Edwidge Danticat, Marc Christophe, Joanne Hyppolite, Jean-Robert Cadet, Marie-Helene Laforest, Jean-Pierre Benoit, Assotto Saint, Barbara Sanon, Danielle Legros Georges, Dany Laferriere, Joel Dreyfuss, Patricia Benoit, Nikol Payen, Marie Ketsia, Theodore-Pharel, Maude Heurtelou, Garry Pierre-Pierre, Martine Bury, Katia Ulysse, Marilene Phipps, Phebus Etienne, Francie Latour, Anthony Calypso, Miriam Neptune, Leslie Casimir, Annie Gregoire, Sophia Cantave, Marie Nadine Pierre, Sandy Alexandre, Leslie Chassagne, Patrick Sylvain, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Babette Wainwright, Gina Ulysse, Myriam J. A. Chancy, Patrick Sylvain
The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States
Copyright © 2001 by Edwidge Danticat
"You and Me against the world," by Martine Bury, copyright © 1999, is reprinted by permission of the author. "Restavek" is from Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American by Jean-Robert Cadet, copyright 1998, reprinted by permission of the University of Texas Press. "The Million Man March" by Anthony Calypso, copyright © 1998, first appeared as "The Chicken Bone Express" under the pen name, Tbnven Bolewo, in Tea for One and appears here by permission of the author. "Present Past Future" by Marc Christophe is adapted from the poem "Present Passe Futur" which appeared in Le Pain De L'Exile, copyright © 1988, and is reprinted by permission of the author. "A Cage of Words" by Joel Dreyfuss, copyright © 1999, first appeared in The Haitian Times and is reprinted by permission of the author. "Another Ode to Salt" by Danielle Legros Georges first appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Volume 9, copyright © 1995, and is reprinted by permission of the author. "America, We Are Here" by Dany Laferriere, copyright © 1987, first appeared in his book Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? (David Homel translator, Coach House Press, Toronto) and appears here by permission of the author. "Homelands" by Marie-Helene Laforest first appeared in slightly different form in Diasporic Encounters (Liguori Editore, Naples, January 2000) and is reprinted by permission of the author. "Made Outside" by Francie Latour first appeared in a slightly different form in The Virginian-Pilot, copyright © 1995, and is reprinted by permission of the author. "Something in the Water… Reflections of a People's Journey" by Nikol Payen first appeared in The Crab Orchard Review, copyright © 1997, and is reprinted by permission of the author. "The White Wife" by Gary Pierre-Pierre first appeared in Essence Magazine, copyright © 1998, and is reprinted by permission of the author. "Haiti: A Memory Journey" by Assoto Saint is from Spells of a Voodoo Doll, copyright © 1996, and appears by permission of Michele Karlsberg, Estate of Assoto Saint. "Looking for Columbus" is from Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, copyright © 1996 by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston. "Do Something for Your Soul, Go to Haiti," by Babette Wainwright, copyright © 1999, first appeared in slightly different form as "Fencing in the People" in Sheperd Express, April 15, 1999 and is reprinted by permission of the author. All other contributions first appear here by permission of their respective authors, copyright © 2001.
if you don't know the butterfly's way,
you will pass it by without noticing:
it's so well hidden in the grass.
– "Ten O'clock Flower"
I have the extremely painful task of beginning this introduction on the same day that one of Haiti's most famous citizens, the radio journalist Jean Dominique, was assassinated. I woke up this morning to a series of increasingly alarming phone calls, the first simply mentioning a rumor that Jean might have been shot while arriving at his radio station, Radio Haiti Inter, at six thirty in the morning, for the daily news and editorial program that he co-anchored with his wife, Michele Montas. The next few calls declared for certain that Jean had been shot: seven bullets in the head, neck, and chest. The final morning calls confirmed my worst fears. Jean was dead.
The following hours would slip by in a haze as I went to teach my classes at the University of Miami. When I came back to my office that afternoon, there were still more phone calls and e-mails from relatives, friends, and acquaintances who could not believe what had happened. In those real and virtual conversations, the phrase that emerged most often was "Not Jean Do!" During the varying lengths of time that many of us had known Jean Dominique- either as a voice on Haitian radio or in person-we had all come to think of him as heroically invincible. He was someone who expressed his opinions freely, seemingly without fear, criticizing groups as well as individuals, organizations, and institutions who had proven themselves to be inhumane, unethical, or simply unjust. Of course, Jean's life was too multifaceted and complex to fully grasp and make sense of in these very early hours so soon after his death. All that seems undeniably compelling and memorable about him right now is his exceptional passion for Haiti and his profound, often expressed longing to see all Haitians realize the full potential for greatness that our forefathers and foremothers had displayed when they had battled their way out of slavery almost two hundred years ago, to create the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.
I can't even sort out now, under this full assault of memories, the exact moment I met Jean Dominique. As a child in Haiti, I had heard his voice on the radio so many times, and as an adult in New York, had seen him at so many different Haiti-related gatherings that I can't even pinpoint our first meeting. However, I do remember the first time we had a lengthy conversation. It was at an art exhibit at Ramapo College in New Jersey in the early 1990s. Jean was in exile, yet again, after the Haitian military had deposed the democratically elected government and had raided his radio station.
That night, Jean and I talked at length about the paintings, which I remember much less vividly than the extreme nostalgia that they evoked in him, the hunger to return to his home and his radio station in Haiti as soon as he could.
A few weeks later, our mutual friend, the filmmaker Jonathan Demme, asked Jean and me to work with him on a project about the history of Haitian cinema. Every week, the three of us would meet on the Ramapo College campus to discuss Haitian cinema while some communications students watched and videotaped us. My job was to find prints of the films that we would discuss; Jean's was to help us all understand them by putting them in context as Jonathan questioned him about technique, style, and content.
The task of finding the films proved to be a herculean one. Many of the filmmakers themselves had lost track of their own prints during nomadic lives in exile under the Duvalier regime. However, in our videotaped sessions each time we would mention a film title to Jean he would proceed to describe at length not only the plot of the film, but details of the method of its distribution and the political framework surrounding it. The film Anita, for example, made by the talented Rassoul Labuchin, told the story of a servant girl whose experiences are much like those described here by Jean-Robert Cadet in "Restavtk." According to Jean, Labuchin had traveled with the film from province to province and had shown it to peasants in the Haitian countryside. Jean had done something similar himself when he had broadcast on Radio Haiti Inter the Kreyol soundtrack of a film based on the classic Haitian novel Gouvemeurs de la Rosee (Masters of the Dew) by Jacques Roumain. This was something he was extremely proud of because, when he visited the Haitian countryside, the peasants for whom he had such extreme admiration and respect would tell him how they had recognized themselves and their lives in the words of the novel.
At the insistence of some of his friends in New York, Jean would occasionally participate in a television or radio program dealing with the injustices of the military regime in Haiti which by then had killed almost five thousand people, including among them the businessman Antoine Izmery and the Haitian justice minister, Guy Malary, people Jean had known. After Malary's death, Jean appeared as a guest on a panel on The Charlie Rose Show and was seated in the audience at a taping of The Donahue Show where the subject was Haiti. During the taping, Jean squirmed in his seat, while Phil Donahue held up the stubbed elbow of Arlete Belance, who had been attacked with a machete by paramilitary forces. After the taping, he seemed almost on the verge of tears as he said, "Edwidge, my country needs hope."
Our Haitian cinema project came to an end at the end of the school semester. However, Jonathan, Jean, and I would occasionally meet in Jonathan's office in Nyack for further discussions. One day, while driving to Nyack with Jonathan's assistant Neda, Jean told us about a word he had rediscovered in a Spanish film he had seen the night before, Guapa!
While puffing on his ever-present pipe, Jean took great pains to explain to us that someone who was guapa was extremely beautiful and courageous. Demanding further clarification, Neda and I would take turns shouting out the names of women the three of us knew, starting with Jean's wife.
"Michele is very-"
"Guapa!" he yelled back with great enthusiasm. This was one of many times that Jean's vibrant love for life easily came across.
On that guapa day, Neda had to stay in Nyack, so she gave me the car and told me to drive Jean back to Manhattan. I refrained from telling her that even though I'd had my license for three years, I had never driven any car but the one owned by the driving school where I had learned. When I confessed this to Jean, he wisely offered to drive. We drove for hours through New York's Rockland County and the Palisades, and then in New Jersey and over the George Washington Bridge, finding ourselves completely lost because Jean was trying to tell some hysterical story, smoke a pipe, and follow my uncertain directions all at the same time.
When we finally got to Manhattan late in the afternoon, Jean turned the car over to me. He seemed worried as I pulled away from the sidewalk and watched until I turned the corner, blending into Manhattan traffic.
* * *
The democratically elected government was returned to power soon afterward. The next time I would see Jean would be at his and Michele's house in Haiti.
"Jean, you're looking guapa," I told him.
It was wonderful to see Jean move about his own walls, surrounded by his own books and pictures and paintings, knowing that he had been dreaming about coming back home almost every minute that he was in exile.
Later at dinner, Jean spoke mournfully about those who had died during and after the coup d'etat: Antoine Izmery, Guy Malary, and later a well-loved priest, Father Jean-Marie Vincent. Adding Jean's name now to those of these very public martyrs still seems unimaginable, given how passionately he expressed his hope that these assassinations would no longer take place.
"It has to stop," I remember him saying. "It has to stop."
The plane that took me from Miami to Haiti the day before Jean's funeral seemed like a microcosm of Haiti. Crammed on a 727 for an hour and thirty-six minutes were young rich college students returning from Miami-area college campuses for the weekend, vendors- madan and mesye saras traveling with suitcases filled with merchandise from abroad, three male deportees being expatriated from the United States, a cluster of older women in black, perhaps also returning for a funeral, and up front the former president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returning from a speaking engagement at the University of Miami. That we were all on this plane listening to flight announcements in French, English, and Kreyol, seemed to me somewhat unreal, as would most of the events that would unfold up to and after Jean's funeral at the Sylvio Cator stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince.
On the plane, I couldn't help but recall one of the many conversations that Jean and I had had while lost in the Palisades in New York that afternoon.
I had told him that I envied the certainty with which he could and often did say the words, "My country."
"My country is sufFering," he would say. "It is being held captive by criminals. My country is slowly dying, melting away."
"My country, Jean," I said, "is one of uncertainty. When I say 'my country' to some Haitians, they think of the United States. When I say 'my country' to some Americans, they think of Haiti."
My country, I felt, was something that was then being called the tenth department. Haiti has nine geographic departments and the tenth was the floating homeland, the ideological one, which joined all Haitians living in the dyaspora.
I meant in another type of introduction to struggle to explain the multilayered meaning of the word dyaspora. I meant to borrow a phrase from a speech given by Gerard Alphonse Ferere, Ph.D., at the Haitian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on August 27, 1999, in which he describes diaspora/dyaspora as a term "employed to refer to any dispersal of people to foreign soils." But in our context used "to identify the hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in many countries of the world." I meant in another type of introduction to list my own personal experiences of being called "Dyaspora" when expressing an opposing political point of view in discussions with friends and family members living in Haiti, who knew that they could easily silence me by saying, "What do you know? You're a Dyaspora." I meant to recall some lighter experiences ofbeing startled in the Haitian capital or in the provinces when a stranger who wanted to catch my attention would call out, "Dyasporal" as though it were a title like Miss, Ms., Mademoiselle, or Madame. I meant to recall conversations or debates in restaurants, parties, or at public gatherings where members of the dyaspora would be classified-justified or not-as arrogant, insensitive, overbearing, and pretentious people who were eager to reap the benefits of good jobs and political positions in times of stability in a country that they had fled during difficult times. Shamefacedly, I would bow my head and accept these judgments when they were expressed, feeling guilty for my own physical distance from a country I had left at the age of twelve years during a dictatorship that had forced thousands to choose between exile or death. However, in this introduction, I can't help but think of Jean's reaction to my dyaspora dilemma in a conversation we had when I visited his radio station while in Haiti one summer.
"The Dyaspora are people with their feet planted in both worlds," he had said. "There is no reason to be ashamed of being Dyaspora. There are more than a million of you. You are not alone." Having been exiled many times himself to that very dyaspora that I was asking him to help me define, Jean could commiserate with all those exiles, emigres, refugees, migrants, naturalized citizens, half-generation, first-generation, American, Haitian, Haitian-American men, women, and children who were living here in the United States and elsewhere. Migration in general was something he understood extremely well, whether it be from the provinces, the peyi andeyo, the outside country, to the Haitian capital or from Haitian borders to other shores. Like many of us, what he wanted to see ultimately was a Haiti that could unite all her sons and daughters, be they inside or outside.
Before Jean's death, I had been hopeful that this book would give voice to some singular experiences of an admittedly small but wide- ranging fragment of the Haitian dyaspora in the United States. After his death, I find myself cherishing the fact that the people whose lives are detailed and represented here do travel between many worlds. This book for me now represents both a way to recount our silences-as in Leslie Casimir's "Reporting Silence"-and to say good-bye-as in Patrick Sylvain's "Adieu Miles and Good-bye Democracy." However, we are not saying good-bye to a country, but to a notion that as "Dyaspora" we do not own it and it does not own us. At the same time, we are also saying, in the words of Dany Laferriere's essay, "America, We Are Here." And we are not, as Joel Dreyfuss reminds the world in his essay, "A Cage of Words," just people from "the Poorest Nation in the Western Hemisphere," but also people who "have produced great art like that of Ireland and Portugal… great writers and scholars like those of Russia and Brazil." And great heroes like Jean Dominique.
A few weeks before Jean's death, Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian-American man, was gunned down by a New York City police officer in a Manhattan street across the bridge from where another Haitian man, Abner Louima, was beaten, then sexually assaulted in a Brooklyn precinct by a police officer. I ask myself now what Jean- as he inevitably would have had to report these events on his radio program-must have said about these incidents, which so closely resemble the atrocities that Haitians over the years have fled Haiti to escape. It has not been lost on us that of three black men tortured and killed by police in New York in the past two years, two were Haitian. Reading the essays in this book again after these events impels me to think of the many more pages that could be-and will be written-about our experiences as people belonging to the Haitian dyaspora in the United States. But anyone who has ever witnessed a gathering of the likes described by Jean-Pierre Benoit in "Bonne Annee" or Barbara Sanon in "Black Crows and Zombie Girls" knows our voices will not be silenced, our stories will be told.
In her essay, poet and painter Marilene Phipps writes, "Painting and Poetry are my battlefields… Living in another country, I use my pen or my brush to voice incantations to a particular world that has created me and, to a certain extent, now uses me to re-create itself." In this collection, the writers define themselves as well as the worlds that define them, through tragedies, like the deaths of Jean Dominique and Patrick Dorismond, but also through celebrations like the New York, Boston, and Miami street parades that followed the end of the Duvalier regime in 1986. Or through voices like that of Joanne Hyppolite turning a sometimes dreaded word in her favor, celebrating her "dyaspora" status, reminding us that we are not alone.
"When you are in Haiti, they call you Dyaspora," writes Hyppolite. "… you are used to it. You get so you can jump between worlds with the same ease that you slide on your nightgown every evening."
PRESENT PAST FUTURE by Marc Christophe
What will I tell you, my son?
What will I say to you, my daughter?
You for whom the tropics
Are a marvelous paradise
A blooming garden of islands floating
In the blue box
Of the Caribbean sea
What will I tell you
When you ask me
Father, speak to us of Haiti?
Then my eyes sparkling with pride
I would love to tell you
Of the blue mornings of my country
When the mountains stretch out
In the predawn light
The waterfalls flowing
The fragrance of molasses-filled coffee
In the courtyards
The fields of sugar cane
In cloudy waves
Towards the horizon
The heated voices of peasant men
Who caress the earth
With their fertile hands
The supple steps of peasant women
On top of the dew
The morning clamor
In the plains the small valleys
And the lost hamlets
Which cloak the true heart
I would also tell you
Of the tin huts
Slumbering beneath the moon
In the milky warmth
And the countryside cemeteries
Where the ancestors rest
In graves ornate
With purple seashells
And the sweet and heady perfumes
Of basilique lemongrass
I would love to tell you
Of the colonial elegance of the villas
Hidden in the bougainvilleas
And the beds of azaleas
And the vast paved trails
Behind dense walls
The verandahs with princely mosaics
With large vases of clay
With sheets of ferns
Verandahs where one catches
A breath of fresh air
Of staggering heat
By listening to
The sounds of the city
Rising up to the foothills
I would love to recite for you
The great history
Of the peoples of my country
Their daily struggles
For food and drink
Whose lives are a struggle
With no end
In the open markets
Under the sun's blazing breath
I would want to make you see
The clean unbroken streets
Straight as arrows
Bordered by the green
Of royal palms and date palms in bloom
I would love to make you admire
The shadowed dwellings
The oasis of green
Of my Eden
I would carry you
On my shivering wings
To the top of Croix D'Haiti
And from there
Your gaze would travel over
These prayer houses
These art houses
Conceived by our genius
Where hope never dies.
DYASPORA by Joanne Hyppolite
When you are in Haiti they call you Dyaspora. This word, which connotes both connection and disconnection, accurately describes your condition as a Haitian American. Disconnected from the physical landscape of the homeland, you don't grow up with a mango tree in your yard, you don't suck keneps in the summer, or sit in the dark listening to stories of Konpe Bouki and Malis. The bleat of vaksins or the beating of a Yanvalou on Rada drums are neither in the background or the foreground of your life. Your French is nonexistent. Haiti is not where you live.
Your house in Boston is your island. As the only Haitian family on the hillside street you grow up on, it represents Haiti to you. It was where your granmk refused to learn English, where goods like ripe mangoes, plantains, djondjon, and hard white blobs of mints come to you in boxes through the mail. At your communion and birthday parties, all of Boston Haiti seems to gather in your house to eat griyo and sip kremas. It takes forever for you to kiss every cheek, some of them heavy with face powder, some of them damp with perspiration, some of them with scratchy face hair, and some of them giving you a perfume head-rush as you swoop in. You are grateful for every smooth, dry cheek you encounter. In your house, the dreaded matinet which your parents imported from Haiti just to keep you, your brother, and your sister in line sits threateningly on top of the wardrobe. It is where your mother's andeyb Kreyol accent and your father's lavil French accent make sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible music together. On Sundays in your house, "Dominika-anik-anik" floats from the speakers of the record player early in the morning and you are made to put on one of your frilly dresses, your matching lace-edged socks, and black shoes. Your mother ties long ribbons into a bow at the root of each braid. She warns you, your brother and your sister to "respect your heads" as you drive to St. Angela's, never missing a Sunday service in fourteen years. In your island house, everyone has two names. The name they were given and the nickname they have been granted so that your mother is Gisou, your father is Popo, your brother is Claudy, your sister is Tinou, you are Jojo, and your grandmother is Manchoun. Every day your mother serves rice and beans and you methodically pick out all the beans because you don't like pwa. You think they are ugly and why does all the rice have to have beans anyway? Even with the white rice or the mayi moulen, your mother makes sbspwa- bean sauce. You develop the idea that Haitians are obsessed with beans. In your house there is a mortar and a pestle as well as five pictures of Jesus, your parents drink Cafe Bustelo every morning, your father wears gwayabel shirts and smokes cigarettes, and you are beaten when you don't get good grades at school. You learn about the infidelities of husbands from conversations your aunts have. You are dragged to Haitian plays, Haitian bah, and Haitian concerts where in spite of yourself konpa rhythms make you sway. You know the names of Haitian presidents and military leaders because political discussions inevitably erupt whenever there are more than three Haitian men together in the same place. Every time you are sick, your mother rubs you down with a foul-smelling liquid that she keeps in an old Barbancourt rum bottle under her bed. You splash yourself with Bien-etre after every bath. Your parents speak to you in Kreyol, you respond in English, and somehow this works and feels natural. But when your mother speaks English, things seem to go wrong. She makes no distinction between he and she, and you become the pronoun police. Every day you get a visit from some matant or monnonk or kouzen who is also a tnarenn or parenn of someone in the house. In your house, your grandmother has a porcelain kivet she keeps under her bed to relieve herself at night. You pore over photograph albums where there are pictures of you going to school in Haiti, in the yard in Haiti, under the white Christmas tree in Haiti, and you marvel because you do not remember anything that you see. You do not remember Haiti because you left there too young but it does not matter because it is as if Haiti has lassoed your house with an invisible rope.
Outside of your house, you are forced to sink or swim in American waters. For you this means an Irish-Catholic school and a Black-American neighborhood. The school is a choice made by your parents who strongly believe in a private Catholic education anyway, not paying any mind to the busing crisis that is raging in the city. The choice of neighborhood is a condition of the reality of living here in this city with its racially segregated neighborhoods. Before you lived here, white people owned this hillside street. After you and others who looked like you came, they gradually disappeared to other places, leaving you this place and calling it bad because you and others like you live there now. As any dyaspora child knows, Haitian parents are not familiar with these waters. They say things to you like, "In Haiti we never treated white people badly." They don't know about racism. They don't know about the latest styles and fashions and give your brother hell every time he sneaks out to a friend's house and gets his hair cut into a shag, a high-top, a fade. They don't know that the ribbons in your hair, the gold loops in your ears, and the lace that edges your socks alert other children to your difference. So you wait until you get to school before taking them all off and out and you put them back on at the end of your street where the bus drops you off. Outside your house, things are black and white. You are black and white. Especially in your school where neither you nor any of the few other Haitian girls in your class are invited to the birthday parties of the white kids in your class. You cleave to these other Haitian girls out of something that begins as solidarity but becomes a lifetime of friendship. You make green hats in art class every St. Patrick's day and watch Irish step-dancing shows year after year after year. You discover books and reading and this is what you do when you take the bus home, just you and your white schoolmates. You lose your accent. You study about the Indians in social studies but you do not study about Black Americans except in music class where you are forced to sing Negro spirituals as a concession to your presence. They don't know anything about Toussaint Louverture or Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
In your neighborhood when you tell people you are from Haiti, they ask politely, "Where's that?" You explain and because you seem okay to them, Haiti is okay to them. They shout "Hi, Grunny!" whenever they see your grandmother on the stoop and sometimes you translate a sentence or two between them. In their houses, you eat sweet potato pie and nod because you have that too, it's made a little different and you call it pen patat but it's the same taste after all. From the girls on the street you learn to jump double-dutch, you learn to dance the puppet and the white boy. You see a woman preacher for the first time in your life at their church. You wonder where down South is because that is where most of the boys and girls on your block go for vacations. You learn about boys and sex through these girls because these two subjects are not allowed in your island/house. You keep your street friends separate from your school friends and this is how it works and you are used to it. You get so you can jump between worlds with the same ease that you slide on your nightgown every evening.
Then when you get to high school, things change. People in your high school and your neighborhood look at you and say, "You are Haitian?" and from the surprise in their voice you realize that they know where Haiti is now. They think they know what Haiti is now. Haiti is the boat people on the news every night. Haiti is where people have tuberculosis. Haiti is where people eat cats. You do not represent Haiti at all to them anymore. You are an aberration because you look like them and you talk like them. They do not see you. They do not see the worlds that have made you. You want to say to them that you are Haiti, too. Your house is Haiti, too, and what does that do to their perceptions? You have the choice of passing but you don't. You claim your dyaspora status hoping it will force them to expand their image of what Haiti is but it doesn't. Your sister who is younger and very sensitive begins to deny that she is Haitian. She is American, she says. American.
You turn to books to lose yourself. You read stories about people from other places. You read stories about people from here. You read stories about people from other places who now live here. You decide you will become a writer. Through your writing they will see you, dyaspora child, the connections and disconnections that have made you the mosaic that you are. They will see where you are from and the worlds that have made you. They will see you.
RESTAVEK by Jean-Robert Cadet
"A blan (white person) is coming to visit today. He's your papa, but when you see him, don't call him papa. Say 'Bonjour, monsieur' and disappear. If the neighbors ask who he was, you tell them that you don't know. He is such a good man, we have to protect his reputation. That's what happens when men of good character have children with dogs," said Florence to me in Kreyol when I was about seven or eight years old. Before noon, a small black car pulled into the driveway and a white man got out of it. As I made eye contact with him, he waved at me and quickly stepped up to the front door before I had a chance to say "Bonjour, monsieur." Florence let him into the house and I disappeared into the backyard. Almost immediately I heard him leaving.
At the age of five I had begun to hate Florence. "I wish your manman was my manman too," I told Eric, a little boy my age who lived next door. One day while we played together, Eric's mother pulled a handkerchief from her bra, wet its corner on her tongue, knelt down on one knee, and wiped off a dirty spot on her son's face. Eric pushed her hand away.
"Ah, Manman, stop it," he said.
I looked at her with bright eyes. "Do it to me instead," I said.
She stared at my face for a moment and replied with an affectionate smile, "But your face is not dirty."
To which I answered, "I don't care. Do it to me anyway." She gently wiped at a spot on my face, as I grinned from ear to ear.
My biological mother had died before her image was ever etched in my mind. I cannot remember the time when I was brought to Florence, the woman I called Manman. She was a beautiful Negress with a dark-brown complexion and a majestic presence. She had no job, but earned a small income from tenants who leased her inherited farmland. She also entertained high government officials as a means to supplement her income. Her teenage son, Denis, was living with his paternal grandmother and attending private school. Florence claimed that her husband had died when her son was ten years old, but I never saw her wedding pictures.
I came into Florence's life one day when Philippe, her white former lover, paid her a surprise visit. He was a successful exporter of coffee and chocolate to the United States and Europe. Philippe lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with his parents, two brothers, and a niece. He arrived in his Jeep at Florence's two-story French country-style house in an upper-class section of the city. A bright-eyed, fat-cheeked, light-skinned black baby boy was in the backseat. Philippe parked the car, reached into the back seat, and took the baby out. He stood him on the ground and the baby toddled off. I was that toddler.
Philippe greeted Florence with a kiss on each cheek while she stared at the toddler. "Whose baby is this?" she asked, knowing the answer to her question.
"His mother died and I can't take him home to my parents. I'd like you to have him," said Philippe, handing Florence an envelope containing money.
"I understand," she said, taking the envelope. He embraced her again and drove off, leaving me behind. Philippe's problem was solved.
My mother had been a worker in one of Philippe's coffee factories below the Cahos mountains of the Artibonite Valley. Like the grand blans of the distant past who acknowledged their blood in the veins of their slave children by emancipating and educating them, Philippe was following tradition. Perhaps he thought that Florence would give me a better life.
"Angela," yelled Florence.
"Oui, Madame," answered the cook, approaching her.
"Take care of this little boy, will you? Find him something to eat," she instructed. Angela picked me up.
"What's his name?" she asked.
Florence thought for a moment and said, "Bobby." Florence did not want another child, but the financial arrangement she had with Philippe was too attractive for her to turn down. Every night I slept on a pile of rags in a corner of Florence's bedroom, like a house cat, until I was six years old. Then she made me sleep under the kitchen table.
Florence did not take care of me. From the time I entered the household, various cooks met my basic needs, which freed Florence from having to deal with me. I was never greatly attached to any of the cooks, since none of them ever lasted for more than a year. Florence would fire them for burning a meal or for short-changing her when they returned from the market.
As I got older, I learned what kind of day I was going to have based on Florence's mood and tone of voice. When she was cheerful, the four-strip leather whip, called a matinet, would stay hung on its hook against the kitchen wall.
I knew of two groups of children in Port-au-Prince: the elite, and the very poor, the restaveks, or slave children.
Children of the elite are often recognized by their light skin and the fine quality of their clothes. They are encouraged by their parents to speak proper French instead of Kreyol, the language of the masses. They live in comfortable homes with detached servants' quarters and tropical gardens. Their weekly spending allowance far exceeds the monthly salary of their maids. They are addressed by the maids as "Monsieur" or "Mademoiselle" before their first names. They are chauffeured to the best private schools and people call them "ti (petit) bourgeois."
Children of the poor often have dark skin. They appear dusty and malnourished. In their one-room homes covered with rusted sheet metal there is no running water or electricity. Their meals of red beans, cornmeal, and yams are cooked under clouds of smoke spewed out by stoves made of three coconut-size stones and fueled by dry twigs and wood. They eat from calabash bowls with their fingers and drink from tin cans with sharp edges, sitting on logs while being bothered by flies. They squat in the underbrush and wipe themselves with rocks or leaves. At night, they sleep on straw mats or cardboard spread over dirty floors while bloodsucking bedbugs feast on their sweaty flesh. They walk several miles to ill-equipped public schools, where they depend on lunches of powdered milk donated by foreign countries that once depended on the slave labor of their ancestors. After school, they rush home to recite their lessons loudly in cadence before the Caribbean daylight fades away, or they walk a few miles to Champ-de-Mars, the park, and sit under street lamps to do their homework while moths zigzag above their heads.
Restaveks are slave children who belong to well-to-do families. They receive no pay and are kept out of school. Since the emancipation and independence of 1804, affluent blacks and mulattoes have reintroduced slavery by using children of the very poor as house servants. They promise poor families in faraway villages who have too many mouths to feed a better life for their children. Once acquired, these children lose all contact with their families and, like the slaves of the past, are sometimes given new names for the sake of convenience. The affluent disguise their evil deed with the label restavek, a term that means "staying with." Other children taunt them with the term because they are often seen in the streets running errands barefoot and dressed in dirty rags.
Restaveks are treated worse than slaves, because they don't cost anything and their supply seems inexhaustible. They do the jobs that hired domestics, or bonnes, will not do and are made to sleep on cardboard, whether under the kitchen table or outside on the front porch. For any minor infraction, they are severely whipped with the cowhide implement that is still being made exclusively for that very purpose. And, like the African slaves of the past, they often cook their own meals, which are composed of inferior cornmeal and a few heads of dried herring. Girls are usually worse off because they are sometimes used as concubines for the teenage sons of their "owner." And if they become pregnant, they are thrown into the streets to earn their living as prostitutes. The boys are discarded to become shoeshine boys or itinerant gardeners.
I was a restavek in the making. Raising me as such was more convenient for Florence, because she didn't have to explain to anyone who I was or where I came from. As a restavek, I could not interact with Florence on a personal level; I could not talk to her about my needs. I could not speak until spoken to, except to give her messages that third parties had left with me. I also did not dare smile or laugh in her presence, as this would have been considered disrespectful-I was not her son but her restavek.
My tin cup, aluminum plate, and spoon were kept separate from the regular tableware. My clothes were rags and neighborhood children shouted "restavek" whenever they saw me in the streets. I always felt hurt and deeply embarrassed, because to me the word meant motherless and unwanted. When visitors came and saw me in the yard, I was always asked. "Tigargon [little boy], where is your grownup?" Had I been wearing decent clothes and shoes, the question would have been, "TV monsieur [young gentleman], where is your mother or father?"
Every night in my bedding under the kitchen table, I wished that either I or Florence would never wake up again. I wanted to live in the world of dreams where I sometimes flew like a bird and swam like a fish. But in the dream world I always stopped to relieve myself against a tree, causing me to awake in a puddle of urine.
Returning to the real world was a nightmare in itself-I was always trying to avoid Florence, the woman I called Manman. Every day I wished Florence would die in her sleep-until I made a most frightening discovery. While cleaning the bathroom one early evening, I noticed a small canvas bag tied into a ball under the sink. Curious, I opened it and found several pieces of bloodstained rags. Suddenly my heart raced, and I became convinced that Florence was going to die. I had a strong desire to ask her where the blood came from, but I couldn't. I was allowed to speak to Florence only when she questioned me or when I had to deliver a message from a third party.
The thought of Florence dying was real in my mind. Sometimes I sobbed, asking God to take back my wish for her death. I began to watch Florence closely, staring at every exposed part of her body, trying to find the source of the blood. I spied on her through keyholes whenever she was in the bathroom or in the bedroom.
One hot and muggy afternoon, after she pinched me and pulled me by the skin of my stomach because I had forgotten to clean the kitchen floor, she gave me a small bag of laundry detergent labeled Fab, and a bottle of Clorox bleach. "Go to the bathroom and wash the rags in the bucket," she commanded with rage. I uncovered the metal bucket and saw a pile of white rags soaking in bloody water. I reached in the bucket and scrubbed each piece until the stains began to fade. I vomited in the toilet and continued with my chore.
After a small eternity, Florence opened the door. Fresh air rushed in and I filled my lungs. My ragged shirt was soaked with sweat. I looked up and realized for the first time that Florence was the tallest woman I had ever known. After she inspected the rags, she said, "Now soak them in the bleach. Tomorrow you can rinse them." As I followed her instructions, I stared at her feet, searching again for the source of the blood.
The following day, without being told, I scrubbed the rags again, one by one, and rinsed each piece. As I hung them to dry over the clothesline in the backyard, Florence came out to observe. "After they're dry, fold them and put them in this," she said as she handed me the small white canvas bag. I took it from her, scanning her arms and legs for scars. She had none.
I replied, "Oui" instead of the usual "Oui, Manman." At the end of the day, I followed her instructions and placed the bag on her bed. From then on, every month, Florence handed me the small white canvas bag with laundry detergent and commanded me to wash its contents.
Every day I lived with anxiety, wondering how soon my only guardian would die from bleeding. Since I had to wash the rags in the late evening in the bathroom, I assumed that Florence didn't want anyone to know about the bleeding. I though that it was a secret she wanted me to keep.
As I walked through a neighbor's yard one day, I noticed a small light blue cardboard box with the word Kotex on it in a garbage can. I walked toward the box and stopped. I wanted the box to make a toy car, with Coke bottle caps for wheels and buttons for headlights. While no one was watching, I took the box quickly, put it under my shirt, and fled. I hid it behind a bush at the side of Florence's house, waiting for free time to make a toy. After midday dinner, Florence lay down on her bed for her afternoon nap and called me in to scratch the bottom of her feet. I once heard that this was an activity female slaves used to perform for their mistresses. I despised this routine because I had to kneel at the foot of the bed on the mosaic floor, causing my abscessed right knee to hurt and ooze a foul-smelling liquid. Whenever I fell asleep at her feet, she would kick me in the face and shout, "You're going to scratch my feet until I fall asleep if I have to kick your head off, you extrait caca (essence of shit), you son of a whore." As Florence slept, I quickly left the room, thinking of the Kotex box I had hidden away. Once outside I crouched down and pulled the treasured box from the bush. I noticed several rolls of cloth material inside. I unrolled the first once and discovered a big bloodstain on it. Confused, I dropped it and went back to the neighbor's yard. I watched everyone's exposed skin surreptitiously, hoping to discover the source of the blood. I returned home and disposed of the box.
I sat under the mango tree in the yard with my catechism trying to memorize as much as I could in preparation for my first communion. As I recited passages, I visualized myself wearing long white pants, a white long-sleeved shirt, red bow tie, and shiny black shoes. Entering the church with my classmates, I was at the communion rail, the priest said, "The body of Christ," and I answered, "Amen" as I opened my mouth to receive the Host. I didn't imagine a big dinner reception with a house full of friends and relatives who brought gifts and money for me, but I was certain that I was going to have my first communion because my school-Ecole du Canada- was preparing a group of students for the sacrament. I was probably eight or ten years old at the time.
During classes on Saturday afternoons, everyone was eager to answer questions and display his knowledge of the Bible and catechism. Every class started the same way.
Teacher: What is catechism?
Students: A catechism is a little book from which we learn the Catholic religion.
Teacher: Where is God?
Students: God is in heaven, on earth, and everywhere.
Teacher: Recite the Ten Commandments of God.
Thou shalt not have other gods besides me.
Thou shalt not…
Thou shalt not…
Everyone responded to every question and command in unison and with enthusiasm. At the end of the class, we told each other with gleaming eyes what our parents planned to prepare for dinner the day of the first communion. It seemed that everyone's parents had been fattening either a goat or a turkey. Some talked about their trip to the tailor or the shoemaker. Everyone had a story to tell- even I, but my stories were all made up. During every trip back home, I thought about the First Commandment and wondered why Florence worshipped several other gods immediately after she returned home from church. She must have known about the Ten Commandments, because I read them in her prayer book every time she visited her neighbors.
Saturday evening, the week before confession, the students were very excited, knowing the day of the first communion was getting closer. After class, everyone told stories of how his shoes and clothes were delivered or picked up. At home, I searched Florence's bedroom for new clothes and shoes and found nothing that belonged to me. I wanted to ask Florence if she had purchased the necessary clothes for me, but I could not, since I wasn't allowed to ask her questions. I considered asking her anyway and taking the risk of being slapped. But I couldn't vocalize the words-my fear of her was too intimidating. Thursday afternoon, I searched again in every closet and under the bed and found nothing.
I began to worry. Maybe she forgot, I thought. I placed the catechism on the dining-room table as a reminder to Florence. She placed it on the kitchen table instead. "She remembers," I said to myself with a grin.
Friday afternoon, the evening of confession, a street vendor was heard hawking her goods. "Bobby, call the vendor," yelled Florence. I ran to the sidewalk and summoned the woman vendor, who had coal-black skin and was balancing a huge yellow basket on top of her head. Several chickens with colorful plumage were hung upside down from her left forearm. Once in the yard and under the tree, she bent down and placed the pile of poultry on the ground. Florence's cook assisted her in freeing her head from the heavy load. After several minutes of bargaining, Florence bought two chickens. I felt very happy, thinking that a big dinner was being planned to celebrate my first communion. But deep down inside, a small doubt lingered. Saturday morning, the eve of my first communion, Florence left in a taxi. I had never been so happy. "Manman went to buy clothes for my first communion," I told the cook, smiling, dancing, and singing. She paid no attention to me, but the expression on her face dampened my festive mood. By noon a taxi stopped in front to the house. I ran to see. It was Florence, carrying a big brown paper bag. I danced in my heart as I fought against the urge to hug her, knowing she would slap me away.
She walked in without saying a word. I went inside and fetched her slippers. She changed into another dress and began to supervise the cook, who was preparing dinner. In the early afternoon, after I finished my chores, I approached Florence with a pail of water and a towel and began to wash her feet. She was sitting in her rocking chair, sipping sweet hot black coffee from a saucer. With pounding heart, I spoke, "Confession is at six o'clock and communion is tomorrow at nine o'clock in the morning."
She stared at me for a long moment as she ground her teeth. Her face turned very angry. "You little shithead bedwetter, you little faggot, you shoeshine boy. If you think I'm gonna spend my money on your first communion, you're insane," she shouted. Trembling with fear, I dried her feet, slipped on her slippers, and stood up, holding the pail and towel. I felt as though my feet and legs were too heavy for me to move. I was stunned by her words. "Get out of my face," she yelled. I went into the kitchen and sat quietly in my usual corner without shedding a tear.
"Amelia!" called Florence loudly.
"Out, Madame Cadet," the cook responded.
