Northwestern alum discusses experiences traveling abroad as a Haitian American


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Northwestern alum Ayanna Legros describes redefining the narrative of Haitian culture and history.

Emma Rosenbaum, Assistant Campus Editor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of assault.

Looking through her childhood bedroom, Duke Ph.D student Ayanna Legros (Weinberg ‘13) found a diary entry she wrote in Athens when she was 11. Growing up with a eurocentric school curriculum, she remembered being fascinated by Greek culture and mythology. 

In a Monday event for Northwestern’s inaugural Black History Month Global Week, Legros reflected on the emphasis on Greece and Europe as a “hub of ingenuity and civilization.” Legros said it’s clear that Haiti, where her parents are from, is not given the same value.

“It’s been really important for me to think about the glory and magnificence I was able to experience as a tourist in Greece, and the lack of that same kind of feeling for other spaces in the world,” she said.

Legros has studied history around the world in countries like Spain, Bolivia, Haiti, Turkey and Colombia and is currently working on a dissertation on the history of Haiti’s use of radio. As the keynote speaker for the week-long program, she was interviewed by Dr. Mary Pattillo, chair of NU’s African American studies department. 

The series of events are sponsored by Global Learning Office and Multicultural Student Affairs. BHM Global Week aims to answer questions Black students may have about study abroad and provide strategies for obstacles they may face, according to the program website. 

“We saw a need for more programming aimed at supporting Black students in study abroad and in global spaces academically, professionally and personally,” said GLO program manager Norvell Watts, who helped start the program.

Seeing the NU community’s reaction to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Legros said she knew there was another narrative to be told about the country, so she used music and photography to reconstruct the narrative for herself.

She played the music of Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz and Haitian singer Martha Jean-Claude during the presentation and showed a photo of her grandmother’s family, which depicted 11 kids. She said she thinks the photo beautifully represents the typical middle class family of Haiti. 

“Haiti is a society with fruit, with intellectuals, and that sounds like a very basic thing, but it really became a radical orientation for redefining a space for myself that did not reflect what was marketed or shown to me in media,” Legros said.

She and Pattillo both said being American sometimes has its benefits. Legros shared her experiences of traveling to the Dominican Republic and Haiti with her parents, who she said had a much harder time as Haitian citizens than she and her brother. She said she had to watch them deal with unnecessary confiscation of items and bribing.

But even being an American, Legros said she faced obstacles as a Black woman, including being groped in Turkey. She added that she needed to be cognizant of her surroundings, even though she had every right to be where she was. Pattillo shared a very similar experience in Colombia.

“(There were) just so many hurdles to just have your friend come sit in the lobby with you at the hotel, for example,” Pattillo said. “So those are the frustrating moments where one’s Americanness is very clear. But then there’s also times when my Americaness comes through.”

Traveling throughout Latin America, Legros described herself as “on a quest to understand Blackness.” In Bolivia, she chose to go off the beaten path, where she encountered Black indigenous women in traditional attire.

She said it was an important experience because she got to see the connection between Blackness and indigeneity for herself, a relationship not always portrayed in courses on the history of Latin America.

“I would always encourage students to find that place that no one is really thinking about, because that ended up being one of the most important trips for me while I was in Bolivia, more than any kind of traditional museum,” Legros said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the music played during the presentation. The Daily regrets the error.

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Twitter: @EmmaCRosenbaum

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