“‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,’” is what the young white man who sat for an hour among those gathered for bible study said to his victims as he opened gunfire on them and reloaded his weapon five different times. These are the names and ages of the men and women who were killed: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59. Never mind that six of the nine people are women, the fear of collective black violence against exclusionary white supremacist imaginings of “our country” that he invokes here has haunted white America, and terrorized people of African descent in particular, since Jesus was in short pants. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin defined this fear in a 1964 interview. “There is no prospect of setting Negroes free, unless one is prepared to set the white people of American free,” he says. When asked from what do white Americans need to be set free, he answered, “free from their terrors, free from their ignorance, free from their prejudices, and free ultimately from the right to do wrong, knowing that it is wrong.” In qualifying this sense of the need for white people to be free, and characterizing it as a necessary part of the revolution hoped for by the Civil Rights movement — essentially saying this Civil Rights business is not just for black folk — Baldwin’s words show us that today’s white supremacist terrorist has not evolved far beyond that of yesteryear:
White southerners, I think are the most victimized, the saddest people of the Western world. They know it’s wrong – you can’t turn a dog on a child and not know that you are doing something wrong. You have to know it and nobody can deny it. And this is an extreme example of what I mean when I say that this revolution is not designed so much to change the Negro community as to change the American community, the American relationship to itself: Americans walking around with various uneasiness and terror, wondering what the negro is going to do next, especially since they invented him. You know what I mean?
I sure as hell do, James, but now you’ve gone and made me get ahead of myself. Before I can even begin to think about the chilling, wrongheaded, and hateful words the shooter uttered, and what they mean for America’s relationship to itself, I want to take us away from South Carolina, where the confederate flag still flies over the state house, to the Dominican Republic. There, in 1937, President Raphael Molina Trujillo ordered the massacre of ethnic Haitians living in the frontier region, close to the border between Hispañola’s forever-contentious sister nations. The orders he gave national troops and civilian reserves was to use machetes, because bullet riddled bodies would betray governmental involvement in an attempted genocide that was intended to look – in the interest of legality – like a civil uprising. Whether someone lived or died depended on how they pronounced the r in perejil, the Dominican word for parsley (thus the name Parsley Massacre). If you rolled the r you were Dominican and thus spared. If you pronounced it as a w sound, you were Haitian and thus chopped to death. Many weren’t even given the parsley test though, but rather summarily cut down because of the darkness of their skin.
I think it’s important to go on this particular trans-historical and transnational journey, with stops in 1937 at Trujillo’s El Corte in the DR, today’s impending mass deportation of ethnic Haitians from the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, and the terrorist attack on the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, because the relationship between terror and citizenship in each instance is one we should think long and deeply about. Though separate and unique instances of violence against black communities, which should absolutely be considered and commented upon individually within their unique context and circumstances, they nonetheless collectively offer a singular and timely opportunity to think about why today – with all the good work folks like Rachel Dolezal do – we in our supposed progressive democratic societies continue to see daily racially-motivated violence committed against people of color by perpetrators whose actions are facilitated and protected by the laws of the land.
If you know what happened at La Frontera in ’37, you cannot help but watch the events that have unfolded since a 2013 Constitutional Court decision to strip generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, with the unnerving horror at history repeating itself. The decision stipulates that Dominicans born after 1929 to parents who are not of Dominican descent will have their citizenship revoked. It’s worth noting that the date of retroactive revocation chillingly and even mockingly predates that of the 1937 massacre. Where anywhere between 15,000 to 35,000 people of and believed to be of Haitian descent were chopped to death by state order in 1937, today, we are talking about an estimated 500, 000 Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been sentenced to a civic death or sorts. Many of them have no connections, familial or otherwise, to Haiti.
After an initial international outcry over the possibility of rendering stateless almost half a million people, the government of the DR launched a program that would consider granting legal residency to non-citizens who could establish their identity and prove they arrived in the DR before 2011. That is, they have to prove they were not a part of the the post-earthquake surge of Haitians into the DR. Nonetheless, the disingenuousness of what appears to be a diplomatic and generous program is revealed in its requirements and its approval rate. The thing is, you don’t ever really have to think about the paperwork that allows you to traverse the world until you need to do just that—say if you’ve never left your country of birth to make a life in another one. Today, on paper, I am a copiously documented non-resident alien who has resided in the US since 2001; my existence in this country has been documented by four different resident programs that we can think about as similar to the one proposed by the government of the Dominican Republic. The volume of documentation I have needed over the years to legitimize my presence is astonishing. The most basic of these is a birth certificate, which in the case of those subject to the ruling in the DR is among the necessary documents when filing for legal residency. Today, officials estimate that there are 500, 000 people who might be eligible for this legal residency, but as the Miami Herald notes,
employers in the Dominican Republic are not providing workers with documentation to prove they have been in the country long enough to qualify. Another hurdle has been the Haitian government, which despite pledges to improve the process has been slow to provide birth certificates and other forms of identification to its citizens and has charged more than many people can afford to pay.
