A Haitian artist responds to the “shithole” remark.
The day after President Trump referred to Haiti and the continent of Africa as “shithole countries,” Jerry Rosembert Moïse, a prominent Haitian graffiti artist, brought a provocative rejoinder to the insult to life. In a live painting demonstration in Dartmouth College’s Baker Library, he depicted Trump getting a spanking and a history lesson from children of Norwegian, Haitian, and Taino descent: the young teachers enumerated Haiti’s world-historical feats and the price paid for them to the potty-mouthed President.
The demonstration culminated a week-long visit to Dartmouth College, where I teach anthropology. My colleague Jack Wilson and I invited Jerry to share his artistic process and inspirational messages with students and colleagues. In classroom visits and gallery talks, Jerry introduced faculty, students, and community members to not only the “political problems but also social vision Haitians have for their country,” as he put it.
Although Jerry was initially nervous to speak publicly in rusty English, he quickly relaxed as it became clear that the images spoke for themselves and touched his audience. One student offered advice for furthering his social media reach, another interviewed him for the on-campus journal Black Praxis, and several professors purchased paintings. Jerry kept telling me how much he liked being here “despite the cold,” underscoring how much he meant it.
For the live demonstration, Jerry wanted to convey the warm welcome he received. We stared at the blank canvas and discussed ideas over breakfast. The demonstration coincided with “January 12,” the date of the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. The timing provided an opportunity to reimagine the provocative post-earthquake mural that made him famous: a map of Haiti as a person weeping, hands clasped in prayer, pleading “We need help.” Jerry sketched an image that depicted “helping hands” from various countries lifting up the map of Haiti on this grief-filled anniversary: a version of the Haitian proverb “Men anpil, chay pa lou”—with many hands, the load is light.
But then he checked his WhatsApp feed. Friends had forwarded him news of the “shithole countries” remark. “What Trump said, that hurts me. It wounds me—especially today,” he remarked. “Haitians, we are strong. We are proud. We are beautiful. We are smart. We have many talents. I need to show that today, in the picture.”
Unmaking the historical erasure of racism
Trump’s comment cut deep. The insult was like a dagger of ignorance and malevolence piercing a moment for collective empathy and mourning. It hardened a troubling narrative the US has held of Haiti since the country’s inception: Haiti has nothing but disease and disorder to offer its northern neighbor. When the army of enslaved Africans defeated French colonists and declared independence in 1804, Louisiana, newly acquired by the US, welcomed white colonists but banned free people of color, whom they feared would “propagate dangerous doctrines among our Negroes.”
The stigma of being the first Black nation in a world premised on white hegemony has persisted since the end of slavery. In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control included among its risk factors for HIV a whole nationality: Haitian. Although later retracted, the classification shaped the treatment of Haitian migrants for years to come. In the early 1990s, as thousands of Haitians fled a brutal military coup, the US established a detention camp at Guantánamo for the 273 refugees who tested HIV-positive or had family who did. This past June, President Trump reportedly defended his opposition to Haitian immigrants by saying that they “all have AIDS.”
The idea of Haiti as a fount for pathology with nothing to contribute to the US is fueled not only by racism but also by the fundamental denial of history that racist thinking perpetuates.
Haitians know their history well. “I’ll teach Trump what Haiti is,” Jerry remarked.
Before putting paintbrush to canvas, Jerry, a kind and generous spirit, worried that the image might offend his hosts, but he also felt it was important to be bold. “This must make people laugh and cry,” he said.
An image soon came into view of Trump’s bare bottom being spanked by a Norwegian and a Taino child, as a mini-Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary, stands at the blackboard and schools the misbehaving pupil. The young teachers upend the paternalistic dynamic between Haiti and the US as they list a few of Haiti’s worldly contributions: first Black nation, Savannah, Louisiana Purchase, and Emancipation.
As Jerry worked, students passing through the library stopped and watched the painting take shape. They chuckled at the irreverent portrayal of Trump. They got the sentiment, but many did not grasp the full lesson—at least initially.
