8 Influential Haitian-Americans You Should Know
There's plenty to be learned from these legends with Haitian ancestry.
When it comes to Haiti, President Donald Trump and company have tried their hardest to lessen its cultural value. While depriving 60,000 refugees of asylum and barring natives from seasonal work visas, the political faux leader has carried dangerous statements off his tongue that won't be repeated here.
Over the course of its rich history, the nation of Haiti has exhibited nothing but strength amid barrenness of resources and the displacement of approximately 1.5 million people. A new UN mission has been implemented recently, hoping to stabilize its political system over a two-year span.
But in spite of the false narratives of Haiti’s present condition and its classification in the West, the country has birthed and exported some of the most legendary figures in art, music, literature and so much more.
Take a look at some of the most influential Haitian-Americans below.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Basquiat got his start tagging the streets of New York as a part of the art duo, SAMO, alongside Al Diaz. The graffiti was often accompanied by short poetic phrases that spoke to and on behalf of members of the underrepresented, offering him fast entry into the Neo-Expressionism art movement. Though not formally educated in fine arts, the creative was welcomed into the industry as a high roller. He wasn’t afraid to collage “mundanities” with elements considered “high brow.”
The “rough” and uncontrived appearance of his work was nuanced by a qualic experience--one where the artist exists in the same social milieu that he observes. Centered around contemporary critique, many of the pieces initiated a conversation about black or minority experiences as they related to navigation through America. Many of Basquiat’s paintings borrowed the significance of heads, skulls, and crowns, as a focus. Black figures had histrionically large heads, shifting attention to intellect, the mind, and pride as opposed to the magnification of the black body.
While decades have passed since Basquiat's death, his art has immortalized him in popular culture. With admirers like Jay Z continuing to push his ideas, Basquiat's legacy is more important and appreciated than ever.
Homeland practices were central to Danticat's novels and short stories. Raised in an enclave, Danticat hadn’t began examining distance and discomfort until she was able to watch it from the outside. She then brought her expression to literature and it graduated to its own kind of social activism.
Distinct as they may be, Danticat dedicates her works to a small pool of purposeful and entirely necessary themes. It includes, but is not limited to, assimilation, national identity, and post-colonial claims to power. Regarding Haitian migration to the US, Edwidge never begs the sympathy of a reader. Instead, her characters abandon the narrative of victimization and displacement becomes a journey.
Danticat’s characters are all, in some way or another, reflections of her own multinational identity as a Haitian inculcated in America. The author discusses the estrangement felt by anyone who struggles to establish belonging in a place that they wish to call “home” and gives them a story.
Tales of the oppressed seldom belong to the oppressed themselves and when their stories are told, victimization is hyperbolized in a way that makes it seem like what power they may have had was forfeited without a fight. Novelist and playwright Gary Victor assures that the stories of Haitian natives belong to the natives, themselves.
His work is marked by unmatched precision through his impressions of disillusionment within and surrounding the country. An agronomist by nature, Victor’s landscapes are characterized by hyper-description, relaying areas never visited with intense clarity. His most celebrated works include Clair de Manbo, the daring Les Cloches de la Brésilienne and the voodoo thriller, Soro.
Influxes of migrants tend to be voiceless and faceless to the wider society but Victor’s characters have depth that cannot be refuted. His well-developed characters are pulled straight from the minds of his people.
Raoul Peck is a Haitian filmmaker, best known for Lumumba and critically-acclaimed film, I Am Not Your Negro. While he’s made many career ventures, he’s known for his work in the sociopolitical art world. Widely accepted as Haiti’s most famous filmmaker, he’s been vocal about Haitian and American relations on multiple occasions over the years, even going so far as to restore Haiti’s humanity in the public eye after their 2010 earthquake.
Peck took note of the perceived weakness of his country in the West and attempted to reinvent his nation in the eyes of others through film.
Entitled Moloch Tropical, the film explored Haiti’s rich history and the importance of power in a nation that’s rarely recognized for it. Largely surrounding the final day in office for an absolute leader, the film covered Haiti’s decades-long battle for a proper democracy in the face of despotism and vicious militarization. He hoped to transform Haiti and impart some of its values and culture unto the world.
