From the time I was 12 years old to the time I was 23, my best friend was K. (Heh — all right, there are a lot of K’s in my life, apparently. You haven’t heard about this one before.)
I spent the majority of those years in a kind of benign yet profound
envy of her family, to the point where I’m pretty sure I hurt my own mother’s feelings. To my earliteen mind, she had, I dunno, something like the Platonic ideal of “the family” going on. I’m sure a healthy percentage of this adoration was simply experiencing a new way to do old things, but it was adoration, pure and complete. I loved that she had sisters, and rituals; I loved the way her family’s evening worship made sense, happened regularly and followed patterns that did not depend on patriarchal whim, and ended swiftly; I loved that they made dinner together; I loved the way she knew who her grandmother was, grandparents in fact, all four of them, and had met them; it was beyond fantastic that she knew three languages by osmosis.* (*This was not quite true. She learned Kreyòl at age 12 because her friends would make fun of her in it and she wasn’t having it, and because she wanted to talk to her grandmother and this was the only way, but I didn’t know that right away.)
These people fed me and took me with them on vacations, had me call them Mamí and Papí alongside their daughters, made me speak French on the phone avec une discipline ferme
and welcomed me into their home, often, for extended periods of time
(I'm sorry, Mommy!!), helped me move house in college and part of grad school after my father died, and made me feel like a fourth daughter** for the whole of my adolescence. (**Papí went and fooled some people, yo. He had, I think, a mischievous streak. Dear any parishioners who recognize this story? I am not Pastor's daughter from a previous clandestine marriage, I swear! It is not my fault, he said things in languages I did not know!)(EDIT, 2001/1/21: I wasn't sure whether to leave this out, but it's true: They were there for me the day my father died, literally -- well, closer to literally than "figuratively" -- at a moment's notice, and her father -- again at a moment's notice -- conducted my father's funeral.)
I was exceptionally jealous of how, in this family, these girls never had any doubt about who they were and where they came from. They’d tell stories about cousins of nieces of nephews of aunts, complete with colorful Caribbean details and hand motions. I’d sit at the dinner table eating vegetarian food and listen to them debating the finer points of Haitian history and politics. (Because of them, I knew all about Boukman way before Pat Robertson and his ridiculous and erroneous take on the matter.)
Efforts to get my dad to similarly verse me in Jamaican studies...were not successful. Daddy was not a talkative guy, God love him, and the one time I asked him and a tableful of his friends what the Jamaican national anthem was, they kinda looked at one another sheepishly and said... “Um... ‘God save the Queen’?” (Aw. I miss my dad.)
I remember, during one of these discussions, Mamí once wagging her lovely, slender finger at the youngest girl and telling her, “That’s right. That’s why you must always remember that first you are Haitian.”
Well, my overly idealistic, overpious, know-it-all 14-year-old self didn’t quite approve of this (although I was silent about it, thank goodness). Surely we were all human beings
first, brothers and sisters in the eyes of the Lord, and then SDA, black, and then American, and then our various and sundry hyphenates, or some such? (Actually, I’ve completely forgotten the order I put them in, but the Jesus-related aspects were way up there, I'm pretty sure. :-D)
But no, my misgivings aside, there was never any question that my friend was, first and foremost, a Haitian girl.
I didn’t realize until much later in my life how very important that was, how much it was not
a given, how much Mamí and Papí were battling against when they said these things.
As I got older, I began to witness and absorb. Haitians in boats turned away from the Florida coastline while boatloads of Cubans were brought onshore (not welcomed exactly, but not nearly as often kept floating until they sank). Mass ejections from the Dominican Republic in the '80s (we watched it on TV: chaos at the border, people fleeing with only what they could carry in their hands, a man holding his newborn baby -- who, barely months old, had never seen Haiti -- and crying because he could not find his wife and so had no way to feed his child, begging the cameramen to help him find her before his baby starved). Huge protest marches in New York City in 1990, when I was a senior in high school, when the U.S. Government banned Haitians, all Haitians, U.S.-born or not, from donating blood. Meeting a few, and hearing about so many more, young Haitian people who would learn Spanish and outright lie, claim to be from any other plausible country, to be able to travel or work in the Caribbean — or even in certain areas of my own city (legality or illegality notwithstanding) -- unharassed, never admitting that they were Haitian even to other people of color.
Being Haitian, to me, had always meant...having my best friend there to translate in my ear and explain to me what was going on. It had always meant family, meant people who welcomed, people who taught, had always meant something good and enviable and rooted in history and love.
I’d had no idea
I figured it out, though, the first time a dark-skinned, Francophone man responded to my eager question: "Vous etes haïtien?" with angry eyes and a steely "No!"
well before I could get to the gleeful "You sound just like my best friend's dad!" part.