"You don't need to prepare the chicken for tomorrow; I'm spending the day with my niece. Her son is having his first communion tomorrow," she said.
I went to her bedroom to find out the contents of the bag and saw a pair of shoes she intended to wear to her godson's first communion. I felt crushed, but at the same time resigned myself to believe that only children with real mothers and fathers go to communion, receive presents from Santa Claus, and celebrate their birthdays.
HOMELANDS by Marie-Helene Laforest
My truth, like many truths, is partial. As I set out to tell this story, I suspect the other characters involved would tell it differently. Only on one point would my relatives and I agree: we had not been black before leaving the Caribbean. In a country of dark-skinned people, my lighter skin color and my family's wealth made me white. My white grandfather was a coffee and sisal exporter in a small town to the north of Port-au-Prince. He conducted his business out of his general store, which imported construction materials and basic foodstuffs like flour. He was the honorary consul of Norway. Before the National Bank of Haiti closed for the weekend on Fridays, a large trunk painted green, full of his money, was put onto a dray, held in place with a thick rope, and pushed by a bare-chested man through the Grande Rue to the bank. My grandfather's half-brother had brown skin and green eyes. Perhaps my grandfather had a better knack for business, but I could not help thinking, as a child, that his skin color put him on the Grande Rue whereas his half-brother conducted his business on a back street near the market. My grandmother's brother, too, had his business on the main street. He was light-skinned and his wife was a woman whose veins showed through her white skin. The Europeans, mostly the clergy, and the Canadians, who exploited a copper mine in the area, patronized my grandfather's and his brother-in-law's businesses.
I had not been a "Caribbean" either before leaving Haiti. I knew a few of the other islands by name but had not met anyone from there. My mother and her sister had gone to Cuba for their trousseaus. They spoke of Havana City being like Paris, but they spoke of it in the past tense. It had lost its glamour after Fidel Castro took over. When I was six years old, my mother took me on a trip to Miami to see the Seminoles on their reservation and the dolphins in the Seaquarium. There was a stopover in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I was allowed to stand by the plane door before the Jamaican passengers boarded. Rows and rows of people stood away from the tarmac behind a wire fence, none black, all Chinese. I ran inside to inform my mother we had landed in China. Little did I know that thirty years after this incident I would be taken for a Caribbean person of Chinese ancestry by a group of Jamaicans.
On the island of my birth, my life of privilege was constructed with great conviction. There were many invisible lines marking off paths from which I could not swerve. I remember one October, on the first day of school, dressed in my starched blue uniform, waiting for my father and the oyster man. A huge mango gropo tree grew in our backyard by the pool side, a green-and-white-leaf vine coiled around its trunk. My father sat underneath that tree to have his shoes cleaned by the shoeshine man at his feet. At the same time, the oyster man arrived and cracked open the oysters, which we slurped down with a dash of lemon. My father drove to work. The yardman took me to school on his bicycle. Sometimes we took the hospital road where we passed men carrying sick children on their backs in the bright morning sun. This is the image the word poverty evokes in my mind, a father traveling on foot to a faraway hospital, his sick child on his back.
Walking back from school, I stopped first at my great uncle's store, where he and his wife interrupted their activities to hug and kiss me and give me presents in the form of candies or, if I had received my report card that day, perfumes, jewelry, or pieces of fabric from England or France. Broderie anglaise was my favorite. Then I proceeded to my grandfather's shop. At lunchtime, my grandfather drove me to the two-story house with the balcony skirting the top floor where my grandmother sat on her rocking chair. Lunch was always our favorite food. My grandfather and I both liked food that was considered too ordinary for people with means: tchaka, akra, crabs, fish stew and cornmeal, salted fish and boiled bananas. After lunch, while my grandparents napped, I went down to the ground floor. The back door opened onto the yard where the numerous household workers lived: the cook, the two housemaids with their children, the woman who ironed, the boy who cleaned the yard, the boy who did errands. This was another world, a life of chatter, of blue indigo, thick white com starch, scallions, hot peppers, coffee beans roasting on a wood fire, a world where many things were done at once. The women hulled peas, ironed clothes, sang, plaited hair, reprimanded the children, and laughed. For me it was the place where I could eat with a spoon instead of a fork, even with my hands, a place where I spoke Kreyol instead of French and learned riddles and songs. I preferred staying there to spending time upstairs or at my parents' house, where I had no playmates.
My parents' house stood away from the center of town. Our property was surrounded by almond, mango, and palm trees, a barrier before the vast extension of sugarcane fields. Our closest neighbors were the poor farmers of the area. This was my brothers' realm. My brothers played with the boys their age, climbing trees, carving bows from branches, chasing birds with slingshots, making kites. As a girl I was seldom allowed to play with them. My only playmate and friend was Yanyan, a young restavek girl who lived at my grand- mother's house. She was older than me, old enough to be in charge of me and my cousins when they visited, but young enough to play with us. She came on car rides, Sunday outings to the river; we jumped rope and picked mangoes from trees together. Yanyan and I were always together except when I was called for lunch or dinner. I went upstairs, she stayed downstairs in the yard in the maids' quarters. Church was yet another moment of social separation for Yanyan and me. She went to the four o'clock Sunday Mass, the one the priests said at the cathedral for house servants who started their day's work at six in the morning, grinding or brewing coffee to be brought to their employers' bedside by seven. I went to ten o'clock Mass and sat in the front-row pew, paid for by my family and reserved for us. Yanyan's brother and mother visited my grandmother's yard, most often to eat. If my parents were not there, my grandmother would give me permission to join Yanyan and the maids and their families in the evening. If my parents were present, I had to tiptoe my way down the wooden stairs to the back of the house where everyone sat on low chairs and told riddles and stories. The cook was the best narrator. Her stories were all interspersed with songs. All the tales ended with "someone kicked me and that's how I got here to tell you this story." With me, Yanyan spoke a mixture of Kreyol and French, with the adults, she only spoke Kreyol, fearing their scorn. At the dinner table in my family no one was allowed to speak Kreyol and no child could address an adult in the family in Kreyol. Our command of French reaffirmed our social status.
One day in March 1963 my father, a factory owner, had to leave the island. A few weeks earlier, he had been arrested by Francois Duva-lier's henchmen while we were attending Sunday Mass. My father and his friends would usually stand in the back of the church and step out right after communion. Before the priest pronounced "he Missa est," they would already be chatting on the church steps. We noticed my father's absence when the service was over. It was not clear to me why he was arrested. Was it because he had attended the military academy in his youth? The other four taken to the police station that day were men who were loved by everyone, men who'd had no connections to the military. What my father and those men all had in common was that they were light-skinned Haitians, members of the so-called "elite." The next morning all five were freed. Their arrest was a rehearsal for what would follow-Duvalier's reign of terror.
A few weeks after my father's brief detention, he closed his factory in Port-au-Prince and left for New York. My mother, my brothers and sister, and I were to join him there at the end of the school year. In the months in which we were separated, many of our neighbors' houses were burned down and schools often stayed closed. At the end of June our exile began.
New York held no welcome signs for us. We lived in one of the many peripheral cities within the City, in a world made of Cuban and South American exiles, surrounded by white Americans. We moved into a building in Elmhurst, Queens, where two Haitian families, the very first victims of Duvalier's purge, had settled. They had taken refuge in foreign embassies and then found their way to New York. One of them was my mother's cousin. Through him we were able to rent an apartment in an attractive eight-story building with two elevators. Unlike the wide-open spaces we had left on the island where kites had risen into the infinite sky, the apartment building called for hushed voices and quietness. We did not speak in the hallways or in the elevator. When we encountered our white American neighbors, they could not help but stare at us. Their silence was ominous like their stares. I did not associate this with racism until much later. Our very presence, it seemed, disturbed the world they had created for themselves. To them we had no right to these surroundings, to settle on their street. From one day to the next they were all gone, as if they had boarded the same ship. The clean-shaven superintendent-thanks to whom the fountain surrounded with ferns in the lobby hissed all day-left in their wake. The new super wore dirty, sleeveless undershirts and spoke unintelligible English. He did not clean the lobby; the fountain stopped spouting water.
While my brothers, sister, and I were forced to gain quick familiarity with things American, our parents remained suspended between New York and Haiti, the past and the present. Puzzled by events such as semiformals and proms, inviting boys to dance, and wearing corsages on wrists, I received no help at home. I remember writing notes to my teachers and my brothers' teachers for my mother to sign. I became her substitute, speaking to the teachers, buying my younger siblings school uniforms. In the daytime the male adults in our little group were dispersed throughout the city, each busy with his own survival. They traveled huge distances in subway cars while the women, still refusing to eat off of paper plates or bring food home in Styrofoam containers, wept for the loss of home. My mother became a housewife, which meant doing the work the numerous household help had done for her in Haiti. There was very little talking within our apartment walls, as if each one of us was pondering alone on his or her lot in the new spaces we'd come to inhabit. Communication with home was costly and difficult. No direct phone lines to Haiti. No traveling back and forth. We lived with the desire to return.
Six years into our exile, our former house help, who had since migrated, came to visit us. Their fur stoles and fashionable hairstyles indicated that they were making a nice living for themselves. Unlike those of us who were waiting for the Duvalier reign to end in order to go home, they had no intention of returning, no desire to give up material well-being and the advance in social status that they had acquired here. We hugged them, exchanged a few pleasantries, talked about their families and ours, about former neighbors. I wondered about Yanyan. I'd heard that she had gotten pregnant and was living with her mother in a shack not far from the wharf in our hometown. She was among the ones who would never make it to New York.
When our visitors left, my family considered the oddness of it all, the apparent leveling that American society offered, seeing us all as equally black.
There was a club in Port-au-Prince-it probably still exists today- in which the members' skin tone went from white to brown to dark brown. Those of pure African ancestry and those who could not afford the high yearly fees could not belong. It was a place in which people did not need to be introduced to each other, where people were known by their family names. While the children would sit by the pool and order sandwiches, Cokes, and ice cream, their parents would play bridge or tennis. The club's name was Bellevue. My cousins and I spent many Saturday afternoons by the Bellevue pool, which was larger and had a higher diving board than the ones we had in our homes. There and elsewhere children like me were trained to accept our privileged status, to see ourselves as separate from the rest of the population, as if we came from a superior breed. There and elsewhere we learned the nuances in glances which indicate degrees of familiarity or lack of acknowledgment.
I was never aware of the fact that I don't look at people who are considered social inferiors to me in the eyes, until my Italian husband recently pointed it out to me in our home in Naples. It was then that I realized that whiteness was rarely mentioned in my family, blackness often. Dark-skinned people who frequented our homes were hand-picked: my grandfather's best friend whom he saw every day; my mother's school friend and my grandmother's old neighbor who came and went as they pleased. There were others, too, but they had been singled out. In our family, wholesale acceptance of blackness was unthinkable. My mother had an obsession with her lower lip and consequently with mine, reminding me all the time to pull it in, something I found impossible to do. When my hair was loose she called it a papousserie, a French term deriving from their descriptions of the people of Papua.
One day in July 1969-I had taken a summer job in a department store on Queens Boulevard-an African-American girl asked me if any "brothers" had been hired. Brothers? I wondered. I did not know what she meant. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. A revolution had started in the American world of which I was not yet aware. The black nation had been re-founded and I was part of it. African America was taking me into its fold and I willingly let it embrace me.
My new family would include all peoples of African heritage. Exile had made me black. Still, I cannot deny the influence of my later migrations, first to Puerto Rico, then to Italy. I cannot disown my grandmother's French songs and the French classics-Corneille, Racine-which some family members recited by rote. I cannot ignore the influence of my current life in Italy, my Italian husband, my Italian son. I speak five languages, I can guess meanings in several others I have not studied. As I did in my childhood between my grandmother's family room and her backyard, I straddle many borders, physical and otherwise. In recent years I have been to Grenada, Antigua, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, coming always closer to the island of my birth, but never actually going back to it, never making the final journey, the dream of our years of exile. Between languages and borders, identities and colors, however, I have grieved for this. I am still grieving for it.
BONNE ANNEE by Jean-Pierre Benoit
It is the 1960s, a cold New Year's day in New York. The men are huddled but it is not for warmth; if anything, the Queens apartment is overheated. Important matters are to be discussed. The women are off to the side, where they will not interfere. The location of the children is unimportant; they are ignored. I am in the last category, ignored but overhearing. French, English, and Kreyol commingle. French, I understand. My English is indistinguishable from that of an American child. Kreyol, the language of my birthplace, is a mystery. Kreyol predominates, but enough is said in French and English for me to follow. He is leaving. Any day. Father Doctor. Papa Doc. Apparently he is the reason we are in New York, not Port-au-Prince. And now he is leaving. And this will make all the difference. My father is clear. We are returning to Haiti. As soon as this man leaves. No need to await the end of the school year, although my schooling is otherwise so important.
I have no memory of Haiti. No memory of my crib in Port-au-Prince, no memory of the neighbors' children or the house in which we lived. My friends are in New York. My teachers are in New York. The Mets are in New York. I do not know Papa Doc, but our destinies are linked. If he leaves, I leave. I do not want him to leave.
Another January first, another gathering. If it is the beginning of a new year, that is at best incidental. January first is the celebration of Haitian independence. A glorious day in world history, even if someone seems to have forgotten to tell the rest of the world. But it is not bygone glory that is of the moment. A new independence is dawning. It is more than just a rumor this time. Someone has inside information. It is a matter of months, weeks, maybe days, before Duvalier falls. I am one year older now, and I understand who Duvalier is. An evil man. A thief and a murderer. A monster who holds a nation prisoner. A man who tried to have my father killed. A man who will soon get his justice. My father is adamant, Duvalier's days are numbered. And then we will return. Do I want to leave? I am old enough to realize that the question is unimportant.
Go he must, but somehow he persists. A new year and he is still in power. But not for long. This time it is true. The signs are unmistakable, the gods have finally awoken. Or have they? After so many years, the debates intensify. Voices raised in excitement, in agitation, in Haitian cadences. Inevitably, hope triumphs over history. Or ancient history triumphs over recent history. Perhaps there will be a coup, Haitian exiles landing on the shores with plans and weapons, a well-timed assassination.
We are not meant to be in this country. We did not want to come. We were forced to flee or die. Americans perceive desperate brown masses swarming at their golden shores, wildly inventing claims of persecution for the opportunity to flourish in this prosperous land. The view from beneath the bridge is somewhat different: reluctant refugees with an aching love of their forsaken homeland, of a homeland that has forsaken them, refugees who desire nothing more than to be home again.
Then there are the children. Despite having been raised in the United States, I have no special love for this country. Despite the searing example of my elders, I am not even sure what it means to love a country. Clearly, it is not the government that one is to love.
Is it then the land, the dirt and the grass, the rocks and the hills? The people? Are one people any better than another? I have no special love for this country, but neither do I desire a return to a birthplace that will, in fact, be no real return at all. If nothing else, the United States is the country that I know, English is my daily language. Another New Year, but I am not worried; we will not be back in Port-au-Prince anytime soon. With their crooked ruler the adults can no longer draw a straight line, but I can still connect the dots and see that they lead nowhere.
The Haitian sun has made the cross-Atlantic journey to shine on her dispossessed children. This time it is not just wispy speculation, something has changed. It is spring 1971 and there is death to celebrate. The revolutionaries have not landed on the coast, the assassin's poison has not found its blood. Nonetheless, Duvalier is dead. Unnaturally, he has died of natural causes. Only his laughable son remains. Bebe Doc, Jean-Claude Duvalier. Everyone agrees that Bebe Doc will not be in power long enough to have his diapers changed.
Laughable Bebe Doc may be, but it turns out to be a long joke, and a cruel one. The father lasted fourteen years, the son will last fifteen. Twenty-nine years is a brief time in the life of a country, but a long time in the life of its people. Twenty-nine years is a very long time in the life of an exile waiting to go home.
Three years into Bebe Doc's terrible reign there is news of a different sort. For the first time, Haiti has qualified for the World Cup. The inaugural game is against eternal powerhouse Italy. In 1974 there are not yet any soccer moms, there is no ESPN all-sports network. Americans do not know anything of soccer, and this World Cup match will not be televised. Yet America remains a land of immigrants. For an admission fee, the game will be shown at Madison Square Garden on four huge screens suspended in a boxlike arrangement high above the basketball floor. I go with my younger brother. In goal, Italy has the legendary Dino Zoff. Together they have not been scored upon in two years. The poor Haitians have no hope. And yet, Haitians hope even when there is no hope. The trisyllable cry of "HA-I-TI" fills the air. It meets a response, "I-TA-LIA," twice as loud but destined to be replaced by an even louder HA-I-TI, followed by IT-A-LIA and again HA-I-TI in a spiraling crescendo. The game has not even started.
My brother and I join in the cheer; every time Haiti touches the ball is cause for excitement. The first half ends scoreless. The Italian fans are nervous, but the Haitian fans are feeling buoyed. After all, Haiti could hardly be expected to score a goal, not when the Germans and the English and the Brazilians before them have failed to penetrate the Italian defense. At the same time, the unheralded Haitian defenders have held. The second half begins. Less than a minute has gone by and Emanuel Sanon, the left-winger for Haiti, has the ball. Less than twenty-four hours earlier he had foolhardily predicted that he will score. Zoff is fully aware of him. Sanon shoots. There is a split second of silence and then madness. The ball is in the back of the net, Sanon has beaten Zoff. The Italians are in shock. The world is in shock. Haiti leads 1-0.
"HA-I-TI, HA-I-TI." Half of Madison Square Garden is delirious, half is uncomprehending. The Haitians are beating the Italians. Haiti is winning. Haiti is winning. For six minutes. Then the Italians come back to tie the score, 1-1. The Italians score again. And then again. The Haitians cannot respond. Italy wins 3-1.
Still. Still, for six minutes Haiti is doing the impossible, Haiti is beating Italy. Italy, which twice has won the World Cup. Six minutes. Perhaps the natal pull is stronger than it seems. For that one goal, that brief lead, those six minutes, mean more to me than all the victories of my favorite baseball team.
February 7, 1986, amid massive protests in Haiti, Jean-Claude flees the country. There is a blizzard in New York, but this does not prevent jubilant Haitians from taking to the snowy streets, waving flags, honking horns, pouring champagne. Restaurants in Brooklyn serve up free food and drink. The Duvalier regime has finally come to an end. The New Year's prediction has finally come true. If he leaves, I leave. In July, I fulfill my destiny, more or less. I return to Haiti, on an American passport, for a two-week visit.
In October the Mets win their second World Series. The city celebrates with a tickertape parade attended by over two million people. A pale celebration indeed, compared to the celebrating that took place earlier in the year.
HAITI: A MEMORY JOURNEY by Assotto Saint
Early Friday morning, February 7, 1986, drinking champagne and watching televised reports of Haitian President-for-Life Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fleeing for his life aboard a U.S. Air Force plane, I can't help but reminisce about my childhood experiences, and reflect on the current political and social situation, along with my expectations as a gay man who was born and grew up there.
Having seen, so many times during the AIDS crisis, Haitian doctors and community leaders deny the existence of homosexuality in Haiti; having heard constantly that the first afflicted male cases in Haiti were not homosexual, but alas, poor hustlers who were used by visiting homosexual American tourists who infected them and thus introduced the disease into the country; having felt outrage at the many excuses, lies, denials, and apologies-I am duty-bound to come out and speak up for the thousands of Haitians like me, gay and not hustlers, who for one reason or another, struggle with silence and anonymity yet don't view themselves as victims. Self-pity simply isn't part of my vocabulary. Haunted by the future, I'm desperate to bear witness and settle accounts. These are trying times. These are times of need.
For years now, Haiti has not been a home but a cause to me. Many of my passions are still there. Although I did my best to distance myself from the homophobic Haitian community in New York, to bury painful emotions in my accumulated memories of childhood, I was politically concerned and committed to the fight for change in my native land. It's not surprising that the three hardest yet most exhilarating decisions I have faced had to do with balancing my Haitian roots and gay lifestyle. The first was leaving Haiti to live in the United States. The second was going back to meet my father for the first time. The third, tearing up my application to become a U.S. citizen. Anytime one tries to take fragments of one's personal mythology and make them understandable to the whole world, one reaches back to the past. It must be dreamed again.
I was born on October 2, 1957, one week after Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier was elected president. He had been a brilliant doctor and a writer of great verve from the Griots (negritude) movement. Until that time, the accepted images of beauty in Haiti, the images of "civilization," tended to be European. Fair skin and straight hair were better than dark and kinky. Duvalier was black pride. Unlike previous dictators who had ruled the country continuously since its independence from the French in 1804, Duvalier was not mulatto, and he did not surround himself with mulattoes, a mixed-race group that controlled the economy. Duvalier brought Vodou to the forefront of our culture and, later in his reign, used it to tyrannize the people.
I grew up in Les Cayes, a sleepy port city of twenty thousand in southwest Haiti, where nothing much happened. Straight A's, ran like a girl, cute powdered face, silky eyebrows-I was the kind of child folks saw and thought quick something didn't click. I knew very early on that I was "different," and I was often reminded of that fact by my schoolmates. "Masisi" (faggot), they'd tease me. That word to this day sends shivers down my spine but, being the town's best-behaved child, a smile, a kind word were my winning numbers.
We-my mother (a registered nurse anesthetist), grandfather (a lawyer who held, at one time or another, each of the town's top official posts, from mayor on down), grandmother, and I-lived in a big beautiful house facing the cathedral. The Catholic Mass, especially High Mass on Sundays and holy days, with its colorful pageantry, trance-inducing liturgy, and theatrical ceremony, spellbound me. And that incense-that incense took me heaven-high each time. I was addicted and I attended Mass every day. Besides, I had other reasons. I had developed a mad crush on the parish priest, a handsome Belgian who sang like a bird.
I must have been seven when I realized my attraction to men. Right before first communion, confused and not making sense, I confessed to this priest. Whether he understood me or not, he gave me absolution and told me to say a dozen Hail Marys. Oh Lord, did I pray. Still girls did nothing for me. Most of my classmates had girlfriends to whom they sent passionate love poems and sugar candies, and whom they took to movies on Sunday afternoons. All I wanted to do with girls was skip rope, put makeup on their faces, and comb their hair. I was peculiar.
Knowing that I probably would never marry, I decided that I wanted to be a priest when I grew up. For one, priests are celibate, and I had noticed that they were effeminate. Some even lisped, like me. I built a little altar in my bedroom with some saints' icons, plastic lilies, and colored candles and dressed in my mother's nursing uniform and petticoat. I said Mass every night. The archbishop of Haiti, Francois W. Ligonde, a childhood friend of my mother and uncles, even blessed my little church when he once visited my family. I was so proud. Everybody felt that I'd be the perfect priest, except my mother, who I later found out wanted me to become a doctor like my father-who I never met, never saw pictures of, never heard mention of, and accepted as a nonentity in my life.
I used to believe that I was born by immaculate conception, until one day I was ridiculed in school by my science teacher, who had asked me for my father's name. When I told him of my belief, he laughed and got the entire class to laugh along. Until then I had never questioned the fact that my last name was the same as that of my mother, who was not married. It was then that I smelled foul play and suspected that I was the result of sexual relations between my mother and grandfather. I didn't dare ask.
In the early 1960s, Papa Doc declared himself President-for-Life and things got worse and worse. I remember hearing of anti-Duvalier suspects being arrested. I remember hearing of families being rounded up and even babies being killed. I remember the mysterious disappearances at night, the mutilated corpses being found by roads and rivers the next day. I remember the public slayings, adults whispering and sending my cousins and me to another room so they could talk. Rumors of invasions by exiled Haitians abounded. Some of these invasions were quickly stopped by government forces. The tonton macoutes (bogeymen) were everywhere, with their rifles slung over their shoulders and their eyes of madness and cruelty.
Poverty was all around me and, in my child-mind, I had accepted this. Some had, some had not. Fate. Cyclones, hurricanes, floods came and went. Carnival was always a happy time, though. Dressed in a costume, I, along with thousands, took to the streets each year with our favorite music bands. Grandmother died during Mardi Gras '65. I was miserable for weeks and kept a daily journal to her. Soon after, mother left for Switzerland and I moved in with my aunt Marcelle and her husband.
In 1968, my aunt had her first and only child. Was I jealous! I had been quite comfortable and so spoiled for three yean that when she gave birth to Alin, it was difficult for me to accept that I was not her real child, a fact I had, at times, forgotten. That year she gave me a beautiful birthday party. My schoolmates were making fun of me more than ever. I still wanted to be a priest. I said a Mass for Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy when each was assassinated. Duvalier declared himself the flag of the nation and became more ruthless. I took long walks on the beach by myself. It was a year of discovery.
One afternoon, I saw Pierre swimming alone. He called me to join him. I was surprised. Although we went to the same school and we had spoken to each other once or twice, we were not buddies. Three or four years older, tall and muscular, Pierre was a member of the volleyball team and must have had two or three girlfriends. I didn't have a swimsuit, so I swam naked. I remember the uneasiness each time our eyes met, the tension between us, my hard-on. We kept smelling each other out. He grabbed me by the waist. I felt his dick pressing against my belly. Taut smiles. I held it in my hand and it quivered. I had never touched another boy's dick before. I asked him if he had done this with other boys. He said only with girls. Waves.
He turned me around and pushed his dick in my ass. Shock. I remember the pain. Hours later, the elation I felt, knowing that another person who was like me existed. In Les Cayes, there had been rumors about three or four men who supposedly were homosexual, but they were all married. Some had no fewer than seven children. Knowing Pierre was a turning point for me. The loneliness of thinking that I was the only one with homosexual tendencies subsided.
In 1969, man walked on the moon. I was happy. Pierre and I met each other three or four times (once in my grandfather's study, and he almost caught us). I didn't say anything about this to anyone, not even at confession. I didn't pray as much. I passed my certificat, which is like graduation from junior high school in the U.S. Mother moved from Geneva to New York City, where I visited her in the summer of 1970. To me, New York was the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, hot dogs and hamburgers, white people everywhere, museums, rock music, twenty-four-hour television, stores, stores, and subways.
I remember the day I decided to stay in the U.S. A week before I was to go back to Haiti, my mother and I were taking a trip to Coney Island. Two effeminate guys in outrageous short shorts and high heels walked onto the train and sat in front of us. Noticing that I kept looking at them, my mother said to me that this was the way it was here. People could say and do whatever they wanted; a few weeks earlier thousands of homosexuals had marched for their rights.
Thousands! I was stunned. I kept thinking what it would be like to meet some of them. I kept fantasizing that there was a homosexual world out there I knew nothing of. I remember looking up in amazement as we walked beneath the elevated train, then telling mother I didn't want to go back to Haiti. She warned me of snow, muggers, homesickness, racism, alien cards, and that I would have to learn to speak English. She warned me that our lives wouldn't be a vacation. She would have to go back to work as a night nurse in a week, and I'd have to assume many responsibilities. After all, she was a single mother.
That week, I asked her about my father and found out that they had been engaged for four years while she was in nursing school and he in medical school. She got pregnant and he wanted her to abort. A baby would have been a burden so early in their careers, especially since they planned to move to New York after they got married. Mother wouldn't abort. She couldn't. Though the two families tried to avoid a scandal and patch things up, accusations were made, and feelings hurt. Each one's decision final, they became enemies for life.
BLACK CROWS AND ZOMBIE GIRLS by Barbara Sanon
Gendarme Janeau, the officer at the Casernes de Jeremie-the local military jail house-had been summoned by the neighbors to come save our house from evil. All was quiet, for his two prisoners had been fed their daily dose of cornmeal and beans, so Janeau ran, baton and rifle in hand, to our gate. And there it was, a large black crow circling over our roof. I held on tightly to my mother's skirt to see if it would shield me until some miracle put an end to the bird's targeted prowling. Unable to find another solution, Gendarme Janeau fired into the air. The sound lingered for minutes while I hid myself behind my mother as she screamed.
The black crow bled to death in front of the large oak tree where I often played with my sisters. Gendarme Janeau, still wallowing in his triumph, convinced my mother that the crow was indeed a lustful evil spirit.
"Keep a watch out for it," he told my mother. "If it is restless, it might return. It does not get enough pleasure at night so it comes in the heat when the sun shines brightest to continue its seduction."
My mother, alone in a house with five children and a husband in New York, trembled as she took my hand and led me inside the house. For years, the townspeople would recount the tale of the black bird and Gendarme Janeau's ability to shoot anything that looked him in the eye too directly.
Janeau became the town hero and secretly my terror. That night, I dreamt of the gendarme again killing the black crow. I dreamt of his large hands around the black crow's neck as it screeched. In the dream, I draped my mother's skirt to cover the bird's blood on the ground, but the blood seeped through the cloth and Janeau, watching, smirked, amused by my naivete.
The next day, I cringed as I rushed past the Casernes on my way to school, fearing that I would have to stand still, frozen in place, during the Casernes' 8:30 a.m. salute when Gendarme Janeau raised the black-and-red Duvalierist flag that he would kill for.
Every night after that, I saw the shadow of Janeau's hand moving above my head. Somewhere, through the window in the distance, a light would flicker on and off and I would think that it was him reminding me that even in my house, in my own bed, I could not escape him. He became the bogeyman and I was his prisoner. My sister would tell me to close my eyes under the covers in order to prevent him from seeing me.
"Let the bad spirits pass by on their way and not look at us," she would say. "For any contact with them will make us their victims forever." My mother could not help us for she, too, was afraid. So we lay quietly in the dark, waiting for the evil to pass.
A few years later, in my mother's bedroom in New York, I would see the bogeyman again. Like the lustful crow, he, too, appeared in the daytime in the form of my mother's boyfriend-the man who was supposed to replace my father. This man, my mother's boyfriend, wrapped his familiar arms around my frail ten-year-old body, drawing me with his warm smile toward his lap. How paternal he seemed, pretending that he was offering me a warm place to sit-a warm place to be a child. In that moment, as he fondled my body, I decided that I was dead. My body was as ice cold as all the dead relatives' foreheads we children were made to kiss at family wakes. I heard voices but they could not hear me, for I was choking on the dirt my mother's boyfriend threw on my corpse as his nails kept on digging, digging-restless-until he reached my skeleton.
I was dead but no one realized it. People were too busy reviving the favorite Haitian pastime called political discussion. The ousting of Duvalier and the stories surrounding the event inevitably found their way into all community functions, baptisms, communions, weddings, and funerals.
Maybe one day, I thought, there would be stories also told about me, the girl who was attacked by the bogeyman in her own mother's bedroom in broad daylight. There was no room for my own horrors in the midst of the political tales though. Mine was a story that could only be told through silences too horrific to disturb.
When family and friends assembled for gatherings, there was always a little girl there that I would recognize, a girl who would have her head down, her eyes lowered a certain way. I could always experience with her the pain of her bruised genitals hidden under immaculate petticoats that pressed her into her girlhood and kept her there so she would shut up. She was always so quiet, that girl, so confused, so egare, that people would joke that she was a zombie. A zombie, who in the midst of the endless political discussions on right and wrong was not allowed to disclose the bad things she swallowed.
In the mythical world, a zombie is someone who is buried alive while comatose and is then revived to serve others in whatever way they want, without questioning. A zombie is someone who has lost her soul, her will, her good angel, someone who can only regain her true self once she's been given a taste of salt. But outside this mythical world, zombies howled for their salt. Whether it was the political prisoners, the protagonists of all the political fables recounted, or the little girls whose secrets I knew too well, all these zombies were howling for their life back. Some of the political prisoners were finally beginning to be heard because of the pressure from a tenacious mass. The little girls I knew, however, were dumped deeper in their coffins by adults who were supposed to have been safeguarding them.
For the girl down the street, whose school principal demanded that she be taken away from her home for a reason none of us wanted to talk about, there was no salt. The principal said she was raped by her stepfather. But there was no mythical element to that story, nothing like the black crow spirit who had come to our house.
At least with Duvalier, we could pinpoint his kind of evil, for he smirked at the howling of the corpses under his feet. But this raped girl? Why did she need to be conquered? Why was she made a zombie? And the other girl I knew, who actually had a child by her uncle, why her? Why even talk about them, these zombie girls? Their tales were not mythical enough. Their zombification was harder to explain.
And me, without even a clear narrative, without a scar as obvious as those of the other girls, or of the political victims who could point to their burnt flesh or bullet wounds, what to make of my story? A man who had vowed to my mother and our family that he would protect us from the abandonment of my natural father, chose instead to impose his need for power on me. So, I became possessed by my fright and my shame. I had become the zombie at the dinner table, at the baptisms, the wedding receptions, the funerals. I had become the girl who sat quietly with her head lowered, her eyes on the ground, and her silence intact.
I was not alone though. We had a collective, we zombies. We began to know each other. At parties, in school, in our nightmares, we dreamt of saving each other. In some cases, this zombie state was even inherited. We were children of zombie women, a matriarchal line of silence. Whether it was 1957 or 1987, our situation had not changed. Our zombie dance began with a first outing, our first lace dress for church, our first communion, our first dance. It started with the immaculate way the white talcum powder around a girl's neck suppressed the heat and ended with a dress torn and soiled with a patch of blood. It ended with our mothers chanting softly, hoping a kinder, less lustful spirit would save us both. It ended with our mothers' careful sewing of undergarments and secretly scrubbing blood off panties long before we ever reached puberty. It ended with our mothers washing, bleaching, even boiling our panties in order to make their husbands, their cousins, their lovers, their town judges, their military officers, seem clean.
Did the zombie mothers fight? Indeed they did. They wrapped their hands around their bodies, and tightened their stomachs with layers of cloth in order to press the pain inside. They stuck wire hangers inside their young daughters and scraped the evil out. They fought with their heads lowered, their eyes fixed on the ground, using as weapons plaited hair, bright satin ribbons, dresses layered in taffeta and lace.
Our nightmares became our zombie calls. We told ourselves tales of little girls who were taken by evil spirits and never seen again until they returned as skeletons, walking, tiptoeing, dancing with their families' lies. "Aba Duvalier!" they shouted even as the cries of so many little girls went unheard at night.
Now I know why I dreamt of covering the dead crow with my mother's dress after it died. Now I know why even my mother's large beautiful skirt could not contain the blood. Now I know why Gendarme Janeau could smirk and force me to hide. He knew then what I didn't know. There was no place to hide.
So now in my dreams, the dead crow killed by Gendarme Janeau resurrects itself over and over again as all spirits do. Roaming endlessly, it will not die, but will try to settle near yet another black oak, seeking peace.
ANOTHER ODE TO SALT by Danielle Legros Georges
We navigate snow not ours
but grown used to, one cold foot
over another, adopt accoutrements:
a red scarf, wind-wrapped and tight,
boots, their soles teethed like sharks,
shackling our ebon ankles, the weight
of wool coats borrowed
from our ancestors, the Gauls.*
Masters at this now,
we circumvent ice
as we do time, reach home.
The salt you bend to cast
parts the snow around us.
I bend and think
of a primary sea,
harbors of danger and history,
passing through the middle
in boats a-sail in furious storms,
of mysteres, renamed,
submerged and sure,
riding dark waves,
floating long waves
to the other side of the water,
and the other side
and the next.
*Our ancestors, the Gauls (nos ancitres, les Gaulois)-a phrase from a French children's history text used widely, until recently, in Francophone primary schools.
AMERICA, WE ARE HERE by Dany Laferriere
I was trying to write a book and survive in America at the same time. (I'll never figure out how that ambition wormed its way into me.) One of those two pursuits had to go. Time to choose, man. But a problem arose: I wanted everything. That's the way drowning men are. I wanted a novel, girls (fascinating girls, the products of modernity, weight-loss diets, the mad longings of older men), alcohol, and laughter. My due-that's all. That's what America had promised me. I know America has made a lot of promises to a large number of people, but I was intent on making her keep her word. I was furious at her, and I don't like to be double-crossed. At the time, I'm sure you'll remember, at the beginning of the 1980s (so long ago!), the bars in any North American city were chock-full of confused, aging hippies-empty-eyed Africans who always had a drum within easy striking distance-the type never changes, no matter the location or the decade-Caribbeans in search of their identity, starving white poetesses who lived off alfalfa sprouts and Hindu mythology, aggressive young black girls who knew they didn't stand a chance in this insane game of roulette because the black men were only into white women, and the white guys into money and power. Late in the evening, I wandered through these lunar landscapes where sensations had long since replaced sentiment. I took notes. I scribbled away in the washrooms of crummy bars. I carried on endless conversations until dawn with starving intellectuals, out-of-work actresses, philosophers without influence, tubercular poetesses, the bottomest of the bottom dogs. I jumped into that pool once in a while and found myself in a strange bed with a girl I didn't remember having courted (I left the bar last night with the black-haired girl, I'm sure I did, so what's this bottle-blonde with the green fingernails doing here?) But I never took drugs. God had given me the gift of loud, powerful, happy contagious laughter, a child's laugh that drove girls wild. They wanted to laugh so badly, and there wasn't much to laugh about back then. When I immigrated to North America, I made sure I brought that laughter in my battered metal suitcase, an ancestral legacy. We always laughed a lot around my house. My grandfather's deep laughter would shake the walls. I laughed, I drank wine, I made love with the energy of a child who's been locked inside a candy shop, and I wrote it all down. As soon as the girl scampered off to the bathroom, I would start scribbling down notes. The edge of the bed or the corner of a table was my desk. I'd note down a good line, a sensual walk, a pained smile, all the details of life. Everything fascinated me. I wrote down everything that moved, and things never stopped moving, believe me. All around me, the world (the girl, the dress on the floor, my underwear lost in the sheets, that long naked back moving toward the stereo, then Bob Marley's music), the elements of my universe turned at top speed. How could words halt the flight of time, girls wheeling away, desire burning anew? Often I would fall asleep with my head against my old Remington, asking myself those unanswerable questions. Am I the troubadour of low-rent America, always on the edge of an overdose, up against the walls, handcuffs slapped on, with two cops breathing down my neck? America discounting her life, counting her pennies, the America of immigrants, blacks, and poor white girls who've lost their way? America of empty eyes and pallid dawn. In the end, I wrote that damned novel, and America was forced, as least as far as I was concerned, to come through on a few of her promises. I know she gives more to some than they need; with others, she swipes the hunk of stale bread from their clenched fists. But I made her pay at least a third of her debt. I'm naive, I know, I can see the audience smiling, but my mental system needs to believe in this victory, as tiny as it may be. A third of a victory. For others, not a penny of the debt has been paid. America owes an enormous amount to third world youth. I'm not just talking about historical debt (slavery, the rape of natural resources, the balance of payments, etc.), there's a sexual debt, too. Everything we've been promised by magazines, posters, the movies, television. America is a happy hunting ground, that's what gets beaten into our heads every day, come and stalk the most delicious morsels (young American beauties with long legs, pink mouths, superior smiles), come and pick the wild fruit of this new Promised Land. For you, young men of the third world, America will be a doe quivering under the buckshot of your caresses. The call went around the world, and we heard it, even the blue men of the desert heard it. Remember the global village? They've got American TV in the middle of the Sahara. Westward, ho! It was a new gold rush. And when each new arrival showed up, he was told, "Sorry, the party's over." I can still picture the sad smile of a Bedouin, old in years but still vigorous (remember, brother, those horny old goats from the Old Testament), who had sold his camel to attend the party. I met up with all of them in a tiny bar on Park Avenue. While you're waiting for the next fiesta, the Manpower counselor told us, you have to work. There's work for everyone in America (the old carrot and stick, brother). We've got you coming and going. What? Work? Our Bedouin didn't come here to work. He crossed the desert and sailed the seas because he'd been told that in America the girls were free and easy. Oh, no, you didn't quite understand! What didn't we understand from that showy sexuality, that profusion of naked bodies, that total disclosure, that Hollywood heat? You should know we have some very sophisticated devices in the desert; we can tune in America. The resolution is exceptional, and there's no interference in the Sahara. In the evening, we gather in our tents lit by the cathode screen and watch you. Watching how you do what you do is a great pleasure for us. Some pretty girl is always laughing on a beach somewhere. The next minute, a big blond guy shows up and jumps her. She slips between his fingers, and he chases her into the surf. She fights, but he holds her tight and both of them sink to the bottom. Every evening it's the same menu, with slight variations. The sea is bluer, the girls blonder, the guys more muscled. All our dreams revolve around this life of ease. That's what we want: the easy life. Those breasts and asses and teeth and laughter-after a while, it started affecting our libido. What could be more natural? And now, here we are in America, and you dare tell us that we didn't understand? Understand what? I ask the question again. What were we supposed to have understood? You made us mad with desire. Today, we stand before you, a long chain of men (in our country, adventure is the realm of men), penises erect, appetites insatiable, ready for the battle of the sexes and the races. We'll fight to the finish, America.
