When my friend Nancy first learned that I was born on May 18th she got so excited, telling me that I was so incredibly lucky to be born on that day, and that she was envious of my birthday. She could not imagine a better date to be born than 18 mai, the birthday of the Haitian flag. I agreed with her. Of course, the fact that I was born via c-section means that my parents got to choose my birthday, and given the importance that 18 mai occupies in Haitian culture, it is not surprising that my parents chose this date in particular. Later on, they would refer to 18 mai as a measure of my love for the country of their birth, as though my abiding interest in, curiosity about, and passion for all things Haitian were the result of a birthday prophecy fulfillment.
In my family, discussions of Flag Day are often emotionally charged and laced with requisite embellishment. My grandmother recounts with razor sharp precision her schoolgirl memories of being divided into lines, boys on one side, girls on the other to participate in nationwide Flag Day ceremonies. According to her, Jacmel, where she was born and raised brought particular beauty and flair to those celebrations. The vigor with which my father re-enacts Jean-Jacques Dessalines ripping the white out of the flag, complete with teeth clenched and arms thrusting gave me chills as a child. Perhaps because of my birthday, I always feel an overprotective personal ownership over Flag Day that is admittedly irrational at times. Of course, Nancy’s elation is a reminder that I am by no means alone in my fierce flag love. In the diaspora the flag has become the quintessential symbol of pride and solidarity. Wyclef Jean was one of the first to popularize flag wearing in the US when he sauntered onto the stage of the 1995 MTV awards draped in the flag. Since then Haitian flag imagery has become a staple of his performances. Once while I was in Haiti my cousins were noticeably amused by my obsession with the Haitian flag, which to them was another marker of my jaspora quirks...
May also marks Haitian Awareness Month in the US, encompassing dates such as the birth of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian celebration of Mother’s Day. At major Flag Day events in Boston, New Jersey, Brooklyn and Miami, people gather to celebrate with dance, music, speeches and parades. Reflecting back with friends today we remember being those little kids, dressed in blue and red or draped with flag sashes dancing to the beats of the tanbou. These stories are not ours alone. They are the stories of our gran moun like Ma Tante Yolande, an elder who has lived in Boston for years and though she celebrated the parade with zeal, she remains bothered by flag wearing. The flag is sacred, she would say, it was not intended to be a headscarf or a piece of clothing. They are the stories of our children who will learn the words of La Dessalinienne along with the Star Spangled Banner. One of the greatest symbols of our national identity, an icon of our history, celebration of the Haitian Flag Day embodies Haitian history and Haitian stories. The iconography and the symbolism bear cultural and imagistic significance that began in 1803 and continues today through these stories.
In the post-earthquake Haiti fever that spread all over the internet, suddenly Haitian flags popped up everywhere, in people’s Facebook profile pictures, on Twitter, CNN and Google. New pictures were being formulated and old ones re-circulated. Suddenly the Haitian flag seemed to be everywhere in the US: on the television, in the news, on billboards. The flag appeared in places where I would least expect it. There was the Dancing With the Stars Haiti tribute featuring Haitian dancers Martin Barthold and Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine to honor victims of the earthquake. In the performance, which aired during the premiere of DWTS tenth season Sopin and Pierre-Antoine shared their own stories of loss from earthquake and reflected on the importance of dance in Haitian culture before dancing on a flag draped stage. Moments like the DWTS special were far more poignant than some of the fleeting flag mentions evident in the small Haitian flag icons suddenly everywhere including Starbucks, or the quick references on popular television shows (I found it fascinating that on both Gossip Girl and Brothers and Sisters, for example, main characters discussed how their romantic relationships would be impacted by the sudden opportunity to work in Haiti for long term internships).
While I was touched by the show of solidarity conveyed in many of these public manifestations, the more I thought about it I became increasingly uncomfortable with some of the implications. I was left with a nagging feeling of loss, sucked into a dangerous and reductive game of identity politics. Did the flag mean as much to these people now posting on their profiles as it did to me? Would the flag soon be discarded, forgotten as soon as the nonstop coverage ceased? Did people know or care about the history and meaning behind the flag? Did they even understand Dessalines’ historic ripping out of the white symbolizing the end of French dominion? Had they heard of Catherine Flon, the woman who subsequently sewed the flag together rumored to have used strands of her own hair to do so? Did they know that the original flag colors were vertical lines of black and red symbolizing the black skin of the former slaves and the red blood they shed? Did any of these details even matter to the new Haitian flag bearers? Was I over-analyzing this contemporary usage of the Haitian flag? Was I being too critical when I should have been more appreciative?
It seemed as though the rich and colorful history that had inspired me as a child, motivated me as a scholar, and imbued me with so much pride was somehow getting dulled in the new flag frenzy. The details of what took place at Arcahaie when the flag was made have been eclipsed over time by the emergence of flag iconography. Suddenly this flag, the bicolor, which I had used to adorn the walls of my dorm room, home and office made its way to the halls of my university and to the profiles of my friends and colleagues. Suddenly my own flag furor was thrown into question. Did I properly reverence the flag as Ma Tante Yolande had instructed? Was I holding onto the flag too tightly? For the first time, the flag was emptied of its larger significance. It became a new, sentimental way to exhibit emotions that were too unwieldy to capture through a symbol.
This year more than ever it has become automatic and almost rote to plaster the Haitian flag all over the place without critically engaging the country or the culture behind it. How real is our relationship to the flag? Does my relationship end or begin with Flag Day? I have had to ask myself hard questions about what it means to have Haitian pride as I attempt to negotiate pride and symbolism with action and respect. Because no matter how much I love Haiti May 18th is and will always be about so much more than my birthday. So much more that I do, and do not understand, so much more that I have to learn and hope to teach.
Today, like every year on May 18th Haitians everywhere, in Haiti and abroad celebrate the creation of our flag. These celebrations are also informed by the tragedy that began the year of 2010. But the celebration reminds us, as Nadève’s post last week was entitled, that we are here. Nou la! After the coverage has waned, after the flags have disappeared, after the tributes have ceased we are still here. Nou la! Our flag is ours, our celebration, our symbol, our history is ours as well as ours to share. We need to make sure that we understand and honor its meaning in the sacred way it deserves.