I am Not a journalist is the title of an essay/ a chapter in Edwidge Danticat’s book Create Dangerously. In it she chronicles her path with well-known/ outspoken/ beloved journalist Jean Dominique. He had been the first to have programs about the issues affecting their Haiti in Creole, the language of the people and had called for an end to the assassinations. Dominique was assassinated in 2000, shot in the head and neck on his way to work for his popular news program. Some believe that Dominique’s critique of US meddling in Haitian affairs factored into his death. Danticat speaks of this landscape of power and colonial violence where information is deemed dangerous, creating is dangerous. Appreciating the work of creators and truth-tellers is dangerous.
In this age of continued colonial violence and now climate disaster, who dies more? Who gets killed more? Who suffers the most? Whereas mainstream media loves to delve into these grim comparisons, the most oppressed are still treated as trespassers when truth-telling, and risk blacklisting, censorship, persecution, imprisonment, torture, death for not knowing our colonial place. We cannot engage in truth-telling or creating without acknowledging the many places across the planet where due to climate catastrophe, imperialism, colonialism, racism, the patriarchy, warfare and political unrest, death comes in devastating waves, taking masses on its way. Nor can we diminish ours or anyone else’s experience for not having suffered enough, not having lost enough. This is what we have come to apparently. This is our new reality in the face of climate change, the crumbling of the last empires and the earthly decolonial call.
It took for me to live through Hurricane María to fully appreciate and register its devastation and the heroic journeys of survivors of all destructive hurricanes of recent history. For all the failures to count, the miscounts, miscalculations and estimations of our dead, I refused to process any number until I could look up the death toll following the earthquake in Haiti. I find it difficult to live without knowing how we die, who dies at what rates. We all die. If there is a good life, then what makes a good death? Questions we must ask in these two cultures that do not necessarily believe in death as the end. But for all the ways we have been controlled, all the ways we die at their hands, they still claim ownership over our own deaths. They don’t believe the numbers when the bodies are brown and black. They don’t believe us when we have lost hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions. To do so would be to admit to the crime of genocide. Only single or double-digit deaths can be registered for black and brown bodies. Our funerals and memorials are too policed, if we even get the privilege of having them. Like they buried black and brown bodies in unmarked mass graves after San Felipe or what they called the Okeechobee Hurricane in Florida in 1928. They don’t want us to be counted. Like last minute North Dakota voter ID law-fudging to disqualify first nation people on reservations from voting. They don’t want us to be counted, dead or alive.
I remember the myth of the majority and how numbers are used against us. I remember that one life lost, one spirit liberated stand for all the masses. I remember Sally Hyppolite, my best friend in high school, also Haitian. I remember how shortly after we shared intimate conversation last year, here in Puerto Rico, she returned to New York, defied the odds and crafted for herself a dignified death, following a difficult battle with cancer. I remember the friends who gathered each day to usher her peacefully, valiantly into that next chapter. They celebrated her life and body covered in flowers, prayer, drums, song and the sacred sounds of swaying seeds in our ancestral indigenous maracas. I remember that we can and must reclaim death. Decolonize death. I am reminded that death is not the only measure of colonial violence. I am reminded that political independence does not mean decolonization, does not automatically secure an end to colonial violence. I am reminded of how we carry it in our bones, blood, in our cells, organs, that we too must decolonize.
As I write this in Borikén, my dad is across waters in Jersey being prepped for heart surgery. I think to the documentary film of Boricua freedom fighter Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, that I saw in the dark days post-María. My father introduced me to the legend of this man who navigated clandestinity like a UFO in our nighttime skies. Images of this revolutionary with a long scar down his chest. His having recovered from heart surgery as a political prisoner of the US, handcuffed to the bed.
I think of our hearts and bodies as battlefields. There are visible casualties like Filiberto who took an FBI sniper bullet to the clavicle and was left to bleed out down his front doorstep. And there are invisible casualties like hearts held hostage. We cannot fight for freedom without liberating these first, lest we continue to wage colonial violence on our own selves, our own people.
I look to Haiti, first free black republic in the Americas, like the founder of my nation did. Most don’t know that because they won’t allow this to be a nation, so they keep its builders, like its people, invisible. Ramón Emeterio Betances designed Borikén’s first flag in solidarity with another ancestral nation of his, the Dominican Republic. Though most of his life was spent studying and later in exile in France, he was beloved and known in the Dominican Republic, in Haiti, the Virgin Islands and Cuba for his work as a physician, work he took across the Antilles. His pen name, el Antillano, expresses how he saw himself and his mission, an Antillean at the service of all these islands that sit under the hot bed of seismic activity that is the Puerto Rico Trench—portal to hurricanes entering from the east.