A CAGE OF WORDS by Joel Dreyfuss
I call it "the Phrase" and it comes up almost anytime Haiti is mentioned in the news: the Poorest Nation in the Western Hemisphere. These seven words represent a classic example of something absolutely true and absolutely meaningless at the same time.
On a recent trip to Haiti, I asked a young journalist working for an international news organization why the Phrase always appeared in her stories. "Even when I don't put it in," she confided, "the editors add it to the story."
The Phrase is a box, a metaphorical prison. If Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, that fact is supposed to place everything in context. Why we have such suicidal politics. Why we have such selfish politicians. Why we suffer so much misery. Why our people brave death on the high seas to wash up on the shores of Florida. After all, in this age where an advocacy of free markets is a substitute for foreign policy and Internet billionaires are created by the minute, being poor automatically makes you suspect. You must have some moral failing, some fatal flaw, some cultural blindness to not be prosperous. And what applies to the individual also applies to entire countries.
In my parents' generation, more than a few middle-class Haitians tried to deny that poverty back home was so prevalent. When I heard older Haitians stammer and object to the characterization, I wondered if they were trying to put Haiti's best foot forward, or just trying to convince themselves. Of course, the poverty was not always as obvious as it is now, having moved from the countryside into Port-au-Prince so that it spills into the main thoroughfares and the fashionable neighborhoods. Too many of us Dyasporas, having the advantage of distance to confront the truths of Haiti, would not even consider denying the desperate state of our poor brethren.
But the Phrase still grates with us because it also denies so much else about Haiti: our art, our music, our rich Afro-Euro-American culture. It denies the humanity of Haitians, the capacity to survive, to overcome, even to triumph over this poverty, a historical experience we share with so many other in this same Western Hemisphere. The Second American Invasion cast a harsh media spotlight on Haiti. The first black republic got more attention from the powerful news organizations of the West than it ever had in its history. But that scrutiny was ultimately disappointing. We learned once again that coverage is not the same as understanding. The Phrase became an easy out for reporters confronting the complexities they could barely begin to plumb. What a difference it would have been if American, or French, or British journalists had looked through the camera at their audience and declared, "Yes, this is a poor country, but like Ireland or Portugal, it has also produced great art. Yes, this poor country has suffered brutal government and yet, like Russia or Brazil, it has produced great writers and scholars. Yes, many of Haiti's most downtrodden, like the Jews in America or the Palestinians in the Middle East, have fled and achieved more success in exile than they ever would at home." Such statements would have linked Haiti to the rest of the world. They would have made it seem less mysterious, less unsolvable, less exotic. But then, that really wasn't the purpose of most reporting about Haiti over the last few years. Keeping the veil over the island was easier than trying to understand factions and divisions and mistrust and history. And it gave America an out if the intervention failed. So foreign journalists fell back on the Phrase. It was shorthand. It was neat. And it told the world nothing about Haiti that it didn't already know.
THE RED DRESS by Patricia Benoit
1982. TV. The nightly news. Bodies on the beach, faces behind barbed wire. Any one of them could be related to me. Rudolph Giuliani, then assistant attorney general of the United States, now New York City mayor, finger wagging: we have no problem with refugees as long as they come by the proper channels: (Rude refugees. Bad refugees. Ca ne se fait pas, it's just not done to come by boat and die on U.S. beaches). These refugees are economic, not political. There are no human-rights abuses in Haiti.
I want to break the television.
What about the women, men, and children who died fighting for freedom? What about my father, imprisoned then released and lucky enough to escape before the macoutes came for him again and lucky enough to get asylum and bring us out by the proper channels twenty years ago? I get tired of yelling and decide to do something.
The United States government transforms an abandoned building into a detention center in Brooklyn's former Navy Yard. After much political wrangling, a group of activist priests, themselves exiled by the Duvalier dictatorship, are finally allowed to organize English classes in the center.
I start teaching in one of those January winters so hard on island people. It is an out-of-the-way place, a group of abandoned industrial buildings not far from the Brooklyn Bridge, several highway overpasses, and a housing project. The streets are almost empty.
A hundred women and men live in this red building with windows covered with dirt and wire mesh. Black and Latino guards have been hired especially for the occasion. After the guard at the door inspects the contents of my bag, he flashes a smile and reprises with perfect comic timing the refrain of a television commercial: "Welcome to Roach Motel. Roaches check in but they don't check out." Humor as a weapon against a dirty job?
The men and women have been separated into different parts of the building and are not allowed to see each other. There is no yard, no place for physical activity or even a short walk in the sun.
When I start, they have been there for two months. They will end up spending more than a year without ever going out, except for the rare authorized medical or legal appointment.
After I pass inspection I wait as several guards bring the women out of the "living" area, one by one, through a metal door. There are about twenty of them, many in their twenties like me, none older than fifty, all waiting impatiently to get on with their lives. This must be a special occasion, a break in the monotony, for the women make the most of the secondhand clothing donated through the Haitian priests. They dress impeccably. No pants; only dresses, skirts and blouses, pretty and demure as if for church. The youngest, barely out of their teens, highlight their youth and beauty with perfect makeup and brightly painted nails.
I am not allowed into the living area, but later the women tell me that there are dormitories with bunk beds, guards everywhere, and a common room with the television always on. The windows are so dirty they can barely see outside. Where are we? What is this place? Nothing to do except watch TV. No family to take care of. No meals to cook. They miss their husbands and boyfriends, and relatives and friends who are on the other side of these walls and on the other side of the sea. Six months later, one of their lawyers argues unsuccessfully to at least let them have rice and beans instead of hot dogs and canned food.
Class is in a room with fluorescent lighting, no windows, and a guard at the door. I teach but I also ask for help with my Kreyol. My pronunciation is bad. I make mistakes. They laugh. We laugh together. This helps narrow the gulf between us: my twenty years of exile.
A face, an expression, a gesture reminds me of an aunt, a friend, my grandmother. Do you need anything? I ask.
They give me letters to send back home to worrying relatives and dictate a list of hair products. I stuff the letters into my shoulder bag and take them to the post office. I feel useful.
The night before class, I transfer hair relaxers and pomades from their forbidden glass containers (glass shards as a way out?) into plastic ones.
As the Latina guard carefully examines the containers and their messy contents, she finally blurts out: They have so many donations! People have given them so much, so many boxes, we have to put them in special storage! Looks at me like I'm stupid, like I've been had, taken by people already getting so much for free. They have so much, she says. Doesn't she know about divide and conquer? Setting the have-little against the have-not? Doesn't she know they-we- are the descendants of Toussaint and Dessalines, who led the only successful slave uprising in the history of the world and defeated Napoleon's troops and founded the first black republic? She probably doesn't even think I'm Haitian.
I want to narrow the gap. I am lucky. They are unlucky. Accidents of birth. I give out my home phone number in case of emergencies. I hesitate slightly before I do, fearing a deluge of phone calls, but days pass and no one calls, until Philocia. She is one of the youngest, distracted and hesitant whenever I ask her a question, not one of my best students.
Please, she says, can you do something for me?
Of course, I say, worried by her sudden assertiveness.
Well, Valentine's Day is coming and next Friday there is going to be a party and they are going to let us see the men. I am going to see my boyfriend-so I need a dress.
A dress? I ask. Maybe I haven't heard right.
Yes, she says. A red dress. Size eight.
I look through my closet as if a red dress might miraculously appear. This is not what I had in mind when I gave out my number. Didn't I say in case of an emergency?
I call a friend. A red dress? she asks.
Red for hearts and roses?
Have any of the other women asked for dresses?
Her reaction convinces me not to ask anyone else. This one frivolous request I am sure will make the other refugees look bad, make people think that Giuliani is right after all, that they have just come here for economic advantages, that they have come here to shop.
I go to the clothing stores in my East Village neighborhood. No red dress in sight, and certainly no dress that I could imagine her ever wanting to wear. Too funky and outrageous, nothing her style. Besides, what if I do find one? I don't even have a real job. She must think I'm rich. Maybe the guard was right, maybe I'm being had.
Two days before the party, I take Philocia aside. I'm sorry, I say, but I couldn't find a red dress. I tried, but it's not easy. She smiles sweetly. I look down at her carefully manicured nails and think someone must have donated red nail polish to go with the dress she won't be wearing. Thank you, she says, mesi, like someone used to not getting what she wants. Why couldn't she have asked for something serious, something vital and important? Then I would have done anything!
Valentine's Day has come and gone. We are in the middle of class when Jeanne, an attentive, serious student, a woman in her forties, a madansara who used to sell pots and pans in the market of Jacmel, starts to cry.
What's wrong? someone asks.
What's wrong, Jeanne? I ask.
More tears. Silence. She rocks herself gently, back and forth.
I can't stand it anymore, she says, I want to go back home.
But they will kill you if you go back, someone says.
I don't care. I want to die in my country like a moun, like a person, not here like a dog.
More silence. I hand her a tissue. Are they all thinking the same thing?
Now, I say, surprised at the authority of my voice, this is what they want. They want to wear you down, so that you will go back and tell the others and they will be afraid to come.
More silence. What is Jeanne thinking? What are they all thinking?
Then, from the back of the room, a small still voice.
It is Philocia of the red dress. Mwen mem. I will never go back. I don't care what they do to me. I spent two days in the water holding on to a piece of wood from the boat. There were dead people all around me. I'm not going back.
I look at her and she has not moved. I realize that she has never left the water and that I have understood nothing.
Now I want to find her a dress in every possible shade of red… for roses… for hearts… red for the blood of Toussaint and Des-salines flowing in her veins.
SOMETHING IN THE WATER… REFLECTIONS OF A PEOPLE'S JOURNEY by Nikol Payen
The windowed door of my hospital room framed scurrying white uniforms. Inside, the silence of isolation left plenty of time for interior monologues. The medication and its lingering scent made my head fuzzy and paralyzed my tongue. My spirit seemed to be having difficulty catching up with my body, like the distorted windshield view of a rainstormed road. I anxiously waited to see whether or not this physician would corroborate my overseas diagnosis of bronchial asthma, which was beginning to seem mild now that I was up against possible heavy hitters like tuberculosis, PCP pneumonia, and HIV.
Lying there, I could almost see my dad's concerned face, his eyes widening as his deep, stern voice prepared me with Haitian proverbs, tales about our clan, warnings and cautions for my work at Guantanamo Bay. Most important, however, was his promise of ancestral protection. So off I went, surrounded by my invisible army.
The IV stand was beginning to feel like an awkward extension of my anatomy, contributing to my claustrophobia. As I lay there, I struggled to pinpoint exactly when and why my body broke down. Was it the night-and-day contrast in temperature? Days with temperatures that sometimes sent boa constrictors, iguanas, and banana rats looking for shelter under my cot, then onto the clothes that dangled from my partially open dufflebag. At times the leftover wind from the Windward Passage would stir up the baked sand, lashing my face or filling my nose and mouth with grit. Or perhaps it was the cobalt-blue, diamond-lit evening sky that would seduce me into rolling up the sides of the tent, allowing the night's chilling vapors to invade my lungs.
Time was strangely distorted on that mound of land-days long, nights short, and mornings difficult to embrace. I could always set my watch, though, by the chants of exercising soldiers that began with the 5 a.m. dosage of pesticide the military used to wage the war against bugs. When it was kind, the fumes tickled inside your nostrils. Otherwise, you went into a choking cough that could rage for twenty minutes.
Before three days could come and go, my life had undergone a complete metamorphosis. Kreyol, the language whose purpose in my life up until now had been to pain and confuse me, would prove an asset. It became my passport to the American-occupied naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Justice Department would use me as a medium-or, as my contract stipulated, an interpreter-to execute its mission. Haitians fleeing political persecution-unleashed by a coup d'etat that had overthrown Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide-were being detained while they awaited interviews for political asylum.
I was one of sixteen language specialists. We worked in a defunct airplane hangar, freshly painted white, which held about fourteen thousand people when full. The scent of sweaty bodies thickened the already damp air. Their united sound of confused chatter echoed from the hollow interior, creating a dense hum of marketplace conversation. Bodies lay in rows on olive-green cots, all their worldly possessions on the concrete floor beside them-clothes, shoes, personal documents, in black plastic garbage bags or homemade straw sacks.
I rode the yellow school bus that transported service people through the camp. It was my means of getting to work as well. On the days when I arrived at the bus stop early, I would sit on a wooden park bench while an awakening sun pierced my sunglasses. All too often, the bath I had taken in insect repellent proved fruitless as last night's rainfall summoned what seemed like the island's entire mosquito population to feast on my exposed arms and legs. Waiting impatiently, I waved off a buzzing bee that had grown tired of a sugar-coated bottle neck from a nearby steel-grid garbage can. In the distance, a topless green army truck appeared, hauling soldiers to work. The overcrowded vehicle screeched at the red light, burying us in a fog of dust.
While I hadn't any preconceived notions about the architectural layout of a military base, never had I imagined it to be so elaborate- an actual replication of a city, a setup I suspect to be crucial in setting the underlining tone for the severity and intensity of the military training process. Like any other American town, it had a post office, a bank, a church, a gas station, credit union, firehouse, schools, hospital, restaurants, a 7-Eleven, a mall, and even a McDonald's. The neighborhoods seemed lifted directly from a suburban blueprint onto the desert landscape, the houses bearing prefabricated faces reminiscent of small towns in upstate New York. But even with the skeletal details of everyday life surrounding them, Guantanamo remained a wall-less prison.
I had committed to memory the entire bus route, which was easy to do. We would ride past Treasures & Trivia, a thrift store operated by civilian wives to occupy their day while their husbands worked. Up the hill brought us to the Jamaican Club, an after-hours spot where contracted Jamaican workers earning below minimum wage convened to bond and essentially keep sane amidst the sterility. We careened around the corner to a port and picked up a few more sailors who seemed anxious to get to their destination.
As usual, the day seemed innocent until we pulled into the ferry landing-the stop before mine. Like clockwork my stomach knotted and my heart pounded against my chest, asking to be let out. Winding around the final hill, we passed the grandest edifice on the island- the Pink Palace, the military's administrative headquarters, strategically planted on top of the hill overlooking the entire camp. This was where most of the important meetings were held by high-ranking military officials to plan and strategize with their Washington counterparts. The bus gave a final jerk indicating the end of its route.
Each day found me unprepared to digest the misery and despair that awaited me at the gate. Going back in there day after day seemed pointless, attempting to nurse physical and emotional wounds that I could not yet fully comprehend, let alone heal.
"A boat of forty-five was intercepted last night near the Windward Passage," was my substitute morning greeting from my supervisor. This tidbit was sure to structure much of the day's work. The voyage almost always promised an illness of some sort, followed by the culture shock of camp conditions. Sometimes the newcomers' eyes were weary, hazed by dehydration and seasickness. Some were badly sunburned, some wore big grins, usually a sign of relief at having been spared the swallow of the ocean. Others were generally happy about the possibilities that awaited them. After exchanging greetings and tips from familiar faces from the same or neighboring towns, the newcomers awaited the formal unveiling of their new reality. Sometimes the camp provided a ground for family reunification. When they arrived-some barefoot and meagerly attired, others clad in church-wear of sequined, taffeta dresses-they were taken to Camp Alpha, where the processing began. Hours would pass before they could all be photographed, fingerprinted, and given identification cards.
Fighting the fierce sunrays, children hopped about, alternating feet to keep their soles from burning on the cooked tar. Colonies of flies comfortably rested on their choice of heads and faces of those awaiting the final step: acquisition of an ID bracelet, marked with a bar code similar to those found on the side of household products. Some days, this long ritual-the stamping of the refugees with the marks of ownership-accounted for an entire workday. The refugees were happy to find Kreyol speakers among the processing staff. I often walked around continuously answering any questions, explaining the ensuing immigration procedures, tending to those who were ill, and troubleshooting for anything from diapers to emergency-room arrangements and anything in between.
Feeding time introduced the newcomers to the dietary convenience of the Western world-packaged food, a first for many. They curiously deciphered the contents of their brown plastic "Meals Ready to Eat," or MREs. Some ate ravenously, while others whose palates could not make an instant adjustment to the foreign taste eagerly passed on their unused rations to unsated neighbors. Sometimes they were used for bartering. The box of chicken a la king, stroganoff, and beef stew, a favorite among the brave, contained all the components of a well-thought-out meal: an entree, instant beverages, condiments, and for dessert, various junk foods, M &M's the most popular. The military often complained of the haughtiness of Haitians. How dare they criticize perfectly delicious war-ready meals?
Creative survival instincts blossomed before my eyes under less than favorable conditions, unfolding a culture. The women converted sheets into Sunday dresses, while the men went as far as creating a radio station from transistor radios given to them by the military. The two most memorable parts of the day, as in the hospital, were mealtimes and visiting hours. The neighboring camps were also established communities. As the families were scattered throughout, visitation rights were sometimes granted. While the women cooked, cleaned, washed, nurtured the children, and carried on the traditions, the men created furniture and paintings, took in a game of soccer, cards, or dominoes, or circularly discussed politics. Conversations were stimulated by their current isolated condition as well as the Miami-based Haitian Kreyol radio broadcast, Voix de L'Amerique- the only outside news to penetrate the wall-less penitentiary. Even the children created dolls, toys, puppets, boats, trains, planes. I marveled at an ability they took for granted.
Unfortunately the tragedies were equally colorful. The camp was nearly hit by a cyclone; three hundred and fifty people drowned trying to escape to "Castro's" Cuba to see if communism could offer a kinder hand.
When the glare of the sun, the chaos of the camp, and the rhetoric became overwhelming, I walked long and hard, away from everything as far away as possible, though never far enough. On one such occasion I escaped to the bathroom, located in a neighboring hangar. Halfway to my destination, the glare of the sun reflected off a steel cage, immediately attracting me. I walked toward the object, sinking into the cooked tar of the gummy pavement with each step. En-caged, a seven-year-old boy sat listlessly playing with a pair of broken flip-flops. "A soldier put me here because when I went to eat I kept getting pushed from the food line," explained the boy. "He said I was making trouble, so I have to sit here until I learn my lesson. Can you get me some water, Miss?" High up, a guard sat post in a twenty-foot tower equipped with a rifle, a gun, binoculars, and a video camera. He recorded my interaction while adjusting his walkie-talkie.
The sun hid behind a darkening stratus cloud, transmitting an orange-yellow tint that hovered over the entire island. The bus took the dusty route to my living quarters. The glow of a setting sun outlined the smoke of floating dust left by the tires. I usually liked to linger in the camp after hours, when things began to settle and the true culture of the environment surfaced, transcending the cohesion of the makeshift community, but that day I was anxious to leave on time. At a distance, a caterpillar of soldiers clad in white T-shirts and gray shorts getting in their mandatory evening exercise swerved by, their chanting fading as the distance between us widened. As the bus pulled up near my barrack, I made a quick run for it. Walking through a patch of swamp land, a swarm of fruit fly-like insects took cover in my ears, eyes and mouth. It was nearly seven and I hoped to complete my cooking and laundry.
McCalla was a small city. Each day I took a twenty-minute ferry ride from Leeward, where I lived, to the Windward side of the island, where I worked. The ride was awkward and always reminded me of my outsider status. Some days the 7 a.m. ferry was filled to capacity: I would be sandwiched between servicemen, which I hated, or have to stand by the rail for the entire ride. As much as I loved the view of the water and the wind gently stroking my face, these visions of serenity were eclipsed by my own paranoia. The ferry seats reminded me of church pews and some mornings they were equally precious, as I tried to get the last twenty minutes of sleep. Sometimes, I resorted to sitting in the compartment under the deck. The ferry also transported large trucks and machinery to the work side of the island. When we docked, the machinery backed off the lower deck first. The sailor in charge then hand-signaled for passengers from the top deck to single-file off the craft. Once on the ferry landing, we'd wait for the bus that took us to work. Some mornings, time permitting, we procrastinated, putting off going into the camp by stopping at McDonald's and picking up a high-sodium, nutritionally unsound breakfast. I often found myself gobbling down a sausage McSomething or Another not for any reason other than to reconnect me to home, where such rubbish would never touch my lips.
One night on the last ferry with two other translators returning from a party from the Windward side to our living quarters on the Leeward side, I discovered the strategic design of the island. A man's eyes rolled back in his head after he vomited uncontrollably. Panic-stricken, the other translator screamed at him questions of concern, while I quickly alerted the driver to our crisis. He pushed some odd buttons that made strange noises and in two minutes, like a scene from Batman, a secret tunnel produced a motor raft that transported us to the principal naval hospital. This, complemented by the acres of land mines strategically plotted throughout the burned grass partitioned by steel fences with barbed-wire topping, a deterrent for Cubans who were curious about democracy, not the ones who crossed the border every morning to work for the U.S. government, left me in awe of the island's intricate readiness for war. The chopping of helicopters was a familiar noise, as was the arbitrary explosion of cannons. The twenty-four-hour guard towers reassured both sides protection of their respective countries. Sun up to sundown, soldiers stood guard at the borders with their guns permanently aimed in the direction of the enemy.
That morning found me fussing with the contents of my knapsack, trying to get to some important notes from a recent meeting. Dashing in late to the eight-thirty meeting already under way, I arrived in time for the tail end of a heated debate about the nutritional value of the meals fed to refugees. These meetings were, for the most part, a waste of time because no one intended to rectify any wrongdoing; not really. So far as I could gather, the interpreters' meetings were held for sheer appeasement, an answer to our complaints of exclusion from the seven o'clock meetings with high-ranking government officials and asylum officers.
Today's hot debate was centered on a memo warning us against fraternizing with the "migrants," an offense that would not go unpunished. The list was long in its definition and examples of fraternizing were thoroughly spelled out, so there would be no misunderstandings. The content of the memo was the end result of yet another recent problem. It was rumored that military personnel and interpreters were beginning to establish intimate relationships with some of the migrants and the purchase of luxury items such as shampoo, conditioners, permanents, hair grease, and in some instances clothes on their behalf, was proof of this foul act. I was particularly embarrassed when one interpreter was caught on video accepting money from the migrants in exchange for a definite place on the next plane to Miami-a promise he was unauthorized to make.
Near my assignment's end, repatriation offered a free ride to refugees who had failed to prove a "credible fear" of persecution and were consequently to be returned to Haiti. I reluctantly volunteered to accompany them back. Though the two-day journey promised to be a grueling experience, I was prepared to make any sacrifice to return to my homeland after fifteen years of unintended absence.
It cost the U.S. approximately one million dollars per day to run the camp, and each repatriation neared $100,000, so filling the cutter to capacity was a must before we could be on our way. I arrived at the pier to find three other ships, housing a total of fifteen hundred refugees, ready to leave. We were scheduled for a 9 a.m. departure but were running late. On a good day, the deck fit five hundred bodies comfortably, if they were aligned sardine-style. Our ship housed only two hundred people on board, thus the holdup. Six-and-a-half hours later, with only fifty bodies added to the count, we were given clearance to leave so as to avoid an evening departure, when the ferocity of the Windward Passage would peak. I was escorted to my two-by-four cabin, which I believed to belong to some high-ranking officer. It offered me the privilege of a private bathroom half the size of the room. A pinup of Kathy Ireland graced the tiny closet door. A navy-blue jumpsuit, the only visible item of clothing, dangled solo in the darkness.
As the only civilian and the only woman working on the U.S. Escanaba, a Coast Guard cutter-the steel shark that guarded our national "security" in the form of international "drug busts"-I was at everyone's disposal twenty-four hours a day and partly responsible for maintaining order on board, whatever happened. En route, clandestine discussions held by the refugees and me in the camp were openly voiced here on the ship. Both the refugees and I found comfort in our mutual distrust of the asylum process. I had often overheard conversations corroborating these allegations from higher-ups. Programmed to spit out whatever numbers Washington entrusted them to produce that day in the name of efficiency and a job well done, these functionaries lost neither sleep nor appetite over the desperate accounts of a people whose destiny lay in their hands. "How are those numbers coming along?" was the question of the day, every day.
I remember being told the story of one twelve-year-old boy from Cite-Soleil: He was so thin that a thumb and index finger alone could have encircled his thigh. With tears rimming his eyes, he fought to keep from crying as he explained his dilemma. After the coup, his father had gone out to search for oil. When his father failed to return, his mother sent him out to search for his father and instead he found his father's corpse. He finally made it home, only to find his mother riddled with bullets, murdered by soldiers seeking revenge on democracy supporters. His family supported Lavalas, the people's movement, and for that he was wanted by the authorities.
Then there were two teenage girls, stocky, angry, and confused by the unexpected turn of events that left their lives upside down. It was as if someone had scrambled up a puzzle and asked them to fix it. They complained nonstop, frustrated by their inability to see what stared them right in the face. "I'm going to kill myself," one said. "What do I have ahead of me? I'm not going to Miami despite the fact that the Section Chief killed my parents in front of me. The only reason I was spared rape was because I had my period. I managed to get on a boat, and now I'm returning to the hell I thought was behind me." Though she put on a tough exterior, I told her to reverse it and to let her toughness flow from inside. This would enable her to better deal with life's unexpected blows. The human spirit is so resilient, its elasticity often surprised me, I told her enthusiastically. So far as I was concerned, she had already dealt with the most difficult part. But then again, I was merely speculating. I suppose I'll never know for certain from what she fled nor exactly what awaited her. "But that's all God's business isn't it?" I said. She smiled.
Dinner calmed everyone down somewhat. All concerns, needs, and worries finally began to drift with the fading day. Hours later when the sun made way for the moon and the stars, the chaos of the day began to subside, as did the buzzing of those returning home. No longer were there conversations about hypocrisy, distrust, and injustice. All had come to accept that which was most dreaded- returning home. There was a hush now, the ferocity of the clouds and the strength of the wind had calmed everyone's frustration and demanded silence.
Some time during the dark morning I was awakened by frantic pounding on my cabin door. It was one of the soldiers, breathlessly ordering me to tend to an emergency. He disappeared long before I could become coherent enough to ask for an explanation. I made my way up the tiny steel staircase, to find a robust fifteen-year-old unaccompanied minor under restraint, the girl I had been consoling that afternoon. It required the strength of three men to hold down this poor child convulsing in a screaming fit. Finally, she was pinned flat on her stomach while another serviceman tied her feet together. Two sailors simultaneously struggled to handcuff her hands behind her back as a fellow Haitian was instructed to hold her head fixed to one side.
We were entering the mouth of the Windward Passage. The wind fiercely rocked our vessel while lightning illuminated the dark, angry sky. Roaring thunder drowned my conversations, pulling rain from the clouds and pouring it over our bodies. This outburst caused some to grumble explanations of a jilted lover, others claimed her insanity came by way of a hex from the other woman. As she went in and out of piranha-like biting fits, a thinly built, gray-haired, mild-mannered man from the girl's native town of Jeremie accounted for her epileptic history. She had been fine for both his and my conversation of earlier that day. It seemed that the young lady I had tried to dissuade from suicide had manifested these feelings after all. Eventually she was subdued with her hand and foot securely tied to a pole on the flight deck. Lightning ripped across the sky and spotlighted her crucified shadow followed by the sky's disapproving grumble. I wrapped her in a wool blanket to shield her from the wind.
What was to have been a two-day voyage turned into a week of drifting in the Atlantic between Haiti and Cuba, in preparation to intercept incoming refugees even before the ink on President Bush's newly imposed executive order could fully dry. My trek through the Middle Passage dragged me through the murky road of history, determined to make me feel a pain that was centuries deep and supposedly resolved. Yet this nightmare gnawed so deep within me, not even my assimilationist lifestyle could mitigate it.
Witnessing two hundred fifty bodies enroped in slave-ship fashion on deck to be baked by the summer blaze or soaked by impulsive skies if nature willed left me feeling helpless and uneasy. We seemed to be going backward-in time-in history. But time spoke softly, gently unveiling its truth before me. The pieces of my parents' past, which they had difficulty talking about, were gladly exhibited through the troubled spirits of those who sat before me to translate their perplexities. An Abyssinian-looking beauty sat before me complaining about the factory where she worked sewing bras. A mandatory eighteen-hour day with no lunch and no break except those to fight off advances by her boss who promised her, in return, a raise of fifteen cents per hour. But this was mild compared to the threats of death received by her husband, whose goat had wandered off into a section chief's yard and fed on his garden. Or the woman whose community group was plastered with photos of a rooster and Aristide, thereby making her a candidate for death. Young men complained that Haiti was so plagued politically that their congregation for any reason, even for church, left them suspect of political activities. Or the tailor who was commissioned to make clothes for the sister of a certain section chief who, disagreeing with the asking price of her new dress, sicced her brother on him. Others reached the camp by happenstance, as one gentleman explained that he'd been fishing and fell asleep.
I'll never forget my first reintroduction to Haiti. We were nearing the pier when a refugee pointed to Gonaives, and Port-de-Paix, up north. "There's Mole Saint Nicolas," exclaimed a young man, proudly explaining the century-old U.S. desire to construct a military base there. This would be strategically ideal since Cuba and Jamaica, the other two largest countries occupying the Caribbean basin, are a stone's throw away. The fog revealed a sketch of our intended destination, the ship chaplain pointed to Sacre Coeur, a century-old landmark church. I gazed in disbelief, reflecting vaguely on the times when this cathedral served as the ultimate sanctuary for me and my family for Sunday mass some two decades ago.
The refugees were instructed to return their yellow I.D. cards, at last relieved from the tight wrist-squeezing of plastic bar-coded bracelets. Their curiosity about what lay ahead provided an occasion for me to give a briefing outlining the final phase of the procedure. At the wharf they were met by Red Cross personnel, sometimes accompanied by U.S. Embassy officials, who dealt with politically complex cases. The returnees were given an exit interview and fifteen Haitian dollars, which many claimed was insufficient for their long journey home. That day, the string of armed Haitian military officials awaiting their disembarkation left many fearful for their lives. Panic was lent validity by concerns about being followed home by the same would-be attackers who had been responsible for their initial departure. The U.S. military promised safety, but even if they hadn't, the Haitians had no means to negotiate. So they halfheartedly, yet peacefully, disembarked. When the ship was nearly vacant, I caught a U.S. State Department staff member handing the bag of I.D. cards to Haitian soldiers. Confused and frustrated, I looked for an ally until it dawned on me that no one on board remotely shared my concern.
On the return trip, the calm night sky twinkled on the ocean while angry phosphorescent waters pounded at the ship from bow to stern. The ordeal cast me into a four-day bout with insomnia. Even the ocean, hard as she tried, was unable to cradle me to sleep. For each night while they weathered the cold winds on deck, I wrestled with the displaced faces that haunted me in my cabin while I lay nestled in wool blankets. With their concerns and uncertainties etched deeply into their faces, strong and tired eyes imposed inquisitive gazes, looking for answers I also sought.
Meanwhile, back in the captain's dining room I began wondering to what I owed the honor of past-life luxuries-cloth napkins, sterling silver flatware, and china actually used and not only displayed. And waiters, four waiters who stood post on each corner of the table, eager to tend to the captain's every need. The quality and size of one's portions matched one's rank. Contrary to the migrants' restricted diets food flowed nonstop in the forms of soup, salad, entree, dessert, coffee, followed by the point of the dinner invitation. The closing conversation was to get an assessment of my personal limitations regarding the perils of my assignment. In other words, to size up the distance I would go for my people and my two countries, one that had my allegiance as a birthright, the other hoping to win it.
Despite the hazardous duty conditions, which had already claimed the life of one interpreter, I volunteered to be lowered by rope from the cutter into a tiny motor raft in an attempt to negotiate with prospective refugees on behalf of the United States government. Looking at the flimsy craft in the middle of the hungry, shark-infested waters, I felt the pressure of pleading to win their confidence as their boat repeatedly threatened to capsize. The sun began its descent and my sneakers were soaked from the puddle that collected in our motor boat. One of the teenage boys leaned on the bow. Their ragged sail was tied to the flimsy pole that struggled to hold it. "Why should I go on the ship, why should I trust you?" asked a dark-skinned man in his early twenties, turning up his nose as if he literally smelled something foul. I was lost for an adequate response except, I'm all you've got here and you have to believe in my good intentions. And besides, I was unprepared to watch them drown.
The mother wore only the bottom half of what used to be a dress, her shriveled sagging breasts dangled lifelessly against her badly scarred body. With dark spots and welts all over her back, her hair was ravaged and she spoke in delirium, a blur. "My sister, my baby," she muttered. Each time she tried to express herself, she was unable to add any more information to where she had left off. "My aunt and her baby were with us on the boat, the baby became ill. She plunged in the ocean with the baby saying she could no longer stand the suffering," explained the young man. "She's not good in her head," he finished.
They appeared to be badly dehydrated and said that they had not had water in three days. A colony of flies and insects buzzed around the stale vomit that floated atop the semi-flooded boat. Apparently they had been "maroons," on the run, for several months, living in caves, traveling underground by night, surviving on coconuts and wild berries. By the grace of people in the various towns, eventually they were able to escape. A veve of Agwe, the water god, decorated the mint-green craft. They had christened it "Kris Kapab," or "Christ Can," inscribed in blood-red paint.
The father was a fisherman, his gentleness reflected in his overall demeanor. "Do you have medicine on the ship?" inquired the fiery youth, who seemed to be reconsidering the idea of coming on board. He showed me the colony of parasites, white wormlike ones that had been eating away at his brother's scalp for the past few months. I looked at the visible rise in the puddle and as the boat dipped backwards, I quickly blurted, "Yes." I was getting tired, my mouth was dry, there were eighteen of them and only one of me and I didn't know how much longer I could sustain a coherent argument. The youth, who seemed to be the head negotiator, the city-slicker type, needing one final push, began to look as if he believed me, so said his eyes and his face. I looked at his Nelson Mandela T-shirt and asked how he thought the character on his shirt would handle this particular dilemma. This was the clincher. Mandela had become a universal living icon for courage, strength, persistence, and faith.
After three hours of intense creative negotiations catalyzed by the spell of an intensely beautiful set of almond-shaped eyes belonging to an eight-year-old refugee girl, I finally convinced this mistrustful family to come on board. A conspiratorial chill raced through me as I watched their craft along with all their worldly possessions set afire, a ritual that branded a mental scar on these victims and on me. It seemed a sacrilegious act for which we all would be punished.
The ocean danced and curtsied. Once again the empty ship was filled with laughter and jokes. For many, the last forty-eight hours had been a mere incident that would forever vanish into nothingness. Its effect on me, at that point, was apparent in emotions only, like the sharp pain that registers that a finger has been burned. It is not until days later, when the wounded area darkens, that the effect actually becomes visible. Astonished by the turn of events, I could only think, "Did this really just happen? Was I partly responsible for someone's impending death?" The thought horrified me. Sitting in a corner, I reflected quietly on the faces, the stories, and the concerns, however remote, that had taken precedence over my own needs, even if only for a short time.
HAITI: A CIGARETTE BURNING AT BOTH ENDS by Marie Ketsia and Theodore-Pharel
On August 31, 1987, the last day of summer vacation, I got up early to go to Filene's Basement to shop for school clothes with my mother. I was twelve years old. We got off the T at Park Street near the Boston State House so my mother could make a stop at the bank. As we walked out of the train station, we were stopped by fire trucks and police barricades holding onlookers at bay. Above the streets loomed the highest steps of the Boston State House, still soaked and blackened by what seemed like a badly sprayed swastika. With a closer look, I saw that it was a man, burned to a grotesque crisp so that the most visible part of him now were his scorched legs, the unbending knees raised toward the sky. We asked what had happened and were told that he was a Haitian man who had soaked himself in gasoline, lit a match, and set himself on fire. His name was Antoine Thurel and he was fifty-six years old. The only clue to why he had killed himself was a large placard on which he had written a final letter in French. Loosely translated the sign read in part, "Because of many difficulties and my family and religious responsibilities, I want to offer myself in holocaust for the complete liberation of my country… May Haiti live for the new liberation."
Like the heroes of centuries past, like Boukman, Toussaint, Christophe, and Dessalines, and all the others who had given their lives fighting for the "liberation" of our country, Mr. Thurel had made the ultimate sacrifice. He had proven that not all men go to war because they are forced to, but some because they feel they must set an example, sacrifice themselves in order to incite all of us to change. Koupe tet, boule kay, was the war cry of our ancestors. "Cut off heads and burn houses," starting with all that is most precious to us, our houses, our temples, our bodies. In a foreign country, on foreign soil, Antoine Thurel had given his life for a never-ending quest for freedom, not only his own but all of ours.
The day Mr. Thurel died, as I watched the spot where his body burned again on the six o'clock news, I thought of one of the last sayings of an old man whom I called "Pere" who lived with my family. Pere was a quiet, reserved man who analyzed everything; he was one of the brains who fled Haiti during the Sixties' brain-drain. Before he died of old age, in exile, Pere had uttered a phrase which I would not completely understand for years.
"Haiti is a cigarette burning at both ends," he had said.
