We do not speak. afraid
of what might happen to us
the air above our tongues
prays for us to speak. afraid
of what might happen
if we don’t
The Air Above Our Tongues, By Ruth Forman (from Prayers Like Shoes)
Many awards were presented to human rights activists around the world on December 10th, International Human Rights Day. This year, the day reminded me of the two-day retreat I hosted last July for the staff of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, in the cool mountains high above Port-au-Prince. There in my midst were about two dozen emerging leaders – young, dedicated, brilliant and eager Haitian lawyers, apprentice lawyers and law students – fighting daily for the dignity of their fellow Haitians. I pinned an imaginary medal on each of them, shook their hands and gave each a hug. I smiled as I remembered sitting beside my good friend Mario Joseph, remembering his lifetime of achievements working for human rights. I even recognized my own place within the outstanding organization known as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
We spent the days discussing the current political climate in Haiti, the work of BAI, the political strides since the Duvalier years, and the struggles of today. I listened attentively, sometimes wincing, at the stories of staff braving retribution and danger of bodily harm in their daily legal work. I heard stories of sexual, economic and political violence against classes of people not only marginalized, but actually pursued for persecution. I also heard amazing stories of the resourcefulness of staff working tirelessly with scarce resources against a power structure with built-in obstacles strewn across the paths to justice. I listened and was humbled.
As a Haitian-American born to immigrant parents in New York, I was taught that Haiti was a place where everyone had excellent penmanship like my father. This was the reason my sister and I had to practice our cursive every Sunday after church. It was a place where little girls wore neatly pressed school uniforms and shiny shoes, with ribbons in their hair that matched those uniforms. This is why we pressed our school uniforms, shined our shoes and wore matching ribbons. My father told me, more often than I care to remember, that the greatest gift he ever gave me was my United States citizenship. My parents taught me to be a proud Haitian, while recognizing the privileges of also being American.
While my parents were eerily silent on Haitian politics during the Duvalier regimes, two events marked the epiphany of my Haitian political education. At around age 11, I came home from a Girl Scout field trip to the United Nations, and was so proud that they had a neatly pressed Haitian scouting uniform, with a flag prominently sewn over the dress pocket, that I could wear home. But when I arrived, my mother took one look at me in that uniform and told me to take it off. My father shook his head, muttering “Fillettes Lalo”, and sent me to my room to change. The flag sewn on the pocket was BLACK and blue. I received no explanation and I did not dare ask.
Then in the Spring of 1986, my mother arrived home from her annual trip to Haiti wearing a supersized t-shirt with an oversized BLUE and red Haitian flag. My political Haitian history lessons began with the return of the real Haitian flag. My parents, who had been afraid to speak of Haitian politics, could now actually celebrate because Duvalier, and his flag, were gone from Haiti. As the years passed, there came to be over a dozen blue and red flags hung around our Manhattan apartment. When I lived in Haiti later as an adult, my favorite holiday was May 18 – Flag Day – because I really knew what it meant.
I understand the fear that silenced my parents for so many years. I have also witnessed that when people stand together to speak out against injustice, justice becomes possible. I am so proud to support BAI staff, who work for justice despite threats and harassment. Together, IJDH staff, board members, advisory members and supporters raise our voices for justice. Please add your voice with your support.
Judy S. Prosper
IJDH Board Member
 This is a slang term referring to female Duvalierists.