This was because the painting unearthed a history not often told about Haiti and the US. As students lingered, I and two of Jerry’s friends from Haiti, elaborated on the bullet points:
- In 1779, Haiti sent hundreds of soldiers to Savannah, Georgia to aid American troops against the British imperial army.
- In 1791, Haitians launched a revolution on their own soil, founding in 1804 the first Black republic and the first of any heritage to recognize all men as created equal regardless of race or color.
- In 1803, France, broke and beaten by the Haitian Revolution, sold the Louisiana Territory to President Thomas Jefferson for next to nothing, which doubled the size of the US and foretold the Manifest Destiny.
- In 1816, Haitian leaders came to the aid of Simon Bolivar and helped to end Spanish colonial rule and slavery in much of Latin America.
As I spoke, I witnessed dominant views of Haiti’s role in the world begin to shift. One student, a first year on his way to a study group, listened with such an expression of disbelief that I wondered if I was being clear. But I soon realized he was astonished at what this all might add up to. “So, you’re saying, America would be a shithole without Haiti,” he said, before shaking Jerry’s hand and taking a picture with him.
Telling the history of Haiti and the US together
In a recent article in Small Axe, I wrote about Jerry’s work. I argued that his graffiti participates in a form of “sympathetic education”: he sees his murals as a classroom where compassion can be elicited as a tool of moral instruction. He would say it is a project of “sanisibilizasyon,” meaning to sensitize and educate simultaneously. The scene of a president being disciplined by children brought viewers into the classroom through the pleasure of a shared joke, but once there, something serious was conveyed—something that had henceforth been obscured. The process seemed to deepen an emergent sense of affective and social accord among artist and viewer. Many students apologized to Jerry as they grasped the sting of Trump’s comments.
Jerry took a while to decide upon the final lesson. It was the last thing he painted: Indemnity. He wanted to show how Haiti was punished, rather than celebrated, for its role at the center of world history: The French forced Haiti to pay a staggering indemnity for sovereign recognition, which crippled the country’s ability to rebuild in the aftermath of the revolution. The US did not acknowledge Haiti’s independence until after the Civil War, and Bolivar failed to invite Haiti to the first meeting of independent states in the Americas—all moves that ostracized Haiti from hemispheric cooperation.
Trump’s words demonstrate that the US is yet to truly recognize the country or treat it with the respect that such recognition warrants. In the wake of his scatological slur, Trump attempted to mollify the uproar by explaining his comments as a simple statement of reality. “Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country,” he tweeted.
The problem with such reasoning is that it ignores how conditions in Haiti have been shaped by the misrecognition of Haiti in the world. Routinely representing Haiti as an incubator of disease, destitution, and disorder has made the country’s social problems appear as the result of racial traits rather than the result of global processes of racial and socioeconomic marginalization.
Yet as the history of Haiti shows, the economic and racial order cannot be so easily disentangled. The GDP of Haiti today cannot be divorced from centuries of international disavowal and discrimination. Nor can it be divorced from centuries of exploitation, from the wealth built under slavery, indemnities, and a world order still centered in North America and Europe.
The late Haitian anthropologist Michel Rolph Trouillot argued that the world-historical event of the Haitian Revolution was and remains unknown to many Westerners because it contradicted much of what the West told both itself and others about itself. “How many of us can think of any non-European population without the background of a global domination that now looks pre-ordained? And how can Haiti, or slavery, or racism be more than distracting footnotes within that narrative order?”
What is needed is a narrative in which the histories of Haiti and the US, and of racial subjugation and global domination, are seen as mutually constituted. As Haitian Ambassador to the US Paul Altidor recently pleaded, “Given our two countries’ long intertwined history, it is time we get to know each other on a level of mutual respect and understanding.”
Perhaps this starts with taking Jerry’s history lesson.
Chelsey Kivland is assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and studies street politics, insecurity, and public art in Haiti. Her writing appears in Cultural Anthropology and PoLAR, among other journals and public forums. Her in-progress book manuscript is titled “Street Sovereigns: Young Men in Search of the State in Urban Haiti.”
Cite as: Kivland, Chelsey. 2018. “Washing Out Trump’s Mouth with Haitian History.” Anthropology News website, February 2, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.753