In their own way, both Pere and Antoine Thurel could have been alluding to Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "First Fig" about living fast, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light.
Still, I found Pere's metaphor troubling. Is this why Mr. Thurel had died, for a cigarette burning at both ends? The imagery of a hopeless country being destroyed was one more to add to my list of negative things that I, as a Haitian child-and now a Haitian woman and mother-had been told about Haiti, about myself, not by outsiders but by my own. Mr. Thurel's action and Pere's words made me wonder about my love for Haiti and my love for myself as a Haitian.
Haitians don't trust each other.
Haitian families, whether they know it or not, teach self-hatred. I grew up with plenty of self-denigrating idioms, proverbs that offered such advice as: Don't let any Haitian boy touch the center of your palm; he'll steal your decency and turn you into a trollop. Don't let anyone read your books; they'll find whatever blessing was there for you. Don't eat from anyone; they'll steal your bonanj, your good angel. Don't study with others; they'll steal your intelligence. Safeguard your underwear because people could hurt your chances of having children. "Depi nan Ginen, neg te rayi neg," even in Africa, blacks hated each other. At first I thought this distrusting advice was part of my own family's proverbs, but I noticed that many of my Haitian friends also cautiously lived by these same rules.
It wasn't until I went to live in Cameroon, Africa, that I realized that blacks in Africa and elsewhere did love each other as a rule and that those who hated one another were exceptions to that rule. Only when we were paired against one another in divide-and-conquer style did that hatred begin. This love was reaffirmed for me by my host family in Cameroon. Sleeping in the same bed with my host sisters, I felt a kind of peace I had never felt before in my life. I felt like a tiger cub resting beside her mother's belly. I still feel that warmth and love when I receive a nod or an acknowledging smile from a black person or a Haitian person in the streets of Boston, New York, or Miami. But according to the proverbs and idioms that we are taught, we are all supposed to hate each other.
Haiti is a woman with two sets of children.
I have always been told and have come to realize for myself that Haiti is like a woman with two sets of children, the elite and the masses. The elite are the children born to luxury, in wedlock, and the masses are the children born to poverty, the bastards. The elites abuse or completely neglect the masses. This reminds me of one of Pere's favorite sayings, "Se rat kay ki manje kay pay." It is the house rats who eat hay houses. I saw for myself, firsthand, the devouring of these hay houses in the summer of 1997, when I returned to Haiti with a group of students on a trip sponsored by the Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad. Our group was composed of students from France, the United States, and Haiti. This trip was intended to reacquaint people like me with the country that we had left at a young age and connect us with other students our age who were just finishing school in Haiti. While traveling in Haiti with the group, I got to see most of the country. The most startling sight I saw was the number of high-priced Landcruisers and Range Rovers traveling Haiti's roads. I couldn't believe that a country so poor could have people driving such expensive cars. The reason for those cars was revealed to me one rainy day when we were trekking in an old school bus from Port-au-Prince to the southern town of Cayes. I saw young children bathing in the muddy rainwater that had collected in the craters on the road. There were heaps of trash and debris all along the road. Whatever was in this collection of trash must have been decomposing because the smell was unbearable; yet the children washed their little angelic faces, arms, and legs in this sewage. On that day, I finally understood why the rich people need Land-cruisers in Haiti: to create craters for the poor to bathe in.
Before that month was over, I got to see Haiti's prosperous sons and daughters at work. We were invited to dinner at Kinam 2, Haiti's Ritz Carlton. The purpose of this assemblage was to network and connect with the rich and powerful so that we could one day return to "rebuild" the country. Over dinner conversations, the students in the group who were living in France and the United States got job offers from the Haitian company heads, but the students living in Haiti were completely neglected and certainly not offered jobs. At that moment, I understood Pere's saying about the cigarette burning at both ends and his saying about the house rat eating the hay house.
Pray to the I was on Saturday, pray to God on Sunday.
In his final letter, Antoine Thurel stated three reasons for which he died: family, country, and religion. Religion is one of the most confusing aspects of being Haitian. Haiti's primary religion is Vodou, yet we are even more confused about Vodou than the white man who while enslaving us told us it was evil. I once heard a prominent Haitian pastor in Boston say that slavery was God's way of reaching out and saving the African continent. The Haitian parishioners echoed their assent with undiscerning shouts and praises. How long will we continue to pay for this kind salvation? How many Antoine Thurels will die to purge us from it?
I have often imagined Pere and Antoine Thurel having a conversation. Pere would list his maxims expressing his disillusionment with our people and Antoine Thurel would list his dreams for our outward and inward liberation, the dreams that had motivated him to set himself on fire that morning on August 31, 1987. Perhaps they are having this conversation now in our ancestral African home in Ginen with Boukman, Toussaint, Christophe, and Dessalines; I wish I could hear that conversation. Perhaps I would get some answers to my questions, a few replies that would calm the tormented voices in my head, heal some of my continuing grief over Antoine Thurel's death. Still these questions, like Pere's final words, continue to haunt me. Why don't we see that the things we tell ourselves and our children become part of them, and part of us? When will we realize that all of Haiti's children belong to one family, the family of humanity? Why do we teach resignation in our churches? Why do we not respect our ancestors' words and legacy? Why don't we truly honor their sacrifices by treating ourselves and our poorer neighbors more humanely? Will we one day find the answers to those questions, or will we always remain a cigarette burning at both ends?
MY SUITCASES by Maude Heurtelou
When I was nineteen years old, I left Haiti for Guatemala City to enroll in a bachelor of sciences program. To prepare me for my trip, my parents fixed me two large suitcases filled with farewell gifts: from a bookmark made out of dry banana leaves to family photographs. What I didn't know then is that my suitcases were not only physical but also cultural. These suitcases, both cultural and physical, have been essential to my survival as an immigrant in three different countries.
Upon my arrival in Guatemala City, I whispered my aunt Didine's prayers to the saints, hummed Leon Dimanche's "Nostalgie" while longingly laying out and sifting through the items that had been lovingly packed in my suitcases: the talcum powder on my nightstand, which the vendor at the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince had wanted no payment for because I was leaving for university abroad. The multicolored kite that decorated my wall was made twenty years before by the neighborhood shoeshine man, who had presented it to my mother thinking she was carrying a boy. An unknown artist had sculpted the metal sheet lantern by my window. The small wicker basket in the corner of my room had carried dried Ilan Ilan flowers from my middle school in Port-au-Prince. The embroidered pillowcase where I rested my head each night was made by hand in the mountains of Jacmel. It was embossed with my great-grandmother's initials and passed down from my grandmother, to my mother, and now myself. My rubber sandals, a gift from my friend Marie, reminded me of traveling Haitian feet, steady, firm, and purposeful in their gait. I felt as though the ground beneath me was familiar whenever I wore my sandals. So many things in my suitcases comforted me, while reminding me of home.
Soon my classmates became curious about "la haitiana," the one who couldn't speak Spanish at first but was learning so fast. Little by little, I opened my suitcases, both cultural and physical, to them, sharing music, Haitian konpa, foods-griyo, plantains, rice and beans, pikliz-and stories of the feuding Haitian folktale characters Bouki and Malis. One day, I received a surprise visit from the national Guatemalan soccer team. The team was scheduled to compete against the Haitian national soccer team and wanted to look at me to get a sense of what Haitians would look like. Because I was taller than all the Guatemalan players, they assumed that all the Haitians would be very tall as well.
We were the only six Haitians reported to be in Guatemala City: a businessman, a female professor from the French Institute, and three other university students like myself. A few times a year, Claudette, the French professor, would invite me and the other three students to her home. During those afternoons at Claudette's, we would sit on her patio, eat Haitian food, listen to konpa music, and share stories from home. The oldest among us, Marijo, came from Jeremie, a southern Haitian town that had produced many famous poets. Marijo would recite verses that described the plush green landscape of the Haitian south. After her poetry recitals, Marijo would walk over to Claudette's piano and play the legendary Haitian ballads, "Haiti Cherie," and "Choucoune." One other student, Fadia, would dance while I told riddles.
You go here. I go there. We meet in the middle. What am I?
Those afternoons at Claudette's always eased my longing for home, if only for a while.
After four years in Guatemala City, I moved to Quebec City, Canada, to look for work, and took my suitcases with me. I carried along my favorite comb, which I had learned in Haiti could be both a grooming tool and a musical instrument. To play the comb, all one had to do was put a strip of paper across the teeth, press one's lips against the paper, and hum to produce a harmonica-like sound. My new Canadian friends and I would have evenings of comb recitals and story telling, turning off the lights for an atmosphere that would make the stories sound scarier and the comb sound more mysterious. During cold winter nights, I would entertain my friends with descriptions of the deep earth smell and the thumping sound of Haitian rain on tin roofs. I would make them ginger root tea and peanut confections. However there were a few things I resisted sharing. I didn't tell them that at times what I missed most were the imperfections of my country: the large potholes that always forced our feet or our cars to slow down, the crowds of vendors at the markets who sometimes made it hard to move freely, but sang melodiously of the fruits and vegetables they were selling.
One day I accepted the invitation of some friends to accompany them to the carnival of Quebec. Having been part of the colorful and lively street party that was a Haitian carnival, I never imagined that the carnival of Quebec would be an outdoor procession of ice sculptures in minus-thirty-degree weather. More and more, I began to miss the gorgeous range of colors of Haitian people, from honey, to chocolate, to dark coffee. I missed the aroma of coffee, freshly ground every morning by my neighbors. I missed being greeted with a smile by people who had known me and my family for years. Back home, I had a name and a past, had a family, and a legacy. In Quebec City, I was rootless, just another immigrant.
A few years later, I made yet another move, to the United States, to Florida. At last, I felt, I could rest my suitcases for a while. Florida, home to hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million Haitians, is close to Haiti both in miles and in climate. South Florida, where I live, is full of Caribbean markets whose shelves are stacked with home-grown treasures such as mangoes, plantains, and breadfruits. There are many restaurants, large and small, that serve Haitian dishes like stewed conch and fried goat. Our voices are heard across radio air waves, singing, laughing, and arguing about politics. We have television programs that bring us news and images of home. It is somewhat easier to simulate Haitian life in Florida, but of course being in Florida is not completely like being home.
After more than two decades away from Haiti, I still reach out for my suitcases, both physical and cultural, for all of the items in them, linked as they are to memories and traditions, that have helped me, and still continue to help me survive the immigrant life. However, my suitcase has now expanded with a few more items gathered from other cultures, with the letters and photographs of the friends I have made in Guatemala, Canada, and Florida, with their stories, and languages, and traditions that have slowly merged into my own: the particular lilt of Guatemalan Spanish that I eventually mastered, the hand-made fabrics from San Andres, the cabane a sucre parties in Quebec City, where I indulged in maple syrup candies out on the street, along with the other residents, natives, and immigrants alike. What my own cultural isolation as an immigrant in these places has taught me is that I am part of a living culture that in no way stops being a part of me, even when I am not completely immersed in it. With everything I do and say, I am perpetuating that culture, enriching it, modifying it when necessary, but contributing to its regeneration. My suitcases, both physical and cultural, have always, and will always, make me proud of my culture. They are perhaps a microcosm of what I am missing living abroad, but will never completely lose.
THE WHITE WIFE by Garry Pierre-Pierre
My wife is white. When I told my friend Rosemonde over lunch that I intended to marry Donna, a petite woman of English, German, and Irish ancestry from Indiana, Rosemonde's jaw dropped as if she'd been hit with a Mike Tyson hook. Rosemonde's reaction foreshadowed what was to come for Donna and me. (We did indeed marry two months later on a cold, rainy December morning in Crawfordsville, Indiana.) If a black friend could have such a visceral reaction, then you know strangers could be far worse. And they have been.
Responses to our being together depend on the level of agitation and gall people have. Most often, we get the Why is he with her? stare, the rolled eyes, the sucked teeth. Every once in a while, a brave soul gets cocky, like the sister in the parking lot one day who muttered, "Jungle fever," as we passed by. We paid her no mind.
I know exactly what the stares are all about. Back in my days at Florida A &M University, a crucible of black activism and black power in Tallahassee, I used to be part of that crowd doing the gaping, perplexed and angered by the sight of a black-and-white couple. I took them as an affront to my race. That they happened to have fallen in love was the furthest thing from my mind. Then I fell in love myself, and my old foolishness became what Donna and I have had to learn to deal with. It doesn't faze us now; we've grown immune. But there was a time when we were on constant alert; ignorance is more often subtle-it tends not to shout. Imagine spending every day, walking into every gathering or restaurant, prepared for the slightest insult. It could wear you down if you let it.
Black women and white men seem to be the most offended by the sight of a black man and a white woman. Some black women even seem to feel that my marrying a white woman is downright pathological. I must hate my mother or maybe myself, right? Wrong. I'm not ashamed or sorry or the least bit uncomfortable with my mother, myself, or my marriage. I do, however, get pissed off when my wife is slighted or intimidated, or when she has to contend with ignorant people. When we lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, some years ago, a white mechanic helping Donna with a flat tire became furious at the sight of a black-and-white couple driving into the station. "Look at that," he growled as Donna watched him in disbelief. "You would never do that, would you?" Donna opened her locket and showed him a picture. His face flushed red; he blurted out, "But he's educated, right?"
We've come a long way since the days when a black man was lynched simply for making eye contact with a white woman. In fact there are more than three hundred thousand black-white married couples in the United States today, a number that has risen steadily since the 1970s. But still, this black man marrying a white woman was a big deal. I was one of those people who once led the arguments against intermarriage. Because racism remains a source of pain for so many of us in this country, many blacks and whites still view interracial couples as unnatural as horses mating with cows. We're treated as if we're traitors in somebody's grand scheme of things. I'm nobody's traitor; I simply followed my heart.
Donna and I met in Togo, West Africa, brought to that obscure place by our mutual idealistic pursuit of trying to make a difference in the world. I was drawn to her midwestern naivete and easy smile, and she to my northeastern edge and tempo. The attraction-physical and intellectual-was immediate. Even with our differences, we were so much alike. We were both considered radicals in Ronald Reagan's America, where liberalism was a dirty word: We had volunteered for the Peace Corps to work in remote rural villages at a time when most of our contemporaries were starting the management training program on the fast track to the Big Time, dreaming of becoming vice president of something. We wanted to teach a trade, share a skill, save a life.
I was born in Haiti and grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a smokestack-filled industrial city about sixteen miles southwest of Manhattan. In the spring of 1987, after graduating from college, I went to Africa to complete the last leg of my own reverse triangular trade. Blacks had left Africa, were taken to South and Central America and the Caribbean, then to the colonies, to keep afloat the peculiar institution that was slavery. I was seeking to connect all the intellectual and spiritual dots. I left FAMU a disciple of Malcolm X (long before X T-shirts were fashionable), and though I never believed in the innate superiority of any race, I was still known to take issue with interracial couples.
So Africa was the last place I expected to be seeing a white woman-the first one I'd ever dated-let alone one I would marry. One of my closest friends, once asked me jokingly, "Garry, did you have to go to Africa to find a white woman? There were plenty in Tallahassee!" I laughed at the irony and thought that ours was in the classic tale of boy meets girl, except boy is caramel-colored and girl is lily-white, and they fall in love in Africa.
When we started dating, I would often ride my motorcycle to Donna's village in the central part of Togo, a sliver of a country nestled between Ghana and Benin. Over the course of a year, we became closer. I was moved by Donna's spirit and the care and concern she showed when working and playing with the local children. Some nights we would walk into the center of town with a flashlight and the stars as our guide to a watering hole. Between sips of hot beer and bites of fried yams, we wondered aloud about how our lives together would be once we returned to America. Were we getting into something we couldn't handle? I was unsure if I could return to Tallahassee for FAMU's homecoming. I was anxious about the hostility that might come from the all-black environment I remembered. I didn't want people faking it either. But mostly, I didn't want to have all those stunned black faces staring at us, thinking I had let the race down.
After a year, Donna and I started to consider marriage. The thought frightened me. It wasn't because I didn't love her or because she didn't share my journalist's urge to travel and explore. It was because she was white. Being together in African villages was one thing-to them we were simply foreigners-but I would be with a white woman in America. At one point, I thought about calling it off. But then I tried to put myself in Donna's place and wondered how I would feel if she came and told me that she loves me dearly and I would make her a perfect husband, but here was a small problem: I'm black.
We had to deal with our families: We'd told them of our intention to marry, and they knew of our racial difference. Under our intense scrutiny, their welcome was genuine.
Donna grew up in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a tableau of Norman Rockwell's America. She studied psychology at Denison University and had been drawn to Africa since reading a book called Cherry Ames: Jungle Nurse, of all things, while in elementary school. Donna's father, Donald Wilkinson, is of Anglo-Saxon stock from rural Illinois. Her mother, Clarissa, is half Irish and half German and grew up in Indianapolis. Neither had ever had much contact with blacks. Still, Donna's mother actually took offense when she learned that her daughter, fearing the worst, had sent her brother a letter before announcing the engagement, trying to gauge their parents' response. The Wilkinsons' welcome was in sharp contrast to the way I was once treated by the mother of a woman I dated in college. Her mother saw me as a cat-eating, Vodou-worshipping Haitian American, although I've never tasted the feline and I know as much about Vodou as I know about Buddhism. She went so far as to take her daughter, an only child, out of her will in case she lost her mind and married me.
My mother, Yvette, never had any time to harbor ill will toward white people; she was too busy trying to make ends meet and raise me. She, too, embraced the newest member of my family. Getting our parents' blessing turned out to be the easy part.
Some of my friends, like Rosemonde, tried to discourage me from marrying Donna, asking the old question "What about the children?" The race dilemma our kids would face was the least of my concerns: Our world is growing more multicultural by the day, and biracial children are often identified as black. Besides, being Haitian, I've never subscribed to the tragic-mulatto theory. What made the American mulatto's life sad, if it ever was, was not racial identity but rejection by a part of the family. Other relations embraced us as if our union were the most natural thing in the world-as if we were a perfect fit. Donna and I began to see who our friends really were.
As we settled back in the States and headed toward marriage, we confronted more serious problems than racial difference. Several months before our wedding, doctors found a blood clot the size of a golf ball in Donna's head. She underwent surgery to remove it, unsure whether she would ever again be able to speak, walk, or lead a normal life. Then began her recovery: Donna would spend five years on a daily medication and a year in physical therapy, struggling with the simplest sentences. (Today she is healthy but still working to gain full control of her fine motor skills.) Later, as we tried to start a family, she had two miscarriages, one almost took her life.
Other couples may have far less to overcome than we did, but if they're like us, once they decide they're serious, they quickly close ranks against those who would rather see them keep with "their own kind." Nobody's discomfort or anger or annoyance matters more to a couple in love than their being together. We determined that we wouldn't be worn down. Donna and I did this instinctively, without having ever had a conversation about it.
In fact, the first time we talked about how much racism has affected us as a couple was when I started to write this piece. Donna shared her sense of intimidation around some black women, the subtle messages she gets that she's not dressed right or not up to par. "You know when a woman is looking and not approving," she said to me recently, adding that it's something I wouldn't pick up on. "You don't have to have a word said." It angers me that anyone would dare to judge her; she doesn't need to conform to some standard of what a black man's wife ought to be. We also laughed at how some white women take my being with Donna as license to come on to me. A good sense of humor has always kept the ignorant at bay.
It has been more than twelve years since I first met Donna, and after ten years of marriage and two children, we don't have time to worry about what others think of us. With six-year-old Cameron, and two-year-old Mina filling our lives, the stares and whispers of strangers don't matter at all. We have learned to stay away from places where either one of us would be uncomfortable, to choose our friends carefully (we have more black friends than white) and to live in places where we feel safe and secure. That's what any man, of any color, wants for his family.
Since Cameron was born, I've made a herculean effort to make sure that my children are keenly aware of their African heritage. Our walls are festooned with African and Haitian paintings. My music library includes an eclectic collection of jazz, blues, and Haitian and African CDs. This doesn't necessarily mean that my kids won't confront that age-old existential question: Who am I? It is a question that bedevils all of us, regardless of race, religion, culture. I simply want Cameron and Mina to be surrounded by tokens of their African heritage while living in predominantly white America. And we have not shied away from discussing race with Cameron. To him, Daddy is black, Mom is pink, and he is brown. At a recent gathering, when someone pretended not to know this Garry person that Cameron kept talking about, my son simply sighed and answered:
"You know, black Garry, my dad."
So if the sight of a black-and-white couple strolling down the street still offends you, it's your problem. We're busy leading our lives and rearing our children and keeping our love alive.
YOU AND ME AGAINST THE WORLD by Martine Bury
I am sitting in the home of a gorgeous, famous black actor. A hottie. His skin is ebony and his muscles are toned. There are empty beer bottles everywhere, sultry British music playing. And we're at the point in the interview when we get too much like old friends who used to kiss. We reminisce about Brooklyn and the Haitians we knew growing up. He flirts a little. We spill beans about sex and dating. Then he says something and my knees go weak-for I am self-conscious. He says, "You're the kind of sister that would probably turn her nose up at a brother and not give him the time of day." I don't know how he got my number. But I have a story I wish I'd told him in my defense.
I used to be a strong woman. I even considered myself a modern black woman. But six years ago I had to get stronger over eggplant parmesan. I was sitting at a dinner table with the then love of my life and his Texan parents. We were dining at Santerello on the Upper West Side ogling antipasto and getting drunk on red wine. It was a genteel scene. My mother and father were conspicuously absent- visiting with friends somewhere in Queens, where I should have been. My man and I had just announced that we wanted to move to Texas together. I don't know what I was thinking. It was my Normandy Beach approach to love in full-blown play. So far from East Flatbush where I was born and South Miami where I grew up. Haiti I had buried somewhere just beneath the surface for the night.
These were really reserved Texans, which made the air thick with unanswered questions. We were all laughing in a guarded way. The dining room was claustrophobic in thick red velvets and heavy woods. Still, as I said, I was in love and these were the colors of earth, familiar skin, tall tree trunks, and a dozen red roses. I was wearing a yellow dress to counteract the stress in my face and bring out those undertones people say I glow with. I wanted to be their friendly yellow rose rather than their black rose, in Texan parlance. There's an offensive Waylon Jennings song that goes "The devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own/ Better leave that black rose alone." Waylon understated, but my boyfriend's mother, under the influence of too much Chianti, would not be stopped. She and her husband began a conversation that went like this. As if I wasn't there:
I ran to the bathroom to cry. Ralph and Linda were their next-door neighbors of Mexican descent who comprised the majority of their ethnic friends. Texas was not New York. Maybe their son and I could live together in New York, or the Bay Area, but not in Texas.
At the time I was not sure just what my parents thought. I never asked because it would have been like talking about sex. In fact, it would have been talking about sex. I presumed that in the Caribbean there was unspoken encouragement of interracial dating. Half Indian, part French, two-thirds Arab… you know the drill. My father stayed silent on the issue. My mother was agreeable. It was generally the same response they'd had to every decision I ever made. Summer college. Columbia. Brazil. Freelance writing.
I was a student at Columbia University, and I loved the anonymity of New York at nineteen. With a lover you could blend into the throngs, virtually unnoticed. Part of the landscape of the city are the lovers that fit like the fixtures of dilapidated city apartments: original moldings, faucets, and such. Lovers fit in so well against buildings and urban decay because they are so oblivious to the sweat, crowds, and screechy-bumpy arrested traffic. In a Woody Allen movie, you fall in love with falling in love in the city at the Museum of Modern Art or in Central Park. You always notice the lovers, often mismatched, happy to sit too close on packed subways. There is certain freedom in the back of a yellow taxi to stare into goo-goo eyes, touch and kiss, not mindful of the meter, drunk drivers, or a cabby rolling his eyes at the window display of complete lack of self-control. I would sometimes look at the Haitian name on the I.D. card and think, This man could be my uncle or my father.
Before I messed with Texas I'd had my first significant romance with a graduate student in Russian studies. I noticed then the ostracism that would come to define my lovelife. I would hold hands with my boyfriend and members of the Black Students Association would trip on me as I tripped over campus cobblestone and he would stop me from falling. It's hard to say that their stares were hateful or judgmental. Maybe it was just me projecting my guilt for not being the black girl every one wanted me to be. I was, for the moment, maybe the one that the boyfriend wanted. Trying to belong to him, to me, to my family as well as the Black Students Association, the Haitian Students Association, and the Caribbean Students Association (only a few of the groups of which I never officially became a member). It was like Woody Allen quoting Groucho Marx in Annie Hall about not joining any club that would have him as a member.
Bedrooms are such sacred spaces because they allow you the freedom to explore the things that are truest about you in dreams and with another body. I couldn't say I saw my reflection in my lover's eyes. But I wondered about his fascination with me. Our skin contrasted as much as our styles did. I had extensions in my hair that he loved to look at-but not to touch. It was hard explaining the hair thing to him when he'd secretly looked as if he wanted to touch something about me that was real. As with my Senegalese twists, the line between real and fantasy somehow was blurred. If I stared at my hand on his stomach long enough it would look like a little brown island on a pale pink sea. I wondered if we could ever disappear into each other. I still think of this rather neutrally. As we do with all private thoughts when we're naked. But outside-if we went too far up the Upper West Side, I would be castigated in a glance or by a declaration. "I can't believe she brought a white boy up in Harlem." As if I wasn't there.
From the time we were eight years old, my best friend from childhood and I would sit around spinning tales and telling each other our dreams. I hate to confess it, but we were expert liars. Still, each day after school we'd report to each other elaborate tales of how we'd look, what we'd wear when we were twenty and courting or married to various rock stars and actors. Barring Prince and Michael Jackson, the list was pretty conventional: Leif Garrett, Andy Gibb, Sting, Rick Springfield, Carey Elwes, and Christopher Atkins. George Michael and Andrew Ridgely from Wham! took entirely too big a chunk of our time and creativity. But it went on for years. Shining white knights who would take us away from our little Caribbean community in Miami. My friend's Jamaican parents and my Haitian parents were always conspicuously absent from our ritual imaginings as were families and neighborhoods, patois, Kreyol, griyo, and jerk meats.
By high school we'd grown apart, but we still got together to talk about relationships-mostly hers. She had a series of sports-playing significant others. And I'll make it plain: Black boys were not into me. I tried to be down and alluring. I sometimes even let the basketball and football heroes copy my homework. Romantically, however, it was no go. I read Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy my first year in college. The main character lives in New York and works as an au pair who sexually crosses racial lines. I got it. It was going to be hard to be any kind of black intellectual as long as you were sleeping with the enemy. James Baldwin wrote about this all the time, making the boudoir the battleground of race war, too.
My grandmother had always shown me photos of my great grandfather who was practically white. She told me while combing my hair that she had a near ancestor who'd fought in Napoleon's army. My aunts and uncles and I have always had white friends. Some have intermarried. I look at my folks' meticulous photo-documentaries of my birthday parties, which were always exceptionally multicultural. I know that they didn't orchestrate this universe for me. It's hard figuring out what my people think of the Man because no one ever said a word to me until recently.
My hippest aunt and I were munching on sushi once. She reported that there were pretty harsh rumors circulating in the family about the fact that I only date white men. Only? was my response. It was the same tone I'd used toward my grandmother when I had my hair braided (and when I went natural). She'd asked me on both occasions: "Do you think you are an African?"
"I am just me," I said, sensing that I was never going to make her happy.
I have to say there is something so surreal about having your lover reach over to you in fascination and ask can he touch your kinky hair or tell you that he has never dated a black woman before. There is something cruel and unforgiving when your lover leaves you because he secretly doesn't know how to take love to the marriage point because of the possibility of beige babies. Or because his family is truly irked by you. And there are a lot of utterly disturbing things men have told me like, "There's nothing hotter than a bald black woman giving me head." (I was not bald!) Or, "I find how dark you are really sexy."
Still, I have trodden very foreign territories. I have had blue lights dimmed and Donna Summer played by boys who listened to Rundgren when disco was the shit because they thought it was appropriate. I was told in bed by a French man that I called to his mind Lauryn Hill-but more sauvage. But I have also known sweetness. You know, when it all comes down to warmth and eyes staring into each other. So for all these convoluted reasons, I apologize to the tall lanky writer who loved me so very hard he broke both our hearts. He was so country club that I could not hold his hand on 14th Street because I was freaked out by our juxtaposition. Like many black women with their white boyfriends-I didn't want to draw attention. I averted my glance, especially in Brooklyn.
A couple of years ago my therapist, who happened to be white, asked me why I didn't choose someone else to spill my guts to. Presumptuously, I believed at the time that she was titillated by my dating practices. I probably gave her some song and dance then. It hardly seemed an issue to be tortured by. A boyfriend I accused of fetishizing black women told me point blank: "Some men like blondes!" But there were so many whom I wouldn't really touch or kiss in public because I found it exhausting. I felt similarly about seeing a therapist who looked like me. That I would be outed before one of my own seemed like something terrible. It is hard to understand why I lived in so much conflict. I guess I looked back with my psychologist at a stereotypical history of strong Haitian women who emasculated their men and what-not. But I think it's all bullshit now. I open my bedroom door just a crack to the public. Let the people stare because the people have to see me for who I am. Used to feel like a crumbling fortress with Haitian-Black-American rubble falling fast and fragmenting into a billion little pieces. But no more.
One of the great men of my heart was an entertainment industry bigwig. And I loved his world because I felt free and safe in it. It was my girl-child fantasy. In a larger-than-life kind of life, you can swing whatever way you want because people are gonna give you respect no matter what. Illusory? Yes. But this idea made me stronger.
I used to hate that black male celebs could flaunt their white girlfriends and wives, while you rarely even heard about a black actress's love life. I do thank this man for our romantic dalliance. When he broke my heart, I didn't suddenly become paranoid about the great divide. He had been my closest intellectual and emotional mate. When he left my life, I noticed, like a fool, finally, that pain is just pain. He had once made the most tender observation: He was standing somewhere watching an attractive white man with dreadlocks play with his two cafe au hit babies. He was so enamored with this vision of what he saw as a real option for himself. When we were together, it didn't occur to me that I was an object of conquest or desire. I now open myself to the universe for a true soul companion.
Sure I want a lover who can dance konpa, who's read Baldwin and Achebe and Toni Morrison. I want to say something scandalous about what sends my pulse racing, like tan lines and good diction. I cannot say who fits this bill or what he will look like. But at my shrink's suggestion and for my own peace of mind-here is a note to the man I will always love most.
I am told many black women are attracted to men who are the opposite of their fathers. But I don't believe this because I think you and I are so much alike. You are my most treasured model of humanity-loving and complex. No kind of man represents stability or real love better or worse than you do. Just like you, I've always wanted family and community to see me how I want to be seen. So I have unpacked a bit of my emotional baggage. Above are some things about me I want you to learn. I don't doubt that you accept me, I have never worried much about the world doing so. Thank you for letting me be myself.
MASHE PETYON by Katia Ulysse
It's been seven years since I have been home. I would run a thousand miles now to reach that man who sits on his little wooden stool, day after day, under the scorching Haitian sun, to sell his art in order to buy more supplies with which to quench the undeniable thirst in his heart. Under the cacophony of shrill voices and riotous laughter at Mashe Petyon, the marketplace at the center of Petionville, the artist would spend hours watching the vendors and their customers haggling over the price of sugar and bread. Then, with unchallenged genius, he would wave his brushes across the canvas to capture their movements: the fine lines around the women's eyes, the tiny beads of sweat on their brows.
It would thrill me to join those three sun-baked women, barefoot in one of his paintings, as they wash their clothes in a placid brook surrounded by gigantic mapou trees and emerald shrubs. I should have been there, at that perfect moment, when the artist painted blue-and-gold water that made concentric circles around and around the women's ankles, the skirts twisted to one side and tucked into waists to stay dry. Only the heartbreaking melodies of Pierre Cine's acoustic guitar could describe the emotions invoked by the way the scarves are wrapped around the women's heads in hibiscus greens, yellows, and reds.
I would give anything to place my bare hands on the majestic coconut tree that dominates the canvas; its deep green leaves reaching toward the cloudless blue sky, streaked at the horizon with purple, saffron, and amber. At the heart of the shrubs looms the painted shadow of nightfall. Atop it all is a single hut that has one window, one door, and an unseen breeze that gives the thatched roof a permanent sway above which seven black birds hover. Forever.
My friend, who just returned from Haiti, tells me there are few trees left in the mountains; no more lush shrubbery. She says the brooks are parched, leaving rocks buried beneath burning heaps of refuse and mud. The roads are narrow and jagged; many lead to nowhere, and the stench in the streets surrounding Petionville's cemetery is unbearable.
It's been seven years since I have seen my home. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I envision myself lying on the naked earth inside of my great-grandmother's peristil, a modest structure of concrete and clay. The walls of the main room are murals dedicated to ancestors and various lwas, the memories of whom must never fade. To the right is Our Lady of Czestochowa; the black virgin has three vertical scars on her cheek. She is holding a child. "That is Ezili," my great-grandmother told me in a hushed voice. "She is the vengeful mother. She will leave you alone as long as you don't bother her child. But touch her child the wrong way, and you will pay." Then my great-grandmother began to sing the same little song I catch myself humming sometimes: "Ezili, they say you eat people. How many have you eaten? Those who speak well, my eyes will protect. Those who speak ill, I will devour."
To the left is a mural of Saint Gerard in his clerical dress. He is standing next to a skull and white lilies on a table. My great- grandmother pointed to that wall and said, "That is Gede." Then she sang a different song: "When they need me, they say I am Gede; when they don't want me, they say I am garbage…"
Those melodies will never escape from my memory.
"There are many, many lwas," my great-grandmother told me. "Each one has a special song." She taught me the names of all the spirits and sang their songs so that I would pass that knowledge to my own great-grandchildren one day.
Today I live in Washington, D.C., thousands of miles and an ocean away from that peristil, from the lwas, the spirits, and images that inspired my great-grandmother's songs. But sometimes I find myself on that dirt floor and feel the grains of three hundred years against my skin. I see the rainbow of sequined flags decorating the walls and the center altar, covered with calabash bowls, oil lamps, and layers of candle wax that congealed in labyrinthine patterns. Sun rays filter through the holes in the tin roof, dust spirals heavenward; an avalanche of dreams buries me on that dirt floor, and I am born again.
I see the room that my great-grandmother had forbidden me to enter. I was five years old, holding her big hand, feeling safe among the marred faces of old women out of whose throats ancient chants soared above the flames of bonfires that burned for days to the relentless Kongo beat of goatskin drums. The elders agreed my eyes were much too young to view the secret room of souls and uncertain crossroads.
The last time I was home I went into that room. My great-grandmother had been dead for years; I felt that I had her permission somehow. The mystery quickly unfolded before my eyes. I had imagined that there would be more substantial things than the altars of cracked cement upon which stood small clay jars covered in layers of orange-colored dust, pieces of deteriorating fabric and broken black and red bead necklaces. The room itself was decaying. Several aluminum plates and containers made from dried calabash shells still bore the traces of disintegrated offerings: corn, sweets, yams and malanga just like they sold at Mashe Petyon, a picture of which hangs on my living-room wall.
It has been seven years since I have been home, but I visit Mashe Petyon every morning when I get out of bed with the scarf still tied around my head that keeps my dreams from falling. I look at the wall in my apartment and there they are: an ocean of black women squatting before their wide wicker baskets, their colorful skirts tucked between their legs. These women chatter among themselves, arguing and laughing with sheer abandon.
Sometimes, if the night before was easy, I'm right in there with them laughing as the morning sun travels across the sky, across the straw roof, along my black skin. I rest my head against the wall the way the sugarcane leans against the poles that hold the tent up above the marketplace and keep the invisible lines that divide secure. I know these women who sell bright yellow plastic plates, aluminum skillets, dried codfish, fried plantain, and charcoal. I recognize every one of their faces. Even when the painter exaggerates their features and makes their limbs like giraffes', I get inside the wooden frames and haggle with them the way my great-grandmother did when she took me along to buy the sugar she would sprinkle over sliced tomatoes for breakfast. With a hand cocked on her hip, a serious tone of voice, and steady vigilance in her smoky age-grayed eyes, she would ask for fifty cents' worth of oil, spices, a cup of rice, a pound of beef, and two eggplants to prepare the white-rice-and-legume supper.
It's been a lifetime since I was the little girl-child who sat on the porch at twilight with my great-grandmother, Madan Deo, to listen to her stories about women who shed their skin and took to the skies during the darkest hours of night. Madan Deo told me about the tall man who roamed the streets at midnight and spoke to no one. Met Minwi was his name, Master of Midnight. I always sat at her knees and faced her so that I would not have to look at the shadows which our little cotton tree threw onto the unpaved road. Shadows and the lamplight often resulted in such a macabre duet.
"Tim tint?" she would say before telling me a riddle.
"Bwa sech," I would answer, giving up quickly because my efforts to solve her riddles would rob me of the chance to hear more of the stories that her own grandmother must have told her. I wish I had asked her why she kept the old dress in which her mother, Madan Zepherin, had died. That dress hung on the wall for many years like a favorite picture.
One night, Madan Deo looked right past me toward the street beyond the porch and said, "Tim tim?"
Before I could answer, my great-grandmother stood and walked into the house. She said something about getting a cup of water and that she would return soon. She closed the door behind her to keep the insects from flying inside. Time went by and she did not return. I went to the door and tried to open it. It was locked.
"Bwa sech." I cried.
I turned to look at the dark road beyond the porch. The long shadow lingering at the foot of the porch told me that someone was there. I pounded on the door and called out to Madan Deo. "Bwa sech. Let me in. I give up. I am afraid."
It has been a lifetime since I was the little girl-child who huddled in the corner of the porch hiding and hoping that Met Minwi would not see me. I dared not breathe. The shadow waited at the porch. It had a pulse. Someone was there. 1 dared not look. I wanted to run inside the house, where Madan Deo would keep me safe throughout the night even if a hundred flying, skinless lougawous fell through the tin roof.
I opened my eyes for a brief moment. The long shadow stood still from behind the cotton tree-a few feet from where I was. I covered my eyes again and held my breath.
"Tim tim?" Madan Deo asked.
At last, she had come to save me. I took her hand and tried to pull her into the house. She shook me loose and told me, as she had done many times before, "Dyab pe dyab; dyab pa manje dyab." She told me there was nothing in this world to fear. Devils fear one another but one cannot destroy the other without destroying himself. I looked into the street and saw the long shadow inching away. It passed before the porch but I did not see him.
"I wanted you to see him," my great-grandmother whispered. "I wanted you to see him the way Madan Zepherin made me see him. Because until you look him in the eye and learn that you can still survive, you will always be afraid of something in this life."
