As most are aware by now our esteemed President recently made reference to African countries and Haiti as “shitholes” from which we should not be accepting immigrants. For the time being, and the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore the implied racism of suggesting that we should be courting people from Norway instead. I am sure that Norway was the whitest population that he could think of at the moment. I am also sure that there are tons of Norwegians who have shuttered at the thought of emigrating to the United States and having to deal with the circus that is our present political environment. Even the specter of not seeing the sun for parts of the year beats that.
I can understand why there are many who might tend to agree with the President’s assessment of Africa and Haiti. What we see each day in the media regarding these places is often horrible and depressing. Several areas in Africa have undergone civil wars and mass genocide. Ethnic cleansing, and simple greed and control of these areas by despots and certain ethnic and religious groups, is heartbreaking. Literally witnessing hundreds of thousands of children dying each year from disease and starvation turns the stomach.
The after-effects of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti on an already poverty-stricken and depleted population has also been heartbreaking to watch. Even after seven years of humanitarian aid, and the work of thousands of volunteers, the population struggles to recover and even return to pre-earthquake status.
The President’s comments serve to reinforce a dangerous and racist idea that too often is the predominant thought process with regard to impoverished and corrupt places in the world. There are many who consider the people who inhabit these places to be inferior, morally corrupt, and incapable of governing themselves and their affairs. The thought that follows is why would we want lazy, ignorant and violent people in our country. President Trump began this discourse when he labeled Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug gangsters.
If we are going to make these kinds of assessments about people who wish to come here for a better life, escape oppression, and enjoy economic opportunity, we should at least have a fair and accurate knowledge of these areas, their history and challenges.
A good place to start is in Africa and the Middle East. I am sure that anyone who has made it through the fifth grade is familiar with the Cradle of Civilization. Even if you are a Fundamentalist Christian, and believe that the Bible is a factual account of history, you must understand that civilization or man himself began in the fertile crescent. Recent archeological findings of human teeth and jawbones actually place humans as occupying this area 100,000 years before scientists originally thought.
Much of what humans rely on for technological advancement and learning began in this region. The Mesopotamians were responsible for the development of several innovations such as the wheel, the sailboat, the plow, irrigation, keeping time, maps, mathematics, and written language.
Many of these innovations were further developed by subsequent civilizations in the area including the Sumerians and the Egyptians. Some of the oldest tools known to man were located in Western Africa where formal university education dates back to the early 12th century. The Greeks and the Phoenicians later benefitted from the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 356 BC.
And in case the obvious needs to be stated, the first civilizations were likely Black civilizations. I know that fact will need time to sink in for some. And for some it will never be received as a fact they choose to accept. Some might even say, “Fake News”.
The obvious question then is, if civilization began in Africa and the Middle East, and the original civilizations were likely Black civilizations, how did much of Africa end up in the shape it is in presently. The first answer to that is to acknowledge that not all of Africa is impoverished, corrupt and a violent mess. There are countries and regions that are developing and prospering with stable governments and economic policy such as Botswana, Kenya, and surprisingly Rawanda, the site of the world’s worst genocide in the last thirty years. If that is not proof that dire circumstances can change and development can occur than what is?
The fact remains that too many African countries are experiencing poverty, violence and oppression. Before judging the people and painting them all with a single stroke of the brush, one must look at the history of the region and how that history may have impacted present conditions. Namely imperialism and colonization by Europeans and Americans.
Imperialism and the colonization of Africa began as early as the 12th century mainly with the Portuguese and Spanish. The slave trade and the middle passage followed and in 1884 thirteen European countries and the United States met in Germany to decide the rules of colonization moving forward. This might be a good place to point out the irony of the United States deciding what will occur in another country or region without the representation of those who live in the region. Did we not revolt due to lack of representation? And we revolted against the country who originally populated the colonies. It was not a foreign entity coming into an already established country and taking over.
Centuries of imperialism and colonization had a severe impact on the culture and people in these regions. First and foremost the Americans and Europeans imposed arbitrary, and in some cases, unnatural borders on the people of Africa. Much of Africa at the time was, and still is, tribal in nature. Any time an outside force designs regions for their own purposes, and ignores the inherent tribal structures, the possibility of tribal aggression and strife is likely the result.
Another significant impact which is purposely designed is abjection. Abjection is the process of dehumanizing some faction of the population to create an economic and cultural divide and ultimate control by the upper class. Stephanie Terrie Brown writes about the purposeful use of dirt and lack of sanitation as visual tools to subjugate populations and create that cultural divide. The most severe form of abjection was apartheid. The white ruling class in South Africa create a caste system based on the degrees of blackness of the indigenous population and inflicted strict political, social and economic control.
The most significant result of imperialism is the vacuum that is left when the imperial rulers leave or are forced out. The vacuum provides a space for charismatic despots to swoop in and manipulate the people. Often these rulers rape and pillage the countries resources in the name of self-rule and independence. In the worst cases these monsters seize on tribal and territorial tensions and engage in genocide as a means of complete control. Many of them are narcissistic megalomaniacs who have allusions of grandeur and possibly thoughts of being the deity that will save the people.
