My Haiti.

by M_Eriksson; used under a Creative Commons license.

The phone calls started early. The mass text messages. Do you know anybody there? Yes, so-and-so can’t find their father. Damn. Her? Her grandmother landed the day the earthquake hit. How is she? She says that she doesn’t feel like her grandmother is dead. Me? My mother’s cousins are missing. Sorry, I gotta go. I have to see if my grandmother is OK.

We check on our elders. Our connection to Haiti, the place, has always been through them. Through the nostalgia–family stories, old feuds, and first loves, the fierce pride of being the First Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere.  And what of it now? These days Haiti is commonly referred to as the Poorest Nation in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve heard people say that maybe Haiti would have been better off waiting. Maybe Haiti fought too soon for its independence.

Those are conspiracies. Fatalistic thoughts for people desperate to know how things could have gone so wrong. The overall consensus today, though, was, “Why Haiti?” and if Haiti then, “Why Port-au-Prince?” the capital. No, we don’t think people living in rural areas deserve disaster. But why the most heavily populated area? The place with the most infrastructure, in a country where infrastructure is wanting.

Most of my friends were born here, in the US. Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn my connection to Haiti has been through its Brooklyn Diaspora. My Haiti was the Catholic Church around the corner, where I had my first Communion. Some of the members there worshiped along side my grandmother, once a member of the Haitian aristocracy; they called her Madam. My Haiti is when my sister and I would go food shopping with my mother up and down Flatbush Avenue. Everybody was a cousin. In fact it’s hard for my mother to grasp what the term “second cousin” means. It was customary to kiss a relative on the cheek to say hello. They’d ask us about school–always school, while my mother ordered bouillion (only on Saturday mornings), or soup jouroumon (only on Sunday mornings), flaky warm patties stuffed with gobs of beef, chicken, or smoked herring, and akassan, a sweet corn-milk drink.

Over summers we got our fruit from dark-skinned men with brightly colored shirts and hands ashen from heavy lifting of sugar cane and fruit–mangoes, pineapples, coconuts and watermelons. They did this out of the back of a van, beaten by Flatbush potholes, and in between shilling produce, some of them drove shoppers to and from Kings Plaza, the area mall and hang out, for a dollar. They drove wildly past buses and weaved in and out of traffic like rats mining through tunnels, angering the MTA and whoever was elected mayor.

There were also the stereotypes. Haiti, a poor, violent, place. They way I heard it, if you were comin’ up Haitian in Brooklyn in the early nineties, you didn’t tell a lot of people where you were from. By the time I had come of age, the Fugees had made it more acceptable to big up Haiti. But before then, girls like my sister were pushed down stairs. Boys with the “just off the boat uniform,” penny loafers and jeans, were jumped on their way home from wherever. So we all adopted the worse of the stereotypes, the most violent of our history. Everybody knew Papa Doc, Françios Duvalier, the vicious dictator who ruled from 1957 – 1971 declaring himself “President for Life.” We all had family members in the TonTon Macoutes. And Vodou? Well, never leave a strand of hair at a Haitian person’s house. And mess with me, I’ll get my uncle to turn you into a zombie.

We grew out of that. Besides we’ve got Edwidge now and Wyclef is still makin’ music. Sak pase? N’ap boule! Kreyole for “what’s up” and literally “i’m hot” have become terms of endearments for any person who has grown up in, or a near a predominantly Haitian community. And in 2004 at the West Indian Day Parade in NY, which takes over Eastern Parkway, there were hundreds of us waving our flags with pride. We were celebrating our bicentennial and dancing to Kompa behind ostentatious floats. That year we took over the parkway.

These are my memories. My connection to a place I’ve visited only once. I was on a cruise with my family. The cruise line would not refer to the island we were visiting as Haiti. At the time they called it Hispanola. I didn’t feel at home there. There was no natural pull for me, No feeling for it. But as I watched my mother pacing back and forth, using this time of disaster to reconnect with the family she could find, every phone call, every text message felt like a legacy lost. Our history crumbling.

  • Thank you for sharing this; I’m trying to find words to put into a blog post over at Poverty in America and I’m just at a loss.

    I hope your loved ones are holding up. Your description of your heritage reminds me of my own in some ways – Irish-Catholic on this end, never been to Ireland, no connection to the country, but very Irish in a very Boston-centric way.

    Thinking of you and your family.

  • Wow.

    After I spent a few weeks in Guanajuato, Mexico as an adult, I was struck at how I could feel instantly at home in a place I’d visited only a few times many years before. When I left, I felt fiercely homesick for what before I’d just jokingly call the motherland.

    The news out of Haiti is heartbreaking, but I think it’s these eloquently written pieces that make me glad we have something called the blogosphere.

    Hope your family is okay.

  • Lette

    Thanks for sharing this beautifully written piece of mind.
    Hope your family is okay, and i hope that those that aren’t find the strength needed in this very difficult time.

  • THIS…sums up my childhood as well, it’s almost eerie. Flatbush, Nostrand, Eastern Parkway…this was home for my family growing up, STILL is today. Thanks for sharing such a heartfelt post.

  • peace to your homeland.

  • Wow. Haiti has been through it but there’s certainly more to its history and culture than violence and poverty. It became the first Black Republic in the western hemisphere during a time when the U.S. was claiming Black people weren’t, in fact, people. That’s huge.

    I hope you and your family will be okay.

    And thank you for sharing this.

  • Thanks for this. What a beautiful post. Listening to you talk about the food reminded me of the tassot and red snapper at Le Soleil in Hells Kitchen. Good memories those. We’ll say a prayer for your people.

  • I grew up in Miami, and although I was never really close to the Haitian community, I was always aware of their pain and suffering and didn’t need to travel far to see it.

    Thank you for sharing. The Haitian experience has never really gotten enough awareness or sympathy, especially in Miami with the politics of the Cuban diaspora. I hope the earthquake, and Pat Robertson’s dumb-ass comments, wake a lot of people up.

  • This is great. My knowledge of Haiti is minimal. I’m sad it took something so disastrous for me to actually want to learn about the country and its rich history.

  • Belleisa, thanks for this. It’s really beautiful.

  • This was fantastic. That is all.

  • Ladyfresh

    This is a touching piece, thank you for sharing.

    I’m also now curious as to what akassan tastes like.

  • Serena

    This is beautiful, and real, and takes me there… to Brooklyn, and shows me everyday people, people that I know. Contrasted with the horror and tragedy being flashed across stations right now it is very powerful and makes reality all the more heartbreaking. Great piece love. My prayers are with you

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