I had planned to write a travel piece about Haiti, describing how idyllic she is: the lush green countryside, the cloud-capped mountains, the clear blue waters, the wistful art, the dignified people, their soul-stirring courage, etc… Then give an account of the trouble in paradise, Haiti’s well-documented downside: The political unrest, the undermining corruption, the conspicuous caste system, the desperate poverty, the putrid slums, blah, blah, blah… Then finish on an optimistic note about prospects for her future based on my observations: cyber cafes teaching computer literacy to children, food cooperatives, micro-finance for small businesses, road repair work, new residences under construction, etc…
But, I decided against it. Haiti meant so much more than that. She impacted my soul, even drawing tears on a couple of occasions. I didn’t cry out of pity, even though there was many a sight my American heart interpreted as a damn shame. Rather, I was moved by something spiritual, and I would be doing a disservice to Haiti and to the reader not to make this the polestar of my piece.
Previous to my 22-day sojourn in Haiti, I was already infatuated with her. Being a history buff, especially that of the African Diaspora’s, I’ve always been intrigued by Haiti. She’s a rare historical gem. During the European slave trade there were many uprisings. But, Haiti was the only colony of African slaves to successfully rebel against the Europeans and take their independence. Haiti became the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, advancing the cause of liberty and human equality throughout the world. Then, there is my literary idol, Zora Neale Hurston. She wrote my favorite book, Their eyes were watching God, while in Haiti researching Voodoo. So, when a friend who’d been living there for several years invited me down for a visit, I accepted without hesitation.
However, as I prepared for my trip, ticket in hand, hustling around to get my passport (this was my first trip to a country requiring a passport to enter), I began to have reservations. Like most Americans, my mind had been poisoned about everything Haitian- in fact, anything even vaguely African is tarnished to some extent. The negatives of Haiti are splashed on the TV and newspapers so frequently that it is nearly impossible to think of her without the accompanying images of chaos and dismay: Kidnapping, murder, theft, starvation, refugees, AIDS, Voodoo, ruthless dictators, coup d’etats, corrupt police, Tonton Macoute, etc…The list is long and ugly. My friends bon voyaged me with warnings like: Don’t tell them you’re American-they hate Americans! or Don’t tell them you’re a writer-they kill writers! or Don’t come back a Zombie! If not for my trust in the Creator’s Master Plan, I probably would’ve canceled my trip and ate the cost of that ticket.
Initially, the thing that struck me as frighteningly un-American about Haiti was that EVERYONE was black. Inside the archaic airport, the swarm of passengers, the customs and security officials, etc… And outside, the police officers, the horde of cab drivers accosting me with this African-intoned language called Kreyol, and beyond a fence, a teeming throng of curious onlookers. You’d think that having lived in the black community all my life, seeing predominantly black faces everyday, that I would be immediately at ease; even ecstatic on encountering black faces in roles I’d come to expect white. But, I wasn’t. In fact, I was traumatized, and it lasted for several days.
They say if you’re told a lie often enough eventually you start believing it. Even if the lie is something you consciously know to be a falsehood, somehow the lie attaches itself to your psyche. The lie I’m referring to is the lie that is ingrained in the American way of thinking. The lie that associates black people with danger, incompetence, ignorance, etc. And the darker the skin tone, the worse. Of course it’s nonsense, but I learned under the Haitian sun that this lie was alive in me. As pro-black as I consider myself, this revelation rocked my world. It’s no wonder the Haitians called me Blanc, the Kreyol word for foreigner. In French, Blanc means white, but I’ve come to understand it to mean anyone poisoned by the white lie about black people.
It came to a head the night I attended Carnival in downtown Port au Prince. Situated above the masses in bleacher seating sponsored by an international health organization and reserved for those few Haitians that could afford the ticket, I watched as Haiti rejoiced in bacchanal fashion. If you’ve ever been to Eastern Parkway on Labor Day, or to Mardi Gras, you know what I mean. I never thought much of Carnivals, to tell you the truth. I know it dates back before slavery, but I’ve always put it under the category of the time of year the masters let the slaves lose their minds, get that pent up aggression out of their systems, just so they could keep them under control the rest of the year. And, though I’d seen little for these Haitians to be celebrating so intensely since my arrival, that didn’t stop me from getting all swept upn in it. I was mesmerized by the display, the music, and the beautiful women.
Then, suddenly a float appeared, draped in blue and white frills, three stoic black figures stood upon it, dressed like French colonial generals, the year “1804” emblazoned, huge and bold, on the side. The roar of the revelers, over a million strong, rose to a deafening pitch. The vibration rattled my chest and the bleachers. My immediate reaction was, “Oh God, not here, too!” Many times I’ve seen black folks in the US dressed in this Yankee Doodle Dandy colonial garb on the 4th of July, banging drums and playing flutes, in celebration of the American Revolution, and it sickens me every time.
But, then, it hit me! Quite hard at that! I wasn’t in America, and there’s no such thing as the 4th of July in Haiti. Right? There’s only January 1, 1804. This was a float honoring black heroes and a black independence achieved in-arms. These three men being honored were Toussaint L’ Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, prominent leaders in the Haitian Revolution.
Joy, envy, and sorrow overwhelmed me at once and tears rolled down my cheeks. While I waved (I’ve never waved at a parade before) I wept for heroes like Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Denmark Vessey- African Americans who had similar aspirations as these Haitian heroes but were cut down by betrayal or superior firepower. I wept for the dignity shamefully absent in many African-Americans because our integral role in American history has been under taught, misrepresented, or altogether obliterated just for that purpose.
But, most of all I wept because I’d never before felt so free from the legacy of slavery, nor so much pride in my blackness, as I did at that moment. I owe Ayiti (Haiti, in Kreyol) a debt of gratitude for this souvenir- one that won’t collect dust on a mantelpiece, but reside in my soul forever. Merci anpil, Ayiti cherie!
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