(Or the time the high-ranking minister refused to come be a guest preacher at their church -- same religion, same geographic area, a sister church
-- because he "feared voodoo." Way to be strong in the Lord, bub.)
Or (more recently) when I sat on the bus next to the pretty round-faced girl with teak-colored skin and light hair, speaking créole francisais
into her phone, who told me, once she'd determined that I was not hostile, "how shit
people treat you when they find out."
It’s crazy how people can hate each other. It’s crazy how nobody can hate like people who are closely related. It’s not sane. Today I am reading about hope and human kindness, but today I am also reading lies. I am reading lies from people who are pampered, protected, and oblivious, but I am also reading lies from people who should know better. I am reading lies from people who have suffered much the same, but who build themselves up by having one convenient, perpetual, scapegoat nation to look down upon.
I am reading the words of people who suggest that a nation ripped apart by natural disaster should be cordoned off and left to die, assisted
to die, some even propose, for (they accuse) overbreeding like the subhumans they are. I am reading victim-blaming from people who are warm and safe, who can cross the street in front of their homes without fearing the earth dropping out beneath them, without fearing listening to their babies and grandmothers die, unable to reach them in the rubble. I read people accusing this nation of being in the grip of the devil
, or more mundanely, being a nation of lazy bastards who absorb goods like leeches on “better” nations and resell them. I am reading into the hearts of hateful anonymous people who do not know and do not care to know (or who know too well, and see themselves reflected, and are trying to hide from this, but cannot truly hide) about a nation of people who work in factories to provide Westerners with baseballs with just the right amount of stitches and layers so that these people of richer nations can watch grown men who dedicate their lives to expendable pastimes for millions of dollars, a nation of people forced to repay -- for about a hundred years -- a “debt” (a "reduced" rate of 90 million francs) to the very nation that held them in slavery for hundreds more; who suffered under dictators propped up by the West; who are (like much of the rest of the Caribbean) locked into narrow, proscribed industries, to the point where instead of being allowed to diversify and become self sufficient, they are forced by U.S. and E.U. protectionism to grow maybe two or three major crops and otherwise simply be of service in the tourist industry to wealthier outsiders.
Haiti is the first republic ruled by people of African descent and the second nation to claim independence via successful revolution in the Western Hemisphere, and it seems no one will ever forgive them for it.
I’m nobody. I’m not a spokesperson. I’m not brave, I don’t have any “nobility of suffering,” and I don’t have any lessons to teach anybody -- I don’t even know that I’ve properly conveyed here what I’m trying to say. I’m just an American woman in a safe place, looking on, waiting for payday so I can give a few dollars to a few organizations and beyond that, I don’t really know what
So in the interim, I, uh, made a shirt
The text reads: "TODAY, I AM HAITIAN" in Kreyòl. (Smaller text reads "Today, we are all Haitian" in French and English.) All proceeds are going to OXFAM America (For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know me from Adam or Eve: I’ve gotten CafePress to put the organization's name, not mine, directly on the checks. So, no shenanigans here. :-D Alternatively, you can give directly: Please consider sending a donation by check to: Oxfam America, Haiti Earthquake Response Fund, P.O. Box 1211, Albert Lea, MN, 56007-1211.
Other good methods for giving: go to oxfamamerica.org
, or worldvision.org
. There is also ADRA International
(Adventist Development and Relief Agency). Be sure to select "Haiti Earthquake Relief" on these websites if that's specifically where you want your money to go. They're going to need it for a long time yet.)
Seriously, people -- to be Haitian should never be a thing to be ashamed of. There is no justice in that.
______________________By the way — the text of the supposedly evil prayer that is ascribed to Boukman (a Jamaican!):
“Bon Dje ki fè la tè. Ki fè soley ki klere nou enro. Bon Dje ki soulve lanmè. Ki fè gronde loray. Bon Dje nou ki gen zorey pou tande. Ou ki kache nan niaj. Kap gade nou kote ou ye la. Ou we tout sa blan fè nou sibi. Dje blan yo mande krim. Bon Dje ki nan nou an vle byen fè. Bon Dje nou an ki si bon, ki si jis, li ordone vanjans. Se li kap kondui branou pou nou ranpote la viktwa. Se li kap ba nou asistans. Nou tout fet pou nou jete potre dje Blan yo ki swaf dlo lan zye. Koute vwa la libète kap chante lan kè nou.”
"The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that sings in all our hearts."
(Bon Dye/Bondié/Bon Dje*** = “bon Dieu” = "Good God." YEAH, REALLY SATANIC, PAT.)
***I've seen this spelled several ways
(And yes, maybe pig’s blood was tasted. In quite a few societies, this sort of blood ritual is or was practiced, often to settle blood debt between people without actual human bloodshed, to bring about peace, or to cleanse a sin. Anyone who believes in literal Transubstantiation at Communion -- or eats steak rare -- should shut up right freaking quick.)