It's been seven years since I walked by the melting black candles and plates of food offerings at the shrine of Baron Lakwa on the way to visit my great-grandmother's grave at Petionville's cemetery. I thought of the stories Madan Deo recounted about Baron, a lwas who stands guard at the crossroads between this life and the other. I thought about the Gede, the spirit that danced in my grandmother's head. They say Gede Nimbo, the protector of children, was her favorite. One of the rooms in the peristil was dedicated to him. When I held her hand as a child, during the ceremonies, people often called her Papa Gede. And they would point at me and say, "That child is Gede's granddaughter."
"Devils may fear one another," I can hear Madan Deo say from beyond, "but one cannot destroy the other." And I wonder…
Had I not covered my eyes on that warm night so long ago, I would not wake up every morning in search of shadows between the brushstrokes of a painter's version of Mashe Petyon. And perhaps I would not be so afraid to go home today.
POUR WATER ON MY HEAD: A MEDITATION ON A LIFE OF PAINTING AND POETRY by Marilene Phipps
GAME OF HEARTS
We all know that to live is to fight. There are two kinds of battles: the ones life demands of us, and the ones we demand of life. Painting and Poetry are my battlefields. And to be honest, I don't know whether they are what I demand of life or what life demands of me: There are days when it is clear that it doesn't make a bit of difference in the world whether I do the work or not-and those days are like rain upon fire-and there are days when it seems clear I have a life mission-and those are wind in the sail.
To me, painting and poetry are living entities, at times unconscious ones, who relate to each other and to me like people in a "relationship"-living parallel lives that occasionally, and hopefully often, intersect intensely and meaningfully, all the while preserving the potential to remain fully independent of each other.
Becoming a painter and a poet had not been a planned, carefully thought-out affair. This persona crystallized after much "meandering." In the years before going to Philadelphia for an MFA at Penn, I had been an undergraduate student in anthropology at Berkeley. It was then that I returned to Haiti and began research in the Vodou religion. I wanted to understand the mysterious hushed stories of my childhood. I became initiated.
During this return to Haiti I began to paint. The paintings of that period were probably my first ones to express a kind of exile, a longing for an internal, mythical Haiti-my paradise lost.
WAITING FOR PRAYER
It is clear that all art forms share the same technical concerns, such as form, composition, texture, rhythm, balance. All art forms share the same need to express mood, vision, ideas, and life experience. All art forms require a constant editing so that harmony and tension can work interestingly together. What fuels the creative process are an individual artist's themes, all of which affect the trademark characteristics by which we recognize a work.
Instant recognizable trademark for me: Haiti! I was born in Haiti and growing up Haitian is most of the worth I have. I feel fortunate because Haiti is a place of rich cultural and visual uniqueness. I am a painter from Haiti and I am proud of it. Yet I am sometimes leery of being called a Haitian painter, because this can become a label used to ghettoize.
I grew up near water, collected tadpoles at a river where women came to wash themselves, their children, their clothes. Men, too, came to wash, and brought their animals to bathe and drink. Water brings life and is used in rituals to evoke spiritual cleansing, renewal, transition to another world:
… Pour water on my head
so the sun might glimmer
on me. It is for hope that God
will pull them up by the hair to heaven…
Water is part of my vocabulary of exile and of longing. Houses speak of home lost and rebuilt; they shelter the body's memory of life, of dreams, and of God. Doors suggest and allow passages. Windows offer vision, the lure of light, outward or inward.
With my work I try to take people to Haiti-the place where I was born, where I grew up, where my sensibility was formed, my first impressions made. And I take people inside of Haiti, beyond the exotic facade of blue sky, palm trees, beaches, bright colon, and smiling natives; beyond politically disheveled Haiti, economically depressed Haiti, international-aid Haiti, brandishing-sticks-and-machetes Haiti, boat-people Haiti; beyond the America-has-had-enough-of-these-unruly-blacks kind of Haiti. I take people into Haiti's depth, its originality, its richness, its source of strength and creativity, its heart, psyche and soul, its religion, its Vodou.
I have often been asked how I can paint such a luminous, exuberant and bright Haiti when all news about Haiti abounds with accounts of the distress of Haitians, and particularly that of the boat people. My response is that I am not an illustrator for Newsweek. I am an artist. I don't have to focus on the same events journalists are meant to report. Yes, Haiti is poor and suffers from terrible economic and sociopolitical problems. But that is not all that Haiti is. If either painting or poetry can be seen as a form of prayer, one could say that the brightness in my images is a prayer for Haiti itself. Praying for the color of light is what I am able to do for Haiti with my work as well as challenge the multitude of negative stereotypes the world has been taught about its people.
Unique in so many ways, Haiti is the place of another kind of prayer house. Everything in Haiti is permeated by the complex world of Vodou. It is the essential filter and fabric of Haitian culture. When I enter the myths and religion of Haiti, I enter a world of exquisite lyrical imagination and freedom, yet of exacting, elaborate, and minutely structured rituals created only to allow timeless wisdom and intelligence to reveal itself to us in spirit possession. Vodou's spirits are gathered and ordered within specific families, numbers of which are recognized by and worshipped for their very distinct personality traits and functions.
Living in another country, I use my pen or my brush to voice incantations to a particular world that has created me and, to a certain extent, now uses me to re-create itself.
POUR WATER ON MY HEAD
Technically speaking, I can paint any place, but if I choose one place, it has to do with its meaning-art is an act and effort of communication. Art cannot survive as only a self-indulgent endeavor. Haiti offers me items of meditation into which, because of my particular connection to the country, I can tap and develop further. Cambridge, where I now live, offers me a nurturing environment. Populations of the world are no longer being confined to their original shores. Different cultures are colliding with each other in close quarters and entering each other's consciousness. Through people like me, a Haitian-born painter and poet, foreign imagination is entering the American consciousness and system of reference. Many of us, the uprooted, may have come empty-handed but certainly not empty-hearted. I came with all that I had been and felt before. With all that my parents had been and felt before. With all that my ancestors had been and felt before. With the company of Spirits. So I continue to live and fight even in those days when there is no wind in my sails. I continue to
… Pour water on my head
so the sun might glimmer
On all of us.
CHAINSTITCHING by Phebus Etienne
After I buried my mother, I would see her often,
standing at the foot of my bed
in a handmade nightgown she trimmed with lace
whenever I was restless with fever or menstrual cramps.
I was not afraid, and if her appearance was a delusion,
it only confirmed my heritage.
Haitians always have relationships with the dead.
Each Sabbath I lit a candle that burned for seven days.
I created an altar on the top shelf of an old television cart.
It was decorated with her Bible, a copy of The Three Musketeers,
freesia, delphinium or lilies if they were in season.
My offering of her favorite things didn't conjure
conversations with her spirit as I had hoped.
But there was a dream or two where she was happy,
garnets dangling from her ears,
and one night she shuffled some papers,
which could have been history of my difficult luck
because she said, "We have to do something about this."
She hasn't visited me for months.
I worry that my life is an insult to her memory,
that she looks in and turns away
because I didn't remain a virgin until I married,
because my debts will remain unforgiven.
Lightning tattoos the elms as florists make
corsages to honor living mothers.
I think of going to mass at St. Anne, where she was startled
by the fire of wine when she received her first communion.
But I remember that first Mother's Day without her,
how it pissed me off to watch a seventy-year-old daughter
escort her mom to sip from the chalice.
Yesterday, as the rain fell warm on the azaleas,
I planted creeping phlox on my mother's grave,
urging the miniature flowers to bloom larger next year
like the velvet petals of bougainvillea that covered our neighbor's gate.
I crave a yard to plant lemon and mango trees as she did.
Tonight, I mold dumplings for pumpkin stew,
add a dash of vinegar for spice as she taught me, sprinkle my palms with flour before rolling the dough between them.
I will thread my needle and embroider a coconut tree on a place mat,
keep stitching her presence in my life.
MADE OUTSIDE by Francie Latour
It was like a reunion with a stranger. Like many children of immigrants born and raised in the United States, I have skated precariously along the hyphen of my Haitian-American identity. On one side, I bask in the efficiencies of American life: mail-order catalogs, direct-deposit checking, and interoffice envelopes. From the other side, I take the comfort food of Haitian oatmeal and tap into the ongoing debate Haitians love more than any other: politics. It's an endless menu of traits and qualities that I access and draw from, mixing and matching to fit the situation. But I knew that my return to Haiti wouldn't allow me to pick and choose as I pleased. My identity would no longer be defined by me; it would be defined by the Haitians around me.
Eleven years had passed since I had visited the many relatives who still live on the island. I longed to see them and store up new, vivid memories to replace the ones time had turned into faded snapshots.
"Why Haiti?" colleagues in the newsroom asked. Why should a Hampton Roads newspaper report on a third-world Caribbean island? The question made me impatient.
Why Haiti? Because one year before, Americans had changed the lives of its seven million people by sending twenty-one thousand troops there. Because one year later, Haitians continued to live with-and in spite of-that intervention. And because Haiti's social and cultural landscape is far more textured than the images offered by network television: Haitians as boat people, as AIDS carriers, as PWoH-enthralled zombies. There was no excuse for Americans to know so little about, or think so little of, a neighbor whose history and future are so intertwined with theirs.
Still, as I packed my bags, I felt more like an intruder trespassing onto property that was in no way mine, not a proud descendant carrying the torch back to the mainland. What could I tell Americans about a country whose poverty was not my poverty?
My claim to Haitianness was about to be tested. As the airplane touched down on Haiti's cracked soil, the hyphen that held me together started to feel more like the fulcrum of a seesaw whose plank was about to tip on one end or the other.
Haiti, from the window of American Airlines flight 1291, is white sun, blue ocean, brown mountains. Even from this high, the color of the soil is barren and unkind. Since the last time I had this view, much of Haiti's land has been deforested.
Inside, a flight attendant goes into an unusually long explanation about customs forms. She walks through the aisles, where some Haitians flag her down with raised hands. The fact that she is helping them fill out forms they can't read won't come to me until days later.
Outside the airport, the parking lot is a dusty chaos of barbed wire, begging crowds, and obliquely parked cars. The boy begging for money by our car is too young to be a hustler. His fingers hang inside my window; the nails are blunt and crusted with coal-colored dirt. As the car begins to pull away, he doesn't let go. He hangs on and runs with the car, pleading. That is when I make my choice. I stop asking myself how old he is, where his parents are, and when his last meal was. I block him out; I make him disappear. It will be the hardest choice of the entire journey, but it's so easy compared with the life this boy must live.
Beth Bergman, a white American photographer who works for the newspaper, is also here. For Beth, who has never been to Haiti and understands little of its ways, I am an interpreter, a buffer, and a bridge. But to a passerby who eyes us as we make our first forays into the street, I am a traitor. I am the one who has "brought whites to photograph our trash and ask us how much it smells."
To a homeless woman washing off her plate with sewage water, I am an opportunity, for money, for food, for water. Here in this isolated country, where electricity and phone lines are chancy, some of the most media-sawy people I have ever met work their spin of survival on the foreign press.
"I have no money," she says, coming toward us. "I built a house and they tore it down. I have to take my son to the hospital and I can't afford it. What are you going to do for me?"
Without knowing why, I start listing my Haitian credentials: my relatives who live here, my trips here as a child. But this woman is too smart and too poor to care. To her, I am still a stranger. An American stranger.
Beside her, her son, no older than five, looks up into the lens of the camera. Across his face comes the slow realization that he is no longer the same person he was a second ago. He is a commodity now. He's the face of poverty that we will capture and bring back with us to sell newspapers. So he acts accordingly: The liquid brown eyes grow wider, the small hand tugs at mother's skirt, the head tilts with innocence.
I have no right to be surprised at this. As a reporter, I want them to tell me their story; I don't want them to implicate me in it. But how can I fault them? This mother knows already what I am afraid to admit to myself: A one-year anniversary story about Haiti that enlightens Hampton Roads readers won't do anything for her or her baby.
It's 7:10 a.m. Sunday. Beth and I stand outside Saint Gerard Church in the cool breeze before the day's punishing heat sets in. It took hours to pick out the one nice blouse I knew I would need to bring for church. Dressing up is part of Sunday worship, no matter how rich or how poor one is. Etched in my mind are black-and-white images of my mother as a young girl in a ruffled white dress bordered with lace, her cotton socks perfectly folded over.
Today, women file in through the church doors in long, cotton dresses and checkered skirts; the men wear paisley ties and leather shoes.
Just before I take my seat inside, a woman next to me points to my sleeveless silk shirt and whispers, "They're not going to give you communion dressed like that. You didn't cover your arms enough. You need sleeves."
But later as we wound our way of the capital's main cemetery, where Catholic rites merge with Vodou rituals in sacred beauty, I realize that I would need far more than a pair of sleeves to belong.
For many Haitian immigrants and their children, Vodou is a loaded word. Nine years ago, I watched an episode of Miami Vice through what I thought were Haitian eyes. I hated it. In my mind, it invoked pretty much every stereotype of Vodou and the Haitians who practice it. By the third commercial break, Vodou serum had turned Detective Tubbs into a zombie. Dazed by the pounding chants of crazed Haitian worshippers, the rogue cop became possessed. He twitched miserably with fever. Even his partner, Crockett, couldn't snap him out of it. From the TV in the basement of my parents' house, I smoldered in anger. No one watching this would understand the complexity of this African-based religion that meant so much to Haitians, nor the symbolism of the gods that made up its hierarchy.
At the entrance to the main cemetery in Port-au-Prince, a sign in black letters reads, YOU ARE NOTHING BUT DUST. On any given day here, solemn processions of mourners draped in rosaries prop each other up as they walk beside caskets. But today, what we find is an angry woman determined to curse an enemy.
It's the first Vodou ceremony I've ever seen, and I can't make sense of it. The woman splashes clear moonshine and dark rum around a charred stone cross. On a straw chair in front of the cross, a flame burns inside a metal bowl. Her thin, tough arms tie a rope around the cross into a tight knot. Later, she will toss salt and crack eggs around the cross to ward off any bad spirits that could interfere with her mission.
"She's calling on the god Baron," Faubert, our driver, tells me. "Baron is a Vodou god. When she ties the rope around the cross, it's like she's tying it around a person. And from now on, when that person tries to do anything, he won't do it right. He can do nothing good anymore because Baron has that person tied up."
Beside me, Beth is crouched down, snapping pictures. I hear the opening and closing of the shutter in slow motion, and my thoughts split off in all directions. How is what comes through my lens any different than the view from Hollywood cameras that once enraged me? I try to unravel the symbols and chants, but I keep hitting a cultural wall. I don't have the knowledge.
In the warped recesses of my mind, I ask myself this question: If I were ever put on trial by a Committee for Haitian Authenticity, how would I defend myself? How would I explain what has led me and my friend to this place, scribbling and shooting furiously for an American audience?
At the end of my workday, a battery of questions awaited me at my grandmother's house in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Was I doing well in my career? How is my older brother, her godson? Did I have a boyfriend? Would I ever bear her great-grandchildren? And why did I cut my hair so short?
"You've accomplished too much in your young life to be walking around with a head like that," she says, inspecting my closely cropped cut. "You've got to think about getting married."
When I used to come to Haiti with my family, this is where we would stay. Each step through the house brings back another memory: the blue-green bathroom tiles where I nursed mosquito bites with Caladryl and cotton swabs; the kitchen where my grandmother stirred long sticks of cinnamon and vanilla extract into the breakfast oatmeal; my uncle Eddie's room off in the comer where no one was ever supposed to go.
Standing over the dining-room table, she shows us pictures of her cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II and her journeys in the Spanish countryside. "I am eighty years old," she says, "and I have lived a good life." That is all she wants for her children and her grandchildren.
When I graduated from college three years ago, my grandmother came for the long day of ceremonies. When they called my name to receive my diploma, my grandmother shouted louder than anyone else. I could actually hear her cheering as I climbed the steps and reached for my degree. I am the granddaughter who has succeeded in America.
"You were made outside." This is the way many Haitians speak of those of us who were born or grew up in the United States. It is as much a badge of pride as it is a stinging resentment. The ones made outside have proven how well Haitians can flourish in the land of opportunity. But, in all our successes, we have also abandoned them. For Haitians who have struggled through the poverty and terror of daily life, there is no room for hyphens in a person's identity. Because I have not suffered with them, I can never be of them. The best I could hope for was to make my journey count. To take everything I was told and shown and tell a story in which both Haitians and Americans could see a sliver of themselves and of each other. A story that didn't tell the truth, but told the many truths I could never tell alone.
THE MILLION MAN MARCH by Anthony Calypso
It was about 10:30 p.m. or a little bit later when I started walking down the hill to the convenience store at the Mobil Station on Broadway. I couldn't figure out what snacks to buy for the trip because I didn't get to take trips very often. I can count on one hand how many times I've left town.
I took the long way down the hill, and ran into a friend of mine from Albany who was already two hours into his journey by the time he'd made it to Nyack.
"You going to the March?" he asked me. This brother had these big eyes and as I peered into his car in the darkness, they looked like floodlights. I felt something beginning to pump in me. I wanted to hop in the car with him and start the road trip right then and there, but I had a ticket for the bus, and about an hour longer to wait before it left. I looked again at his eyes and we started talking the way brothers talk sometimes. It's in the eyes. Like, say the both of us were checking out the same girl. The eyes might say, "Did you catch that?" Or if I was looking at some other cat's girl, the brother might stare me down or UPS me a quick message with his eyes like, "Bro, she's with me. You can stare up and down, but ain't nothin' you can do about it-might hurt your eyes, too." It's all in the eyes sometimes.
Anyway, I told him to watch out-there was going to be a massive police force all over the highways on the route to D.C. I hoped to convey this warning to him with my eyes, "It's October fifteenth, brother. Be careful on the road. Everyone knows about the March." There was way too much electricity in the air between us to even mouth that.
It finally started to click that I, too, was headed to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. The March was all over the news. I had caught a clip on CNN of some brothers who were from Seattle; they were already there. When I saw my boy jet off with a carload of folks to D.C, I felt like I was late even though the march hadn't really started yet. There was a current running through my body, pulling me like a chain. Get to D.C.
The street felt quiet, as if something was going to happen, that this something was so massive that a path would have to be cleared in order to move through it-I left the Mobil with a couple of snacks-some pudding, chips, a Snapple. I had a turkey sandwich at home. On the way back to my house, I ran into this cat who I only knew by sight.
"You know where we were lining up?"
"Corner of Franklin and Depew."
I walked with him around the corner and back to Franklin Street. I lived one block up from Franklin. As we walked up the street together, he started telling me about how he'd said good-bye to his folks. He asked me if I had said good-bye to my folks yet.
"Yeah, man. I told my moms and all my folks that if I don't make it back from D.C.-if something happens to me down there-I told them that I loved them."
"You gotta say good-bye to them."
Until he'd said that, I'd had every intention of making it back from D.C.-I hadn't thought about just how much could go wrong down there.
We were on Franklin talking and I was going to see him again pretty soon on Franklin. And the thing about Franklin-or at least the part of it where the bus was going to pull up-is that it's undeniably black. It's a pretty safe bet that if you walk or drive down Franklin, something in the air will give you the sense that it's a black neighborhood. It may be a couple of cars parked on the street corner playing music. Or a small crew of fellas talking on the corner, shooting dice, or just hanging out next to the laundromat. Or it may just be an unmarked police car circling the block. You might find some older folks sitting on porches, too. There are loud conversations here, and a person passing by might get to hear the way black folks can transform English. It can sound dirty, but crisp and proper too, on Franklin, and whichever way the language comes out, it seems somehow to lurk along the street. When kids play or yell down this way, it feels like their voices stick to the metal bars that surround the projects. In the same way, when the older folks talk, their words drift into the wall and live deep inside the brick and cement. A good chunk of black culture resonates at this intersection of Franklin and Depew. And because of that, this particular intersection makes the rest of the town look lily white.
Franklin is the first street you hit coming from the city, and it stretches from one side of town to just about the end of it-it goes from the rich to the poor sections, and it holds truth, with blood and footsteps smeared all over it. Footsteps can go any direction on Franklin Street. Space is tight here at this intersection. Everything here happens right on top of everything else. The projects form an imaginary border on Franklin Street, and they are surrounded by parking lots. The only vacant piece of land has been fenced off and transformed into a community garden. It's the only lush, green place in the area. At any given moment during the spring and summer, you'll find people in the garden nursing the vegetation. They have come to Franklin to do that.
I lived just off the intersection of Franklin and Cedar Hill when I was little. A couple of Rolls-Royces were always parked across the street in front of a garage. They were a customary part of the view from my living-room window. When I was a kid, I was poor and happy. As I got older, I began to feel poor and desperately hurt somehow by that feeling. I began to see differences, I began to feel what being poor was really about; and there was a constant blur in my vision because of that feeling. It made everything else feel blurry. The feeling gnawed at me, and for a long time being poor was the only detail I could actually focus on. I could almost hear it ringing in my head all day long. "I'm poor." It all looked poor. Everything. Every day I thought about it. I thought about the grime and the roaches and I thought about being called Haitian like that was a bad word. There is a woman who I still see now and then on Franklin Street. When I was little, she used to bang on our windows and scream, "Haitians, go home!"
There is very little distance between Franklin Street and myself. I grew up having to pass along Franklin every day, and however the street felt, it affected me. If it felt Haitian, then I did too. If it felt American, then it became a problem for me because I was an American who felt like a Haitian. If the street was quiet, then somehow I felt a little quiet also. Franklin Street was dead the day the rapper Scott La Rock was shot. Nothing happened. Nothing moved. I remember that much.
But the cat I was talking to right there on Franklin, and myself; any other cat who has crossed through Franklin, laughed on Franklin, fought on Franklin, or cried on Franklin; and anyone who has spent a hot summer night on Franklin trying to keep cool-about being poor or about being-makes up a part of this street. And anyone who has feared Franklin or felt the white on Franklin, or anyone who has felt Haitian on Franklin or anyone who has felt strong because of Franklin has meshed with the voices of this street and become part of it. And for whatever subtle, American reason, the bus to the Million Man March was going to pull up right on the corner where, if you want, you can get a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor or a three-dollar bottle of scented Muslin oil.
The electricity had me rattling off to my aunt when I got home from the Mobil. I had an uncle there too; he was visiting from Haiti and this was his first trip to America. He wanted to go to the March and I had been scrambling to try and find him a ticket for the bus. I even tried to get him a ride with the first brother I met on Broadway who I knew I could trust. My uncle didn't speak any English, so I couldn't send him down with just anyone. So when my boy told me that he wouldn't have room, I felt like that was it, there wasn't any way to get him to D.C. Maybe if there was space on the bus I could buy him a ticket at the lineup. I asked him if he was willing to go to the lineup, but by then the idea of going to the March was over for him.
"Lese sa," (Forget it, no big deal) he said to me.
When I got home, I crisscrossed the apartment trying to get everything together. I had maybe a half hour before the lineup. The battery to one of my cameras was still charging when I picked up the phone to call my mother. It was one of those calls I didn't want to make because the woman panics even when I go into the city for the day. She told me to be careful and underneath her voice I could hear her deepest thoughts. Boy, I wish you wouldn't go. This doesn't even concern you. Your entire family is Haitian. The March is for Americans. You're not an American, not entirely. Why do you always have to he the activist? What are you going to the March for? I didn't tell her that I loved her because I couldn't bring myself to believe I wouldn't be back and that this phone call was the last time I would speak to her.
But in the far outer left corner of my mind, I pictured a sudden unexplainable gas pipe explosion occurring on October 16, under D.C., in which a million plus black men die-story at eleven. With that idea in my head somewhere, I took my bus ticket out of its envelope. I had bought it the week before the March and every day when I came back from class I'd check the envelope because I'm neurotic. I needed to see that it was where I had left it. The first time I brought it home I snapped a picture of it and then put it in a drawer underneath some folders. My heart would start to race if I didn't see it immediately when I opened the drawer. Every day the envelope slipped underneath more folders. By the end of the week I checked it a couple of times a day. It looked like an invitation that someone might get for a graduation party. The ticket had put an end to about a year and a half of just talk. I said good-byes to my aunt and uncle and walked down the hill.
There were two brothers standing on the corner. The street was still a little quiet. I had the time and the space to try and set up a shot of the two guys, so I stepped out in the street and took the picture. A red jeep pulled up and then all of a sudden a caravan of cars pulled up to the curb. There was a mass of black people standing on Franklin, which is to say that aside from the actual physical bodies on the street there was also in the night a monstrous spiritual presence almost shaking the ground the way the floor shakes during a fraternal step show. It felt that spiritual-like somewhere above us there were slaves floating by and maybe there were some porters in the area with some railroad workers. There had to have been a few souls watching us on Franklin, maybe even the spirits of those who drowned in the sea on the way over here. I would love to believe that there was a whole congregation up there watching us and elbowing themselves in a frenzy, thinking themselves that this was what they waited four hundred years to see.
There were footsteps everywhere, and all sorts of brothers about to board the bus. There were women waiting too. They had come to send off their mates and husbands, their fathers and their sons. The scene was a little chaotic now, but at the same time it was very calm. The hustling and bustling on the corner of Franklin felt great. No one got angry and several fire engines crisscrossed the intersection where the bus was about to pull up-it was odd to see them driving by, particularly since an alarm hadn't gone off at all that night.
I started snapping pictures randomly. I took a shot of a woman looking out into the street; she was clutching her daughter from behind. The little girl smiled for me. Her tiny face and her half-shut eyes spill out from underneath the hat she's wearing. The mother looks pensive, she doesn't even notice the camera. The look on her face reminds me of how worried my own mother must have looked when she spoke to me on the phone.
A large gray bus rumbled over to the corner, and the line moved across the street to where the bus pulled up. A brother with a bow tie, a representative from the Nation of Islam, walked by real quiet and it felt like everyone's eyes were watching him and waiting for his instructions. He was going to ride on the bus with us to D.C.
The noise died down. We were told that we should have our bags opened so they could be searched. The search was about not taking chances. We could get stopped by the police at any point on the road for whatever reason. It was a light search, a happy search- I've been searched by the police before, and it feels much different. I was searched by the police for less than twenty seconds, but as I put my hands on the hood of the car that night, I had this swelling underneath the muscles in my eyes because it was clear there was nothing I could do about the search and about always feeling like I was under suspicion just for being a young black male. That night I was with a couple of friends and the police pulled us over for not having our headlights on. I can't say what I was thinking, but as the white policeman approached the car I had stepped out. It was a silly mistake, because as soon as I stepped out of the car, I became suspicious to him and he frisked me. I must admit, to the officer's credit, he was incredibly professional. I guess I just wanted him to see me as an individual, not as a suspect. Another time, I was walking down Broadway to get a cup of coffee; I watched a police officer follow me in his squad car all the way up the street. Finally he pulled over and asked me for identification. "You look like someone I might be looking for," he said. I have never committed a crime. But I showed the officer my I.D. that American night.
By now it was a liquid black night and if the ticket could talk it would have said that my fingers felt like bricks against its skin because I clutched onto it until the time came to fork it over. I got on the bus and moved toward the middle. Years ago I thought the back of the bus was the only place I could sit. It was where the cool people sat. It was from these folks that I learned a thing or two about having dark skin and about having nappy hair. These were all the things that belonged somewhere in the back. They were supposed to be underneath, hidden away in a trunk in some closet. They felt connected somehow, and they never left my mind even when I was trying to be cool-and being cool was the most important thing for me back then. Being cool meant that I was accepted. Among these people, all of whom were pretty much marginalized by poverty, I had another layer of blackness. I was one of these Haitians-those boat people, those funny-clothes-wearing people, those cats with AIDS, those people who speak funny. My uncle, not the one who asked to go to the March with me, had to fight his way back and forth to school when he first came to America from Haiti. Once, another uncle told me that I was from Africa. I didn't buy it for a second. When I was about nine, I developed an answer if someone asked if I was Haitian: I would say that I was West Indian. I was born here, and had never stepped out of this country, but no one accepted me as an American.
My favorite subject in grade school was history-I loved Washington, I loved Jefferson, I loved the war cards that Time/Life used to sell because they had stories on the back of them. I loved the American Revolution. I didn't love Crispus Attucks, a black hero of the American revolution, the first man killed in the Boston Massacre. I didn't know who he was. I loved the War of 1812. And in a school chock full of Haitian-American kids, we didn't learn a thing about the Haitian trinity of revolutionaries Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture, and Henri Christophe. It was only after getting out of the school system that I learned about American blacks and about myself. I was angry then, because when I finally began to get a sense of who I was and what I wanted to become, I regretted all the time I had wasted believing what other histories and other institutions said about me.
The bus got quiet for a couple of minutes before we rolled off. The elder cat on the bus led a prayer-we asked God for a safe trip. A couple of seats away there was a father sitting with his son, and I studied them hard. A part of me always studies a father sitting with his son. It's an involuntary act. As I watched them talking back and forth, my mind slipped back to another time when I was on the phone with a friend of mine. I made a joke and he started laughing and in the background his father started laughing too. The sound of the two of them laughing in clumsy union kept playing in my head. It became like music to me, listening to them laugh. Those notes of a father and son's laughter blended with the voices of the father and son next to me on the bus. The sound conveys a certain feeling to me. It's a certain sound that I have never had with my own father. When I heard my friend on the phone with his dad laughing, I realized there was a key sound that was missing whenever I shared a laugh with my father. Every laugh I've ever had with my father has been guarded. It's always been a weary laugh with him. There has never been just an easy, natural laugh between us. When I laugh with him on the phone or when I'm sitting in front of him, there's always something triggered, something underneath, and it always cancels out any comfort or ease that we might have felt. Every laugh has always been like two strangers breaking the ice, but over and over again. When I heard my friend on the phone with his father and when I saw the father and son on the bus together, I was overwhelmed by a sense that this laughter happened for these fathers and sons on a regular basis.
The men on the bus were like an extended family. Some of them I already knew; some had lived on or around Franklin. The word brother was used over and over. We were all brothers at this point, bound together by the same goal. The buzz on the bus felt a tiny bit divine. The last thing I remember before dozing off was the cool and steady purring of the bus engine. A brother was at the wheel and a brother owned the bus.
I woke up once to hear the bus driver arguing with a truck driver over the CB. The trucker had a southern drawl. He had said over the air, "I hear a whole bunch of niggers are heading down to D.C." It didn't sound real. I woke up to hear this drawl over the driver's CB and in that drawl I heard some of the reason I was going to the March. The casual and deceptive way that the trucker used the word nigger over the airwaves really got to me. It wasn't so much him, but more the general feeling that what he was saying was accepted in a broad American sense. It was that attitude I was hoping to counter by going to the March. I did not want to end up just as another American statistic. I did not want to show up in some American catalog as another young black male dead or in prison. I did not want to be beaten or disgraced by a cop who felt that it was okay to brutalize or kill a black male based on an accepted American suspicion of him, which on any given day, could mean me. On any given day my mother could get the call. Mrs. Calypso? We found your son with a gun. (I've never carried a gun or any weapon). Ma'am, your son looked suspicious. (I wear my hair in long dreadlocks.) We questioned him. He resisted the arresting officer. Please come and identify the body.
I wanted America to know that if my only crime was being black, then my mother would never survive that call. I wanted America to know that no mother can survive that call, and that call destroys families every day. I wanted America to know that there are families all over America trying to pick up the pieces that some Lone Ranger left behind while on his shift. I wanted America to know that I just want to work and live without any interruption of that. I wanted America to feel Franklin Street. I wanted America to know that I had been at a job for close to seven years and a white male on the job less than six months made more than I did. I wanted America to try to understand the kind of humiliation I went through every time I went to the bank to cash my check. There was more. There was much more.
By daylight we were in D.C. Radio reports stated that at least half a million other black men were pouring into the place at that very moment. Women waved to us on their way to work. They had a gleam in their eyes and I'm sure I did too. Part of the March was about this; it was about reconciling with women. And for me, it was just the first step. Maybe this would help me laugh-just laugh a good clean laugh. We got off the bus and walked toward the subway.
The train ride had everybody laughing somehow because the cars were packed-I don't think our car could have held another body. There was a young white woman on the platform who stood right next to me. In front of all these black faces, her own color must have gone through her mind, but I didn't get the feeling that she felt threatened. I spent the rest of the day obsessed with observing white people who were at the March. I would watch them and try to snap their picture.
As we emerged from the train, two Muslim women watched us from a trailer window. They never looked at me. One woman in particular had beautiful, piercing eyes. Our group dispersed into a sea of black men. By eight o'clock in the morning it was impossible to get to the front of the Washington Mall. I could not fathom the number of people I saw whenever I looked back into the crowd. Every tree was occupied; every statue framed with bodies; there were even people perched on stoplights. I was drawn to a group of Rastafarians who had formed a circle and were playing drums. I moved around with my uncle the entire day. We just kept moving as we met brothers from everywhere. I met a woman from the Bahamas. I looked up to one of the massive monitors to see who was speaking. The man said he'd just received a fax from Africa, and they were watching us. There was thunderous applause. Sometime later Rosa Parks stepped up to the microphone. I was awed to think that this tiny, delicate woman had helped bring us to the mall by refusing to sit in the back of a southern bus and starting the Civil Rights Movement. Without her, the March might have never existed. I saw her on the monitor and it was the first of many times that day I wanted to start crying. Her frail voice rang in my ears. I could feel my eyes getting really moist and I fought to keep from crying.
I fought that feeling all day. As a race of men, I felt like we had never really arrived until that day. The March was a step toward being seen as human. It felt like redemption to me. At no time did I feel nervous. Even if a bomb went off in the middle of the crowd, it felt like the spiritual presence of all our souls and those watching from above could and would contain it. And maybe the absence of that paranoia was what made me feel like crying. I didn't cry though. I had been holding back the water of my eyes long before the March. I still have the water from the March and water from before. I still have these tears. I have new ones, too.
I went off to one side and was about to sit down when I saw a white man standing like a pillar in the ground. He was frozen. He was holding an American flag upside down and he held a cardboard sign in front of the flag. The sign read: A MILLION AND ME. Scrawled on the flag were the words: UNITED WE STAND DIVIDED WE FALL. The man had large, ice-blue eyes and somehow he looked cornered. I didn't want to get too close because I was unsure just what he would do. He looked like a real-life Marlboro man. I guess I was scared of this man's courage, too. If someone called for a million white men to come to Washington, D.C., I would never show up, and I have good reason not to. At first, I figured this guy was some zany, white-boy leftist. I walked away from him, but I kept thinking about him. It took a couple of years and an incidental conversation before I realized what message he was conveying with the flag. In the military an upside-down flag is a distress signal. The truth of it shook me hard. There could never be an all-white or an all-black concern, we can't escape each other that way.
As we were leaving the mall and heading back toward the bus, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam began speaking. I only caught bits and pieces of his speech as I made my way through the streets of D.C. His voice floated through the air, his tone dipped into a subtle call, and he paused elegantly, then shifted as his speech became more serious. He spoke about responsibility, and the word hammered over the P.A. system and it sank into my eardrums and that was the message I carried home with me. I heard it over and over as I left the mall. Thousands of people registered to vote at the March, hundreds of thousands latched onto ideas and a million plus probably felt reborn or at least rejuvenated somehow. For me the March happened in tiny clips. Every step I had taken led me to D.C, and what America was moving toward and how it changed and how it stayed the same led me to D.C.
Most of the group from my neighborhood in Rockland County walked back together to where the bus was parked. Minister Farrakhan could be heard for what seemed like miles around. We boarded the bus and he was still talking. The sign on the bus read: THE CHICKENBONE EXPRESS. Someone next to me remarked that he was offended by the stereotypical implications of the sign, that all black people love chicken. The sign didn't bother me at all; what had happened on the mall that day had stomped all over any stereotype someone might have wanted to use. To me, the sign was harmless. Besides, I love chicken and I'm black. Pass me some chicken, I'll deal with the stereotype in my own way. Gracias.
I was going home reconciled. I felt American. I felt I had taken part in an American tradition. I felt our numbers couldn't be ignored and I felt that a lot of discussion that day all over the country would have to include black males and it would have to include a different way of looking at us. I didn't go home "angry" at anyone. In fact I felt better about America as a whole. I sensed from all the eyes around me that something very deep had been resolved for a lot of brothers. There hadn't been any violence to disrupt the March. And we were alive. There was no bomb under D.C.
I saw a brother the next day walking with his son on Franklin. I had never seen him walking with his son before. He had been on the bus. I made my way to the deli where I usually eat lunch and got into a conversation with a family from Tennessee. It was probably that drawl of theirs that provoked me into conversation with them. I had been talking about the March to someone else and the older southern woman looked at me and said with an intriguing twang that she had been "praying for us." I believed her. I believed what her eyes were saying to me, and I thanked her for her prayers because her prayers had fused with the spirit I was carrying from the March. I believed her because I imagined that everyone had been watching and praying for us. The slaves had been watching. The Quakers had been watching, and so had John Brown, Nat Turner, and George Jackson. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture and Henri Christophe were watching. So was Crispus Attucks. Servicemen like him were watching from their posts. And heroes were watching from their graves. The white man with the distress signal was watching somewhere. I believed her drawl. I believed her eyes. And for that moment, it felt impossible to be invisible.
IN SEARCH OF A NAME by Miriam Neptune
My first nightmare was provoked by a doll. She sat on my toybox, regal in her peasant dress and scarf. I dreamt that she cackled, and attacked my Spiderman comic book, then went after me. My mother saved me. She took the doll away and sent it back to my father.
I imagined my father as a bogeyman, like the macoutes my mother described to me from her childhood-they would take you away in the night. My father would arrive unannounced, with the court order, to take me for the weekend, even if I kicked and screamed, even if my mother cried.
In the fourth grade, we presented our family stories to the class. I announced that my parents were from Haiti. I repeated what my mother had taught me in singsong tones, "Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic. It is next to Puerto Rico and Cuba." My classmates laughed. They had already decided that I was an alien. The only Haiti they could imagine was an island where "everybody hates each other."
1986 was the year my father left. I remember he drove by our house in Los Angeles on his way to New York with his new family. He sent for me during Easter. I remember not caring. Maybe a father was like a first cousin-someone you played with once a year.
On one trip my father and I explored the city together, recording everything we saw. There is still a magic that takes over when I remember holding his camera for the first time. As we stood on the edge of Central Park, I narrated, "Here we are in New York City, across from the Natural History Museum, and Central Park. Let's see how many interesting things there are. There are dogs, there are bus-waiters, and fathers." As I zoomed in on his face, he cautioned, "I think you are little bit too close."
1986 was also a big year for Haiti. Mommy and I watched as Baby Doc and his wife fled with the national treasury in a silver Mercedes. Baby Doc really was a big baby-a boy, whose father made him president at nineteen, who ran away when his toy soldiers began to burn.
I finally thought to ask my mother how long it had been since she was home. "Twenty years," she replied. I could not imagine time that long.
