I am Haitian-American.
I never intended to intimately discuss this aspect of my identity when I started this blog. I initially wrote this post a few days after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti – I couldn’t return to it without crying. I was ashamed of my response, so I buried this entry away on my computer. I wanted to delete it because it felt too messy, disorganized, and emotional.
Trauma, however, is all of these things, and it is OK to honor chaos.
It has been six weeks since I wrote this, the emotions are still raw, but I have found a number of my family members – and that privilege of having most of my family alive begs that I turn up the volume on Haitian-American hushed voices.
I now find when I tell (or often, remind) people that I’m Haitian – the reaction is a quiet exhaled ‘oh’, usually followed by an apology and grasping questions about the earthquake. I was absent from work and MIA from my classes – people want to know why, my only response I can come up with is, “I’m Haitian-American”
I hope your family is ok?
Is all too often the followup question. I imagine that it is near impossible to come up with the ‘right’ response – most of my family is alive, some are dead or missing, few have a home or resources, many have infections, and suffer from acute PTSD. I remember shortly after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, I suddenly remembered an acquaintance’s heritage and grabbed his hand during a dinner party and inexplicably said, “I’m so sorry” and he just nodded quietly back. Speaking to someone who may be in the midst of trauma and shocking loss is intimidating – particularly when that lost is blaring on every news channel, radio station, twitter feed and email.
All I can say is, “I’m not sure, but thanks for asking.”
When I say I am Haitian-American, I am saying that my father was politically imprisoned and tortured by the country he loved dearly and fought for viciously. When I say I am Haitian-American, I am saying that my father’s homes were burned to the ground by the TonTon Macoutes when he was a child – and the legacy of this trauma leaves him always looking for fire exits wherever he goes and sighing with relief whenever lit candles are extinguished before him. When I say I am Haitian-American I am saying that my mother was raised in the Haiti you see on TV every day: she lost siblings to preventative illnesses, grew up surrounded by grinding poverty and suffers profound guilt whenever she buys any luxury item in the US.
When I say I am Haitian-American, I am saying my most vivid dreams are often in Haitian kreyol and when I speak kreyol I cringe each time I hear my Americanized accent stultify the rhythmic hum of my family’s language.
When I say I am Haitian-American, I say I embody the spirit of a marvelous rebellion in 1804 and the disappointment of our dreams of independence shattered.
Shattered with each coup, each natural disaster, each embargo, each new wave of militias coming through people’s doors to steal their minimal belongings for a new corrupt president.
When I say I am Haitian-American, I admit to overtipping Haitian cab drivers, a hollow apology of unpacked classist guilt and an Americanized voyeurism to my father’s first few years in the United States: which he abruptly ended after being robbed at gunpoint by his cab customer. I say that my family is in the US in exile, we came to find comfort and never found home.
When I say I am Haitian-American, I am dragging you to every time Americans have winced or strained impatiently against my English-speaking family’s Haitian accents, I am bringing you to my ostentatious rage each time I witnessed it and my family gently hushing me from causing a scene so as to halt any further humiliation.
I am bringing you to confused faces when I correct people who call me African-American, to the people who say, “Well, you don’t look Haitian” and smile widely as if it is a compliment.
I am bringing you to rich stories, hours of full-belly laughter, romantic films and soaps in kreyol (no subtitles except the occasional verbal translation to the bored teenagers watching). I am giving you music that lifts people from their seats – dancing because the music has mystically healed every wound, shed all suppressed tears, and gave them a few minutes of peace. I give you the calm eyes of the Haitians who understand possession and know not to speak its name, as well as the startled Haitian-American eyes of those of us who don’t get it and foolishly blab about it on the internet.
I am giving you the worn muscles of my aunt who worked two full-timed jobs at two factories in the US to make her two bedroom apartment hospitable for as many extended relatives as she could fit. I give you her 64-year-old resilience, fatigue, osteoporosis and exhausted grin as I tell you she has worked various positions of grinding manual labor her whole life in the US – when in Haiti she dreamed of doing theater and still dances in characters for our family.
When I say I am Haitian-American – I say our concept of home has always been in flux. It has been full of hopes, faded memories from childhood, worn dog-eared pictures and baffling Hollywood portrayals of voodoo. I say that I devoured every book by Edwidge Danticat – my fingers tracing metaphors of a home I want and long for.
I am saying that I have watched the Haiti my parents knew and that I dreamed of collapse senselessly, with no words, no warnings, and mass death. I hear of people I knew dying, people I loved killed, children I hoped to teach more ‘bad English words’ to – missing. I hear my mothers strained voice every other hour, announcing who has been found, who is still missing— and lately: who we presume are dead. My father’s silence engulfs these calls and I hang up the phone abruptly so I can cry with no audience. I need for it to be a full and unapologetic catharsis: as hysterical and as chaotic as possible, so I sound brave after I’m done. I need to sound brave when I call my 12-year-old Haitian-American cousin (who cannot find his father) to give him empty reassurances so he can hopefully get some sleep. I realized my mother probably does this each time she calls me, and that each phone call to each younger Haitian-not-in-Haiti across the world has gone through this cleansing process. I also realize my American partner has barely slept either, so I try to silence the surges of sadness, even though they asked me to stop doing that.
When I say I am Haitian-American, I say that I cannot watch the news and use various scripts to block images whenever I read articles about Haiti, all I see is the death of dreams, the death of home. I see Haitian children being sent in 1,000 directions without their intricate family network being researched by messianic adoption agencies. I see their concept of home being destroyed by reckless adoptions that forego same-sex couples because of stupid laws. I see the hungry grasping desperately for resources, their images captured by opportunistic journalists who don’t bother asking their names and call them ‘looters’. I see Cuba, who the US does not report on, helping their neighbors despite their own poverty.
I close my eyes from the horror of the earthquake and reinvent these images.
I see the possibility of Haiti that Jean Dominique bellowed about throughout ‘The Agronomist’. I see the Haiti my mother paints – of the country side of Haiti: the occasionally cold night chills, the heavy ripe fruit hanging from trees, the epic storytelling sessions of my grandfather and great-grandfather, the mysterious women who wander farmland at night. I see the Haiti my father paints – Port-au-Prince, children recklessly playing soccer in the street – dodging brightly colored VW buses, blaring radios and people arguing loudly about politics while slamming their dominos down victoriously. I sense the Haiti I barely remember – pleasant smells, rolling blackouts, my mother laughing. The words dictatorship, coup, drug & human trafficking, debt, ‘victims’, ‘charred bodies’ all stay in the back drop of this reinvention – never-fading but it is no longer Haiti’s byline. Instead I see revolutionaries, heroes, my family and their friends are alive, burgeoning infrastructure, a shrinking gap between have & have-nots…
…and my aunt calls to say, ‘My god, can you believe what happened to me at work in Port-au-Prince’ instead of ‘No, we have not found them.’
What I am saying when I tell you I’m Haitian-American is – no need to respond by saying, “I’m sorry”. I love my country, fanatically, even if it currently belongs to no one and has never belonged to me.
Social justice, at its core, is about asking why people suffer. It asks – why there aren’t homes for everyone, particularly those who need a moment of rest and quiet. There homes can be real or symbolic, and far too many of us from various marginalized communities and of complex identities have been homeless for periods throughout our lives.
All that I ask of any of you is to: Celebrate Haiti. Celebrate Haiti until Haiti finds home.