The first line of Langston Hughes’ famed I, Too, Sing America reads I am the darker brother. It never occurred to me that in a predominantly Black nation, in front of an audience of Haitians, most of whom were phenotypically darker than myself, that first line becomes humorous, to say the least. One further begins to question the social relevancy of the poem when also considering the poem’s deeper implications of the word “darker” in terms of socioeconomic prowess; to have an American tell a room full of Haitians that he himself is the darker one can be taken any one of several wrong ways.
Nevertheless, I chose this poem partially for the overall message of fighting to have one’s voice reckoned with within one’s home country, and partially for the way Denzel Washington delivered it during the first classroom scene of The Great Debaters. It was simply captivating. I envisioned myself being able to deliver the poem in just as inspirational a manner, but this time in French…to an audience whose first language was Kreyol (in hindsight I could have given this entire presentation much more forethought).
Despite fumbling a French word or two, the poem recitation went off well, along with the accompanying presentation. My presentation was only one piece of a four-person panel discussion held by the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, entitled Living The Dream. The panel consisted of two Haitians who had previously participated in the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) for community organizing, one of the embassy’s economics officers of Korean heritage, and myself, a consular officer of Caribbean heritage. The event followed soon after MLK Day and was meant to serve as a platform for discussion on how one can be a community leader, using the examples of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders.
As proud as I am of my French-translated presentation that drew on examples from both Toussaint L’ouverture and Muhammad Ali, the veracity of the speeches from the two Haitian participants made my own seem like a child’s attempt at impressing a boardroom of executives.
What made their words so powerful? Other than the homefield advantage of speaking to an audience of their peers (an element not to be underestimated), their very message of what are YOU doing to make Haiti better could not be shaken, no matter the criticism. And oh there was criticism! The Q&A session seemed more like an interrogation, with every other person asking “but what about the NGOs?! What are THEY doing here in Haiti??” And everytime, the two calmly responded with the same mantra, yes, but what are YOU doing here in Haiti?
It was a simple, but boldly powerful response that could not be cast aside. It’s a response in which the evidence ,that one can be a leader in Haiti, is in plain sight, not only in the form of the two Haitians on the panel, but in every Haitian in the audience. As one of the panelists told the audience, you can be a leader no matter what you do, whether it be the arts or the sports. So why be concerned with what another organization is doing? What are you doing? It’s as if they seemed to say don’t forget, I too sing Ayiti, and I am not discouraged. With such conviction, how could one lose hope? How could one leave that room and think anything other than Haiti has better days in store, no matter what temporary roadblocks may be in sight?
Sometimes we ask ourselves if there’s another version of an MLK or a Malcolm X or a Ghandi in another country. After seeing the energy and passion of the two young Haitian panelists, and the charged responses they were able to evoke, I realize that Haiti doesn’t need an MLK, it just needs more youth like the ones in the room.
With the Haitian context in mind, below is the English and the French translation of I, Too, Sing America:
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.
Je suis le frere plus foncé
Ils m’envoient manger dans la cuisine
Lorsque la compagnie vient.
Mais je ris,
Et je mange bien,
Et je devient plus fort.
Je sera à la table
Lorsque la compagnie vient.
Personne n’osera me dire
D’aller manger a la cuisine,
Ils vont voir comment je suis beau
Et ils auront honte –
Moi aussi, je suis l’Amérique (Ayiti).