Brooklyn-born actor Jamie Hector is best known for his role as kingpin Marlo Stanfield on The Wire and he’s no stranger to collecting. The Haitian-American actor has aided the causes of myriad benefits, including fundraising for Haiti well before the tragic earthquake.
Hector founded the non-profit theater organization, Moving Mountains in 2007 to provide inner-city youth opportunities for artistic expression. Brooklyn children and young adults between the ages of 6 and 21 are offered drama, vocal, dance, writing, and photography training. He's also taken part in a bevy of events to bring awareness to Haitian filmmakers.
Surena was born in Port-au-Prince and spent the majority of her childhood in the south of Haiti. Her mother instilled the importance of reading and artistic expression in her early on so she went on to follow it, naturally. Formally trained in most of her crafts, the artist/writer attended the National School of Arts for training in visual arts. She also studied at the School of the Museum and Armory Art Center for continuing studies.
Surena traveled often and settled, eventually, in the US. She studied creative writing at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Massachusetts. Her visual art of choice is black and white photography, mostly compositional and portrait. But Surena is most dedicated to her poetry where the topics are often everyday life, love, and absence. Her poems can be found in Haitian Creole, French, English, and Spanish. But translations do her no justice. Across languages, one cannot translate her connection to her beloved Haiti. The country, though painted hellishly by many outsiders is an inspiration for many of her works where she is encompassed by a pleasant landscape or seemingly mundane passerbyers.
The writer has also appeared in several anthologies for her children’s books–writings that are studied in primary schools across Haiti. The multi-disciplined artist considers herself to be just that. She uses the medium most fitting for her product whenever she takes on a new project. She is not limited to any of her art forms and has Haiti to thank for its bustle.
Anne Christine d’Adesky is a Haitian-American journalist and activist with a focus on Haitian affairs and AIDS awareness. d’Adesky has been a correspondent in Haiti for The Village Voice and the San Francisco Examiner where she reported before and during the nation’s devastating earthquake. In 2010, in the immediate aftermath, she went to Haiti to get a visual of the status of things and went on to start Haiti Vox, a site dedicated to reporting about Hispaniola’s starkly different nations, the legacies, and health and wellness demographics.
Aware of the rife nature of HIV/AIDS in Haiti, the journalist-activist covered stories about the issue as early on as the mid-90s. She’s been featured in publications like New York Native, In These Times, and The Advocate. HIV Plus is a magazine that d’Adesky launched in 1998, devoted to LGBT rights, treatment, and prevention. In addition to her disease and disaster outreach, the journalist/ activist has advocated for women’s and LGBT rights. She’s one of six founders of “The Lesbian Avengers” which commenced in 1992 in an effort to focus on issues central to the visibility and survival of lesbians.
d’Adesky continues to advocate for, report on, and research about Haiti with an increased focus on women seeking refuge for a number of publications.
Haitian-born community leader and activist Viter Juste, laid the groundwork for Miami's “Little Haiti” community. Business oriented early on, Juste received a degree in business and accounting and opened a supermarket in Port-au-Prince. Only two years later, he closed up and accepted a position with the UN for a disease eradication program.
In 1957, after Francois Duvalier won the presidential election and assumed his position as a dictator, Juste, who supported Duvalier’s opponent, fled Haiti with his wife and children to Texas and then to Miami. In 1974, Juste met with Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh to aid Haitian refugees. The meeting resulted in the birth of the Haitian-American Association of Dade County, one of the first organizations of its kind. Its sole purpose was relief and support for Miami’s Haitian community. Juste served as one of the first directors. The move essentially launched Juste’s career as an activist and led him to build a rapport with South Florida’s Haitian immigrant population.
Juste led his share of protests in response to overt discrimination against supermarkets and public schools. A fight with the Miami-Dade school board after refusing to enroll Haitian students ultimately led him to call the community, historically known as Lemon City, “Little Haiti.” The name is an attribute of the neighborhood to this day. Juste’s neighborhood has become a hub for Haitian-American creatives and the business inclined to collaborate.