When I turned thirteen, I was finally allowed to watch The Serpent and the Rainbow, the horror movie everyone had seen but me. I remember feeling captivated by Marielle, the young Haitian doctor who guides an American on his journey to find the "zombie drug." I was taken in by her elegance, her ability to move so fluidly between this world and the beyond. She was a dancer, the embodiment of Erzulie Freda. This was the type of Haitian woman I wanted to be.
My dream ended when I viewed her making "love" to the American, scratching at him gently like a lioness eating her pray. I understand now that Marielle is just another black exotic, and the story is not about her. I searched for other images. What I found was the Haiti of an American imagination, an island of a million horrors. Haitians were zombies, mobsters, and angry witches. The movies I found failed to depict the true horror: that we were a prideful people being eaten by the shadow of colonialism, unable to speak for ourselves.
At fifteen, I started to care more about Haitian politics. I read everything I could about Aristide. He was like my Nelson Mandela. I saw him as the only hope for democracy in Haiti. I watched as he rose from champion of the poor to president of the nation, then was plucked from his pedestal and muzzled like a rabid dog. I learned not to put all of my eggs in one basket.
On my fifteenth birthday, my father reappeared. He brought me more rice and beans and cake than I could eat. He told me the story of how he met my mother at a wedding in Brooklyn-she was wearing an orange dress.
We took a picture together, and for the first time I realized our smiles were the same. My mother accused me of betrayal. "Your father's family are Duvalierists," she said, warning me that he could not be trusted.
In the middle of the coup, my mother taught me to speak out about the way we were treated. She put me on stage one night a meeting of peace activists, and told me to describe what I knew about the raping and killing of dissenters in Haiti. My voice cracked and my knees shook as I felt her pass on the burden to me, to represent us.
I thought of taking my mother's name, Bateau. Boat. I imagine the boat, floating on the seas with no place to land. How could I take that name when even she chooses not to associate with the father who gave it to her?
Twenty years have passed, and now it is my turn to go home. As I board the plane to Port-au-Prince, I am suddenly conscious of my bent shoulders and drab clothing. The woman ahead of me in a bright blue dress holds her head high, despite the weight of the sacks she grips in each hand. If someone at this moment were to ask me who I am, I would not know how to respond.
When we arrive, a small band plays ballads on the runway. The man checking my passport stares at me then decides to speak English instead of Kreyol. I am an election observer, an American who brings some semblance of justice by recording the voting process. We hover over college students as they count ballots at midnight in Les Cayes. We count them again, and write down our results. The answer is easy: Rene Preval has won. Twenty percent of voters have voiced their opinion. The other eighty percent watch silently as "democracy" changes hands.
The morning after the elections in Les Cayes, a man approaches me to ask my name. I tell him, "Miriam Neptune." He says I am his second cousin, the daughter of his first cousin. The Neptunes live here, he tells me. I smile at the coincidence, but cry inside because the name is only a name, not a family.
Does name determine lineage? The only lineage I embrace is the one that raised me: my mother, her mother, and the mothers who created her. What is nation? What is my nation? Nation is in part, the imagination. Nation exists only where we create boundaries. My nation lives in the waters between spiritual and physical homes.
REPORTING SILENCE by Leslie Casimir
I make a living by telling other people's stories. These people are all strangers to me, a newspaper reporter, yet I am often able to convince them to pour out some of their most intimate thoughts, dreams, and miseries-details that are usually shared between close relatives, passed on from grandmother to granddaughter, mother to daughter, father to son. I can look grieving women in their watery eyes and ask them to describe their murdered sons or husbands- their ambitions, their scent. And amazingly enough, they will comply. I am moved to tell their stories for I am not certain of my own.
Details about my family have avoided me all of my life. In my twenty-nine years, I have been trained not to expect to learn much about the women and men who came before me. They are dead, my only surviving grandmother often insists. What would be the point in raising the dead? Leve mo. This is an expression I have heard over and over again. An expression I have grown to accept. A phrase that angers me. Frustration from not knowing much about my family, frustration that is now making me numb. For I have learned those words have helped shield my grandmother from pain and regret, as if their spirits would come back to haunt her and me.
From losing her home to a cyclone to struggling to put food on the table, her life's wounds still are fresh. And this American-born girl, this ti ameriken, who in recent years has professed a committed interest in Haiti, has no right-I suppose-to expect my grandmother to accommodate my curiosity as to her life before coming to America, the promised land, where money could supposedly be found on the streets and in public fountains, ready for the taking. When she got off that plane from Port-au-Prince nearly thirty years ago, she left behind a part of herself. And I cannot blame her for discarding a painful past. But it is not only her life she is guarding, it is mine as well, one that is filled with gaps and vague accounts of things, information scooped up along the years through passing mentions and aunts' conversations at the kitchen table. I can't get my grandmother to even mention my late grandfather's name above a whisper. Jotting down his name on pieces of paper helps me to envision this faceless man. I keep his name written in all my journals- otherwise I would forget.
During my college years in Florida, I would beg my grandmother to speak onto the blank cassette tapes that I sent her. But they would go unrecorded, collecting dust on top of the refrigerator. Our phone conversations would be full of awkward pauses when I would ask questions about her life, about how she had raised my own mother in a southern town in Haiti that is surrounded by breadfruit trees, about raising eight children for a man who lived in another house with his wife and children in that very same neighborhood. How my mother barely knew that man. She only would see and smell the cologne-scented man in the white linen suit, who would come by for late evening supper.
"I'll explain everything to you some day," my grandmother insists, changing the subject as she sits in her well-worn leather easy chair, for hours. That day has never come. Her silence infected my mother, my father, my aunts and uncles. They all share something that is unspeakable: our family's history. Sad stories are not good to be passed down from generation to generation, my mother reasons, siding with her mother who didn't tell her much either.
The only time I could get people in my family to speak freely about their past was when a relative would come back from Haiti, bearing gifts. I don't remember when I came to realize how important it was to receive these items: food, liquor, embroidered cotton bed sheets, even a pair of plastic slippers. But I now know those things helped them to remember where they came from, to relive their cherished memories. For it was through those items that I was able to catch glimpses of a sweet and bitter Haiti, of my grandmother and parents. The bites of molasses candy packed with cashews, the sips of egg yolk liquor, the spices, loosened their tongues and they would speak about hunting for pheasants, horseback riding, and summers spent on family farms. My parents would tell us fragmented stories from their childhoods. Pasts that were broken in tiny pieces just like the jars that carried the pickled peppers and fine-shredded cabbage soaked in white distilled vinegar, the fiery odor clinging to the gift-bearers' shirts. Of my father's father abandoning his five children to start another family in neighboring Santo Domingo or Havana, Cuba. No one is really certain where he ended up. Only thing that is for sure is that he came back to Haiti, dying of cancer, so that his children, the ones who made it to America, could bury him. It was as if the odors wafting from the soaked, rickety suitcase brought to our home stirred memories in my parents' minds that were otherwise kept buried deep. In their new lives, in their home on a street called Phillips on the South Side of Chicago, these items served as a truth potion that helped soothe their ripped hearts, as they were transplanted to new jobs where they swept up powdered gum at a Wrigley factory and lifted sharp, cold iron parts at a steel mill.
"You realize how much you miss everything," one family member explained. "How life hasn't been what you expected it to be."
Now that I live on my own, catching my family reflecting on their lives is rare. Instead, when we get together now, we sit at tables, talking about who got married, when will I get married, and who is sick. Superficial topics I can easily discuss with the strangers I now interview. Aside from blood, my family is not connected by much else. Not like a Korean friend of mine, who at a young age was given a book about his lineage that spans thirty-three generations. That's a lot of history, permanence, and family pride. I, on the other hand, cannot even break the silence past my own mother's generation. However, I have jotted down notes, and bits and pieces of stories. And I fill blank cassettes daily on my job, fill them with stories. None of them my own.
VINI NOU BEL by Annie Gregoire
A few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I was born in a Brooklyn hospital during a hot summer. Early in my life, my father introduced me to the civil-rights leader, for a picture of Dr. King hung on the living room wall of my parents' one-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Although my father never spoke to me about why he displayed a picture of the slain activist next to that of John F. Kennedy in our home, I later came to understand the significance of their portraits.
In elementary school, I started to understand that the portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. symbolized the struggle for racial equality. During Black History Month, my classmates and I sang "We shall overcome" as loudly as we could and recited poems resonating, "I have a dream…" Still, honoring Black History Month had a somber tone, not as exciting to me as the other cultural events celebrated at my bilingual public school. With great anticipation, I looked forward to celebrating Haitian Flag Day at school.
On Haitian Flag Day I always felt special marching in the auditorium wearing my Haitian folkloric attire, a red bandanna covering my head and a blue dress tucked in at the waist with a red scarf, while chanting the national anthem of Haiti. That was the only time I truly believed I was no different from my peers, as we all marched in unison, showing off the same colors of blue and red. My Haitian-born parents were there singing along with me while we paraded down the aisle. Celebrating Haitian history and culture at this elementary school seemed to foster a great sense of ethnic pride among many students in the French and Spanish bilingual programs, including the few students who were neither of Haitian nor Hispanic descent.
Other times, however, some of my schoolmates, notably the boys, reminded me that I was different. Instead of addressing me as "Annie" they preferred to call me "Blackie." Their teasing began to sound natural, since the term "Blackie" was often used by black people to describe their darker peers. Although I learned to tolerate the taunting, I was somewhat confused about how dark a person needed to be in order to be called "Blackie" since many of the individuals who belittled me were just a shade or two lighter.
As my preteen years approached, I wanted to interact more with young people of different cultural backgrounds. I grew tired of studying French and celebrating Haitian Flag Day. One day I convinced my parents to enroll me in a Catholic grammar school attended by some of the children living on my block. I was hoping to start anew. To my dismay, attention to my dark hue followed me to Catholic school. On the first day of class at my new school, I was greeted with loud laughter by a group of boys sitting in the back of the classroom. Thereafter, one of the boys from that group, who was of Jamaican descent, also chose not to address me as "Annie." This time my new name was "Crispy." He stopped calling me "Crispy" the day I exploded in Language Arts class and cried out loud before all my classmates. From then on, he referred to me by my proper name. The insults by some of the other students did not end though. Occasionally, I was "the Creature from the Black La- goon" or the child whose mamma left her "in the toaster too long." One time a female classmate snidely remarked, "It's getting darker in here," as I entered the classroom and when I was leaving she said, "It's getting lighter in here." A girl with fair complexion asked me one day, "Do you ever wish you were light-skinned?"
At this grammar school, I did have the opportunity to make more friends of different cultural backgrounds: African-American, Trinidadian, Irish, Italian, Puerto Rican, and others. But there was also a large student population of Haitian descent. Being of Haitian descent at my school brought little pride and prestige, however. The 1980s rolled in with the rise of the AIDS epidemic, linking the disease to Haitians. Meanwhile, numerous Haitians were fleeing their homeland in shabby boats to reach American shores. Unfortunately, the Haitian-American students were not exempt from being stigmatized even in a school in which they dominated. Some students pretended they couldn't speak a word of Haitian Kreyol while others tried to distance themselves from their Haitian-born parents, identifying themselves as Americans.
From grammar school, I moved on to a high school with a mixed student population of African, European, Hispanic, and Asian origins. Although the different ethnic groups were tolerant of one another, they hardly intermingled. Occasionally I heard "ethnic jokes" told by students of various groups, but I was only truly affected by the derogatory remarks about dark-skinned blacks or people of Haitian descent. In high school, I purposely stayed away from the lunchroom and tried to avoid the comments by taking unpopular and extra classes and working in the school office.
It was not until I entered college that I faced prejudice from some white students and experienced racial discrimination and tensions between black and white people. Dealing with the race issue and black-white relations helped me to better understand the seeds of narrow-mindedness while shedding light on the reasons behind the class and color politics among many black people. The summer after my sophomore year, I studied in Rome. I was the only black person in my program. In Italy, I was so self-conscious that my eyes often dropped as I saw individuals pointing me out in a crowd. I also learned about prejudices within the Italian community, mainly the negative views that southern and northern Italians have about each other. Some southern Italians saw their northern fellow citizens as snooty city dwellers; whereas certain northern Italians looked down at their southern counterparts as lowly peasants or "terroni."
A year later, I embarked on another adventure: I went to study in Paris. The week before I left for France, Yusuf Hawkins, a black teenager, was killed by a group of white youths in Brooklyn. At the time, hoping to find solace in the "City of Light," Yussef s death left me indifferent. Unfortunately, France, like all nations, has its share of social problems. Because of my color, I had to obtain the tenants' special approval before moving into an apartment. Likewise, most people in France assumed that I was either domestic help residing in the maid's chamber; an African-American student who loved jazz and came from Harlem; or a Senegalese immigrant to France. Even Senegalese greeted me in Wolof and often seemed insulted that I did not speak their language. There was also some tension between the West African and West Indian communities in France. Based on many conversations with members of both communities, a mutual resentment suggested tension between them. While a number of Africans believed that Francophone West Indians tended to promote their European or Indian ancestry while denying their African roots, some West Indians, particularly Guadeloupians and Martinicans, felt that the African presence in France was a reminder of past slavery and present colonization. Strangers often called out "Africaine!" when I walked by. To retaliate, I proudly let them know of my Haitian heritage, reminding them of the Caribbean colony France had lost through a slave revolt. Ignorance also dwelt in the minds of some American students in the study-abroad program. I was feasting on a French delicacy in a Parisian cafe when an American female student of Hispanic descent scornfully referred to Haitian Kreyol as a "tribal language." Sometimes it seemed safer to simply identify myself as "American." Consequently, during my year in France, I was accused by many different groups of people of lying about my nationality and not being proud to be African. By the time I left Paris, I was very confused about who I was.
All the while, strong racial tensions were brewing in New York City. Reactions to the killing of Yusuf Hawkins, the election of New York City's first black mayor, and the Food and Drug Administration's controversial policy banning Haitians from donating blood in the United States were intensifying. In April 1990, thousands of Haitians marched across the Brooklyn Bridge together, protesting the FDA's policy of labeling Haitians as AIDS carriers. Ironically, the AIDS stigma helped to create a sense of unity among Haitians, transcending social and ethnic backgrounds. Although I was in France at the time, my heart was in New York City that day.
With the arrival of the 1990s, a resurgence of Afrocentric fads in fashion, movies, and music began to appear in urban America: the music of Soul II Soul and Public Enemy; Afrocentric accessories prominent in Spike Lee's films. Lee's socially conscious films helped to expose color and class issues in the black community as well as race relations in America, particularly in New York City. During this revival of black pride, I went from being called "Blackie" and "Crispy" to "Chocolate" and "Dark and Lovely." While I didn't especially find being compared to an edible treat or a brand name of a hair relaxer to be a compliment, at that point I was ready to deal with my feelings of inferiority because of being dark-skinned.
Upon returning to college, I immediately joined the Haitian Student Organization, which had received a negative reputation on campus for protesting the Blood Drive. Learning that the FDA's policy had also banned Americans of Haitian descent from donating blood, I began to question the value of my American citizenship. With the approach of the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. federal government finally listened to the anger of the Haitian community and lifted the ban in December 1990.
The years after college graduation marked a major transition in my life. I had been so busy evaluating myself by people's perceptions of my skin color and ethnic background that I didn't seriously think about what I truly wanted to do with my life. After three years of working at the United Nations, I decided to become a teacher. Strangely, I first taught French at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn attended by a large student population of Haitian descent. Like me, most of these students were American-born of Haitian parentage. They were also proud of their Haitian heritage, often chatting in Haitian Kreyol. While blurting out the lyrics of the latest hip-hop songs, many of them teased one another in the language of their Haitian-born parents. However, the black students at this Catholic high school, whether Haitian or non-Haitian, were still influenced by the color-conscious sentiments of their peers and those who had come before them. I occasionally heard and saw some students being teased about the darkness of their skin; a few still compared the tint of the inner surface of their forearms to determine their true hue. I then realized that cultural pride went beyond one's language, history, traditions, customs, and ethnic makeup. I thought about the irony of Haitian history: the first independent black nation to successfully revolt against oppression and yet, among some of us feelings of inferiority still lurk, keeping Haitians of different classes and skin tones divided.
Although my father was greatly inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King's fight for racial equality, he had already internalized the belief that black people had limitations and could only succeed in certain fields. My father was very disappointed that I had become a teacher, believing that teaching was not prestigious and brought little wealth. Even after I earned a master's degree in foreign language education, my father still wasn't impressed, hoping that I would one day fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. A few months after receiving my graduate degree, I lost my grandmother and my father; they passed away a few weeks apart. In 1998, a few months after their deaths, I went on a journey to Haiti for the first time. During the time I was there, I reflected on my late grandmother's words, "Vini nou bel, ale nou led." My grandmother believed that our arrival on Earth was beautiful, but our departure from Earth was the contrary. Yet, her passing inspired me to finally visit Haiti; for she had a great love for her country.
I saw so much poverty and injustice in Haiti, but I also watched Haitians who were struggling and surviving despite these limitations. In Haiti, I visited my grandmother's and great-grandmother's homes. Painted in bright pastel colors, their houses stood in the middle of a grassy field surrounded by fruitful plants. There I was also introduced to my mother's cattle, branded with her initials. In the swarming heat, I sat with my cousins, who reminisced about their memorable childhoods in Haiti on our family's land as well as their escapades riding into town on mules and donkeys. I imagined myself climbing the Haitian mountains while carrying heavy baskets atop my head; I envisioned myself bathing in flowing streams while others washed their clothes in the rivers. Nevertheless, my imagination inevitably turned to reality as I remember the people struggling in their daily lives. Wading in the warm, clear-blue waters along a Haitian beach resort, I found comfort in knowing that my mother and siblings were still present in my life.
Overcoming my insecurity about my dark skin has been my greatest obstacle. I have always been proud of my Haitian background, never ashamed of my Haitian roots; never hiding my Haitian identity whenever the topic of AIDS emerged; never silencing the African sounds of the Haitian Kreyol; never feeling disgraced by the Haitian refugees who were risking their lives in choppy waters to come to the United States. Likewise, I have always found warmth in embracing the spiritual drive of black people. However, for a long time, believing that my dark skin was inferior often prevented me from living openly; walking along the beach; dancing wantonly at school parties; feeling attractive in a deep red dress; or laughing at someone's joke. Keeping quietly to myself, I hoped to attract as little attention as possible.
Becoming a teacher has been therapeutic for me, helping me to feel more comfortable in my skin. This has helped me to foster confidence and self-esteem in elementary-age students, particularly black students. As a result of working with young people who have greater obstacles to face than the shade of their skin, I am more concerned with preparing children to gain a keener understanding of social problems inherent in all societies-intolerance, war, illiteracy, hunger, poverty, health issues, environmental troubles, abuse, and violence. Every day as I stand before these students, my greatest hope is that they will learn to see beyond stereotypes and misconceptions, respecting each other for who they are as human beings.
HOME IS by Sophia Cantave
I've thought about going home, collapsing into my mother's arms and asking her, without speaking, to comfort me, to tell me that the bad world won't get me. But I know that if I go home-yeah, she'll hold me for a few seconds, but then she'll let out a sigh, with that look in her eyes, that look of decades of working, and worrying and she'll say, "Daughter, since you've been gone …" beginning her own narrative before I can say, "Manman, I'm tired of being alone. I don't speak their language. They don't understand me." But then I would remember that our vocabulary never included words to explain my loneliness or my sense of fear and if I suddenly started crying because of an unspeakable loss, she would offer to do whatever she could to make me "happy" again. In the end I would say "I'm fine really. That was nothing. I'm just tired." In this way, our vocabulary never expanded. I would take a deep breath and suck in the tears, the fear, the reason why I came home in the first place, and listen to her instead. Afterward, I would prepare to go back to the world, still feeling lost and alone despite her promise to pray for me and a reminder to keep the Notre Dame amulet on me always. I would go back into the world with the overwhelming desire to turn around and say "Manman, I still don't speak their language." But home and my mother's arms were always beyond reach and unable to hold me for very long because we had never really developed a vocabulary to discuss what was asked of me.
I wrote these words on the back page of Barbara Johnson's Wake of Deconstruction on October 16, 1994, during my first semester in graduate school. Suddenly, in a theory class about language, I found myself without a true language of my own. In previous environments, ones that called for a different English, I had responded by code switching, quickly learning the jargon and hastily falling in line. This was an invaluable skill and one that I knew, even as early as seventh grade, could push me beyond the limitations of Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn-where I grew up the daughter of Haitian immigrants- to the halls of higher learning at Tufts University. Of course, there was a sacrifice. Only years later would I seriously think about what my sacrifice had been: my mother tongue. I wasn't sure if that language was Kreyol. I just knew I needed to speak something that had eluded me for years. English was not my mother tongue, but I made myself believe it was. I could not remember a time when I didn't speak English.
II n'y a pas de text. There is no text. This small French sentence had become all the rage. I had lived with this concept my whole adult life and suddenly I didn't want to anymore. II n'y a pas de text seemed to clash with my translation of the French words on the Haitian flag: L'union fait la force. In union, there is strength. I set about writing myself into being.
Going through the journals and letters I've written over the years, I see myself expressing over and over the same anxiety about language, the quest to maintain some essential part of myself while shape-shifting and searching for total fluidity. Making simultaneous translations for myself of everything from ways to speak to my mother to the creed on Haiti's flag, I felt myself floating between fragments that I was always rearranging. To keep track of these fragments, I kept journals. I believed then and now that the written word, in whatever form, would ground me and make my fragmented self whole. The words I wrote in my journal were inscribed in secret. These were words I rarely shared with my family, words that I hid even harder once my father asked to know what it was that I was always writing about. I would have had to read it to him and then do the translation. The English that he and my mother had encouraged me to speak and perfect also helped to increase the distance between us.
The truth hit me in theory class one day: I was not just a black girl but a Haitian girl and for the first time I longed for home and home was a bunch of people and a culture I knew by name, accepted at face value, but did not know intimately. Using the back pages of Johnson's Wake, I sent a psychic call to my mother, imagining that only she could explain why I didn't speak anybody's language. I sent out the call and heard my own voice ask why I didn't have any way to speak to my mother about my loss and all that was tearing at me.
I was not blaming my mother but searching for a mother tongue. I had surprised even myself with the words I'd scribbled out of frustration and fear in the back of Johnson's book. I was admitting that my mother and I did not speak the same language and yet I knew that it was my language barrier, not hers, that kept us from understanding each other. I wanted to find a bridge; I wanted to learn to speak a forgotten tongue.
August 1997 Journal Entry:
I have always had language issues, have always felt that my voice leaves too much room for misunderstandings, misinterpretations. Having to always negotiate when and where to use my voice often left important things about me unsaid. I think of Billie Holliday with all her problems, living in fragments, breaking down and whispering "Hush now, don't explain." Not having to explain myself or create whole new fictions about who I am or what I want is what I long for, like Billie.
But in my journals I keep trying to explain me, my Haitian family, and our place in this country. Before I started graduate school, my mother asked me when I was going to visit "my country." It took me a moment to realize that she meant Haiti, the place we had all migrated from when I was five years old. Until then, I had never realized that Haiti was a place that people returned to. It was never spoken of except as a place people left or from which they had to be sent for. Rarely did my mother talk about the daughters that she had left behind in Haiti, sisters I remembered vaguely or not at all. All my life, Haiti had seemed an even more distant, mythical place than the lost Africa of African Americans. I never denied being Haitian-born, but it also made sense for me to be considered an African American. After all, Haiti is in the Americas and I am of African descent. Only I knew more about African America than I did about Haiti. In graduate school, I was pursuing formal training in African-American literature, history, and culture. I had mistakenly believed that being Haitian didn't require formal study or inquiry. Haiti was in my name and in my home. Only I kept going farther and farther away from home and I hadn't yet learned how to go back and choose what to hold on to and what to let go of. A crisis was inevitable-and since I had been studying words and language, my crisis came in the classroom. After all those years, I still did not own a particular language. I had to go back to my beginning, yet I didn't want the academic in me to turn my personal dilemma into research. This journey was going to come by way of my mother. I had to humbly step down from my scholarly perch to see what my people could give me-if I asked. To begin fixing my language problem, I had to do the impossible, return home and "step in the same river twice."
I had left home to get a degree and now I wanted to return. I knew it would sound crazy to people who spoke heavily accented English, who often had to ask their children to translate for them or accompany them on appointments that required "good" English. In my family, going back never seemed to be an option. Going back home without a degree was unimaginable. For all my parents' hard work, they needed the children of the new country to do things they'd only dreamed of. I was the first of the new, the fifth child of both my parents but their first together. I had to do more than Fifth Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn allowed and surpass their tentative dreams.
Once I caught myself wondering if my mother ever had dreams that didn't include being the caretaker of a large splintered family. I wondered if she constantly talked to herself like I talked to myself about my future, about the path that I wanted to choose for myself instead of what was expected of me. I was afraid of what I would find out; it was easier to plan in secret for my future than to ask her about her hopes as a girl.
I knew my father conflated U.S. schools with what he remembered of Haitian schools. In his Haiti, school was reserved for the selected few. I knew that my father never forgave his father for forcing him to stop his formal education in order to work. At the beginning of my senior year in high school, out of love and duty, my father had sat me down and said, "Sophia, you can go to whatever college you want."
My heart had contracted and I said "I can?" He took my hand in his and said, "Yes, any college in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, anywhere the bus or the train can take you." My heart had plunged. The world I wanted was bigger than the five boroughs my father offered me.
I'd worked on my applications to faraway colleges at school and forged his and my mother's signatures where necessary. In the spring I received a letter of acceptance from my first choice university in Boston and took that as a sign that I was meant to leave. I'd shared the good news with my teachers and friends. So I wouldn't back out, I'd told my mother. I needed her on my side so she could rally the various family members to speak on my behalf. I still had to be the one to tell my father of my decision to leave his house and go beyond the perimeters he had set for me.
Once I'd told him, two months passed before my father spoke to me again, but when he did he gave his consent. We sat down in his room and he told me that he knew I was a good girl, that I was going to school to study and better myself. I agreed. I had won. Afterward I did something that few Haitian girls my age did: I attended my senior prom and at my father's suggestion arranged to sleep over at my best friend's house to avoid traveling alone late that night. Only when I got to sleep away from home-a serious no-no- did I understand my victory. My father and mother were letting me go.
If I didn't know how to speak to my family before, I certainly couldn't speak to them now. I'd never learned how to talk to my family without being on guard, without always preparing to counteract my father's No in some way. No, Iln'y a pas de text could not explain my foreignness that first year away from home, nor could it explain the place my parents called Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn but I knew as Sunset Park. Back then I wanted to escape the fate of never knowing what I was capable of because I was black, because I was a Haitian girl, because I was poor. That overwhelming desire sustained me through the college years. But in graduate school, I suddenly needed to talk to my mother about what it meant to actually escape. I wanted to speak to her of what I had spent my whole life unconsciously running from: her powerlessness.
During one of my tirades against my family, my mother once asked me, "If we are these terrible things, then what are you?" Only now can I say, I am my mother. I am my father. I am Fifth Avenue- also known as Sunset Park-Brooklyn. And to do what life and graduate school requires of me, I need to make peace with that. I need to learn to speak with a different part of myself. I no longer write unmailed letters to my mother. I call her and tell her things I didn't know I could say.
During the 1995-96 school year, I went looking for Haitians outside of my family. My whole life I'd never had one Haitian friend. I decided to volunteer my Saturday mornings with other Haitian women mentoring Haitian girls who reminded me of myself. Looking back I wondered what, if anything, the great thinkers like Derrida, De Man, Foucault, or Johnson could say that didn't seem to mock me and the things I had done, the circular search I had been on, had always been on, in language. How could they account for what I knew about living in shadows, in crevices, dying each time I remade myself, surviving in gaps or waiting on that one elliptical mark for a space to enter.
There are people whose spirits are destroyed by not being able to conquer a language, people like my parents for example. They speak in heavily accented English, and must sometimes use their children's voices instead of their own. They do not get to talk about their experiences but hope that their children will even things out in the future and make them right. Perhaps my mother had given birth to me so that I could do all the things that she never did. Only now, as I learn to speak forgotten words, am I beginning to understand her bravery. Even among new Haitian friends, some encountered in Boston and others while I spent hours on the prettiest Haitian beach, in the prettiest Haitian sea, I find myself mourning, for her and for myself. Perhaps to really make things right, I have to accept my own version of Haiti, to become my own Haitian daughter.
MAP VIV: MY LIFE AS A NYABINGHI RAZETTE by Marie Nadine Pierre
I am a Nyabinghi Razette. Most people identify me as a Rastafarian. The Nyabinghi was an army of women and men brought together by Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia, to fight oppression. Among Rastafarians, Nyabinghi means "death to all oppressors." Razette was coined by Sistren Jahzinine and it refers to a female Rastafarian. As a Nyabinghi Rastafarian, I believe in the divinity of Haile Selassie I and the Empress Menen.
My life as a Nyabinghi Razette has not earned me friends nor has it brought me wealth. However it has connected me even more to my Haitian self and has given me the aesthetic and spiritual freedom that I have always sought. Some people feel that a Haitian cannot be a Rastafarian. I don't see any contradiction between my lifestyle as a Rastafarian and my ethnic identity as a Haitian. Those who do not see the obvious parallels between us have a narrow view of both Haitians and Rastafarians.
Perhaps the closest analogy that can be drawn between Haitians and Rastafarians is through spirituality. Haitians and Rastafarians share spiritual paths (Vodou and Rastafarl) that have roots in Africa and that continue to act as positive forces in the world. Members of the African diasporas from different countries practice their own forms of spirituality such as Obeah, Condomble, and Santeria, just as there are different groups of Rastafarians, from the Twelve Tribe Rastas to the Nazarite Rastas.
Another issue that promotes the separatist view between Haitians and Rastafarians is language. In the Rastafarian trod, or lifestyle, the English language is prominent. Irits, the Rastafarian language, which is not to be confused with Jamaican patois, is overly influenced by English to the extent of drowning out other languages such as Haitian Kreyol. I am often appalled at the ethnocentric perspective of some English-speaking Rastafarians who go to great lengths to discredit and discourage other languages, especially Haitian Kreyol. A transnational Haitian, I was born in the United States and spent my formative years (age one through eleven) in Haiti; I speak English well enough so that it is relatively easier for me to adapt to Irits. At the same time, I have to recognize that Irits is one way that most non-Kreyol-speaking Rastas identify themselves as other-than-Haitian.
In spite of these struggles in and outside of the trod, my faith as a Nyabinghi Rastafarian could never cancel out my identity as a Haitian. I love Haitian music: mizik rasin, konpa; Haitian food: diri hole and barman peze. Now, as a vegan who does not eat meat, I cook brown rice with peas and I eat tofu and seitan instead of griyo and boulet. In fact, my version of Ital, or Rastafarian cooking, is Haitian food with vegan substitutes. By adopting an Ital or vegan lifestyle, I am fighting the diseases that have plagued many people in my life, including family members, friends, and acquaintances, who have suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure. Without forcing my lifestyle on anyone, I do think that a Rastafarian vegan diet might help many Haitians in the United States who are living under stressful conditions in crowded urban centers in New York, Boston, and Miami or are adjusting from a familiar tropical climate to a cold foreign one.
One of the most treasured manifestations of my life as a Razette and as a Haitian is expressing my love of colors, especially in fabrics, in dresses and skirts, as in the regal dress and headwear that African women wear. I love to wrap my dreadlocks in a beautiful festive Afrocentric fabric, praying for strength as I do from my African and Haitian ancestors.
During Nyabinghis, when Rastafarians gather to chant praises or Isis to the Empress and Emperor of Ethiopia, men are asked to uncover their dreadlocks while women are asked to cover theirs. When I was a "bald head" or had not yet become a Nyabinghi Razette, I thought that black people, including Haitians, who read the Bible were being brainwashed into accepting white domination. However, as a Razette, I became aware of the fact that many of the people described in the Bible, including the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and Jesus, are black Africans. Since contemporary scientific evidence shows that civilization began on the African continent, it follows then that Eve's and Adam's descendants would be black.
Rastafarl, provides me with a space to explore such ideas. Being a Razette gives me the spiritual freedom to create and re-create myself as a woman of physical and spiritual strength and power. My identity as a transnational Nyabinghi Razette, Haitian, working-class, dark-skinned black woman, doctoral candidate, mother, and wife is best captured by the creative and artistic framework of the collage that joins me not only to the immediate Haitian dyaspora in the United States, but to the larger African community all over the world.
My life as a Nyabinghi Razette encourages me to seek the truth about the condition of all black Africans on earth. Both as a Razette and a Haitian, my goal has always been to be free and to be myself. Both as a Razette and a Haitian, I want to live with the truth that black people have been the makers and builders of strong and beautiful civilizations. And they will continue to be.
EXILED by Sandy Alexandre
I was twelve years old when I was tricked into exile. One weekday morning, as I was preparing to catch the school bus, my mother confronted me with her latest finding in what was then my burgeoning delinquency problem. Because I had neglected to cover the pot of rice from last night's dinner, the cockroaches had easily invaded and spoiled our leftovers. We quarreled: She blamed; I denied. And suddenly, forgetting to whom I was speaking, I made the horrible mistake of responding to one of her comments with the expletive "So?" In retrospect, I must have said the word with too strong a hint of exasperation, with too much of the sense that I had grown quickly inconvenienced by her diatribe. Not only had I said "So?" I had dramatized it by rolling my big insolent eyes. She had never liked that word so; she thought it was too curt, too arrogant, and too defiant. The word had no Haitian equivalent to which she could relate, against which she could measure its power. Especially now that it was being used in the context of an argument, she felt safe in assuming the worst of a word whose meaning she did not completely understand. "Pa di'm so," she said as she turned to stare at me in utter disbelief and disgust. "Don't tell me so," she repeated. "Do I look like one of your cronies that you can speak to me in such a disrespectful way?" My mother and I had been having many arguments like this one lately, but this dispute finally brought our conflict to a crisis.
She had had enough of my attitude. She deemed me too Americanized- too saucy-to handle. Her Haitian upbringing (the ruler by which she measured good and evil) could no longer tolerate such unfilial behavior, so she threatened to punish me by sending me back to New York to live with my father. She warned that as soon as I returned home from school, I would find my bags packed and ready for me to be sent away. The sauciness lingered: "Good!" I retorted. "I don't like Florida anyway!" Not taking her threat seriously, I sauntered off to school with an air of cool defiance. But because of the argument, I knew I had missed my bus and so looked more the fool than the victor I wanted to be; to save some face, I walked out of the house singing, "I love New York, I love New York" to the tune of a commercial jingle that she and I both knew. Clearly, my eyes were not the only things on a roll!
When I returned home, sure enough, my mother handed me my luggage and then, along with my uncle, drove me to the airport. Walking through the airport, I summoned the same cool saunter of nonchalance that allowed me to keep my dignity only a few hours before. But underneath that so cool exterior lay a completely incredulous and regretful prodigal daughter. How could I be so foolish? How can she be so serious? She's blown this thing out of proportion. Does she really mean to send me away? Am I really all that bad? Why must I always be so rebellious? Why does the sign over my flight gate read: DEPARTURE TO PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI?
In the fifteen minutes before I was to board the plane, my mother, with a smug smile of victory, explained that I was actually going to be living with her sister in Haiti. Her announcement was the "Ta da!" of a magician whose craft was more entertaining to himself than to his audience. So, while she was being thrilled by her own perspicacity, I couldn't see the humor nor appreciate the genius behind the trick of changing flight destinations. Although her decision was obviously final, I was too shocked to accept the reality that she had proudly unveiled before me. I was in a state of denial. I found her reasons neither sufficient nor strong enough to justify my punishment: "It's for your own good; You're too much, too incorrigible." And the inevitable, "Children in Haiti don't disrespect their elders. You'll learn from them," she predicted, "to comport yourself as a child." Those oft-referred-to "children in Haiti" had some nerve, to keep reminding my mother of how horrible a child I was. How tired I was of hearing my mother sing the praises of these Haitian angels! But soon, whether I liked it or not, I was also going to be-if even just superficially-a child of Haiti.
When it dawned on me that I had been so cleverly deceived, that I was indeed going to Haiti, a place I imagined had no bathrooms, no refrigerators, and no English, I started to cry and then to scream out of sheer terror. Through my tear-glazed eyes, I spied a flight attendant who had a look of grave concern and pity; so, choosing fight over flight (pun intended), I grabbed the opportunity to try to save myself from banishment.
"Don't cry," she said. "What's wrong?"
Pointing to my uncle as if he were the guilty one in a criminal line-up, I sobbed: "He's not my father! He's (gasp for air and then a phlegmful sniff-sniff) not my father!" I wanted to convey the impression that I was being abducted by a complete stranger. My pointing, trembling, finger and my crying eyes combined to form a plea for help, to make me a paragon of victimization. Save me! I exuded.
You can imagine the commotion that my outburst caused. The flight attendant was as horrified as I had predicted. I knew that I could appeal to the sensibilities of an America that, at the time, wanted the children on its milk cartons found and their kidnappers prosecuted. Certainly, she was not going to stand idly by while, right before her very eyes, I became an "unsolved mystery."
To this day, I am still surprised at the desperate measures to which I lowered myself to save myself from Haiti. But this tactic only helped to stall the expulsion process. The exile must go on! My mother quickly explained the situation and after everyone was mollified, the attendant escorted me to my seat. I had been defeated.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have understood both the comedy and the import behind the situation in which I found myself, for on the plane I was surrounded by symbols that marked my situation as a potentially profound, enlightening, and extraordinary one. To my right, on the seat beside me, sat a middle-aged Haitian woman who was deeply embittered about the ruckus that I had caused. She was "familiar with my kind," and with a sort of "fire and brimstone" speech that she seemed to have saved for this moment, she accused me of being an ingrate, a child too ripe for my age, a Haitian American gone too American. Indeed, she knew me too well! As if she had been planted on the plane by my mother, she continued to torment me about the many ways in which my punishment was justified. That my plane instead of heading north was flying south seemed ironically appropriate-Haiti was to be my Hades. I knew her "kind" too, and her finding pleasure in my plight made me decide that I didn't like her too much.
To my left sat a Haitian man in his early thirties, who confessed- with a hint of pride-that he himself had been in my present predicament when he was just a young boy going through his adolescent, vagabon stage. "When I got to Haiti, I sold all of my clothes and returned to the States. Don't worry, you can do the same thing," he advised. So while Mrs. Fire and Brimstone castigated, I wondered if my mother had packed my favorite green-and-black dress. I could get a lot of money for that one, I assured myself. How symbolic was my seating arrangement-between the good on the right and the not so good on the left. This exile was a parable in the making!