I received my copy of Danticat’s book Create Dangerously as a gift from my dear friend Nilda, a daughter of the Dominican Republic. When I left New York, she was carrying her baby girl in her womb, a daughter of that island, with parents from both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I was still a New Yorker when I received it but apparently wasn’t ready.
I’ve picked up this book again in the last days. Days leading to the 2nd anniversary of hurricane María. I melt into its words, its references to artists risking their lives to write, readers risking their lives to read. Its references to exile and repatriation. References to earthquakes and hurricanes. Conversations of ancestors and lands. “The floating homeland, the ideological one.” And I, rematriator, living in this colony that welcomed me with a small earthquake, that initiated me with two back to back catastrophic hurricanes and their brutal aftermath, am all for witnessing this book, these Antilles and all our ancestors.
Yo vengo de la tierra, yo vengo del huracán.
Another father of this colonized country said these words. “I come from the land, I come from the hurricane.” This month saw a peak in the debate over his birthday. Mostly commemorated on September 12, 1891 it seems he was born two years later on June 29th, 1893. The Pedro born on that first day was his brother who died in infancy. When another child came along two years later, born on the day of St Peter and St. Paul (San Pedro y San Pablo) name of the church I happened to be baptized at in Brooklyn, he was not only given the same name, Pedro, but left with the same birth registry/ birth certificate. Pedro, freedom fighter extraordinaire, prodigy, grandchild of an enslaved woman, speaker of seven languages, Harvard law graduate, who fought a fierce fight for Puerto Rican freedom, dignity, integrity, would spend his life alternating between two birth days.
For all we die, we must also decolonize birth and ensure a dignified birth for us all. For a soul as big as Albizu’s to have entered this earth, it had to have been born twice in the same lifetime. No matter his birthday, Albizu was a son of the land, a son of the hurricane. His early years witnessed the hurricane of the US invasion of his homeland in 1898. The following year saw the catastrophic hurricane San Ciriaco which followed the same path as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, claiming reparations along the way. It finally died off the coast of Europe, after traveling from Africa, to the Caribbean, up the eastern US seaboard and back across the Atlantic to the European colonizers. The 1930s are known for Albizu’s most notorious years in his
anti-colonial struggle and his first federal arrest/ first sedition charge in 1936. Perhaps the hurricane San Felipe (infamous Okeechobee Hurricane), only rivaled by María, and the hurricane of the colonizer’s Great Depression that destructively followed fueled his actions for self-determination and liberation.
But I am not a journalist. I cannot report on facts and statistics around our heroes and hurricanes. I can only speak of the ancestors that guide my path, the sights my eyes have seen and the experiences my spirit has lived. I cannot give you a play by play of the hurricane. Down on communication, I only learned of its true path a month after it passed over us. There are details of this disaster that I have never known in these two years and do not have the heart to seek out. I define as an artist and still work to claim the title of writer, though I’ve written my whole life. I never saw writing as my profession, just necessary to my survival. Perhaps my writings are depressing or dreamy, idealistic, utopian even. Whatever it is, my writing is just what my spirit needs at the moment and comes from something arriving to my spirit at that moment. Most times I am an intuitive writer, channeling a bunch of people who came before me to share messages they refuse to let us forget. Not being a journalist means that I get to write whatever comes, whatever I want and need, or not write at all if that is what I feel.
I don’t wanna write this down
I just want to tell you how I feel right now
Tomorrow may never come
For you or me life is not promised
Tomorrow may never show up
For you and me this life is not promised…
My umi says shine your light on the world
Shine your light for the world to see
I want black people to be free
Want my people to be free
-lyric excerpt, “Umi Says” by Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def)
News of the exodus out of these islands still dominates the airwaves. Last night, I spoke with a friend planning her return to Puerto Rico. She thanked me for offering any tips around my own return. I told her, “What greater service can I offer to this land than to assist her children in their return home?”
Earlier this week “my umi” texted me a photo. It was of a small dress of white organza and satin ribbon. It was the baptism dress that I wore that day in 1975 at St. Peter/ St. Paul’s church on Court Street in Brooklyn. Mom packs 69 years of Brooklyn exile into boxes to return to her birthplace of Borikén: land where hurricanes birth freedom fighters.