Professor Yveline Alexis on New Book, Activism, and Haitian Diaspora

Editor’s note: This article contains graphic descriptions of police brutality.

Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies Yveline Alexis has taught at Oberlin since 2013. In 2011, she earned her Ph.D. in History and Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino/a Studies from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with her dissertation titled Nationalism & the Politics of Historical Memory: Charlemagne Péralte’s Rebellion against U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1986. Last month, her book Haiti Fights Back: The Life and Legacy of Charlemagne Péralte was selected by one of The Times Literary Supplement contributors as their book of the year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the introduction to your book, Haiti Fights Back, you write about the difference between the word “nationalist” and the Haitian Creole word nasyonalis. Could you explain what that difference is and how an academic’s understanding of Haiti could be impacted by this culturally nuanced take on national identity?

This is definitely such a key question. I kept using the word nasyonalis just because it’s been in the lexicon for Creole since the original revolution of 1791–1803. So I thought we were all on the same page, like nasyonalis means someone who loves their nation and will fight to the death for their nation. One of the series editors was like, “You know, given these times, nationalist has a different connotation. And if you think about the Hitler period and its ripple effects and legacy, nationalist can be seen as derogatory.” And I was like, “Oh crap, I need to make this very clear how Haitians and Black people and people of color utilize the word.” So nasyonalis means love of nation — willingness to die and sacrifice for your nation. It is citizen kinship, whether it’s your brother or sister, a willingness to die for them as well.

This is something that must be a very complicated field in and of itself, but how would you describe the Haitian diasporic experience in America?

I think for me, it’s been positive in the sense that, because I was raised in Brooklyn, New York, the only times I spoke English were in formal institutions like schools, a courthouse, and the mayor’s cause we were protesting all the time. But we were in this enclave of people who were speaking Patois, predominantly spoken in the English-speaking Caribbean. And Creole, of course; French, of course, which we had to learn. And then at home, there were just so many languages buzzing around. For me it felt like a very safe, supportive community that was watching out for one another. 

My own people came during the dictatorship of Haiti, and thinking about the dictatorship — even though it “ends” — has ripple effects in terms of the machinery that kept it going. So there would be people who came through my home to get to safety from Haiti to New York, heading to Canada or to France, et cetera. And it’s an interesting way in which the community — whether it’s my family or the larger Haitian community in Brooklyn — protected these people. It was just like, “You don’t speak to cops; if you’re broke, you’re never going on welfare because welfare then invites the state into your home.” But it’s a beautiful way in which we move through the world. 

Now, one of the things that I would say is shocking to me, I met a number of Haitians or Haitian-Americans from Florida who talked about not being proud of being Haitian until Wyclef Jean and the Fugees came out, and I was like, “What?” I realized, in hindsight, what was happening was so many of the people who fled in boats, what they call the boat people, were arriving in Miami. That derogatory image of Haitians — as all the images that come with someone who flees in a boat that’s not well equipped to carry 100, let alone 300 people — that’s what they were saturated with. So I forgave my Floridian Haitians. And I was like, “Oh, if this is on your daily news feed and you’re in a school battling the fact that you’re Black and battling the fact that you have immigrant parents who do very immigrant things, I understand the context.”

You talked about protesting when you were young. What did your activism focus on, and were there certain causes you wanted to draw attention to?

I think for me, immigration is so huge, partly because it’s something that we all go through. This nation is not ours. Yes, we helped build it. In my mind, I’m writing this futuristic novel where we all leave and we ask Native Americans for permission to repopulate the United States. But I was thinking to myself, we’re all immigrants. I mean, yes, there’s linguistic diversity, but whether you’re Indian, whether you’re Jamaican or Haitian or Cuban, there’s something about migrating to a new nation — whether involuntarily because of the political and economic conditions, or voluntarily, because you have the opportunity. You go to these elite schools, or you just wanna come and shop, because I know a number of immigrants do that as well. There’s a way in which that unifies us. My activism was always tied to that. 

It was the beginning of my march to the city hall [to protest the, what I think was CDC, report about HIV being the fault of Haitians, hemophiliacs, and quote unquote homosexuals] and thinking about Brooklyn Bridge as a site. We were on that Brooklyn Bridge, just marching from Brooklyn to Manhattan to say, “Listen, this can’t be the representation of Haitians when you know Haiti was involved with the United States from the 1700s.” By the time I went to college, there was this incident where this kid who I went to school with in junior high had gotten burnt alive because he was Haitian. And I was just like, “What the heck is this?” Then when I was in college, we had Abner Louima, who was a Haitian immigrant who spoke Creole and very limited English, and police brutalized him by literally sticking a plunger up his anus. And it’s like, “What the heck?” 

So there’s just this battle fatigue with it. But then also the reality that we can’t stop — wherever there’s injustice, we need to be there trying to flip it. It’s not just a Haitian issue, right? This is something that happens across nationalities, and this is how the U.S. treats immigrants of color specifically. So then, when you think about Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, I hate to say, it’s like the same shit that happens over and over and over. Y’all say Black lives — whether it’s immigrant or national citizen doesn’t matter. How can we make sure that their lives continuously matter?

There are often trips organized over Winter Term that take students to different places. During your time at Oberlin, has any such trip been planned to Haiti?

I haven’t had the time to plan one, but I know people have gone to Antigua and I think Barbuda, as well as different parts of Africa including Senegal and Ghana. The thing about this is, I served on a committee where we had to review international trips; all of the trips to Jerusalem and Israel were getting approved and then we’d get to a place like Gambia, which is in Africa, and there were faculty and staff asking, “Is it safe?” And I’m like, “Hold up. We are sending kids to Israel. Let’s just have a dialogue about safety. Who’s at war?” Luckily, people were able to hear my arguments, but I think there is still a stigma attached to the question of what are safe nations to travel to, which is not something that’s specific to Oberlin. 

It happened in my undergrad at Cornell University too, where we didn’t have a “Go to Africa” program. I went through the University of Albany. It’s something that I’m interested in planning. My only thing is — if I could be so serious — I’m so protective of Haiti. I hate when people can’t put their cameras down or take pictures of people without consent, particularly kids. Or, you know how our people do, there’s a way in which we dress — it’s hot as hell. And so people may have low cut clothing, and people are just randomly taking pictures and posting it on Instagram or whatever. And I’m like, did you ask that market woman’s permission? Did you ask that child’s permission to take their picture and then blast it? So I’m a little protective. I feel like the right students, if I planned a trip like that, would be able to navigate Haiti — the posh Haiti, but also hood Haiti. ’Cause we would do it all.