When I arrived in Port-Au-Prince, I was immediately met by my uncle Yvero. "Sandee!" he called out as he rushed over to help me with my bags. "Your mother told me all about your coming." He smiled as he said this, and even though I felt miserable, I couldn't help but smile back at his genuine happiness to see me. Did he know why I had been sent? Would I be able to continue relying on his reassuring smile or would he turn against me-the ingrate, juvenile delinquent-when he discovered my reason for being here? His smile comforted me but it also renewed my sense of shame. I knew that I didn't deserve to be smiled at. I sought no comfort because I was too tired and defeated. 1 sought no comfort because I refused to believe that there was any to be found in Haiti. If I were never going to see America again, at least I could wallow in the familiar territory of self-pity. But, this was only temporary, because I had resigned myself to exile; that is, I had surrendered. I had no other choice. It was clear to me that if I wanted to survive in Haiti, I could choose to be neither arrogant nor disobedient. That I needed to acculturate myself for survival purposes necessitated that I substitute humility for impudence, respect for disrespect and acceptance for denial. I was now in a situation and a place where I could not allow my Americanness to override whatever Haitianness I possessed. I needed to tap into all the Haitian resources that I owned because I was going to be here for an undefined amount of time. My title of "American" meant nothing good in this country. My uncle knew why I was here: I was here because there was a correlation between there being something wrong with America and there being something wrong with me.
Uncle Yvero rushed me out of the airport and quickly hailed a tap-tap. He had a commanding and respectable presence. He was younger than my mother and looked it, with his thick head of black hair and well-kempt mustache that complemented it. He carried himself, and my bags, with masculine ease. I felt safe in his company. If I wasn't careful, his strength would ruin me. After all, I wasn't here to depend on someone else's Haitianness; I was here to find my own.
He offered me a Chiclet. "Ki jan ou ye?" he asked.
"M pa pi mal"-I'm fine-I answered. After an hour or so, we transferred to another tap-tap headed to our destination-Arcahaie. When we finally arrived, it was already night. I knew we were in the country somewhere because it was pitch black everywhere I looked.
"Wi," I replied. "I'm right over here."
It was my aunt, Mante Venide. I couldn't actually see her, but I immediately recognized her voice from the cassette recordings that she occasionally sent to my mother. Her greeting was always the same-your name in the form of a question. She had supper waiting for me, she explained. "I know you must be hungry. Here. Eat, child." I did. I ate and then soon after that went to sleep.
Early the very next morning, by the crow of the rooster in residence, my aunt woke me up to introduce me to the family: my cousins Alex and Tififi, my uncle Yvero, my aunt Madam Ka (Kalix) and my uncle Ka and a whole slew of other relatives. "We are your family," she concluded her introduction. "This is your home." And with that, she took my hand and told me that we were going to the market to get some things that she needed. And so began my exile.
My aunt, her brother, and her two children shared two huts in a big yard that also housed some of my other relatives. I was assigned a bed in the room where my cousins slept. Since I was so familiar with tiled floors, angular walls and ceilings, and indoor plumbing, the room seemed unfinished, makeshift. It was cozy and afforded much comfort in its rustic way. Simplicity and frugality defined life in the Haitian countryside. The cobbled floors of the room were layered with very fine dust. Every day my cousins and I took turns sweeping the floor, although I never understood the utility behind such an everlasting chore. No matter how much my cousins, my aunt, or I swept, the floor always remained slightly dusty.
During my stay, my aunt Venide made me help her cook, buy groceries, wash and iron clothes, feed the chickens and the pig, clean the yard, run errands for and keep company with my elderly aunt. Whatever she did, I emulated to the best of my abilities. Whatever I was told to do, I did. I never disliked doing these chores. I approached them as if they were small adventures. I wanted to prove that I was not as American as I had been accused and convicted of being. I felt a sense of kinship when I sat on a small wooden chair beside my aunt and, imitating her, wrapped my thighs around the little ceramic basin in which she washed clothes. She scrubbed the clothes with masterful skill while I, her apprentice, scrubbed like a madwoman for want of that skill. Under her expert hands, the clothes squeaked relentlessly as if to complain about the pain they suffered from being scrubbed too vigorously. Mante Venide's pursed lips and deeply furrowed brow told me that she was oblivious to their cries. I liked that our laundry detergent was simply a big block of soap. Everything I used, from the outhouse that threatened to swallow me whole to the bed I slept on, was as unpretentious as my cousins, my family, and our living arrangements. After we were done with the wash, I felt a sense of genuine achievement when I saw our whites gleaming on the rocks we had laid them on to dry. I felt important when I carried water from the well without spilling it.
Like all prisoners, at some point I was even allowed recreation. I got to play games and run reasonably wild with my cousins. We played with marbles; we sang songs; we gossiped about a neighborhood hussy whom I never met; we competed to see who could tell the funniest joke to the pig; we played hide-and-seek, and when we were really bored we teased the dangerous "Ti Malis" out of its underground home with cupfuls of water. "L ap mode 'ou-it's going to bite you!" Alex would scream every time the insect showed its annoyed head.
But as acclimated as I may have seemed on the surface, I was still unabashedly American in essentials.
On Sunday morning we went to church. Since I was already familiar with this ritual from my mass-attending Sundays in America, I ironed my favorite green-and-black dress to wear for the occasion. When I went to search my suitcases for a pair of nylon stockings so that I could put the finishing touches to my ensemble, I was annoyed to discover that my mother had not packed a pair for me. I informed my aunt that I could not attend mass without pantyhose. She laughed. It was too hot to wear stockings. I felt wronged and misunderstood. What did practicality or comfort have to do with style? I found her a bit too Haitian, too country, too old-fashioned. My sense of style was being undermined by someone who actually let the weather get in the way of appearance. I was also angry that it was actually hot outside. I knew better than to confront my aunt with my opinions. Because I was still a child, freedom of speech, especially that of dissent, wasn't my right. Unnerved, but still adorned in green-and-black polyester finery, I walked to church alongside my aunt and my cousins. By the time we reached the church, I realized that my dress-unlike anyone else's-bore a sheen that was too immodest, too gaudy for church. I was being loud without having said a word. I stood out when I should have blended in. Bowing my head in prayer, I was glad to discover that my patent leather shoes had turned from conspicuously shiny to humbly dusty. Haiti's dirt redeemed me, but only to embarrass me later that afternoon.
After we had returned home from church and had eaten lunch, my cousins and I went to play hide and seek in the yard. Tififi and I went to hide while Alex counted un deux trois… Still unfamiliar with the area, I found it hard to find a place to hide. Alex was already at quinze and I was still looking for a hiding place. I began to panic. Spotting a kenep tree, I dashed for cover behind it. As I ran toward the tree, I slipped and fell in a small pool of mud. The first word out of my mouth was "Shit!" Alex and Tififi came running. They laughed and pointed in my direction while Alex kept giggling and repeating the word shit over and over again.
I was angry and refused to get up. I was embarrassed for myself and for Alex who, I assumed, would be punished for his imitation of the corrupt, and now contagious, American exile. I lay brooding in the mud. I didn't try to get up. I wanted my aunt to locate the cause of my profane reaction outside of myself. Was it my fault that this part of the yard was so muddy? Maybe if I were more familiar with the yard, I would not have reacted as I did. I relied on my foreignness as an excuse.
Even during the night, surrounded and disguised by utter darkness as I was, I was every bit a foreigner. To my unsympathetic cousins, I had no qualms about revealing my fears of the zombie population that I was certain inhabited Haiti's nights. When my cousins ventured into the yard away from the house to play and tell stories, I pleaded for them to stay on the porch with me. Haiti's nights had a quality that loomed too huge and formidable in relation to my physical size, my naivete and my city-girl upbringing. The porch was solid and dependable. The nights, on the other hand, were a bit too dark, a bit too quiet… a bit too vast and intangible. Haiti's nights made you think that you could have nightmares with your eyes wide open, so that you'd want to close your eyes just to situate yourself in your own darkness-too afraid to blend in and get lost in a darkness that wasn't your own… a nightmare that wasn't your own. Here in Haiti, I easily (if even unfairly) equated good and evil with things diurnal and nocturnal. Whenever the sun set, I felt taunted by a darkness that knew me as a foreigner… a Haitian darkness that sensed my fears and had no pity for the American me.
For two weeks, my life as a stranger in a strange land continued in this manner. I didn't feel at home. I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to return to my mother.
The Monday following the second week of my stay in Haiti, my uncle Yvero claimed to have received a letter from my mother. "If you think that you have truly reformed, your mother says that she would like you to return home. So do you think that you've reformed?" my uncle asked.
Of course I have, I thought to myself, especially if it means that I can go back home. But for the sake of seeming sincere and apologetic, I hesitated in my response. I wanted my uncle to understand that I was using this moment of silence to reflect on my wrongdoings. Finally after a few minutes I bowed my head in contrition and said, " Wi, I have reformed." And after a long speech from my uncle and my aunt about how lucky I was to have a mother who cared about me and how deeply foolish I was not to cherish and appreciate that fact, I was told to go and say good-bye to the rest of my extended family. I was going to be leaving for Florida the next day. My stint as an exile was over.
Although I am the only girl that I know of who has had such an experience to recount, I am certainly not the only Haitian American who has an exiled-to-Haiti-for-reform story, for I know several Haitian-American boys who (like me) have been sent to Haiti to change their potentially self-destructive behaviors. Like my mother, the mothers of these young men relied on the tried-and-true effect of stubborn love, pride, and hope to discipline their children. Because we seemed caught in a frenzy to fit in, our mothers attempted to rescue us, if not by superseding, then by tempering the present with the past, the modern with tradition, America with Haiti. With each child that a Haitian mother has to raise in America, she has to deal with the triple-consciousness of its Haitian, American, and Black identities. In junior high school, I was known to my black peers as the just-got-off-the-banana-boat refugee or the Vodou queen. I fit into neither of their notions of what it means to be Black or American. Out of ignorance of my own culture, I let those insults sting. Out of ignorance of what it truly means to be Haitian, I let those insults define me. Not now. Not ever. Years later, while on a study-abroad trip to China, although I knew no Swahili nor had ever been to Africa, I was referred to as "the African." While visiting one of the autonomous regions in Northern China, I met a little girl who, pointing in my direction, greeted me as "Kunta Kinte"-the protagonist of Alex Haley's Roots. The television movie series had just been shown there. My black face summoned the association with the only other black face this little girl had ever seen. I wasn't an individual, nor did the fact that I am female, and Kinte male, matter. I was just Black. In China when I insisted I was American the Chinese raised skeptical eyebrows.
I questioned my identity then, but wouldn't now because of what I've learned about myself. When you come to know and embrace yourself-whether you have two, three, or four identities to reconcile- you understand that you have everything to gain from those experiences that challenge your justifications for being who you say and think you are. In fact, the lessons learned from these experiences help you achieve the power to shape rather than be shaped by your own future experiences.
As extravagant a form of punishment as my exile seems, I've decided that it was most necessary and most justifiable and certainly most Haitian. By being consistently rude to my mother, I demonstrated my ignorance of the value of respecting my parents and, in extension, my elders. I dared to challenge a philosophy of living that is steeped in common sense and tradition. I dared to think that I was immune from Haitian lore and Haitian justice by virtue of being born in the U.S.A. At twelve years old, I became a walking manifestation of an imperialism that my mother would not endure; with every backtalk, head-wag, eye-roll and "So?", I denied, attacked, and decried everything my mother understood to be Haitian. I was a Haitian American trying to suffocate (whether consciously or not) the Haitian part of my identity. My mother would not tolerate this murder of both her culture and my identity.
My mother was always one step ahead of me and my siblings because she parented vigilantly and ceaselessly (and still continues to do so). I am grateful that she was slicker when I was just slick. For each failed attempt at deceiving her or preempting her authority, I grew to realize and finally accept the intrinsic contrast between my role as the bumbling child and her role as the experienced parent. I am grateful that she knew the limits of her own tolerance. How else can a mother diagnose and then treat an intolerable child if she has not first defined, for herself and eventually her children, what is tolerable? I am grateful that she intervened on my behalf every time I showed signs of becoming less than the decent human being that she wanted me and my siblings to be. My mother has given me a story that I love to tell; it is a "Go to your room" story, Haitian-style.
Haitians have a term "san manman" that literally means motherless. But "san manman" does not necessarily mean that one doesn't have a mother, but that one behaves as though one didn't have a mother, as if one were raised without guidance, morals, without the principles that perpetuate culture and a strong community.
And it was because of my mother's fear that I was losing or taking for granted these same ancient properties that she sent me to Haiti so that I could reacquaint myself with them. She wanted me to witness, firsthand, those ancient properties of unconditional self-respect and respect for others shown by the paradigmatic "children of Haiti," through the struggles that my aunt endured raising two children in the poor countryside, through the dignity and respect with which they lived their lives despite the odds, through the interactions between mother and child, the elders and the young, the womenfolk and the menfolk.
I've said that my mother has given me a wonderful story, but I must also acknowledge what I understand to have come before that story, what always was, before the story ever began-the moral. My mother started with a moral and had me trace a path to it with my own story. She has given me a lesson of life that I practice every day. I respect my elders and all others not out of terror of further banishment, but out of an understanding of myself in relation to America, Haiti, and the larger world. It would be foolish to think that I had actually reformed after that one exile to Haiti. Of course, I hadn't. It takes more than a "go to your room," even if that room is actually another country, to discipline a child. My understanding came like most do-through a gradual process of trial and error. But I know that I am most fortunate that my mother refused to remain complaisant about her child's moral development.
In a world where insults still exist and still can sting, there must be culture. In a world where only one may parent where two, three, four, and seven used to, there must be history. In a world where fitting in may mean selling out, there must be keepers of the past, reminders of the ancient ways. James Baldwin, who understood the value of the past in sustaining a stable and dignified present, alluded in his Notes of a Native Son to his envy of some Haitians' ability to trace their history back to regal roots. There are rewards of dignity, pride, and honor that proceed from being placeable and traceable.
My siblings and I didn't have our own rooms growing up. We were poor enough so that a curtained partition in the living room served as our makeshift wall. So, one can understand on that superficial level why my mother couldn't just send me to my room. Economics didn't allow it. But neither did the enormity of my crime- dishonoring my mother-allow it. Instead my mother sent me to her room, her mother's room, her grandmother's room, her great-grandmother's room. How could I act as I did knowing from what traditions, what roots, what culture I had sprung? How could I desecrate when I had no right to? And upon my return to the States- whether it was days later or years later-I had to ask myself these questions: And if I still want to fit in, how has the need to do so transformed? How has my newly acquired self-understanding and self-respect altered the way that I choose to fit in? Once I acknowledged that by dishonoring my mother I dishonored myself and my culture, I accepted and understood the reasoning that went behind such an extravagant punishment. If at twelve years old I could not comprehend the gravity of my crime against my mother, I could at least extrapolate, from the gravity of my punishment, that I had finally done the abominable. I needed that-to know that I could actually be held accountable, to know that I was wrong. I needed to know that my insult to her merited retribution and maybe even wrath. But above all, I needed to know that at least this much was true-that I was not "san manman," either literally or figuratively.
LOST NEAR THE SEA by Leslie Chassagne
I came here to find you again
to walk where you walked,
to see if you outlived the house
with the broken planks,
that beach house that once let in
fingers of moonlight, giving wasps
their final dance
I came here to find you again
to stand on a jagged rock
waiting for the light of each wave
to be sucked into the sand
the distant tattoos of the trees
to be scraped by the glowing armor
of the clouds and the majestic and tender palms
I came here to find you again
there have been nights when I have slept soundly
but still I hear you
yelling waist deep in the sea
"throw me the mask, there's a shadow there
quickly, quickly," not wanting to miss
any life in the water
Now the sea is turning your ghost into a blue crab
a hunter who looks for things
that curl up and die in the sand
and I too am now looking for your ghost
near the sea
I came here to find
you again you wearing the blue plate of the sky
Your voice is a sword under my bed
with our stories etched on the blade,
stories told in your dossu-marass
a voice a voice that stutters
with the maleficent jingle of exile
ADIEU MILES AND GOOD-BYE DEMOCRACY by Patrick Sylvain
Prior to mid September 1991,I can honestly say I was a happy man. I was twenty-five years old, an activist, a teacher living in Avon, Massachusetts, a recently married poet, and my son, Kamil, was soon to celebrate his first birthday. In addition to all of this personal bliss, it was the first time in the history of my country that a democratic government, led by a popular nonconformist priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been elected.
Unfortunately, my own exhilaration and Haiti's jubilee was only to be a temporary affair. On September 29, 1991, I was heading to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to do a poetry reading when all of a sudden, a solemn voice from National Public Radio came through my car radio announcing the death of my favorite trumpeter, Miles Davis. I immediately pulled over and rested my head on the steering wheel, having flashes of my father, reminding me that Miles had spent some time in Haiti. Before long, my body started shaking and I knew that something else was about to go wrong. I found myself crying as I drove toward Harvard Square to visit a friend before my reading.
Soochi was a young Chinese-American woman who was finishing her B.A. at Harvard. She and I often spent hours discussing philosophy, literature, and music. That Saturday evening, she was working at one of the Harvard offices, and I needed her cheerfulness before doing the reading.
As soon as I arrived in her office, she asked me in the softest, gentlest voice, "Have you heard?"
"Yes," I said.
She walked up to me and embraced me as if to say that everything was going to be all right. The way she hugged me was not sexual, but it was the first time that we had held on to one another in that fashion. Abruptly, the image of my wife came rushing through my head. I asked Soochi if I could use her phone to call home.
When my wife answered the phone, I informed her of Miles's passing and told her that given the circumstances, I felt heavy-hearted about the reading.
"Why don't you come home?" said my wife. "I don't know why you sacrifice yourself so much for those things; you are not even getting paid. By the way, a certain Yvon called, he said it was urgent. Listen, we miss you. Come home soon."
After I got off the phone, Soochi offered me a cup of hot chocolate and suggested that I write down my immediate thoughts on Miles. She slipped Miles's CD, So What? on the office CD player and walked out of the room. Inhaling the hot chocolate aroma, I wrote what became the last five lines of my poem "Adieu Miles."
I stumble onto a key
and the man with the horn
turns his back
and walks away
his trumpet blows tears.
When Soochi came back into the office, she sat down next to me to read what I had written. She effortlessly kissed my left eye and then my forehead. I knew that I was crying again when I tasted my own tears.
I moved away from Soochi to return my friend Yvon's call.
"It's going to happen for real now," Yvon said. "There's going to be a coup in Haiti."
I excused myself and thanked Soochi for her kindness. Outside, I sat in my car for a minute and wept some more. I felt like I was buried in a barrel of hot molasses. After more than two hundred years of struggle, Haiti was heading for further disaster and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It was as if we had a preordained rendezvous with Lucifer.
I had been in Haiti only a few weeks before, for the two-hundredth anniversary of Bois Caiman, the 1791 Vodou ceremony that had launched the Haitian revolution. With Aristide's election still recent, my fellow countrymen had seemed extremely joyful, almost intoxicated with happiness. In retrospect, I thought, maybe the country had been too consumed with euphoria and had forgotten about the constant menace of our military coups.
During the Bois Caiman commemoration festivities on the lawn of the national palace in Port-au-Prince, a few tipsy soldiers had vowed that there would never be another coup d'etat in Haiti. Gladdened by their resolve, I had embraced them in camaraderie, feeling reassured that they had absorbed the spirit of revolution that rang over Bois Caiman that night long ago, when slaves had dreamt of creating a nation, vowing to always live freely in it or die fighting for it.
Later that same night, with the soldiers' voices still ringing in my head, I had met with Manno Charlemagne, a Haitian singer and activist who had achieved national-hero status in Haiti due to his protest songs. Manno, a friend and mentor, sang against the rule of the tonton macoutes in Haiti and the meddling of the United States in our national affairs. That night, Manno told me that he knew that then Vice President Dan Quayle had been meeting with high-ranking Haitian military officers and that since the American government- particularly the Central Intelligence Agency-was unhappy with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a coup was in the making.
In spite of Manno's warning, I decided to indulge in the pleasures that my country could still offer: beach parties, jet skiing, nightfall skinny-dipping. The next Saturday, just before sunset, I-along with eight friends and family members whom I had not seen in ten years of voluntary exile-rented a small boat and rowed south towards Le Lambi while feasting on baked lobsters, conch, and homemade liqueurs. We sang, joked, and laughed as though it were our last night on earth. On the shore, some of our poorer compatriots cursed at us while others sang along and laughed at the jokes that our loud voices carried across the water.
When we docked in Le Lambi, we spotted a group of men lounging on the beach with prostitutes. At one point, Roland, one of my friends, recognized someone I had grown up with as a child in Haiti and shouted to him, "Hey Jean, tonight is your last night to have sex before the coup."
On the way back, every time we passed by a group of people, we loudly announced to them that there might be a military coup that night. Even though I was laughing, it still disturbed me that we had become a culture so accustomed to military coups that they could so easily become the subject of sad jokes.
When I returned home to the United States, my wife had wanted to know how the country was and how it seemed like the future was going to be. Her memory of Haiti was very limited. She had left there for Belgium when she was eight years old and a few years later had moved to Massachusetts, where we had met almost two years before.
The night of my return, I put our son to bed sensing a silent tension between us. My wife didn't like that I was gone so much, leaving her alone, however briefly, with our infant son. Besides, she thought Haiti was now a dangerous place, where I could have gotten hurt or killed.
To avoid an argument, I kissed my wife and son good-night and went to my office in our house cellar to drown all life's uncertainties in Miles's music until I fell asleep.
My wife's unhappiness about the trip did not last very long. Soon we were once again telling each other jokes and flirting as though we were still courting. And of course our son was always there to increase our delight.
Two days before the coup was to happen, however, on September 27, I received a phone call from a friend of mine, a key political player in Haiti, who informed me that the wheels were now in motion to unseat President Aristide. My friend requested that I alert the members of the Boston Lavalas Committee, a pro-Aristide coalition, that something big was about to happen.
After that phone call, my wife expressed her concern that I was going to be consumed by long political meetings, protests, and demonstrations that would take away from my time with her and our son. Even though she was concerned about Haiti's future, it was our marriage and our family that she wanted to protect and save. That night, after countless hours on the phone, I was assured by friends in Haiti that the coup had been stopped even before it could happen, the situation was under control, Aristide and the people had maintained power. As soon as my wife realized that things had returned to normal in Haiti, she became more affectionate toward me. It looked as though I would be staying home with our family, not out protesting the abrupt end of a fragile new democracy.
The following day, after work, I picked up my son from the house of my mother, who was kind enough to look after him while my wife and I worked. Once at home, I fed my son and put him in his chair, then started on a special dinner for my wife. I stewed some lobsters in a special rum-raisin sauce I had concocted, baked some sweet potatoes, then boiled some corn on the cob.
When my wife walked into the house, she was taken by surprise. The living room and the kitchen were lit with vanilla-scented candles, and the sensuous melodies of Miles's "Porgy and Bess" resounded within the walls. Speechless, my wife smiled from ear to ear, hugging both me and our son.
Unfortunately, we would never be that happy again. On the twenty-ninth, Miles died, and on the thirtieth the military coup in Haiti finally took place. I was devastated. During the first week of the coup alone, the Haitian military murdered eight hundred people. My friends at the Boston Lavalas Committee and I began organizing and participating in marches and demonstrations in front of key governmental buildings in Boston as well as in front of the United Nations Headquarters in New York and the White House in Washington, D.C. A week into the coup, I was spending more time traveling and in meetings than I ever had in my married life. My wife did not like it and so our marital quarrels became more common and it took much longer for us to reconcile.
Two weeks after our son's birthday and roughly a month after Miles's death and the coup, my wife suggested that we separate. More than feeling sad and guilty for having imposed my political activities on our marriage, I felt horrible about the idea of no longer being close to my son, or being unable to see his gradual growth over the years. I knew that I was a good father and was constantly striving to become a better one, for which my wife had praised me. However, I could not stand by and watch what was happening to my country and remain apolitical and silent. If only my wife had been more supportive, I told myself, perhaps our marriage would have been saved.
When I realized she was serious about me vacating the house, I thought, rather than completely giving up on the marriage, it would be better to stay away for a couple of days in order to rethink all that was happening. I was in a state of shock. It was as if I were holding a handful of sand and watching each grain slip from my grasp.
One Friday afternoon, after my wife and I had been apart for awhile, I found myself at the Magazine Street Beach on the left bank of the Charles River in Cambridge, watching the ducks on the dock seek shelter before sunset. I sat on a three-by-four-foot rock that once served as a boat anchor as a few kayakers loaded their kayaks on top of their cars. The wind turned from brisk to chill as it got dark. I sat there with my eyes closed and listened to waves rolling onto the shore. I felt like those ducks, seeking shelter in the fleeting glory of a sunset that would never be again. To my surprise, Soochi walked up from behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders. She offered me Miles's last recorded CD, Doo-Bop.
In 1994, after three years in exile in the United States, Aristide was finally able to return and resume his presidency in Haiti. During his exile, I went through a painful divorce and custody battle that nearly bankrupted both my wife and myself. I soothed my own unhappiness and personal pain by becoming even more deeply involved in political meetings, marches, by reading and writing my poetry with a fervor that I believed would someday contribute to saving my country.
After Aristide's return, with more time to ponder all that had taken place, I had to finally admit to myself that perhaps one's country, one's idealism and dreams should not take precedent over one's life. My marriage, like most people's, had not been perfect; however, my political activities had certainly accelerated our separation and eventual divorce. Many of the men I have attended political meetings with and have been at demonstrations with have spent countless hours in court, or in counseling trying to salvage their marriages or attain visitation rights to see their children.
As sorrowful as this is, I still ask myself whether our sacrifices have really contributed to any permanent changes for Haiti. Frankly, I am not sure. Can we say that all women in Haiti are safe because we no longer have wives? Can we say that every Haitian child will grow up happy, well-fed, and educated because we can now only see our sons and daughters on alternate weekends? I have spent many days and nights crying over the fact that I can now see my only child, my beloved son, at the end of the week.
I wish I could say, like Miles, that my political and personal life has been one of "few regrets and little guilt." But that would not be the case. If anything it is full of regrets and a lot of guilt. But only about that particular period in my life. These days, though I must redefine my vision of happiness, I am happy. If I were to relive all this again, I would tread with more caution and never for one second lose sight of the fact that more important than anything else, I have a son to be a father to.
LOOKING FOR COLUMBUS by Michel-Rolph Trouillot
I was looking for Columbus, but I knew that he would not be there. Down by the shore, Port-au-Prince exposed its wounds to the sun; and Harry Truman Boulevard, once the most beautiful street in Haiti, was now a patchwork of potholes.
The boulevard was built for the bicentennial celebration of Port-au-Prince, which Truman helped finance right between his launching of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the start of the Korean War. Now it looked like a war zone with no memory of the celebrations of which it had been the center. Only a few of the statues erected for the occasion remained. Its fountains had dried up under two Duvaliers. Its palm trees had shrunk as Haiti had itself. I turned in front of the French Institute, a living monument to the impact of French culture on the Haitian elites, and drove toward the U.S. Embassy, a center of power of a different order. Above a mountain of sandbags, a helmeted black G.I. watched nonchalantly as a crowd of half-naked boys bathed in a puddle left by yesterday's rain. He had probably come with the occupying forces that helped restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994. The story I was looking for went back nine years earlier.
I drove by.
I stopped the car at a safe distance from the embassy and started a slow walk on the boulevard. On the buildings around the post office, conflicting graffiti asked the U.S. forces both to stay and to go home. I spotted a statue lying behind a fence across the street. A peddling artist stood next to it, selling paintings and crafts. I greeted the man and asked him if he knew where the statue of Christopher Columbus was.
I had vague memories of the statue. I only remembered its existence from my adolescent wanderings. The few images I could summon came from Graham Greene's The Comedians. It was under the watchful eye of Columbus that the heroes of that story, later played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, consummated their illicit love. But the bust on the grass was no Columbus. The painter confirmed my doubts. "No," he said, "this is a statue of Charlemagne Peralte."
Peralte was the leader of a nationalist army that fought the first occupation of Haiti by the United States in the 1920s. From the pictures the Marines took of him after they had crucified him on a door, I knew he was a thin dark man. The bust on the grass was visibly that of a white male, rather stocky. "You're sure this is Peralte?" I asked again. "Sure this is Peralte," replied the painter. I moved closer and read the inscription. The sculpture was a bust of Harry Truman.
"Where is the Columbus one?" I asked.
"I don't know. I am not from Port-au-Prince," replied the man. "Maybe it is the one that used to be near the water."
I walked to the place he indicated. No statue was there. The pedestal still existed, but the sculpture was missing. Someone had inscribed in the cement: "Charlemagne Peralte Plaza." Truman had become Peralte and Peralte had replaced Columbus.
I stood there for another half hour, asking each passerby if he or she knew what had happened to the Columbus statue. I knew the story: I was in Port-au-Prince when Columbus disappeared. I just wanted confirmation, a test of how public memory works and how history takes shape in a country with the lowest literacy rate on this side of the Atlantic.
I was almost ready to give up when a young man replayed for me the events I had first heard about in 1986. In that year, at the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier's dictatorship, the most miserable people of Haiti's capital had taken to the streets. They had loosed their anger upon every monument that they associated with the dictatorship. A number of statues had been broken into pieces; others were simply removed from their bases. This was how Truman came to find himself on the grass.
Columbus had a different fate, for reasons still unknown to me. Perhaps the illiterate demonstrators associated his name with colonialism. The mistake, if mistake there was, is understandable: the word kolon in Haitian means both Columbus and a colonist. Perhaps they associated him with the ocean from which he came. At any rate, when the angry crowd from the neighboring shanty towns rolled down Harry Truman Boulevard, they seized the statue of Columbus, removed it from its pedestal, and dumped it into the sea.
DO SOMETHING FOR YOUR SOUL, GO TO HAITI by Babette Wainwright
Boarding the van in Port-au-Prince, for the poor southern Haitian village of Jeannette, I intentionally sat separate from the missionaries. This was a humanitarian work mission, not a vacation tour, and I wasn't there to socialize. Instead, I sat next to my friend, Kathy, who had volunteered to provide free dental care to the people in Jeannette for ten days; I was serving as her translator.
Riding in the seat directly behind the driver-a bright young man with many interests and a deep curiosity about life-we spent the time chatting with him in Kreyol. He suggested that we buy the local candy we craved from four vendors at four different stands. "That way, we can help each one make a little money today, instead of giving all the business to just one person." We talked about ways to uplift the country, ways for people to help each other, imagining something like the volunteer systems in the United States.
Kathy and I were going to Jeannette along with the Haiti Mission of the Episcopal Church of Milwaukee, which has been financing a school, church, and mission house in Jeannette for over eleven years. The Mission coordinator had approached me a year before for Kreyol lessons, and had shown me the project's promotional literature, which proclaimed, "Do something for your soul, go to Haiti."
The brochure described yearly "hands on" visits during which visitors could meet and interact with the people of Jeannette and attempt to make a difference in their lives. I decided to go along, paying eleven hundred dollars for a trip back to my homeland. (Although the actual traveling costs were under five hundred dollars, I was told that this trip would be a fund-raiser for the project so I gladly agreed to pay more.)
Our trip from Haiti's capital to Jeannette took four hours. For four hours, the "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" gave the missionaries, Kathy, and myself its best display of dust, rags, huts, and seaside trash dumps. Kathy wept as we passed a few cadavers of young men in gutters. According to our driver, they were thieves whose bodies no one dared claim, so they were left by the roadside to rot. The members of the Mission seemed unmoved.
At last, we reached the entrance to the small village of Jeannette. Suddenly the missionaries began blowing up balloons and throwing them to a parade of screaming children. The driver shook his head disapprovingly as the children ran dangerously into the road. The missionaries laughed. The scene reminded me of my childhood, watching Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier throw pennies out of his limousine window as he rode through the slums of Port-au-Prince. Had I paid so dearly to come to Haiti to contribute to the further dehumanization of my own people?
During our stay in Jeannette, we were lodged in the priest's living quarters, a luxurious mission house equipped with all the amenities: water, modern bathrooms, and comfortable furniture. A garage was under construction. I learned that it had cost eight thousand dollars to build. The priest was a tall, imposing Haitian man in his seventies. He had a long gray beard that made me think of Rasputin. Always lurking behind the missionaries, he seemed to have disdain for them, even while they were in awe of him and his "projects."
The priest's projects for the people of Jeannette included a small dark church, and two school buildings with tiny dark rooms and blank walls. The teachers' dormitories resembled jail cells. Ironically, prior missionaries had once spent an entire trip stenciling the dank concrete walls of the dormitories "a la Norwegian." A clinic, which the brochures had advertised as well-stocked, had no bathroom facilities, no running water, and no electricity. I was told that even the light bulb that lit the clinic during our visit would be removed by the priest as soon as the missionaries left. I watched as a clinic helper hauled heavy buckets of water to an unsanitary bathroom where medical implements were being scrubbed, while hundreds of patients waited all day to be seen.
Most people in Jeannette must go for days without a proper meal, walk for miles to fetch water, use the bushes as their bathroom, live with infected skin wounds if they can't pay the two gourdes or twelve U.S. cents required to see the nurse in this clinic. Teachers report that the local children are so hungry that many are unable to stay alert in class. The teachers themselves often go without food. A teacher's aide who shares a shack with eight members of his family told me that he could not afford to replace his torn shoes. In the meantime, he watched quietly as the eight-thousand-dollar garage was built to accommodate the Haiti Project's van. People do not need to build elaborate garages for their cars in Jeannette, especially when their homes are fenced in. Leaving the car in the yard or under a simple carport would offer it plenty of protection. With the eight thousand dollars for this garage, the project could have built over a dozen solid homes, or an open-air cafeteria to provide a balanced midday meal for all the students and school personnel, five days a week, for a year.
In addition to obvious wastefulness, the missionaries also showed a lack of sensitivity toward the people of Jeannette. In one instance, the Haiti Project leaders kept the cook waiting long past her working hours and then, while indulging in one of their nightly cocktail parties, declared that, "All she had wanted was to go and party."
A young Haitian woman who had spent an entire morning helping us in the clinic was invited by the nurse to join us for lunch. This gesture displeased the church members, who rushed to take the food away, sending the young woman running from the table in shame. I talked with a man who had designed a number of greeting cards and embroidered several items of clothing hoping that the mission would use them for fund-raising. Project members ignored him, patronizing instead an art shop in Port-au-Prince that was a well-known sweat shop.
If in fact the goal was to develop self-reliance in Jeannette, not only would the missionaries have supported local entrepreneurs, but during the yearly "hands-on" trips the missionaries also would have brought with them appropriate items such as farming tools, fabrics, blankets, lamps, and up-to-date medical supplies, rather than the hard candy, plastic cups, balloons, and sample vials of expired medicines. These items did nothing to help poor people escape their oppression and misery. Furthermore, they contributed to the significant amount of dumping I saw around the clinic and the school yard.
Since none of the missionaries on this particular trip had bothered to master the language of the people they served, I wondered if they could assess the people's needs and measure the effectiveness of their interventions. For example, What happened to the young people once they completed the last grade at their Mission school? They returned to their shacks to face hunger with the rest of the community.
I saw and heard discontented people who watched as the priest obtained a TV antenna, solar and wind generators, a garage, and a bamboo fence to keep them out of the mission house, while their children remained malnourished and thirsty in the mud huts. Weren't the people of Jeannette the reason so much money was donated to this project? Weren't their pathetic photographs used to touch the donors' hearts and pockets?
Now it is clear to me what the promotional bulletin meant when it said: "Do something for your soul, go to Haiti." For this mission, Haiti is a place to relax, have nightly cocktail parties, and feel important as you watch the natives beg for your leftovers and trash. Returning to my homeland with the Haiti Mission project did do something for my soul: It wounded it deeply.
A POEM ABOUT WHY I CAN'T WAIT GOING HOME AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN by Gina Ulysse
Every morning from the time I was three
I had to open my mouth to receive
two tablespoons full of emulsion scott
sometimes I would pinch my nose so I couldn't smell it
making it easier to swallow that pasty white liquid
that left my tongue tasting of salty tears and cod liver oil
Often we had to chase it with homemade V-8
watercress celery beets spinach carrots and all sorts of
other things that grow in the earth to give little weaklings strength
Despite the grimaces pouts tears
despite the nos the I don't want tos the cries the wails
the screams that often preceded this ritual
eventually I would drink it
not because it's good for me
but because I had to I didn't have a choice
I had to open my mouth
let it slime down my throat
When I was about fifteen
One day my father called all three of us in the living room
and told us we had to let go of our dreams
and be serious about the future
Poor man not even a son to carry on his name
he had been cursed with three girls
and we wanted to be a singer a dancer and a writer
After calling us by our names he said
I want a doctor a lawyer and a dentist
I remember saying to him
I don't care if I never have any money
(though I would change my mind later)
I don't care if I never have any money
even if I live in a tent as long as I have my music
What are you asking me that I live this life my life for you
In all my sassiness I dared him.
And when would I live my life? when you die?
the horror on his face I have since forgotten
but I remember mother verbally mourning her wasted life
having given him the best years of her life
and realizing that I only get to do this "life thing" once
so I was going to do it on my terms
as long as I have a choice
I remember the first time I went back to Haiti
It had been 17 years
but I had to hide in a hotel so daddy wouldn't know I was there
Desperate to refill all the gaps in my past
I stole back memories at night to retrace my childhood
I begged my cousin to drive me around
to the house on rue darguin
but it was long gone
and had been replaced with an edifice that
breathed the same coldness as the Pentagon
then we went to the gingerbread house
that too had been demolished and reconstructed
though the mango tree was still there
le petit chaperon rouge had been closed for years
vines interlaced with the iron of the gate
I went back again two years later
and I remember a conversation with a man
who has lived in Haiti longer than I did
this white man who says he loves my country
the country that I saw in newspapers and on TV
for seventeen years
the country that for the longest time I only went to in translation
we were talking about class and color
I was asserting my gramscian ideals
about the importance of and the need to fight both wars-
the war of maneuver and the war of position
especially the war of position
so we can take back spaces
hence why I tie my head with a scarf when I go to those places
you think they care he replied
they don't care about your aunt jemima head
uhmm! even after over twenty years in this country
you still have no other references I said quietly
Oh these ethnic notions I thought enraged
after over twenty years in my country his social limits were intact
for me that was the end of the conversation
after all this was not a teach-in
How do you overturn four hundred years of history
in less than one century?
