "for my life to matter?" "Koupe tèt boule kay," shouted one of the protesters in support. Cut off heads and burn houses. The protester was hushed by people around him, who had been promised a peaceful protest. But he was only quoting the words of Jean-Jacques Dessalines himself, who purportedly gave this command when he ordered his soldiers to eradicate the French slaveholders.
In many ways, Haiti is the original model for razing, rather than reforming, systems of oppression. When Haiti achieved independence in 1804, surrounded by hostile nations like the US and tacitly silent nations like its former ally, Venezuela, it severed many of its ties to the colonial world order. There was no model for what an independent Black nation in the Americas might look like, so Haiti made it up as it went along. They created a new world of Black emperors and opera houses, newspapers and schools, with a new religion and language grounded in the diverse cultures of formerly enslaved people born in Africa and those born in the French colony of Saint Domingue, as Haiti was known before independence.
If Haiti is a template for revolution, why are so few of the American conversations around freedom and abolition citing its example?
One factor might be the lack of visibility of Haitian-Americans within public forms of protest. Though Haitian-Americans have a long history of activism through advocacy and organizing, there are some obstacles to Haitian participation in the protests currently gripping America. In addition to tangible barriers like language and documentation status, there are also psychic barriers around the legacy of protest in Haiti. Coming from a country where political dissent has historically led to torture, death, and disappearance, the violent backlash against Haitian protest is the reason many Haitians have found themselves in the United States rather than in their home country. But as Alexandre highlighted when he addressed the crowd, the fact that his parents had sought to protect him by emigrating to the United States and by trying to establish themselves in a white neighborhood, did not protect him from being just another Black body beaten by cops in America. This fact links African Americans and immigrant Black populations together in a precarious bond of unsafety that sometimes feels even more powerful than our shared African ancestry. But class divisions and respectability politics are one of the tools that white supremacy uses to convince Black immigrants that if they work hard enough to insert themselves into the white world, they can distinguish themselves from those other Black Americans whose lives do not matter.
The "Justice for François" protest was supposed to be a short one, helmed by drummers and trumpeters playing the rhythmic sounds of the Haitian carnival music known as rara. Rara music has long been a part of Haitian political activism, and I could understand its joyous bravery as the music ballooned when we passed under I-95, and the encampment of houseless people in tents waved and danced.
Turning onto NW 3rd Ave., we stopped when we heard a rising tide of voices shouting "No justice, no peace, fuck the racist police!" marching northward towards us. It was a much larger protest made up of a younger, multiracial crowd, many waving pride flags and holding signs that said, "Black Trans Lives Matter." Some of the marchers were wearing Guy Fawkes masks. And like a great river swallowing its tributary, they became us. There was some confusion, but after a moment of consultation between the leaders of both protests, they seemed to decide to continue the journey together, 50 blocks north to the statue of Toussaint Louverture in Little Haiti.
As a queer child of the Haitian diaspora, I felt buffeted by the currents of both groups. Despite the considerable efforts of queer Haitians, who have worked to reclaim and destigmatize the derogatory terms masisi [gay man] and madivin [lesbian] through art and activism, queer and trans identities are not universally affirmed in Haiti or its diaspora.
While I appreciated the increased queer visibility that came with the large multiracial crowd, the specificities of the Haitian protest got lost. When the Haitian organizers took the megaphone, no one seemed to know who Jean-Jacques Dessalines was, and our formerly exuberant cries of "Ayibobo!", a Vodou prayer exclamation, were scattered and meek in a crowd of English-speakers. Without context, I feared that the non-Haitian protesters would fall back on pervasive stereotypes about Haitian Vodou practitioners and the language they spoke. The results of a centuries-long international smear campaign against Haiti was evident in the confusion and bemusement on the faces of the non-Haitian protesters, for whom the tradition of Haitian resistance was reduced to spectacle.
The real tragedy is that many Americans, if they have heard about Haiti at all, have heard that Creole is bastardized French, that Vodou is a pact with the devil, and that Haiti's ambitious revolution has produced "the poorest country in the Western hemisphere." All of these untruths obscure the revolutionary potential of Haiti and the many lessons its history teaches.
We moved north through the ravages of unchecked gentrification in Wynwood, through residential neighborhoods where grannies in housedresses came out on their porches to shake their hips and raise their fists. Somewhere around 36th Street and NW 2nd Avenue, something miraculous happened. We passed under I-195 and the rara band exploded in a burst of energy. All of a sudden the disparate protests seemed to be of one purpose. The chant of "Black Lives Matter" fell in time with the drums, and the unified voices were amplified in an echo chamber of concrete. A young queer man began twerking on a pole. We blocked a major intersection in a vortex of chanting and dancing, and I thought of the drumming and dancing at Bois Caïman in 1791, a Vodou ceremony that purportedly began the Haitian Revolution.
Like us, the participants of the Haitian revolution were Black people (and a few allies) of different cultures, languages, and religions. Like us, they danced their community into being. Black populations in America have so much to learn from each other. To miss this opportunity, especially in the multi-ethnic but divided city of Miami, would be just another way that, in the words of Audre Lorde, "We rob ourselves of ourselves and each other."
I am reminded of a Vodou ritual song describing the spirit Loko as the wind, and the worshippers as butterflies who bear tidings to the sea spirit Agwe. Agwe is a solemn mixed-race spirit, a ship captain who transports the souls of Black people across the diaspora back to Africa when they die. This is what diaspora is: butterflies whispering across the ocean. The possibilities of diaspora are fractured, fragile, and infinite.
In Creole, the word for "protest" is "manifestasyon," a false cognate with the English word "manifestation." Let us dwell in the mistranslation to imagine how protest can be manifested across diaspora.