Spare Change News
In honor of my mother Marie-Evelyne, an iconoclast in her own right
In Haiti I grew up taking blood baths, basking in the epoch of oppression. My nation was occupied by the French, and despite my French influence, I consider myself a Creole poet and not a French Creole poet. My Caribbean spice rack is stocked full of flavored stories, which I will gladly tell you just enough of to satisfy your hunger for the knowledge of the courage of my people; since my blood was once the color of slavery. But now, since I left Haiti for America, I dream the dream that every American dreams: to sleep on the pillows of justice, freedom and opportunity. After all, aren’t we all entitled to happiness? So now, watch me run from the lasso of the unjust, just to make it under the wire of justice.
The great Cuban poet, Joseito Fernandez, who penned the lyrics to the popular song “Guantanamera” wrote, “…with the poor people of this earth, I want to share my faith.” Like him, my heart has been oppressed and wired, my vocal cords tapped. But like the great Rhythm and Blues singer Marvin Gaye so eloquently said, “True artists suffer for the people”, and so I am going to continue to say what I need to say, even if it means some suffering along the way.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola and gave it its name. Taino Arawak Indians, who referred to their homeland as “Hayti” or “Mountainous Land”, originally inhabited the island. In 1697 slaves were sent to Haiti. The island was cherished by European powers for its natural resources, including cocoa, cotton and sugar cane. The French shipped in thousands of slaves mainly from West Africa to harvest the crops. In 1804, after a slave rebellion led by a man named Bookman in 1791, Haiti became the first free Black nation in the world under General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared himself Emperor. America feared that the slave rebellion in Haiti would ignite anti-slavery insurgencies in the U.S. southern states, and as we all now know, eventually it did. Perhaps this is one the many of multifarious reasons why America’s relationship with Haiti is strained to this day.
The Uses of Haiti, a book by Harvard University professor Dr. Paul Farmer, chronicles America’s long and perplexing history with Haiti. Tourism flourished in Haiti from the 1950s to 1986, practically ending with the Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier mutiny. Haiti’s main tourist attraction is La Citadelle Laferierre built on mountains overlooking Port-au-Prince. It has walls 130 feet high and is the largest fortress in the Americas, and was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world history site in 1982. It was built to keep the newly independent nation from French incursions, which never materialized.
Yet still, sometimes I wonder, “Why can’t I easily co-exist with my inner tropical child?” Maybe it’s because in your eyes I am nothing but a stereotype, a risk that most in power would rather not take. I am nothing if not the product of Neo-Freudian philosophy, so don’t criticize my personality. An honorable part of me knows that I’m more than just an island “bro” without the afro. What I am is a Caribbean soup stock full of vegetables with circumscribed roots; so come take a spoonful of my flavor, I am more than just a Caribbean brother. My forefathers were more than fugitive slaves, they were purple tropical birds adorned in the mythical, waiting to go on sabbatical, while our Haitian land remained fallow, praying, and begging for something sacramental. They treated us like debris, even after we facilitated their safari. Sometimes I feel like I want to be magical, so that I can live life invisible to the hatred, hypocrisy, racism, sexism and classism that permeates my existence. To insolent interchanges of ignorance, to an overflow of content and arrogance, I surrender. I linger like a disturbed dissenter. I want to be a paradigm; I want to be a prolific producer. I don’t want to live my life like a silent singer and I hope you don’t either.
Growing up partly in Haiti with mostly marred memories of mango trees and my macabre childhood swaying in the lazy wind, was no walk in the park, more like a walk in the woods. As we know, the woods are much less manicured than the park. In the woods, it is not always clear what lies ahead. One minute you may be leaping with gaiety downhill, and the next minute you may find yourself straining and striving to reach a summit. Don’t get me wrong, on Haitian terrains, there were certainly moments of triumph (fabulous cuisine and a colorful culture), but unfortunately they were equally matched, and often surpassed, by moments of failure (living under the constant weather of fear and intimidation).
The government was an archetype for this ideology. As the tyrannical government oppressed the people, the people then reciprocated by oppressing each other. To my chagrin, I realized that the mentality of the Haitian people was “Every man and woman for himself or herself,” and trust was actually non-existent. In Haiti, we were all subjected to living within a conspiracy of silence. “See no evil, speak no evil,” because “evil” had the people under panoptic surveillance. This could have been a family member hired as a spy to turn their own in, should they speak unfavorably of the government.
You see, in Haiti, dialect was in handcuffs. Fear tore souls to pieces and left them scattered along the scorching pavement and dark dirt roads for hungry dogs to feed on. Imagine a place where a teacher is without students, and his only freedom is to be ignorant. His voice is but a squeak in the fading forests, while the tongue of dissension lies entombed at the bottom of an empty well, waiting for a subversive echo to give its voice a chance at change. Even though dialect of dissension in Haiti is gagged, its voice is an intricacy of words, loaded to snap its constraint and recoup its power!
The guts of the Haitian nation have exploded since the devastating earthquake back on January 12th, 2010. Its long, dirty yet valiant and pioneering history sprawled, snarling and unsympathetic, in discordant bliss all over the ubiquitous dirt roads. All the humanitarians who rushed over to help the aggrieved people could almost hear the debris hiss, as the apathetic summer air suffocated Creole fireflies. Sounds of volatile youths banging their heads against scarcities echoed like gun shots in the empty fear-filled streets, while the savage beat cops known as “ton ton macoutes” strutted around town. Baby Doc, rueful that he couldn’t fly, fell prey to domestic maladies and was exiled to France.
“Garcon!” mama used to call me.
“Yes, ma ma!”
With fear fighting to hold back her valiant voice she said, “Never walk bare foot on cold concrete and never EVER talk too quick!” Then I was forcing sleep, was stifled by what was supple. One day mama woke me up and said, “Time to go America!” Then I tried smiling, but my big parched patois lips felt raw.
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. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website at: www.thehaitianfireflyproductions.com.