It was sunny as usual in Little Haiti, a small Haitian enclave in Miami where the predominant language is Haitian Creole.
I was there that day in May 2012 to celebrate Haitian Flag Day, and my invitation from the Office for Haitian Cultural Affairs said speakers could lecture in English, French or Haitian Creole.
My talk was about what the Haiti Lab — a center for research and Haitian studies at my school, Duke University — was doing to help people understand what Haiti has accomplished for the world in terms of equality for all. To my surprise, when I started speaking in Haitian Creole, the celebration’s cultural affairs representative interrupted to say I was not allowed to give my presentation in Creole. Knowing that the audience was largely composed of Haitian Creole speakers, I decided to press on, and after 20 minutes the representative finally stopped trying to convince me to speak English or French.
Her request illustrates what many educated Haitians have long denied: Creole is the only language that unites us.
All Haitians born and raised in Haiti speak Creole. In fact, the 1987 Constitution states that Creole is “the only language that binds all Haitians together.” However, Haitians who speak and write only Creole have no access to most official documents because Haitian authorities, so far, still write most official documents in French — even though less than 10 percent of the population understand French. Presidential candidates have only recently begun speaking in Creole; once elected, though, many give speeches only in French, which I consider a betrayal to the people who voted them in.
Two years ago, the current government refused to sign into law a decree from the 1987 Constitution to create a Creole academy.
During the recent CARICOM Summit in Port-au-Prince, none of the proceedings were translated into Creole. Worse yet, Haitian President Michel Martelly pushed successfully for French to be recognized as the second official language of the summit, even though no more than 500,000 Haitians speak it. By contrast, more than half of the population of CARICOM nations (including all 10 million Haitians in Haiti) speak Creole.
This language divide is one the major causes of the extraordinary economic gap between the Haitian elite and everyone else. Haitians who speak only Creole are perceived as unrefined and uncouth by those who speak French. The former often seem at the mercy of the latter, working for them as maids, indentured child servants and janitors.
This linguistic exclusion is part of the ongoing inequalities that have existed since colonial times, when the French treated enslaved Africans as lesser humans. Today, most French-speaking Haitians stubbornly believe that French is a prerequisite to social and economic success, and they blame the country’s shameful economic failure on the illiterate Creole-speakers. The latter have fallen into this ideological trap, to the point that they consider learning French the main goal of education.
Since 1944, there have been 13 literacy campaigns launched in Haiti, yet an estimated 50 percent of the population is still illiterate after two centuries of independence. This suggests that Haitian authorities have not been serious about tackling the issue. A more literate population might call for official documents to be written in Creole so that they could fully take part in the political process.
That said, Haitians are also ready to learn other languages, such as English and Spanish and, yes, French so they can to communicate with other Caribbean nations, but to do so as foreign languages.
After more than 200 years of keeping the masses in abject ignorance and poverty, it is time to rectify a wrong. Haiti can do better if everyone has a say in the process of rebuilding the country.
The only way this can happen is by making systematic use of Creole at all levels of society, including in the schools, courts and government offices.
If Creole is “the cement that binds all Haitians,” as the Haitian Constitution proclaims, then now is the time for Haitian authorities to end this linguistic exclusion.
Jacques Pierre is a lecturer in Haitian Creole and Creole studies at Duke University.