I wrote this essay when the earthquakes happened in Haiti on January 12, 2010; 8 years ago today.
"I am Haitian: second generation: one hundred percent. My parents have inhabited this country for forty-five years but they are Haitian to their core. Not an ounce of them reads American. Their accents are strong, their French and Creole are in tact, and their perspective is other. They. Are. Haitian. And I love Haitian people.
When I hear a stranger on the street release the song of a Haitian voice whether it be in accented English, French or Creole I introduce myself and tell them I am Haitian, too. I adopt them as an Auntie or Uncle, cousin, friend. We speak in French.
Their speech is beautiful. Mine not so much. I try to excuse my American accent and compromised speech by explaining that I understand French better than I speak it because English was already in my household when I learned the language due to my older sister attending school. They nod politely. I forge ahead in the conversation because I love them and the sounds coming from their mouths.
Haitian-French doesn't sound like Parisian-French. Parisian-French is light, clipped and whispers like a secret. Haitian-French is a loud, rich, musical, expressive echo of place and time that transports and connects me to anything good about my childhood. If invited, I would gladly follow my new Haitian "relative" home in hopes of meeting more Haitians. Maybe I would stay for a home cooked meal of chicken, red beans and rice, with plantains, pate and soup. I love Haitians.
I am an actress. Throughout my career, I have attempted to master the Haitian accent. I'd like to say I have played many Haitian roles or as an artist it was simply an accent I wanted for my toolbox. In truth, I wanted to learn the accent in order to perfect the imitation of my Mother's voice for stories. It's a great touch to throw in the accent after I say, "Then, my Mother said..." She's a real hit at parties.
I recorded my parents in a series of interviews on various topics. On one tape, my Mother describes the Haitian accent as passionate, and rhythmic. Nothing is said with a soft touch. The simple is complex and everything; even "it" has meaning. I like that. The attack makes one stand up and pay attention. I have never met a native Haitian without presence. My parents are two of the most commanding presences I've ever encountered.
In addition to my emotional attachment to Haitian people, I happen to think they are one of the most physically beautiful people in the world. My grandmother's face was the essence of Haitian features. Her jaw line was square, cheekbones high, nose; broad. She was not tall. Her body carried nine children so her chest was ample and her figure full but not fat. Her skin was Crayola-Crayon-Brown, unblemished and wrinkle free. Gray hair pulled back in a bun couldn't age her. Almond shaped eyes projected a fierce self-pride and the key to an inner knowledge that left me drawn to her. My Father's Mother, Christiane Andre Richard is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.
Haitian pride and spirit is easily caught in the most casual of photographs. When posing in pictures, my Parents, Aunts and Uncles don't smile. Instead, their chins jut out with a slight lift. Their shoulders are back and they look directly into the camera emanating pride. That is a happy pose in their minds.
When I was a kid I often posed the same way. There is a picture of our family at my sister Lissa's eighth grade graduation. We all take that stance. Despite our ages, (I am twelve, Lissa is thirteen and Gina is seventeen) we look like sixty year old women holding the secret to life. My Father is tall with the same color brown skin as his Mother and he looks like the Haitian Sidney Poitier in a tailored blue suit. My Mother is simply gorgeous in a peach suit fashioned to a T with stunning accessories and styled hair. We are stunning. We are Haitians.
Occasionally in pictures, my two and half year old daughter strikes the pose. My husband, stepkids, me, even our dog will be smiling ear to ear as she stares down the lens with shoulders thrown back like she is daring the camera to try and make her less proud. "It's the Haitian in her," my husband will say. It's in our blood.
Twenty years ago, I was part of a Haitian prayer circle that consisted of my parents, Sister Gina, and three Haitians who came to our house after my sister Lissa died at age twenty two. The woman leading the prayer directed us into the circle to hold hands. This was not typical fare for my sister and me. Despite our grief we had to avoid looking at each other in order not to laugh.
The woman launched into a repetitive chant in French. She sang at the top of her lungs and released all the pain we felt but had yet to express. In an almost trance like state she pounded through the prayer, raised her head up and back, threw it down, rocked and swayed. I was horrified. I was desperate to laugh as a way to keep myself from being swept into her wave. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life.
Now I can't guarantee that her style of grieving was based solely on the fact that she was Haitian but it was certainly representative of the power of Haitian people. She unleashed it all, refusing to let the pain infect her or pin her down. As a result, I was nailed to the ground. That woman could have stopped a train with her prayer. That is the Haitian spirit.
Seek out the melody of a Haitian's voice. Look at their face and eyes. Love their beauty. Whether mourning, fighting, dying, laughing, dancing, celebrating, living, no quake can stop them."
Since I wrote this essay my Father passed away. Then my Mother. Two Haitians who came to America and practiced medicine, had a family and built a good life.
My mother was valedictorian of her medical class. She was a beloved gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies and held the confidence of hundreds and hundreds of women. She had more than 20 Godchildren. Patients that she delivered use to send her presents on their own birthdays.
My Father was a surgeon who operated on women with breast cancer and cared for people in emergency rooms at the worst times of their lives. He was a respected teacher. He was often pulled over by police because they assumed he'd stolen the silver Mercedes that he drove.
My parents raised children; my sister Gina is one of the most talented special education teachers in the field. She has been the source of love, counsel and constancy in the lives of children who are at risk of ending up in the system. She saw them, valued them and empowered so many to do better than what was expected of them.
Gina's kids are Noah and Lulu. Noah is studying music education and Lulu plans to go to Depaul. Who knows what my beloved sister Lissa would have contributed to this world if she'd had the chance. She was a beautiful writer. She could sing. She was sensitive, kind and a free spirit.
I am a wife and a mother and an activist, a teacher and a storyteller. I have four children; Thomas and Nora are studying education in college. Audra and Drea are in grade school. They are smart, sensitive, hilarious, honest and true. Audra wants to be a scientist slash inventor. Drea wants to be an artists or a scientist or both. They are going to change the world. My husband is the best man I know and we have been married for 12 years.
I am a Black woman in this age of Trump who won't stand for that man calling my parents' home a "shithole". I am the daughter of Haitian immigrants who won't stand for that man asking, "Why do we want people from Haiti here?": My parents and all of their friends and their children and my aunts and uncles and cousins who are teachers and doctors and lawyers and caregivers and good citizens of this United States. That's why.
And to the members of Congress from both parties who sat in the Cabinet room as Trump called Haiti and nations in Africa "shitholes" shame on you for saying nothing. Representative Mia Love; the first Haitian-American elected to congress tweeted that Trump should apologize. I don't want his apology. His apology would mean nothing. Shame on all of us that he is in office.
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