marlienebastien_fc.jpgMiami has always boasted about having the most Haitians. I erroneously believed that we also gave birth to the tradition of celebrating Haitian Heritage Month in May.

Not so fast, would say Carline Desire, executive director of AFAB (The Haitian Women Association of Boston). It is well documented that the first celebration was held in Boston  in 1998. Miami pap vole sa-a (Creole for, “Miami will not steal this.”) 
Reportedly, the celebration was initiated by a Haitian television station whose producers were concerned about the fact that so many young Americans of Haitian descent had no idea about their passé (their past,) and many were bent on imitating children from the larger culture.

Often, this resulted in clashes with their parents, who, in extreme cases, bought them one-way tickets back to Haiti. Some adjusted and did well upon arrival. Others old enough to find their way to the U.S. Embassy came right back, to the bewilderment of their parents. Our children are very smart, indeed.

Thanks to the courage and determination of a “viejo” named Pasteur Renelique Jean, Miami's celebration since 2001 has been grandiose, pregnant with parades, special masses, smartly crafted cultural events, and the famous Compas Festival last weekend at Bayfront Park.

Everywhere you turned, a sea of red and blue was spread for the world to see. Young women used their imagination to shape the proud colors into sexy, skimpy, red and blue outfits. The debate about whether this should be allowed, that this was disrespectful to our ancestors, will go on for years. 

If law enforcement officers were too preoccupied to remember the May 18 date of Haitian Flag Day, the sudden adornment of red and blue flags on most cars driving the streets of Little Haiti gave them a sharp reminder. Suddenly, Haitian-Americans walked taller. They seemed to find and regain energy, an unusual defiance. They sped down the streets even with police officers in sight, compas music blaring, their red and blue flags singing in the wind, singing the song of freedom, the song of liberty.
Who can blame them? They have a million reasons to be proud. 

Haiti's independence war known as “Combat of Vertieres,” which culminated in the only successful slave revolt in the world, and inspired the entire emancipation movement in America and throughout the world.

Many historians believe that Haiti's independence war is comparable to the “Trojan War” of antiquity. Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition Chair Jean Robert Lafortune presented that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was so scared of the Haitian liberators that he sent a letter to then-U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, seeking his assistance in arms and money.

The aim of the expedition he penned is “to restore to values and the authority of the white man over the savages and barbarian revolutionaries of Saint-Domingue,” he wrote.

Jefferson reportedly agreed, and provided military assistance to France in its efforts to quell the Haitian revolution. A 60-year embargo was placed on Saint-Domingue, what is now known as Haiti. Haitians were prevented from setting foot in the U.S. because they were considered a “bad example” for enslaved Africans here.

It did not matter that 1,000 Haitians fought and many died in the war of Savannah in 1779. It did not matter that Haitians built cities in Chicago and New York. They were treated as “undesirables.”

Today, however, May 18, Haitian Flag Day, is recognized and feted by Haitians and non-Haitians. May 18, 1803 is a sacred date for Haitians and lovers of freedom and liberty worldwide.

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek introduced a bill in Congress in 2004 and 2006 to recognize the entire month of May as Haitian-American Heritage Month.  Former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas,  assisted by the spirited and talented Emmeline Alexis, scheduled famous cultural events almost daily.

On Dec. 30, 2009, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez launched The Fifth Annual Haitian Independence Month Celebration’s opening ceremony in the lobby of the Stephen P. Clark Center, 111 NW First Street in Miami.

As part of the ceremony, a resolution designating the month of January as Haitian Independence Month in Miami-Dade County was officially presented by members of the Board of County Commissioners.

In 2005, then-President George Bush and his wife, Laura, posted a letter to congratulate Haitian-Americans on the heroic accomplishments of their ancestors.  Last year, President Barack Obama recognized  the  importance of the month by making a special presentation at the White House, lauding Haiti's contribution to the worlds of nations. On May 17, 2010, the president welcomed the largest contingent of Haitian-American leaders at the White House for a special Flag Day Celebration.        

Said the President: “The United States and Haiti share a deeply intertwined history and a long-standing friendship. In 1779, freemen from the French colony of Saint Domingue, now the Republic of Haiti, came to the aid of American patriots fighting for freedom at the Siege of Savannah. Today, we remain connected by a Haitian-American community that contributes greatly to the economic, social, cultural, scientific and academic fabric of the United States and by my administration’s steadfast commitment to come to the aid of those in Haiti working to ensure that Haiti’s future is stable, sustainable and prosperous. On this Haitian Flag Day, I am proud to send my warm wishes and those of the American people to the people of Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora as they celebrate during Haitian Heritage Month”

Marleine Bastien is the founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), or Haitian Women of Miami, Inc. She is also a candidate to represent the 17th District of the U.S. Congress.