A Haitian American legislator in Brooklyn has spearheaded a letter written by more than 12 of her New York City Council colleagues asking United States President Joe Biden to proclaim May as Haitian Heritage Month in the US.
Earlier this month, New York State Assembly passed a resolution introduced by Haitian American Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, formally designating May as Haitian Heritage Month in New York State.
New York City Council Member Farah N. Louis, another daughter of Haitian immigrants, who represents the 45th Council District in Brooklyn, told Caribbean Life that the letter to Biden was dispatched on Wednesday, May 18, Haitian Flag Day, “a significant occasion for Haitians.”
“Haitians make up one of the fastest-growing racial and ethnic groups in America. We write to ask you to proclaim May as Haitian Heritage Month in recognition of our rich culture, heritage and contributions to the United States,” the letter to Biden states. “From the dawn of our nation’s independence, Haitians have planted and watered the seeds of freedom near and far.”
In 1779, the letter says that 800 troops from Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) formed an alliance with Union troops to defeat the Confederate Army during the American Revolution.
“Shortly, thereafter, General Jacques Dessalines led former slaves to liberation when he freed Haiti from French colonial rule in 1804, making the nation the first free Black republic in the Western Hemisphere,” the letter says. “Today, Haitian-Americans continue to prove essential to America, serving as doctors, nurses and home health aides during the height of the pandemic and beyond.
“Haitian-Americans are a key part of the fabric of this nation,” it adds. “By proclaiming May as Haitian Heritage Month, you will be helping us author the next chapter of our story.
“You have rightfully designated May as Asian Pacific American Heritage and Jewish American Heritage Month,” the legislators continues. “We ask that you consider our request to honor our families and ancestors with an equally appropriate designation.”
Bichotte Hermelyn, who chairs the Brooklyn Democratic Party, told Caribbean Life that the resolution in the New York State Assembly was co-sponsored by 15 members of the Assembly.
“We are a people that have been fighting for our freedom for generation after generation, including in America,” said Bichotte Hermelyn, speaking from the Assembly Chamber and referring to the period in 1779 when Haitians fought alongside the Union in the Battle of Savannah in Georgia. “We saw the beacon of freedom that America promised, and we helped seize it.”
Bichotte Hermelyn, who represents the 42nd Assembly District in Brooklyn, said the designation of Haitian Heritage Month commemorates Haitian heritage and culture, including the French-speaking Caribbean country’s notable leaders, such as Jean Jacques Dessalines, who defeated Napoleon and the French colonists at the Battle of Vertières in 1803, and General Toussaint Louverture, who commanded his revolutionary army to victory.
Other Haitian leaders included female revolutionaries like Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière, who fought as a soldier in the Indigenous army, and Catherine Flon, a nurse, who is credited with crafting the independent Black Republic of Haiti flag in 1803.
Bichotte Hermelyn also alluded to Jean Baptiste Dusable, the first settler of Chicago, also known as the “Father of Chicago”; Jean-Michael Basquiat, one of the defining artists of the 20th century; Jackson Georges, a painter; and modern-day leaders like actor Jamie Hector and reporter Vladimir Duthiers.
“We saw the beacon of freedom that America promised, and we helped seize it,” Bichotte Hermelyn said.
Other Haitian holidays recognized by New York State include Haitian Flag Day and Haitian Unity Day, which are celebrated May 18.
“Although this has not been an easy time for Haitians, we are resilient,” said Bichotte Hermelyn, also noting Haitian-American’s contributions in the health care field.
“We celebrate the nature of our people to serve as health care heroes: a great number who served on the frontline during the worst days of the pandemic as doctors, nurses and home health care aides,” she said.
Late last year, Bichotte Hermelyn and New York State Sen. Kevin Parker, who represents the 21st Senate District in Brooklyn, introduced a bill that was then passed by the State Legislature, which provided funds for the rededication of the Newkirk Avenue 2/5 train station, now called “Little Haiti-Newkirk” in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
In 2018, Bichotte Hermelyn said “Little Haiti Cultural and Business District”, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, “was born.”
She said streets in the neighborhood are named for Haitian icons Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture in “an ode to Haitian heritage and the large Haitian-American population.”
On Wednesday, Bichotte Hermelyn noted that Haitian Flag Day is “a celebration of freedom from French colonizers, who occupied the nation and forced Haitians into slavery.”
She said Catherine Flon, a Haitian seamstress, is widely recognized as the creator of the first flag of the independent Republic of Haiti, the first free Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.
“Ever since, Haiti has been an inspiration to nations around the world,” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “Haitian Flag Day is an opportunity for us to acknowledge women’s role in the revolution. Flon’s story that has been passed down from generation to generation will continue to be a celebrated part of our culture.
“Our ancestors’ great bravery is the reason we celebrate our freedom today,” she told Caribbean Life. “We are the sons and daughters of revolutionaries, and we must carry their legacy forward by continuing to champion their values of equity and equal justice.
“This is a historic Flag Day for New Yorkers, who are celebrating the recognition of Haitian Heritage Month in New York for the first time,” she added.
Louis said: “Every flag tells the rich story of a people’s culture, their journey towards independence, and the birth of their identity and heritage that would live on for generations.
“Today, the sons and daughters of Haiti celebrate their bicolor flag — red and blue — in remembrance of the revolutionaries who paved the way through their sacrifice and their solemn belief that all men were born free,” she added. “Haiti was the first free black republic whose successful slave revolt became a blueprint for several others that sought to end their oppression.
“May their courage and strength continue to inspire us to work in unison to end the inequities that are prevalent in our present-day society,” the council member continued. “Happy Haitian Flag Day!”