dimanche 10 février 2013

Being Haitian...Beyond Identity Politics

It's been a while since my last post.  Between travelling to Ghana for Christmas, a bout of what appeared to be dengue fever (or malaria depending on who you ask) followed by the flu and the beginning of a new semester I have been slow to write for Tande. But I am back and looking forward to a new year with new posts on new topics, and continuing our effort trying to think about Haitian culture and literature from a range of perspectives.

Recently I was telling my husband, Ohene,  about the brilliant jazz singer Cécile McLorin-Salvant and played a bit of her music for him.  Upon hearing the song, Ohene asked, "why are they calling her Haitian?" I replied, "Because her father is Haitian and she was born and raised in Miami." To which he countered,  "But she sounds like an African-American jazz singer, nothing about the way her music sounds is Haitian." It is probably worth noting here that Ohene is a huge jazz fan. In school he took a jazz class about both the history of the music as well as the more formal elements of the genre. 

Not being familiar with McLorin-Salvant's entire body of work, I could not verify his claim, but I did recall from an interview her own musings about how people in Paris assumed she was African-American and had been exposed to jazz as her cultural heritage.  In fact, in interviews she explains that as the daughter of a French-Guadeloupean mother and Haitian father she was classically trained and more influenced by Caribbean soundscapes than African-American traditions.
As someone who thinks about the relationship between cultural identity and belonging and who is committed to getting beyond the identity politics attendant to how we "see ourselves," I think that McLorin-Salvant's music offers a compelling example of how some of these tensions play out. 

When you google Cécile McLorin-Salvant under the link for her website it identifies her as a "French-American singer" but when you click on the actual  website, her bio states that she " was born and raised in Miami, Florida of a French mother and a Haitian father." On the occasion of McLorin-Salvant's visit to Haiti and concert last fall, Roland Léonard described her trip as a "pilgrimage," clearly evoking the idea of return--so central in narratives of diasporic journeys--for an article in Le nouvelliste. Understanding that identification and misidentification are always a part of how we process the different ways that people identify and define themselves, there are countless questions that we can ask on this topic. 

How do we define identity?  What constitutes belonging? When does a generation in the diaspora cease to have ties to the homeland?  At some point, does one's identity in diaspora overshadow any ties they have to the homeland?  How does one reconcile a deep feeling of belonging that is based only on an imagined homeland?  How do we think about cultural belonging in more fluid ways in the face of the rigidity of citizenship? These are the kinds of questions I have been having my students wrestle with in my two  classes this semester--"Theorizing the Diaspora" and "Paris Noir: From la Négritude to le Hip-Hop."  Of course, these are also questions that I wrestle with myself, as the USA born daughter of immigrants who always instilled in me pride and recognition of the fact that though born in the US I, too, am Haitian. 

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall offers insight to some of these issues by arguing that cultural identity is both a matter of "becoming" as well as of "being."  Tiffany Patterson and Robin Kelley would call this the processual nature of diaspora.  Sociologist Régine Ostine Jackson takes on multiple ways for thinking about Haitian identity in relation to diaspora by focusing on the concept of "geographies." Indeed, scholars working on diaspora have been asking these kinds of questions and generating more for a long time, but how do those theories correspond to (if at all) to they way we think about and talk about these issues on a daily basis?


4 commentaires:

  1. First of all: Thank you for sharing this and introducing me to such a beautiful voice. She is a real talent! About her Haitian identity, I disagree with your husband. She is Haitian/French-Guadeloupean. It doesn't matter what genre of music she chooses to sing, her heritage doesn't change and neither should her identity. I can understand her citing French-American while still using French-Haitian because I often use Haitian-American because both cultures are part of who I am. It would make sense to just call her American if she had no Haitian influences at all, but from the links I found on the web, she states herself that she was brought up with many Haitian and caribbean influences. I think it's silly to think that "Haitian" can only sound, look, act, sing one way. Are Haitian authors no longer Haitian if they write in a foreign language without mentioning Haiti in their books? What else exactly defines Haitian other than being of Haitian descent and identifying as such (which Cecile does)?

    1. Thanks for your comment Sha! I agree with you (and with Stuart Hall, and maybe even Dany Laferrière for that matter) that identity is rarely as rigid as we like to think of it. I have been teaching a lot about this in my classes and pushing my students to go beyond simple identity politics but really look at the different aspects of it. In that way "being and becoming" means a lot to me, I am Haitian-American in some contexts I just say Haitian though rarely, and dare I say never do I use American without putting the Haitian first. It's interesting b/c what I said that made O understand her "Haitianness" when I put it on the context of our boys--we consider them to be Haitian-Ghanaian-American and would never want either of the first two to be left off!

  2. Some really greats points about identity through the artistry and inspiration of McLorin.

  3. Cécile McLorin-Salvant sings a beautiful poem by Ida Faubert:


    Merci beaucoup de ce blog !