My name is Jacques, a.k.a. “The Haitian Firefly” in artistic circles. I am a poet, author, columnist, novelist and essayist. I came up with the nickname “The Haitian Firefly” to reflect my bold individuality and life credo that we are all essentially fireflies, we glow but only for a short amount of time, so we might as well shine as brightly as we possibly can while we still can. I grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti as part of a middle class family. My father was an entrepreneur, Tailor and Landlord with his own business in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capitol city and my mother was also a landlord in Carfou, a rural part of Port-au-Prince.
My mother and father lived in separate houses. My mother lived with her four sisters in a house they had inherited after their parents passed away. My grandfather was an educated professional man who took great care of his family. I lived in Carfou, an outskirt of Port-au-Prince on Jean Claude Duvalier Avenue. Even though my mother and her sisters were all educated, they still could not easily find work; that is unless they were willing to compromise themselves sexually. Eventually, they all married money. Their husbands were professional men who could provide for them and afford them the luxury of living above the poverty line, the often precarious life of the middle class in Haiti. I say “precarious” because the scale could tip below our favor at anytime, which is exactly what eventually happened which caused us — my mother, stepfather and me — to essentially leave Haiti forever. We lived in a two-story house with a pool in the back with high surrounding walls with rooms to spare. So mother rented out the extra rooms to tenants, so she was bestowed the tile housewife/Landlord, a rarity for a woman in Haiti.
I remember at the cusp of my adolescent years when I first realized my “position” in society. I remember particularly one of my mother’s tenants; which made me see clearly that I was lucky to have what I had. She was a single mother with five hungry mouths to feed. My mom would sometime forgo her rent or feed her and her kids during particularly arduous times. I remember her kids sometimes studying on empty stomachs while I knit picked about what kinds of foods I liked and didn’t like, and how my mother would order the maid to cook me something else if I did not care for what was in front of me. I remember some of the tenant’s kids scaring me into giving them my dinners by telling me that if I did not forfeit my dinner that the Ogoon (a Haitian voodoo king) would come and steal my soul while I slept. A trick I succumbed to for quite some time until my cousin Ti Bob convinced me to retaliate and refuse to fork over my meals.
I felt very privileged when I saw the tenant’s kids attending public schools while I attended a very exclusive private school “Frere Andre,” adjacent to the Haitian White House. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, we were the first to possess a telephone, refrigerator and color TV, things that we all take for granted here in America. My stepfather would take my mom and me to the circus, the theatre, vacation spots like the “Tropicana” and “Le Lambi” and afford us a lifestyle of fancy foods, furnishings and leisure. However, being “privileged” came with a price.
My mom married an alcoholic mechanic with his own business who, while providing us with luxury, also inflicted upon us some grave fatalities. He was terribly jealous and possessive. My mom was not allowed to come and go as she pleased. She would often have to be home before my stepfather, if she came afterwards, he would drink and erupt into a verbal and physical confrontation — which caused us to run for our lives sometimes into the wee hours of the night. Sometimes I would get physically hurt when I tried to separate them.
When my mother, stepfather and I landed in the land of the free with the Statue of Liberty to welcome us, neither of us knew what laid ahead for us in the U.S. of A. My mom told me just before we left Haiti that my stepfather’s business was failing and that our “status” would take a serious nosedive unless we left immediately, while we were still on top. When we came to Boston, we all had to live in a rooming house in a windowless basement. I was only thirteen years old and found myself going to school wearing a multitude of motley colored clothes that would later be defined as “the immigrant look.” I found out about how comfortable other kids were living when I would go over their houses, which made me yearn for the middle class life I used to live back home.
One day, I came home crying telling my mom, between the emotional heaving of my chest from anguish, how the kids are teasing me for looking poor and that I was being called a “just come” — a term that I would later learn is reserved for people just off the boat, but in our case the plane — who does not dress properly and who would do almost anything for a living for at half the cost Americans would. They were accusing immigrants of stealing American jobs. My mom was patient, empathetic and loving, a trait that has been consistent from her right from the day I was born. She told me to remember who I was before I came to America and not to let anyone define who I am.
As I became acculturated to living in America, I became more and more aware of how I was perceived and treated based on a number of factors. I am often perceived to be African American; that is until I open my mouth and my persistent accent gives it away that I’m not from here. When I am perceived to be African American, certain stereotypes often go along with that; for example, that I like rap music, live in the “Hood” and speak improper English. Sure, I grew up partly in the ghetto, but the axiom “I maybe from the ghetto but I’m not of the ghetto” is more applicable to who I am.
Another factor that I found out could be used against me is that I am Haitian. The first thing they assume is that I must have grown up terribly impoverished, and then they assume that I must be their intellectual inferior since I speak English with an accent — and both of these ideologies are far from the truth. I did not grow up poor and I also graduated Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society from college. The stereotype that Haiti is an impoverished country is true since Haiti is deemed the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. However, what some Americans don’t know is that Haiti is also the First Black Republic, the first free Black nation in the world — right after America gained independence from the British. They also don’t know that Haiti boasts La Citadelle Laferiere; which is among the most famous National Historical sites of the world built under Haitian Emperor Henri Christophe. The stereotypes that I lived in poverty upon my coming to America and that I come from the ghetto neighborhoods of Boston are true; however, that doesn’t mean they stayed true. Today, I live in Cambridge within a working class to middle class community in my own apartment. I find that communication is the only factor standing between stereotypes and the truth, something people often neglect to do because perpetrating maladroit stereotypes are easier than challenging lifelong misconceptions and prejudices. My worst fear is that when people see me all they’ll see is a big Black guy probably from the hood, undereducated, angry and potentially a menace to society; none of which is who I am.
To Be Continued…
Jacques Fleury’s book: “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. Sample or buy the book at: HYPERLINK http://www.lulu.com www.lulu.com. 20% of proceeds will go to Haiti charity Partners in Health. For personal appearances or comments contact Jacques at: email@example.com.