Today, only 300 of the 250,000 who have applied for these permits have received them. When the security of your existence in a particular place is contingent on your ability to produce corroborating paperwork, your inability to do so devalues your existence in that place, reducing your humanity to the papers that justify your presence, and makes you vulnerable to the kinds of violence that we see all over the media if we look closely enough. Here. Here. And here. Moreover, the state essentially denies you its protections and leaves you vulnerable to those it charges with enforcing the security of the homeland, on behalf of those citizens it claims, against the ones it does not. If you are me, it is at this juncture that what is happening in the Dominican Republic today meets the delusions of the white terrorist who murdered nine black people in a South Carolina church last night.
Of course, you are well within your rights to say no one in the US lives under the threat of deportation in quite this way, but that would be a stupid thing to say. What happens to Haitians in particular in detention centers in Santa Domingo, Nassau, or South Florida resoundingly resonates with the more opaque corralling and terrorizing of brown and black people who might as well be locked away in Krome for all the state sanctioned terror they confront walking down the street, listening to loud music, hanging out at a pool party, or at church. At least the Dominican constitution is transparent about what it is up to. We in the United States have yet to begin to acknowledge, understand, and do something about the ways our legislative framework also sanctions the right of some citizens to terrorize others, on the basis of race, under the corrupted logic of protecting a white supremacist imagining of the homeland from black and brown outsiders.
The white supremacist logic that underlies both the past and present relationship between Haitians and Dominicans in the Dominican Republic is the same one that underlies the shooter’s delusional version of what constitutes “our country,” the things from which it needs to be protected, and whom it needs to exclude. To understand this, we need to remember that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere. It resulted in the establishment of the world’s first black nation at a time when European colonial domination of the region was supreme and the newly minted United States was only just testing her own imperialist chops. Haiti as a nation has continued to pay for this since. The Haitian Revolution in many ways is the specter of imagined retaliatory black violence realized, and laws all over the region since then have sought, often violently, to guard against the violent resistance from the subjugated that subjugators often fear and can vividly imagine. The Dominican Republic’s historical memory of itself as a colony of Haiti obviously stokes this fear in ways that have become normalized within its national fabric. It celebrates, for example, its independence from Haiti, but not from Spain.
The US on the other hand, did not really need the threat of another Haitian Revolution to amp up its own strategies of protection against black rebellion and overthrow. Indeed the strategies geared towards protecting those legitimized as American citizens from those categorized as laboring chattel dates back to the 1600s, and work to inscribe within the national imagination who is a person/citizen with protections under the law, and who is property and thus bereft of protection. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes,
In 1650, Virginia mandated that “all persons except Negroes” were to carry arms. In 1664, Maryland mandated that any Englishwoman who married a slave must live as a slave of her husband’s master. In 1705, the Virginia assembly passed a law allowing for the dismemberment of unruly slaves—but forbidding masters from whipping “a Christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.” In that same law, the colony mandated that “all horses, cattle, and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave” be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support “the poor of the said parish.”
Let’s not let that first provision escape us. The right to protect oneself and one’s property with arms is definitive of who a citizen is in the United States. It is a notion as old as time. Moreover, the right to bear arms defines citizenship at the same time that it decides who is denied that protection and thus barred from citizenship. A bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in the hands of a young black man can be mistaken for weapons and he can be summarily and extrajudicially executed for just that mistaken imagining. The rest speaks for itself, to the extent that the latter are incorporated into the dehumanizing fabric that continues to this day to marginalize and wreak violence against black lives.
If the Haitian Revolution presents a too-close-to-home reminder of the possibility of black retaliatory violence, the black church historically is also a powerful symbol of black organization and resistance. This is a part—perhaps the biggest part—of why its literal structure and members have been subject to violence since the Jim Crow era. We can also understand the attack on members of this particular church, more specifically, because of its history as the spiritual home of Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom after he won the lottery and fomented a failed insurrection among 9000 of Charleston’s slaves. Emanuel AME was burned to the ground back in 1822 because of its association with Vesey, but once rebuilt, it later housed audiences for civil rights speeches given by Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr, and Coretta Scott King. Last night’s murders there was a calculated hate crime, meant to strike a blow to a generations old symbol of black community and resistance.
Church, I’m so tired of coming up in here and talking all the time about race, but I will not risk the wrongheadedness of those who want to displace race as a focus of our conversations, before we have fully come to terms with the ways we all live its implications no matter what color where we live says we are. To the extent that the government of the Dominican Republic and white supremacist networks in America continue to see race as a divisive marker that must be policed by white supremacist terror – aided and abetted by pro-pro gun legislation – it is unwise for us to shift our focus. Indeed, while I agree that perpetually parsing racial politics risks a form of essentialism that works to perpetuate rather than mitigate equitable equality, I also know the full story has yet to be told and understood about how race affects all our lives in life-and-death ways.
Globalism exacerbates the relationship between race and statelessness that has existed since Europeans discovered the Western hemisphere and began importing Africans to do the labor of extracting its wealth. Statelessness is a confounding mode of being not only because it leaves those subject to it without the protections and rights available to those imagined to be legitimate citizens, but also because the absence of the markers of legitimacy du jour is tantamount to a sentence of nonexistence and horrifying vulnerability. Here in the US, the vulnerable version of statelessness lived by black and brown people is not nearly as transparent as in the Dominican Republic. On that point alone, the country that brought us Trujillo appears to have the United States beat.