Haiti, My Darling

Ayiti Cheri…

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

Haiti, Darling

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.

“It’s Racial!”

So while I was trying to not thrust my own oft-radical racial views upon my son (until he was at least 5 lol), he has figured things out on his own thus far. It’s rather amazing how this works.

I’ve mulled over this entry for the past week. I realize that the subject could turn into a dissertation, so I’m going to do my best to keep it simple.

My son is Black.

And he knows it.

My son, in my opinion, has been racially conscious since before he was 1-year-old. Maybe not conscious, but he definitely showed cultural/racial affinity at that time.

Meet Quincy. He is the trumpet-blowing pre-schooler on Disney’s show, Little Einsteins.  He is also the first character my son developed an attachment to, or rather, showed preference towards. I, in my say-it-loud ways, was excited that my beautiful Black baby boy immediately connected with the only Black character on the show before he was able to walk. When he became able to talk and walk, he made it clear that Quincy was not his friend or best buddy. He made it clear that he WAS Quincy. “Mommy, I’m Quincy!” “Mommy, look at ME on TV!!”

According to this Newsweek article, babies as young as 6 months old judge others based on race. Of course, further exploration suggests that babies are drawn to people who look like them and the people they are around the most in their formative months and years. It would make sense, then, for a White baby to prefer White characters or toys that remind him of his parents or his own reflection.  So then, it isn’t simply about “racist babies” as some have called this phenomenon. It is more about understanding the differences in people’s appearances and developing a certain level of familiarity and comfort in these differences.

I realized, or thought I did, that it wasn’t about Quincy looking like him. Clearly, he is a different skin tone from Quincy. It wasn’t about Quincy playing the trumpet; Garvey prefers the keyboard and drums. Garvey could have just as easily identified with the lighter skin-toned White male lead character, Leo, if it were simply about the character who looked like him. So I figured maybe it was because Quincy has brown skin like Mommy and Daddy (his father is dark chocolate skin and I’m on the caramel side). I basically brushed it off and enjoyed the fact that he had a vivid imagination where he saw himself as a character on a TV show.

Over time, however,  I began noticing that he continued to show preference for Black male characters. His newest favorite is Shout, the Black male from the Fresh Beat Band, a group of musicians on Nickelodeon (along with Kiki, the Latina, Twist, the White male, and Marina, the White female).  He exclaims, with confident certainty, that he IS Shout. It has gone so far that he assigns characters to his family (I’m Kiki, Daddy is Twist, Janniyah is Marina). I had to think, why didn’t he make Daddy Shout, since they are the closest in resemblance? So I asked him. He says, “No no no Mommy, IIII’M Shout, not Daddy!”

I think that’s the most I will get out of him. Despite the tests run on 3-year-olds in the article, they are not exactly scientific in their own explanations of why they show racial affinity at such early ages.

Another example is gymnastics class. He has two primary coaches: Coach Phil (Black male) and Coach Jonah (White male). Initially, Garvey was not very responsive to Coach Jonah, but if Coach Phil got a hold of him, he was compliant and responsive. Over time, he grew warmer to Coach Jonah and I realized that this was the first significant White figure in Garvey’s life thus far (he’s had almost zero contact with my maternal family). It took three years for my son to come in close contact with a White person. This was not anything intentional, but rather the circumstances of where we live and the types of contacts he’s had with the outside world.

When I found out I was with child, I made a very conscious decision about two things: One, my son would be raised with an appreciation for his African heritage and he would learn everything I could teach him about the greatness and struggles of his people in this country and the world; Two, my son would be exposed to people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities and I would do the best I could to not enforce any ideas of supremacy or prejudice.

The article says that parents, mostly White parents, do their children a disservice by taking the “colorblind” approach to race issues. It suggests that kids basically figure it out on their own if we don’t intervene and teach them in our ways and beliefs. “In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”” Citation

So while I was trying to not thrust my own oft-radical racial views upon my son (until he was at least 5 lol), he has figured things out on his own thus far. It’s rather amazing how this works. Why is this on my mind now?

My son is about to start pre-school and the discussions about education and socialization are very important. In his gymnastics class, he befriended not any of the White or Latino children, but one little Black boy named Max and a Black girl named Chloe. He gravitated to them on his own, with no encouragement or bias from either of his parents. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now, as we begin making schooling decisions, we have to take into considerations how environment can shape his racial views. As a mother who went to a predominantly Black and Latino private middle school, a predominantly White boarding school, and then a predominantly White Ivy League university (but stayed almost completely isolated within the small Black community there), I understand how much of an impact schools can have on the shaping of one’s racial consciousness and experiences. I want my son to have as much exposure to other races and cultures as possible to develop understanding and embrace diversity, but I’m not sure how that desire meshes with my desire for him to be a strong, culturally conscious, heritage-loving, say-it-loud Black man.

For now, he seems to be carving his own path. I’ve begun teaching him about his namesakes, Kwanzaa, and among his diverse library of books, there are beautiful characters of every shade of Brown in stories from Africa and Black America. I don’t want my son to be bigoted, prejudiced, or God-forbid racist, but I have to admit that I’m secretly loving his preference and his identification with his own Blackness.

Is that bad?