Fok mwen te kite ou, pou m’te kapab konprann vale ou…
Fok mwen te lese ou…
Pou m’santi vreman tousa ou te ye pou mwen
I had to leave you to understand your value
I had to leave you
To really understand everything you were to me
I burst into tears when my mother announced over the phone that MereMere (my grandmother) and Uncle—the last of my immediate family who were not yet accounted for—were safe. The relief I felt, however, only slightly tempered the grief I was feeling over the disastrous earthquake, and its nightmarish aftermath, in Haiti. No matter what news channel I turned to, the message was the same: the damage is unimaginable; the loss of life incomprehensible; the survivors needed food, water, shelter, and medical care that would be slow in arriving. Haitians were suffering. I sat on the couch, immobilized by, as one friend put it, “the limits of my own humanity.” Was this it? Were praying and sending money the only things I could do for Haiti, a country that has given me so much?
I am a first-generation American. Although my mother married a West African, family circumstances and relationships made us a primarily Haitian household. As a result, I identify closely with Haitian music, food, art, and language. Growing up, I spoke Haitian Kreyol and French, requested “pwa an sos” with every meal (sometimes to the embarrassment of my mother when we visited guests), and wore ribbons in my hair until well past the 6th grade—as all Haitian girls are unfortunately forced to do by their mothers (so un-cool!). Like many first generation children, the rules and expectations in my home were sometimes a little different than that of other American households: greeting all elders with a kiss when you entered a room was expected; permission to attend sleepovers was not (“why would I send you to sleep in somebody else’s house, when you have your own bed right here?”); fast-food and the movies were exotic experiences, if they were experienced at all.
Being of Haitian descent shaped my identity in ways that protected me from the onslaught of negative messages to which black girls are often subject. Haiti was the first black country in the world to gain their independence (a distinction for which white countries have made them pay dearly, but that’s for another post…). That fact allowed me to lay claim to a heritage that was not defined solely by slavery, unlike many of my black peers who often resorted to the old trope of “we were once Kings and Queens” in an effort to do the same. Although Haiti is politically unstable, I could pledge some measure of allegiance to the Haitian flag without having to reconcile my loyalty with evidence that the country still didn’t want me, as black Americans often have to do in the United States. Although most of its inhabitants are poor, Haiti does produce professionals of color. Growing up, my mother’s friends were, more often than not, Haitian doctors who enjoyed the respect that comes with that professional achievement. It never occurred to me that people of color didn’t hold positions of power; most of the people of color to whom I was exposed growing up, did. In middle school and high school, when my academic achievement triggered accusations that I was “acting white,” I merely shrugged off the insult: I was Haitian; how could I not be black?
I know that my Haitian-American status will never insulate me from the barriers I must face as a woman of color. Nor do I want to be estranged from other folks of color based on national origin; we are all in this struggle together. I do realize, however, that my Haitian background provided some padding for the bumpy ride. I am proud of my Haitian identity; I value the influence of Haitian culture in my life. And I am desperate to pass some of that on to my daughter.
But how? Culture and identity are not things you just talk about. They are reflected in the day-to-day tasks of life. I have never been much of a cook, and the ability to prepare a Haitian meal eludes me. Although I can still understand Haitian Kreyol when it is spoken to me, and even formulate the sentences in my head, something happens in the transmission between my brain and my mouth. The words get stuck at the back of my throat; my lips won’t form the right sounds. The language comes out choppy and halted; embarrassed by my own difficulty with a language I spoke growing up, I stop trying almost as soon as I start. I have not been to Haiti since I was a baby, and do not even have memories of the country that I could pass on to her in stories.
I am inspired to renew my connection to Haiti, not only for my child’s sake, but also for my own. There is a Kreyol class offered at the nearby community college that I will take this summer. When my mother visits this weekend, I’ll be paying attention to what she’s doing in the kitchen. A trip to Haiti sometime in the future is a new goal; re-establishing connections to the Haitian community in my area is a more immediate priority. My only regret is that it took a disaster like this to make me realize that I was losing touch with part of what makes me, me. As I sit on the couch in front of the television, where my tears fall harder when images of women clutching their young children flash on the screen, I am crying not just for the additional suffering that Haitians have been asked to endure, but also for the loss of a meaningful connection to Haiti in my daughter’s, and my own, life. Haiti, my darling, I had to leave you, to find you.