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Opinion: Juneteenth, Haiti and the power of reinvention

Opinion by Nadine Pinede

(CNN) — The proverb “tout moun se moun,” in Haitian Creole means that everybody is somebody. Everyone has a story. Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity.

That wise saying notwithstanding, throughout history, our most fundamental freedoms, our bodily integrity and the right to think and speak our truths, have been denied to much of humanity. These freedoms have been fought for, defended, and then fought for all over again. Nobody has inhabited that history more than Black people in the US and across the broader African diaspora.

Juneteenth is a celebration of that hard-fought Black freedom, observed in honor of June 19, 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, first learned from Union soldiers that they were free. However, this news reached them more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. On June 19th each year, many Black Americans gather family and friends for bountiful picnics, with red-colored food and kola nuts symbolizing Africa and the resilience of those who survived the slave trade. Leaning into joy and community is a time-honored practice for surviving relentless trauma.

As a Haitian American, Juneteenth invites me to use an even more panoramic lens. In 1804, 220 years ago, Haiti freed itself from slavery.  But freedom sometimes comes at a high cost. Juneteenth offers a reminder that there is often a backlash when those who would deny the right of freedom for everyone feel threatened, especially when those who had been kept in bondage boldly stake their claim to it.

That was certainly true for the newly freed Black people of Texas, whose unjust servitude was prolonged.

And it was true for the Black inhabitants of the newly born nation, named “Ayiti,” the land of mountains, by the Taino population decimated by the invaders.

After the people of Haiti succeeded in wresting their freedom from French colonial enslavers, in 1825 the fledgling Caribbean country was forced to pay backbreaking compensation to France in exchange for recognition of their independence, ostensibly as reparations to plantation owners for their “property.” Even with this kneecapping, Haiti managed to pay off this unjust and onerous debt. Yet, this wasn’t enough: The country’s national treasury and assets were seized by the United States in a Wall Street-backed occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934. August of this year will mark 90 years since the end of this now nearly forgotten occupation.

America’s Juneteenth story and the quest by Black Americans for freedom shares so much with Haiti’s struggle for autonomy and its thwarted quest for a measure of prosperity. Surely the swirl of violence, poverty and desperation that bedevils Haiti today is in no small part due to a history of systemic exploitation, just as the poverty and deprivation that disproportionately afflict some communities of Black Americans can be traced back to the original sin of slavery and the oppressive Jim Crow era that followed.

There is one eminent figure who bridges both the Black American and the Haitian struggles for freedom and dignity: The brilliant author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, a daughter of the American South who sojourned in Haiti from 1936 to 1937.

Hurston found in Haiti, despite its difficult birth, fertile ground for her soaring literary imagination, in addition to her groundbreaking anthropological research. She is a subject I have studied intensively over the years, both as a muse and inspiration for my debut novel set in Haiti during the period she lived there. Even 133 years after her birth, Hurston has much to tell us about transcendence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the oldest Black incorporated town in the US, where her father served as mayor. Like my parents growing up in Haiti, she was used to seeing Black people in positions of power.

She shaved 10 years off her actual age to attend public high school in Baltimore after a difficult adolescence that followed her mother’s death. By 1924, she’d earned her associate’s degree at Howard University in Washington. In 1925, Hurston received a scholarship to attend Barnard College in New York City. She had freed herself from unjust rules meant to restrict education for Black Americans.

While a student at Barnard, she would become one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance and embark on the greatest adventure of her life. Little did she know the role that Haiti would play in that adventure.

Hurston had enrolled at Barnard partly to join the vanguard of an emerging discipline called anthropology. She traveled throughout the South, packing a pistol for her personal protection. Along the way, she collected folktales and recorded songs and filmed children’s games rooted in the African American experience. She was also publishing her literary work and became friends for a time with poetic luminary Langston Hughes.

Hurston unapologetically reinvented herself, with a freedom and verve I always envied. Like other Black Americans in the often-desperate period for them after the conclusion of the Civil War, Hurston found a way, through ingenuity and necessity, not only to survive but to create a lasting body of work in the process, an invaluable contribution to the creative, intellectual and cultural heritage of a nation.

A little less than a decade after Hurston’s time at Barnard, a sojourn in Haiti would transform her life. In 1936 she was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, traveled first to Jamaica, then to Haiti, where she rented a house of her own with a Haitian servant. (This was richly ironic for Hurston, who had been a domestic worker as a young woman and would later in her life return to performing domestic work.) Previous patrons had supported her with strings attached. Not so with the Guggenheim. For once in her life, Zora was free from these money worries, although they would return later to plague her until the end of her life.

In Haiti, Hurston’s creative powers had the time and freedom to unfurl. Haiti was where she wrote, in less than two months, her masterpiece “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” As a budding anthropologist, she’d chosen Haiti as the perfect crucible to study the unbridled creativity borne of African, European and Indigenous cultures. As the author of “Barracoon,” a book based on interviews with one of the last enslaved Black Americans, Hurston almost certainly understood the significance of Juneteenth.

Only a few of Hurston’s letters exist about her time in Haiti, and to my knowledge, there are no field notebooks. This mystery was an invitation. Most of all, I wanted to know the story behind Lucille, the Haitian domestic lauded by Zora as one of her few friends in the epigraph of another work “Tell My Horse,” her genre-bending book on Haiti and Jamaica. I wanted to move Lucille from a footnote into the spotlight.

This Haitian character more than piqued my interest. As a child, my parents made sure we were taught Haitian history at home, where framed portraits of our founding fathers surrounded us: Toussaint LouvertureJean-Jacques DessalinesHenri Christophe. No matter what, my parents were determined that our history would not be untold. I knew that the Haitian flag, commemorated each year on May 18, was created by ripping out the white of the French tricolor, and by including symbols of freedom and resistance, like cannons, the royal palm with a Liberty cap and the saying “L’Union Fait La Force.” Together, we are stronger.

My mother’s enthralling stories of Haiti and of her grandmother, a market woman of unruly independence who lived through the occupation, offered me a sense of belonging. Long before Haiti was dubbed the Wakanda of the Western hemisphere, my mother’s stories made me feel that I was a descendant of heroic people who claimed their own freedom. It is that wresting of personal freedom, against all odds, that speaks to me about Hurston.

Years after Hurston’s death in 1960, the celebrated author and activist Alice Walker found her forgotten grave. She wrote in a piece for Ms. Magazine (and which also appears in her book, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”) about re-dedicating Hurston’s grave, which was overgrown with weeds. Walker erected a tombstone that re-inscribed Hurston’s place in history: “Genius of the South: Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist.” To my ear, she might have been referring to the global South, including Haiti, where Hurston wrote her masterpiece that became a beacon for generations.

We need these beacons more than ever. The stories of those silenced, dismissed, or worse. And yet around the world, the very act of writing and reading such stories is in danger.

This and every Juneteenth is a precious reminder of the kind of freedom Zora Neale Hurston embodied. Tout moun se moun. Everyone has a story. She gathered countless stories as an anthropologist, authored stories that are beacons, and rewrote her own life story by reinventing herself. Claiming our space to tell our own stories — and to live them — is a freedom we should never take for granted.

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