I've been thinking a lot about writing a poem
about the meaning of the word diplomacy
about how this word is just another four letter word
about how this word is just another way to say
I am going to fuck you
not only are you not going to enjoy it
but when I am done with you
you're sure to say thank you
and like my sistahgurl says you might even pay me for it
in accrued debt interest
Can life exist without ideals
Can life exist without dreams
where does your soul go
when all you do is function
where does your spirit go
when all you do is function
I am only 31 years old and I am getting so cynical
I am trying not to be
I've been reading Shakti Gawain
trying to do creative visualization
trying to imagine
‹ imagine all the people
living life in peace ›
trying to imagine a better world
so I can change my world
so I can change the world
But I have been having a lot of difficulty
I keep remembering my friend B with her three kids
who after a year still can't get a job
its not because she's not qualified
or that she's not trying
but because she's not from the right family
she doesn't have the right connections
and her skin is too damn dark
she doesn't play by the rules of the game
she doesn't do safe cocktail conversations
she was on the sidewalks in the 80s
bringing down the second revolution
she was there on the streets
in front of the palace
in front of ministries
in front of police stations
waiting to lay claim to dead bodies
no one else would acknowledge for fear of losing their lives
you know in Haiti one often inherits social scars by association
you know in Haiti one often inherits fatal scars by association
death by association
tell me how to imagine a better world in this place
tell me how to imagine a better world in this place
where even after operation restore democracy
that came bounded with IMF loans
International Mother Fucking loans
for the structurally adjusted
where the rules of the game are
I am going to fuck you
and you are not going to enjoy it
tell me how do you imagine a better world in this place
tell me how to imagine a better world in this place
where the rules of the game is this diplomacy
where blackness still equals poverty
where even after over 400 years
still too black too strong not French enough
never really French enough
and the new generations don't want to be men
raging youths are now more committed
to seeing blood run
raging youths are now more committed
to seeing blood run
to seeing blood run on sidewalks
just to see blood run through the streets
next to expensive cars
outside of elite-owned stores
because they say they have had enough
jan I pase I pase
jan I mouri I mouri
however it goes down it goes down
however it dies it dies
the end result is still the same
the revolution is not over
‹Call Mr. Martin
tell him to build a coffin›
the revolution is not over they cry as they die
they have had too much adversity
this is the generational gap
don't need to ask them when are they going to grow up
when are they going to grow out of this phase
it is not a phase this is about the game
it was at the university that they learned the rules
through liberation theology they learned they were comrades
it was at the university that they learned
the multiple meanings of the word diplomacy
how you have to be pliable
don't make waves you don't get the perks
no gains if you misbehave like a good little neg
that's what you are being trained to be
a docile body without integrity
like the ancestor who sold my ancestor to the west
depi nan ginen neg pat vie we neg
gede nibo gad sa vivan yo fe mwen
plante mayi m mayi m tounen rozo
rozo tounen banbou
banbou tounen ponya
ponya yo ponyade m gede
How do you overturn four hundred years oj history in less than one century?
And I keep thinking back to my life here
And I keep thinking back to my life right here
in this white power center
ain't no misbehavin' here
in the ivory tower
abounded with liberals and marxist scholars
where liberalism is rhetorically defined
as a floating signifier associated with
the ever-growing pony tail
the peace sign
the old leather jacket from undergrad
the backwards baseball cap
nightly homage to the celestial herb to justify being a function
commitment to the metaphysics of diversity
to the environment to animal rights
the pet projects
and pet cultures
are recreating structures
these signifying signifiers are recreating structures
these signifying signifiers are recreating bourgeois structures
bourgeois bourgeoisie bougi bouginess
blackness bouginess blackness
down you got to keep it down
sometimes it just wants to rise up
but you gotta keep it down
Shut your mouth!!!!
stuff it in your mouth
just keep your mouth shut and get out
ram it down your throat
deep down your throat
you're being forced
But I don't want to
I don't want to
you gotta keep it down
you gotta keep it down
why you have to be down to keep it real
little white rebels wanna be niggers
and niggers wanna be niggaz
In Haiti the bourgeoisie funded coups
in Jamaica uptown bougies tried to silence a revolution
but rastafari had a free black mind
so they self-fashioned an everyday resistance
the self-fashioning of an everyday SEXIST resistance
an everyday HOMOPHOBIC resistance
‹don't let them fool ya
or even try to school ya›
blackness bouginess blackness
in the Caribbean bouginess has funded revolutions
little white rebels wanna be niggers
and rebelling niggers wanna be niggaz
these signifying signifiers are just recreating bourgeois structures
Can life exist without ideals
Can life exists without dreams
where does your soul go
when all you do is function
where does your spirit go
when all you do is function
Lately I have been thinking a lot about writing
a poem about class comfort
and color and privilege and guilt
about the social luxury of whiteness
about the social luxury of the white skin
a poem about the rules of the game
and I think back to the keeping it real conference
how we had the rhetoric to deconstruct performance
the performance of blackness and black identities
but we couldn't talk about black privilege
for fear of having to talk about black guilt
like the good doctor says we can't talk
about the fact that we like trashing on the weak
because we don't have the courage to confront the powerful
in this place
in this white power center
this bastion of liberalism
where ANTHROPOLOGY incubates racism
where anthropology INCUBATES racism
where anthropology incubates RACISM
this place of learning who the players are
what the rules of the game are
and how to play and win
How do you play knowing that at every moment in time your identity is in question
How do you win when at every moment in time your identity is in question
always having to be alert
always ready to answer questions
that never get asked
because of assumptions
that lead to even more questions
‹All I need is a good defense
coz I'm feeling like a criminal›
How do you overturn four hundred years of history
in less than one century?
Since this is about why I can't wait
I am gonna tell you why I am so tired
why I'm so tired
of not being able to imagine a better world
so I can change my world so we can change the world
why can't we talk about the things that make you wanna
can't talk about the things that make you wanna holler
make me wanna scream
let my people go
let my people go
let me go
how far will we go
when we're still in chains
I can't wait because I am tired
tired of smiling
tired of masking
I'm tired of signifyin'
tired of being on the front line
tired of fighting the same damned isms
I am tired of wearing this suit of steel
I am tired of being weighed down by armor
I am tired of carrying a banner of love
while THE war
LAZARUS RISING: AN OPEN LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER by Myriam J. A. Chancy
Ma tres chere Aimee,
You have not yet even arrived and already I worry about what your life may be like, far from Haitian shores. I can already see it- the day you enter kindergarten, all frills and curls, bright-eyed, with some butterflies making your little stomach queasy: No one will know how to pronounce your name. Aimee, like the pan-Africanist Martinican writer Aime Cesaire, but named for love. Aimee: French for beloved. Will you know to tell your teachers and schoolmates how to pronounce it correctly? They will insist on transforming it into "Amy." Will you wince, misrecognize yourself, crawl into your infantile shell and reemerge as something closer to their expectations as I had done so many years ago only to return, at long last, to my own bright self, name and all? I must pause now and smile at the thought of how long you have been loved and awaited. You are bound to arrive in the next century, not so long from now. I want this letter to be a bridge for you, to people and events already come to pass that you will not have the opportunity to experience, but which are nonetheless yours to hold and have, a part of your heritage.
Our lives may intersect in two different planes, you in the flowering of a new life, me in the wilting of an aging one. I write you this, then, so you will know your mother before she was your mother, when she was young, full of life and dreams-dreaming still about the day you would be in her midst. I want to try and set down some details of what life has been like for me as a displaced Haitian woman, growing up in lands not my own, in places that have demanded my integration and assimilation, a betrayal of my Haitianness and the various heritages that make up that identity; I want you to know some of these things in case you must repeat those lessons and I am not there to speak to, or, in case I become (between now and the moment of your arrival) the kind of adult who no longer knows how to listen to the wisdom of children's voices, who no longer daydreams or draws boxes on scribbling paper with elephants inside, invisible to the naked eye. I write these things to you so that you may know and understand that you are not alone in the things you will experience. You will not be the first and you will certainly not be the last.
I want to begin, briefly, with the story of my family's movements back and forth between Port-au-Prince and North America. From the moment of my birth in 1970 until the age of five, the four of us shuttled back and forth from Haiti to Quebec. At one point, as my parents sought to establish themselves in North America, my brother and I, ages three and one respectively, lived either with an aunt or our grandmother for over a year's time. For this reason, I did not realize until we moved to English Canada in 1975 and I attended school there that we no longer lived permanently in Haiti. Prior to the age of five, after a few months on the continent, I had felt that we would return to Haiti and, eventually, we always did return. Haiti was home: There we were surrounded by family members of all ages. We went to school and had schoolmates. When we returned to Canada, it was the absence of the rest of our family, the smiling aunts and uncles, our grandparents, which weighed heavily upon my child's heart.
All of my childhood, even after the returns to Haiti came to an end at the age of eight, the memories of my birthplace remained the strongest. Those memories have molded my spirit, a certainty I have of what it means to be Haitian; of what it means to me to have been born in a place where I was welcomed by many open arms, into the bosom of a large family that has since become dispersed and fragmented; of what it means to be born in a place where, despite poverty, caste, and colorism, to be of African descent or mixed heritage, to know one's heritage is as important as knowing the names of your grandmothers, as important as remembering the source of your own naming.
Yes, Haiti continues to be afflicted by various problems-social, political, economic. Before the droughts that plagued Eastern Africa occurred in the mid-eighties and caused widespread famine, Haiti was categorized as the poorest country in the world. It is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It was also the first black republic in this hemisphere. Yet, while Haiti is often lauded for the triumph of the slave revolt that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte's troops and culminated in independence in 1804, her people are consistently denigrated and forced to endure economic blockades and racialized global trade practices that unduly penalize Haiti precisely because of its early triumph over European imperialism. Still, even diminished, we remain the same prideful people who kept our traditions well-enough alive to organize ourselves and successfully resist enslavement. Despite syncretism and outside influences, Africa remains in our veins as well as in the weathered features of our faces, rainbow hues, Arawak cheekbones, and all textures of hair known to man.
Coming from such a background, transplanted into a Euro-dominated culture, it was a shock then, to find out that the white faces that looked into mine when I was a child were, indeed, white. I assumed, then, that everyone of a lighter hue was a person of color because I had been born to a Haitian mother who, throughout my Canadian childhood, was often taken for white. It was a shock to learn that, in Canada (as in the United States), there is a clear line drawn between those who are of color and those who are considered not to be. It was a shock to be turned away from the next door neighbor's house at age four, to be told by her mother that I could not play with my friend inside her house. The same woman told me later that summer, as she was bronzing herself in the sun, that she wanted to be dark like me. Dark like me? I wondered how she could both envy and loathe me. I thought she was a silly woman then, not understanding that I had had my first encounter with racism. It was in Winnipeg, a prairie city in the middle of the country, that I was to find out categorically what it meant to be black in a country not your own. I was not even ten years old when walking down the street, I could hear young white men muttering under their breaths as they walked by, "Nigger." It was a matter of color and it was a matter of pride. How dare a young, brown woman walk down the street and hold up her head high, and smile, and look people in the eye? This is what I did, not knowing I was meant to look down and away and step aside. Not looking away, however, brought me something else I had not expected, the affirmations of other people of color, especially those who were Native American, Indian, or Arab, who often mistook me for one of their own because of my mixed-race features blending African, Arawak, French, and Spanish lineages. Still, general invisibility-social, political, economic-has a way of putting a brown person in her place, no matter how high she holds her head up, how brilliant her smile, no matter how sure her step down a crowded street or way. These were my Canadian lessons. Yet something in me refused to assimilate.
Even as I learned to speak perfect, standard English at the age of ten, shedding my French accent, I remained Haitian to the core, prideful. I found myself isolated in my refusal to blend in, isolated by my knowledge of what colonialism had done to enslaved Africans dispersed throughout the so-called New World, and isolated by my fervent desire to make that knowledge count.
It is this isolation, Aimee, that I most hope you will not have to relive. It is, in a way, an immigrant legacy. I came into the world as one Duvalier regime neared its end and another was just about to begin. At that time, outside (as inside) of Haiti, one had to be careful of who one got close to: It was clear that foreigners were not to be trusted (who knew who might turn a racist eye toward you or when?). Haitians outside of one's immediate family were also suspect (for who knew when something you might say might be said to the wrong person, an ear of the government or some macoutes who could harm you or your family still left behind?). We lived, therefore, in what was initially a chosen isolation in Quebec City prior to 1975, always being careful who was brought close to the family. After 1975 and our move to English Canada, our social isolation was compounded by a language barrier: Initially, we spoke no English. The cocoon in which we lived then had many layers, both cultural and linguistic; isolation became imposed rather than chosen.
Immigration created a shyness in me that was not natural, and I continue to struggle with it to this day. Since my spirit had remained attached to Haiti, and especially to my maternal grandmother, Alice Limousin, my father's stepmother, I knew without being told directly that there were things happening in Haiti that I was being spared. I remember being warned to be careful of what I said on the phone when speaking to relatives in Haiti: The wires could be tapped. I remember an uncle disappearing one day and the phone calls going back and forth between members of the large family network as we prayed that he would be released from Duvalier's jails. We heard about killings and tortures, and I had nightmares that even as far away as Canada, members of Duvalier's secret police could find me just for thinking the wrong thing. Life was like walking on eggshells. Going home was not an option. Neither was assimilating. I had to create a new reality, one that belonged neither to the new world I had been forced to enter nor to my parents' generation. I began to belong to what I often think of as the lost generation: I identified most clearly with cousins some twenty years older than myself who had been there the day I was born, who had grown up in Haiti before leaving the country (those who could) to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Like them, I could not deny my Haitianness, would not take U.S. citizenship even when I, too, eventually migrated, alone, south of the Canadian border (I had become a Canadian citizen at age five). I regarded my Canadian citizenship for what it was, a passport that allowed me to return to Haiti when I wanted, without hassles; it guaranteed my freedom and allowed me to still belong somewhere, even if that somewhere was not home. Canada did not demand that I strip myself of my identity to remain on her shores as I believe America does. And so I remain a part of a generation born in Haiti during the Duvalier years privy to the memories of parents who had been born in the 1930s, long before that regime dawned, and to those grandparents born before and during the turn of the century. This familial memory has given me a safety net when I fear being overwhelmed by an isolation too unfamiliar to be shared by those around me.
I will be thirty this year, but those in my family with whom I best connect are in their forties and fifties. Because of this intergenerational bonding, I feel as if I have eyes at the back of my head: I stand not between two cultures, one Haitian, the other American, but between generations, one belonging to the pre-Duvalier era and the other belonging to the post-Duvalier era. Sometimes it is like standing in a barren no-man's land, but I know that some of us need to be the in-betweens so the gaps will not bleed, so that the discarded will be remembered and the wounds of forgetfulness staunched.
This year also marks a turning point in my life for I have now reached the age of my mother's orphaning. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons I feel compelled to write this letter, Aimee, because I am aware of living on borrowed time, that every opportunity I have to have a disagreement or a moment of understanding with my own mother is a blessing that ended for her in her twenty-ninth year. She had lost her father earlier at age seven. When she was twenty-nine, her mother passed away. Her loss has led me to think deeply about my own relationship to my mother, to her mother, and to you. What survives? What is forever lost?
When I was eight years old, I met my father's grandmother, my great-grandmother. I remember it as the first time we met though this cannot be possible. The woman I met when I was eight years old was nearing a hundred years of age, small-boned, frail. Yet she saw clearly and spoke a Kreyol that seemed to me to be unlike that of my parents; it contained more of Africa in it, more of the rural in it. Because of this, we could hardly communicate; I was afraid of her too, not because she could do me harm physically, but because I could feel her strong spiritual presence. I remember that she had a kenep tree in her front yard, full of the small, green-shelled fruit that became (and remains) my favorite fruit of all. She encouraged my brother and me to grasp handfuls from the old branches and to eat them on the spot. That afternoon, she also gave us dous to eat, a homemade square confection that resembles fudge. I dream of the taste of it sometimes; I have never tasted anything like it since. When she passed away a few years later, the recipe died with her. Now that I am older, always trying to understand better the history and cultural legacy of this place I call home but can only visit from time to time, I think of the conversations we might have had, of the version of Kreyol she spoke that she could have taught me. Although her birth certificate has been lost, she must have been born in the late 1880s, not even a century after the Haitian Revolution. What could she have told us about her childhood memories, of life then? So, you see Aimee, much has already been lost. Like her, but some hundred years after her birth, I am witnessing a century come to a close and I will live the bulk of my life in the next. With this writing, I hope to leave you something for your own days of wonder; something, perhaps, to answer the questions I hope you will have.
As I write to you today, resting next to me is a packet of letters my mother gave to me a year or so ago. Some of the letters are written in her mother's hand. This is all I have by which to know her. They are the last letters penned by her my mother received. My mother had just left Haiti for graduate law study in Paris. Her mother intended to visit her there-it would be her own first journey off of the island. The letter paper is thin, the ink beginning to fade in places. The first letter, dated December 1, 1961, begins:
Les chants de Noel avaient commence a me jeter dans I'angoisse; tu sais ce n'est pas du sentiment-quand on les entonne Us me vont droit au coeur et me donnent un frisson de coeur qui agit sur tous mes membres est-ce pourquoi je ferai tous mes efforts pour realiser mon voyage. II parait que ce sera la ma guirison aussi j'ai commence sens m'illusioner a confectionner mes linges; il est encore tot mais cela uaut mieux.
[The Christmas carols had begun to throw me into a deep state of anguish; you know, it isn't nostalgia that I feel, when they are sung they go straight to my heart and send a chill through it that permeates all of my limbs. Thus, I have decided to do all in my power to bring about my voyage; it seems that it will be my cure and so I have begun, without giving in to disillusionment, to make my travel clothes; it is still early for such things, but it is preferable to do so.]
I read these lines and feel the deep emotions my grandmother must have felt at being separated from her youngest daughter. I see in her words also the heart of a poet. I see myself in these lines, knowing how sensitive I am to change of any kind, how deeply loyal to those I love, always missing those who are at a distance. Mama Fofo, as she was called, was an artist of a kind, a seamstress. She was, thus, literally planning to make her clothes for the voyage, in the same loving way that she had made her own daughters' dresses, the same way she had dutifully put fingers to needle, to thread, to cloth in the making of wardrobes for others, back curved over her Singer sewing machine, in order to make a living for herself and her family. She was a single mother raising four children in Haiti from the late 1920s through the 1930s.
Reading Mama Fofo's letters help me to restore some missing links in my own life; they help me to recapture a connection to a woman whom I never met but from whom I have inherited some personality traits: warmth, sensitivity, but also a tendency, at times, not to take best care of myself. Through these letters, I better understand both her and my own character.
Mama Fofo is preparing to go on this voyage which both lifts her spirit and creates great anxiety in her. She does not have the money to go and is trying to call in loans made to friends in need. Many of them refuse to return the money, sums at times as low as twenty dollars. They do not seem to think that the trip is so serious; they do not realize her true need. Mama Fofo's money is lost, so it seems, and in the midst of trying to realize this dream of crossing the Atlantic in order to see her daughter, she finds out that she has placed her trust in the wrong people. She writes: "reellement on ne doit compter quesursoi" [really, we can only count on ourselves]. The letters then detail, over the course of a few weeks, what money she has been able to put aside or reclaim. There are gifts from her other children and also from my mother. Mama Fofo was sixty-five at the time she wrote this letter. And I, some thirty years after her death, have just begun to learn such lessons, to be generous without expense to oneself.
I read a meditation today that speaks of this, a Taoist teaching on the theme of caring. It was written by Deng Ming Dao in his book, 365 Tao. Let me set it down for you here:
Those who follow Tao believe in using sixteen attributes on behalf of others: mercy, gentleness, patience, nonattachment, control, skill, joy, spiritual love, humility, reflection, restfulness, seriousness, effort, controlled emotion, magnanimity, and concentration. Whenever you need to help another, draw upon these qualities. Notice that self-sacrifice is not included in this list. You do not need to destroy yourself to help another. Your overall obligation is to complete your own journey along your personal Tao. As long as you can offer solace to others on your same path, you have done the best that you can.
I believe that Mama Fofo embodied most of the above but it was in the last moments of her life that she realized that she did not need to destroy herself in order to help others. Had she learned this lesson sooner, would she have made it to Paris? Would the last moments of her life have been less fraught with the fear of never seeing her daughter again? Or had she already realized that she was losing a battle against time, losing that battle to her penury, her lesson learned too late?
Her last letter is dated January 4, 1962, three days after Haitian independence is celebrated. Her first lines reveal that she has finally gathered nearly all the money necessary for the voyage. She is missing only eighty-five U.S. dollars. At this point, she hopes that the trip will take place in the coming summer. She writes of possibly selling her house as some businessmen have made her an offer for the property. She hesitates to sell her children's childhood home and is afraid that the affair "causera ma mort" [will cause my death]. There are three more letters in the packet, dated the eighth, ninth, and tenth of January 1962. Each recounts the final moments of Mama Fofo, who passed away on Epiphany, the sixth of January 1962, after some days of complaining that her heart was tight as a fist. Did she die of a broken heart? Of a heart attack? This is something only she knew. The letters written by other hands reveal how loved she was by her children and closest family friends, how much love she had during the course of her hard-working life, even though, in the end, she could not make her way to one, among the others, whom she loved greatly.
My mother received Mama Fofo's last letters along with the announcements of her death. How deep her shock, her loss-I cannot imagine. At this age, still reaching out toward my own dreams, I cannot imagine my life without my mother and father even though I see my own parents rarely, living as we do in different countries. I was born eight years after her death, but I am very much like her. My mother and I have had the opportunity to give life to aspects of a relationship that was taken away prematurely, in reverse. I can learn from my grandmother's errors and build on her legacy. Her generosity need not be forgotten. The fact that she passed away on Epiphany, the day on which Catholics celebrate the adoration of the Three Kings bearing gifts for Christ, impresses upon me the necessity of remembering that even within the most humble of beings and across racial, class, and gender lines-there can be a noble heart. It is that heart that I celebrate and want to nurture in myself. It is not lost upon me, too, that Independence Day had just been celebrated and that she could not, as a working-class, single, Haitian woman of a certain age, secure her own independence.
Aimee, when I sense the pain in Mama Fofo's letters, I think that if there is only one thing I can teach you, it would be this: to value and to take the best care of yourself. Without this grounding in your own center of being, the world you are about to enter will be all the more difficult. I have only begun to enact this lesson. It remains my greatest challenge.
I want to tell you about another Haitian woman, my paternal grandmother, Alice Limousin, whose care for me in my earliest years has left a permanent impression upon my mind, body, and soul. When I began to write you this letter, I reread the last card she wrote me. She was seventy-five years old when she wrote it; she had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for advanced breast cancer in Miami. Because of the absence of preventive health care in Haiti, her cancer was discovered too late-yet as a member of the working middle class, she was lucky to have had health attention at all. I had just begun my first job, fresh out of graduate school, as a college professor at a private university in the southern United States. I did not have the time and means to make my way to her side so I wrote to her instead. She did not reply about her pain. As she always did in her letters, she thanked me for thinking of her and wrote of her plans to return to Port-au-Prince for the Christmas holidays. She missed her home. It is clear from the content of the card that she knew her days were numbered. She wrote of how much she loved me. She also wrote advice she had never given me before. A firm believer in the Catholic Church and its teachings, she counseled me to stay close to God. Though I left the Catholic Church at the age of fourteen (objecting to its missionary work in Haiti and other developing countries, sexist hierarchy, and homophobia), I am a strong believer in a greater power. I don't know what form that power takes, but I respect it and I believe I have been able to live up to the spirit of my grandmother's advice if not to its letter. I have faith in the energy that surrounds and guides us in this world. On the back of the card, she tells me that when I need help in the future, to look to my Bible for assistance. I know she wrote this because when I was a child and things in my life were beyond my comprehension, I would write her a few lines, never letting her know exactly what the problem was, but just that I needed some affirmation. Months later, often after I had forgotten the source of my earlier grievance, a letter would appear in response, letting me know that someone in Haiti held my spirit dear and loved me unconditionally despite the distance between us. I knew with finality when I read those lines that she was saying good-bye, just in case, in her own way. She referred me to the Bible, to John: 11. "There," she wrote, "you can read about everything." I don't know if I turned to that passage then. I don't remember doing so. I may have done so sometime in the haze of the depression that hit me following her death in 1995, three months after I finally had the chance to see her in Haiti, my first trip back to my native land since our family trips had come to an abrupt end in the late seventies. Today, I read this card again, hoping it would provide me with something to pass on to you. And so I turned to John: 11, wondering what was there that could contain the "everything" Mamie (as I have called her from infancy) wrote about. I found, to my surprise, the story of Lazarus and his resurrection from the dead.
This is how the story goes, Aimee: Lazarus, a close friend of Jesus, was very ill. His sisters sent for Jesus to perform a miracle so that Lazarus would not die. Jesus went to him but by the time he reached Lazarus's home, he had already expired. One of Lazarus's sisters tells him: "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." After some discussion, Jesus makes this pronouncement: "I am the resurrection; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." After this they enter the tomb of Lazarus, and find the body already in a state of decay. Jesus calls to Lazarus to walk out of the grave and Lazarus emerges, wrapped in his burial cloth, resurrected.
I read this story and realized what my grandmother had been trying to tell me, in the only words she knew inside and out. She was about to die but she believed in a power greater than herself. She knew she would live in an altered state, somewhere removed from the earth-bound, but still with us. Although I have left the Church and I never thought that I would be recounting a biblical story to you in this way, Aimee, I know that my grandmother was wise to point me in this direction. Because the Bible is, like the Torah, the Tao Te Ching, the Koran, and so many others, a sacred text. And although my grandmother did not believe in Vodou, as I have begun to in my adult years (not firsthand but through extensive reading), this story reminds me of African beliefs in the rebirth of the spirits, the idea that spirits never die. I know that my grandmother lives on in me and so shall she in you. As long as our memories are alive, so is she and all of the ancestors who preceded her own life. At the end of the card, she expresses concern that I work too hard and live my life alone. She hopes these words will bring me solace in times of loneliness. As I said earlier, though I can't remember if I read the story of Lazarus rising when I received this card or shortly after her death, now, four years later, I am thankful for it as I acknowledge my own rebirth. I am claiming my Haitianness in the United States, an identity made especially suspect in this country by racism and xenophobia. I am claiming my solitude and the memories isolation affords me the privilege of revisiting.
Aimee, I am twenty-nine and I have just begun to rise from the ashes of my childhood fears. I was twenty-five when my grandmother passed away and though I had spent most of those years away from her side (seeing her every three or four years), my body is as if tattooed by the imprints of her palms as she bathed me as a child and fed me baby food as I lay between her bosom and arm. Can any touch be more sacred than this? Much has been made of the fact that the body remembers its injuries, its traumas. But what happens to the good touch, especially when that touch occurs early in life, when a child is full of potential and knows nothing of the difficulties of life? I have been thinking that the body must remember such a touch as sacred, and that if one is blessed with it, whatever traumas the body may sustain later on can be more easily overcome. I believe my body remembers its movements in water as my grandmother bathed me as if they were movements in the womb: safe, soundless, magical. I believe that the first touches we experience in life are as sacred as the last ones, the ones that prepare us for the journey home, to Vilokan, Ginen, Dahomey, or to a glorious heaven. I was not there to bathe her in return, to cleanse the feet that had walked many miles for her children and grandchildren, to close the eyelids that had seen more heartbreak in the busy streets of Port-au-Prince daily than most people in developing countries will experience in a lifetime. After she died, part of my own spirit seemed to follow; I felt as if a limb had been taken away; it ached in the absence of her presence. I have come to understand that it was a necessary loss, one that ensured that I would mature in ways that I had not explored because her presence and memory both provided me with the kind of nurture of soul which discouraged my creation of my own sources of sustenance. I was told at her funeral that the day after I had left Haiti, she took to her bed and never rose from it until her death, as if she had just waited for my return and our last encounter. It is enough for me to know that I was there to embrace her, as she had me, in childhood, in the last months of her life. Now that she is gone, something else has come to be in that space of spiritual connectedness that once belonged to us both-a second chance at life, the opportunity to live out the lessons gleaned from observing my grandmother's existence from a distance: how to be a new kind of Haitian woman, one who reveres the old ways and yet knows her own power and is not afraid of putting that power to good use. I am in the fourth year of my own resurrection and every step forward is small but strong.
The great irony of my life is that it is life in exile which has afforded me the luxury of looking back across time, to appreciate all that is Haiti. Living on the outside has enabled me to learn not only about Haiti but about the rest of the African diaspora. As a woman, there are things I have accomplished that I know both of my grand- mothers could not have accomplished in Haiti. No one knows what their dreams might have been, whether one had wanted to be a poet, the other a teacher. They became wives and mothers and their lives were defined by those two words. They sacrificed their personal happiness for their families, never thinking that perhaps they could, by living out those dreams, present them as gifts to their children, especially their female children, as pathways to their own dreams. And yet, it is clear to me that in the strength of their presence in those children's lives, they showed the potential to have accomplished anything they might have set their minds to. They made the most of what they had and this, in itself, makes for a humbling example. Because of their sacrifices, as well as the upheavals in Haiti, I am free in ways that I could not have been there. Yet Haiti remains my compass. How to explain? I think, Aimee, that this, too, will be one of the riddles of your life. But until such time as you may need to consider such a question, I leave you with the parting words of my own grandmother: "La paix de Dieu soit avec toi" [May the peace of God be with you]. Whatever gods you may believe in, may they protect you and light your way and may you be a light for others as you have always been to me.
With love, your mother,
Myriam Josephe Aimee Chancy
Edwidge Danticat is the author of two novels, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and The Farming of Bones, and a collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995. She is also the editor of The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Women and Men of All Colors.
Sandy Alexandre was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and is a graduate of Dartmouth College. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Virginia.
Patricia Benoit is a filmmaker living in New York City.
Jean-Pierre Benoit is Professor of Economics and Law at New York University.
Martine Bury is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in several publications including Vibe, Jane, Nylon, and The Source.
Jean-Robert Cadet holds a master's degree in French literature and teaches French and American history in Cincinnati, Ohio. Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American is his first book.
Anthony Calypso is an actor who writes both fiction and nonfiction. He is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. He is at work on his first novel.
Sophia Cantave is a doctoral candidate in American literature and a lecturer at Tufts University. She is the author of an essay "Who Gets to Create Lasting Images? The Problem of Black Representation in Uncle Tom's Cabin," in Approaches to Teaching Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. She is also author of "Geography, Language, and Hyphens: Felix Morrisseau-Leroy and a Changing Haitian Aesthetic," published in The Journal of Haitian Studies.
Leslie Casimir is a journalist, currently working in New York City at the Daily News.
Myriam J. A. Chancy is the author of Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (Temple University Press, 1997) and Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (Rutgers University Press, 1997). Currently residing in Phoenix, Arizona, she is associate professor of English at Arizona State University, Tempe. She is at work on a novel entitled The Serpent's C/awand on a literary memoir focusing on Haiti and the Latin Caribbean.
Leslie Chassagne, born in Haiti and raised in New York City since the age of nine, studied art and language in the New York City University system and is currently a teacher at the Young Adult Learning Academy and Hunter College's International Language Institute. He is a poet, painter, and musician and has traveled throughout the Caribbean and Colombia.
Marc Christophe was born in Saint Marc, Haiti. He is professor of French and Caribbean literature at Howard University. This excerpt was adapted from his poem "PRESENT PASSE FUTUR" which was published in his 1988 collection of poetry Le Pain de L'Exile (The Bread of Exile).
Joel Dreyfuss is a former senior editor at Fortune and a regular contributor to The Haitian Times.
Phebus Etienne is a poet living in Montclair, New Jersey.
Annie Gregoire is a teacher and an aspiring children's book writer. She teaches second grade at Cush Campus Schools, a private school in Brooklyn, New York. Gregoire received a master's degree in foreign language education at New York University, where she has also done extensive research in cross-cultural studies and children's literature.
Maude Heurtelou is a native of Haiti, where she completed high school. She holds an undergraduate degree from the San Carlos University/ INCAP in Guatemala and a master's degree in public health education. She has written over sixteen nonfiction books in Haitian Kreyol and two novels, Lafami Bonplezi and Sezisman, which have been translated into English. She and her husband, Fequiere Vilsaint, are the founders and publishers of Educavision, a publishing company.
Joanne Hyppolite was born in Haiti. Her family settled in the United States when she was four years old and she grew up in Boston. She has published two popular children's books, Seth and Samona (De-lacorte Press, 1995), which won the Marguerite DeAngell Prize for New Children's Fiction and Ola Shakes It Up (Delacorte, 1998). Her fiction addresses the Haitian-American experience.
Dany Laferriere was born in Haiti, where he practiced journalism under Duvalier. He went into exile in Canada in 1978; soon after, he began working on his first novel How to Make Love to a Negro, which became an instant bestseller in both the original French and in English and was made into a feature film. He now divides his time between Montreal and Miami.
Marie-Helene Laforest currently makes her home in Italy, where she teaches postcolonial literatures at the Instituto Universitario Orientale, Naples.
Francie Latour is a journalist, currently working at The Boston Globe.
Danielle Legros Georges is a writer living in Boston. Her work has been anthologized in The Beacon Best of 1999.
Miriam Neptune, age twenty-three, was born in the United States and raised in Los Angeles. She has taken an active interest in Haiti/ U.S. relations since the start of the 1991 coup, and hopes to produce documentary work on this subject. She is now a graduate student in New York University's Media and Culture program.
Nikol Payen received her B.A. in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and her MFA in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She was an assistant editor at Essence Magazine, where her writing has been featured. Other publications where her work has appeared include The Daily News Caribbeat, The Crab Orchard Review, Third World Viewpoint, New World, and a host of newsletters. Currently she is a professor of public speaking at Kingsborough Community College and is working on her forthcoming book, Something in the Water.
Marilene Phipps is a painter and poet. Author of Crossroads and Unholy Water, a collection of poetry published by Southern Illinois University Press, she is the winner of The Crab Orchard Review Poetry Prize and the Grolier Poetry Prize. She has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Harvard's Bunting Institute, and the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions. Her paintings have been exhibited in gallery and museum shows in Haiti, the United States, and throughout the world.
Garry Pierre-Pierre is the publisher and founder of The Haitian Times. He has worked as a reporter for The New York Times and The Sun Sentinel.
Marie Nadine Pierre is currently living in Miami, Florida. She is a doctoral candidate in the Comparative Sociology Department at Florida International University. Her dissertation will examine issues of body, foods, and dress for Haitian women in the Miami area.
Assotto Saint, (ne Yves Lubin) was born in Haiti in 1957. He moved to New York in 1970 and was a performer with the Martha Graham Dance Company for many years. His nom de guerre, Assotto Saint, is derived from the combination of the name of a Vodou drum and that of Haitian Independence leader Toussaint Louverture, one of his heroes. An AIDS activist, he died in 1994, when he was thirty-seven years old.
Barbara Sanon is a Haitian-American filmmaker living in New York City.
Patrick Sylvain was born in Port-au-Prince Haiti and immigrated to the United States in 1981. He works as a bilingual education teacher in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in several literary magazines, including Callaloo, The Caribbean Writer, Compost, Agni, and Ploughshares as well as in the anthology The Beacon Best of 1999. He is the author of several books of poetry in Haitian Kreyol, including Mazakwa, Zanzet, and Twoket Lavi.
Marie Ketsia Theodore-Pharel, born in Haiti, currently lives in Jupiter, Florida, with her infant daughter and husband and teaches at West Palm Beach Community College. I'll Fly Away, her first picture book, was published in 1999 by Educavision Publishing Company. Her short stories have been published in magazines. "The Mango Tree" appeared in Compost magazine in 1994; "Soup Joumou: Diary of a Mad Woman," in 1996; and "Light Chocolate Child," in African Homefront in 1995.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot is the author of Peasants and Capital: Dominion in the World Economy and Haiti, State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism. "Looking for Columbus" is the epilogue from his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, published by Beacon Press in 1996.
Gina Ulysse was born in Haiti in 1966. When she was twelve, her family migrated to the East Coast of the United States. In 1991, she earned a B.A. in English and Anthropology at Upsala College in New Jersey. She received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1999. She is currently assistant professor of African-American Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, as well as a committed social activist and spoken-word artist.
Katia Ulysse lives in Washington, D.C. "Mashe Petyon" is part of a book manuscript inspired by her collection of Haitian art.
Babette Wainwright is a licensed psychotherapist and a painter. She has lived in Madison, Wisconsin, since 1985.
Aba Ouvalier Down with Duvalier!
akra malanga fritter (malanga: edible root)
andeyo/peyi andeyo the Haitian provinces, the countryside, home of the Haitian peasantry
bal dance party
bannann peze sliced and pressed fried plantains
blan white person, but also used to refer to foreigners in general
bonnanj soul, basic life source
Bouki/Malis opposite characters in Haitian folktales-(Bouki the fool and Malis the shrewd)
Bwa chech dry wood, also used as a reply in riddles to the interjection (Tim, tim!)
diri kole rice and beans cooked together
djondjon black mushrooms primarily used in a rice dish
dous sweet confection, often with the consistency of fudge
egare lost, dumb, confused
griyo fried pork
gwayabel light embroidered shirt worn primarily by men
kremas a sweet coconut and milk-based liqueur
kenep Spanish limes
ki jan ou ye? how are you?
konpe friend, pal, also godfather of someone's child
konpa variety of modern popular dance music
I ap mode ou It will bite you
lavil the city, downtown
leve mo raising the dead
lougawou woman who is human by day and vampire by night
lwa spirit of the Vodou religion
madansara tradeswoman, vendor, merchant
mapou large tree with magic powers according to popular belief
marasa twins, also Vodou spirit
matinet a whip constructed with a piece of wood at the end of which are attached thin leather strips
mayi moulen cornmeal dish
mesye sara a male variation of madansara. Not very commonly used, but used here to indicate that some males now do participate in the intricate trade and travel network of local and international madansaras
mesi thank you
mizik rasin modern music influenced by Vodou and ram
moun person, human being
m pa pi mal I am fine, literally "not doing so bad"
mwen menm I, as for myself, as far as I am concerned
pen patat sweet potato-based desert
peristil place of worship in Vodou
pikliz a hot relish often made with hot peppers, chopped cabbage, vegetables and vinegar
rara an informal musical band parading
restavek unpaid child servant often treated as the slaves were in colonial time
san manman motherless, used pejoratively to insult someone displaying bad behavior
tchaka dish of cornmeal with beans and meat
ti little, often used before someone's name to form a nickname
Tim, tim! interjection used before posing a riddle
vagabon rascal, shameless person
vaksin musical instrument made out of bamboo reed
veve ritual design traced on ground of Vodou worship places to invoke a specific spirit
Yanvalou dance or Vodou rhythm
certificat state exam at the end of elementary school
gourde Haitian currency
G riots storytellers in West Africa
gendarme policeman, a member of the Haitian Army until 1995