I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I didn’t have to: my parents had already decided for me. I often joke that, in my parents’ eyes, there were only three acceptable careers for me: engineer, doctor, or lawyer. But that’s not really a joke. And I got all the way to the point of applying to medical school before realizing that their views of what made a good career didn’t necessarily match up with my own.
I can’t blame them. As Haitian immigrants, their perspectives on what constituted a good job were shaped heavily by the ideas they were taught and shown. Doctors, engineers, lawyers--they were always represented positively to my parents. And that idea--that idea of representation--is actually how I realized what I did want to do: politics.
Because ultimately, when I decided to get into politics, it wasn’t because I had always known I had wanted to be a politician, or because I idolized Barbara Jordan. It’s because I wanted to shape what Haiti meant to Americans, and what being Haitian-American meant to other Haitian-Americans.
In other words, I wanted to influence Haiti’s representation. And I thought working in politics was the best way to do that.
It all started when I was in graduate school, working on my MPA degree. It just so happened to be the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence, and I was creating a documentary about the Haitian experience abroad. At the same time, my school was considering creating a partnership with some Haitian universities. Because of this coincidence, I got to go to Haiti, sent to help figure out what a partnership might look like, and to work on my documentary.
I had never been to Haiti but growing up, I heard plenty of stories. I had understood all of these stories in little isolated bits and pieces. But it was only after having seen the country, having experienced it for myself, that I understood how all the pieces fit together to create the country that created my parents--and that created me.
As soon as I left, I knew. I knew that I wanted other people to see the same Haiti I saw. Not a country defined by abject poverty. Not a country defined by tourist-filled beaches. Not a country defined by dictatorship. No, I wanted everyone to see the whole Haiti--not defined by any one thing, but by many things. I wanted everyone to see the country I saw: one who experienced dictatorship, yes, but was also the first country to be formed by a slave-led rebellion. I wanted people to understand that yes, many people were impoverished, but many also held a deep reverence for the country. And I decided that the best way to represent Haiti--the real Haiti, the Haiti I had just witnessed--was through politics.
Because representation matters. What people see on TV matters. What people read matters. And what people hear from their politicians matters.
I don’t have to remind you about the choice words President Trump used to describe Haiti--his representation of the country I, and countless other Haitian-Americans, consider my second home.
When someone turns on the TV and hears that the President of our country has just called Haiti a shithole or that all Haitians have AIDS, what are they supposed to think? When they hear that Trump has ended Temporary Protective Status for Haitians, what are they supposed to think?
In this moment of profound misrepresentation, it’s more important than ever that we represent the real Haiti, and what it really means to be Haitian-American.
Today, my daughter is three years old. She’s too young for me to be able to explain what being Haitian-American fully means to me, she barely listens to a word I say. But I’ve already begun thinking about what I’m going to say to her when she does start listening--and how I will represent Haiti to her.
The first thing I’ll tell her is how proud I am to be Haitian-American. I’m going to tell her, smile tugging the corners of my lips, that Haiti was the first country where enslaved people overthrew their colonizers to create the first ever independent country of freed people. I’m going to tell her how that independence, that strength, continues to run through our blood. I’m going to tell her, too, about the tough times my parents faced in Haiti. I’ll tell her about how my mom, who lost her own mother, started working young--so, so young--because she was forced to fend for herself when she was still just a child. I’ll tell her about how my parents eventually left Haiti, fleeing a dictatorship where their words were censored but their ambitions couldn’t be. My daughter will hear about how my mom worked as a home health aide here in the US, my dad a NYC taxi cab driver, and how they scraped by, never able to take a break, just so that I could catch mine. I’ll tell her how that ethos of hard work, grit, and determination, runs through her blood too.
I’ll tell her everything, because Haiti is more than just one characteristic, or one moment in history. And that’s why I got into politics, too. So that my fellow Americans would get the chance to see the same Haiti I see. Not just the bits and pieces, but the whole.
Karine Jean-Pierre is the Senior Advisor and National Spokesperson at MoveOn.org, and appears regularly on MSNBC and CNN as a political contributor.