There have been several examples since African countries have begun to see independence from their imperial rulers such as Idi Amin in Uganda, Charles Taylor in Liberia, and Robert Mugambe in Zimbabwe.
Another irony that must be pointed out is that these narcissistic despots usually begin the process by vilifying some portion of the population creating a common enemy and marginalizing the media in order to control the message. Sound familiar?
Haiti is another example of foreign interference and foreign support of several ruling regimes that suppressed the population and pillaged the country of its resources and wealth. Haiti was originally discovered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in search of the new world and riches on behalf of Queen Isabella of Spain. He named the island Hispaniola. Today the island is shared between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
In the mid-17th century the region was referred to as “The Pearl of the Antilles” and was one of the richest colonies among the colonies controlled by the French. In 1791 the people of Haiti revolted and fought for their independence led by a former slave Toussaint-Louverture. When Haiti secured its independence in 1803 Jean -Jacques Dessalines changed the name from Saint Dominque to its original Arawak name of Haiti. Haiti had become the world’s first and oldest Black republic. Although Haiti provided support for Símon Bolivar, and independence for several South American countries, they were largely ignored by Bolivar in their time of need.
The United States occupied Haiti from 1915-1934. In that process the US government participated in creating a new constitution for the island country. One of the most important features of the new constitution was the elimination of the prohibition on foreign ownership of land in Haiti. This eliminated one of the most important protections Haiti had against foreign control. Although the Haitians rejected this version of the constitution, it was passed by plebiscite in 1919 with less the five percent of Haitians allowed to vote due to voter restrictions. Voter restriction is not a concept we are unfamiliar with in our history including recent history.
The control of Haiti by the United States, and the constitution the US created for the country, opened the door for a series of leaders who did not exactly have the best interest of the people at heart. Chief among these was “Papa Doc” François Duvalier who was elected on a Black nationalist platform and proceeded to rule the country with an iron fist responsible for the death or disappearance of up to 50,000 Haitians. He also bled the country dry of its money and resources. He was re-elected president for life in 1964 running unopposed. Upon his death in 1971 ‘Papa Doc “was followed by his son “Baby Doc” who followed in his father’s footsteps creating a monumental economic divide between the ruling class and the simple citizens of Haiti who continued to languish in devastating poverty. “Baby Doc” had the support of most American presidents except Jimmy Carter due to his opposition stance to communism in the region. As a result of a coup in 1986 “Baby Doc” fled to live in exile in France. He was flown from the island on an US Air Force transport. The 2010 earthquake only served to make a deplorable and unstable situation unlivable.
Some might argue that the United States has provided billions of dollars in aid to both Haiti and most African countries which is a demonstration of our humanitarian stance and efforts to assist these nations. The fact that we have provided the funds is unquestioned. The reasons for providing the funds, and our efforts to follow the funds with expectations that they be used to help those they are intended to help, and assist with issues of health and economic development, is open for interpretation. Most of the “on the ground” help has been provided by non-profit humanitarian organizations and courageous individuals who have braved illness and threats of death to provide real and effective services.
To say that the United States is not at least partially responsible for the conditions in these countries, and the stunted political and economic development in most of the areas, would be naive or an outright untruth. To help create the conditions for deep poverty and lack of education, and then blame the people for the result and paint them as lazy, corrupt and incapable of growth or learning, is shameful.
Mr. Trump and some of his followers should open their eyes and acknowledge the thousands of hard-working people who have come to our country for a better life and contributed to their communities and their workplaces. Many of these people, especially those from Africa have come to the country with a targeted goal of furthering their education. Many have done just that earning advanced college degrees and become leaders in the fields of medicine, business and higher education.
No better example exists than the stories of many of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan who have been supported and sponsored to live in the United States. These men experienced horrific, and traumatic childhoods surviving the murders of their families, starvation and threats of torture and death. Many have had the opportunity to come to this country and work hard. Many have engaged in education and found careers assimilating themselves into American life. For those who have been able to follow the path to citizenship, there are no better and devoted Americans. The fact that their skin is black, and they were born elsewhere, makes them no less American than you or I.
We can only hope that Americans will awaken in 2018 and recognize that we cannot hand our country and its ideals over to a group of people who do not represent the concepts that this country is built on. The Statue of Liberty does not say “Give me your educated and whites who are ready to help our wealthy businesses thrive.” It says,” Give me your tire, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” Often, those individuals and families come from countries that are poor and lack education – or as President Trump would call them – “Shitholes”.
It is our responsibility to support those who are trying to escape their circumstances for a better life. It is also our responsibility to create and enforce policies that support countries who are making real efforts at reform and to pull our support from countries that who have no intention of supporting its people. Let’s elect a leader that will push that agenda and support the real ideals of America.