The nature of black joy.
Its texture. Its sparks
under any conditions.
new meaning in old lexicons.
Words become delicious
full of running commentaries.
Delivery stone cold.
I have been fascinated by all of this since childhood. Growing up in a culture with a subjugated language like Haitian Kreyòl lent itself to that sort of attraction. A child enamored with words and their multi-layered uses.
What pulled me even more than words though was the way in which tongues and faces relished using them. Haitians speak and laugh loudly. A sort of bombastic tongue twisting that resulted when a group of Africans brought to Hispaniola, or as the natives called the island, Ayiti, broke all molds to claim their independence from France. The victory was sweeter because it was obtained from Napoleon.
In return for this feat, the new nation accepted its treatment as an international pariah. Trade embargoes. International restrictions. Haitians, two hundred and seventeen years ago, dug deep into their language and culture, honing a complex syntax that integrated African patterns with French. Like the country’s high retention of African traditions and religions, Haitian Kreyòl distinguished the new republic. It stayed connected to its African roots. Vodou practices, oral tales, family traditions spin threads to the old continent.
The system of transmission organized by Africans in the new world was so integral to their sense of identity that colonizers’ determination to quell African practices was no match.
Krik? Krak. The opening call for storytelling. With that, small groups gather, painting scenes full of elaborate wordsmithing to outdo each other in mastery of the native tongue. To speak Kreyòl, rèk—Haitian Kreyòl untainted by French—is a badge of honor.
in the Americas,
you may find
a group of black folks
animated by a story that
must be told teeth sucked,
lips curled, head cocked,
tongue relishing every word.
It may be this love of linguistic prowess which causes Haitians to open their mouths so wide, head tilted back to touch their shoulders, when bellowing their laughter. What triggers that response? Perhaps it is the collective knowledge of all we have weathered. We remember our black maroons—nèg mawon—whose bronze image occupies the center of Port-au-Prince, a broken shackle on his left leg, his head angled back with his mouth gripping a conch shell to call the alarm. The maroons, enslaved black folks, ran to the hills to elude capture and came back years later with surgical military stratagems to fight Napoleon. It was a long war.
We black folks, connected throughout diaspora, must laugh. We’ve endured enslavement, efforts to decimate us, denial of personhood. And, we are alive. Laughter is our expression of gratitude. A recognition of the power of the Infinite. Laughter recognizes the reality beyond the machinations of mortals.
Laughter is a secret code that connects us. It is freedom.
That may be why my parents’ propensity for laughter seeped in my blood. My parents were workers. Up early. Long work days. Obsessed with saving electricity and water, because one was costly and always in danger of disappearing, and the other rare. Huddled at the kitchen table each month to discuss whether wages would be scarce that month and what to sacrifice, the stress of day-to-day showed in their furrowed brows and my mother’s pursed lips, the ulcer that had her bent over in pain for hours at a time.
I did not understand it all then. But, by the time I was six years old, it was clear that mom’s four-thirty a.m. departure, her workload at home—grading papers, anticipating problems, and housework—did not leave her any room to be. The pressure to be the perfect schoolteacher in that environment showed in her internal organs. Add to that a school where the supervising clergy devalued her native tongue and where her students learned at a young age to disrespect people they interpreted as poor. It was a recipe for heated arguments at home.
They fought. I slept with a pillow over my head to drown out my parents’ voices. Something I carried into adulthood. Even now, a pillow’s weight on my scalp and neck is so soothing. At the beginning, I used it to muffle the sound of my parents’ quarrels. They fought constantly. By the time, I became a teenager, their quarreling made my chest cramp. So much so that my common prayer was for them to break up. They were products of their surroundings. They were volatile. They argued loudly. And they said hurtful things.
We underestimate the burden that children carry watching adults unravel in front of their eyes. Now a parent, I know how hard it is to shield your child from these realities. Watching my parents attempt to outhurt each other did teach me to create a different model for my daughter.
I learned from them that love is often not enough. The cycle of recrimination and memories of past hurts, childhood traumas, can prove to be the biggest impediments to romantic relationships. That fact delayed my decision to have a child and nearly caused me to forego it altogether. But, when the call to motherhood became stronger than my fears, I opted to raise my child as part of a village of loving friends, with multiple sources of love, with a co-parent rather than a spouse and romantic partner.
I also learned from their ability to find laughter in the unlikeliest of places. I still see my father’s stern face break into a grin displaying his sharp front teeth. His head leans back and a booming “haha haha haha” comes out. My mother’s mouth opens wide when she laughs. The pink of her tongue and symmetrical teeth create a luminous glow around her face. These images prevent me from ever reducing them to a pair of insane and hurtful quarrelers.
My parents, as they often told me, met in theater class at a time when Port-au-Prince was finally opening up to young rural youths eager to find a path to livelihood. When I was about seven, I found a few pictures of my parents then. There is a photograph of my mom, smiling, eyebrows arched, worried crease gone. She is posing in the middle of a flower bed, her teeth white squares framing her supple lips. Her hair is pressed, shoulder length, body clothed in tight bell bottoms and buttoned flowery top. In another picture, she is in a mini-dress, showing off her legs. The one with my father has him looking back, one leg in front of the other, as if caught in motion. Dressed in a linen shirt, on a summer’s day, I thought. As a child, I couldn’t stop staring at the glint in his eyes on display in that picture. It was a look that I had never seen before. He looked coy with one corner of his lips raised. Those images of them in their first few years in Port-au-Prince never had them together. They were living their own lives then. They looked resplendent. I just knew that their theater days had been full of mischief.
Duvalier-Father was in power in those days. He astutely understood that his brutal dictatorship had to be accompanied by minor opportunities for the masses. The power structure remained intact, and the brutal realities were what they were, but poor youths could attend artistic programs, apply for lower level government jobs as they became available. A new Ecole Normale Supérieure—a teacher training school that my mother joined—provided an alternative opportunity to become a K-12 educator to individuals who did not or could not undergo the cutthroat process of attending university. My father took mechanical engineering courses by correspondence. The letters must have contained instructions for conducting experiments. As soon as he received them, Dad would sit for hours with the letters by his side, pulling and cutting wires from discarded televisions and radios.
My mother and father frequently referred back to that time when they were introduced to a cadre of young people fully engaged in the arts. My father wrote volumes of poetry in his spare time and had even published works under a different name well before I was born. This was before the internet and, though I would sneak as a seven year old to read his adult poetry in the notebooks he kept by the radio, I never got a chance to read his published works.
My mother had performed in plays. She is gorgeous. I could always imagine, looking at her vivacious pictures, how she commanded community audiences in the 1960s. The two of them, occupied with trying to make a living in the capital, their families left behind farming, waited until later in life to have their first child. Even then, my arrival was unplanned.
Their artistic background made wordplays a source of glee in our household. Well before my father and I soured in my teenage years, before my brother Junior would carry vivid scars from dad’s verbal vitriols, and before dad’s violence would occupy my dreams and his physical marks my waking hours, we laughed. To this day, I only have to say a few lines and Junior, mom and I will be in hysterics. For example, “Vide le cafe dans la goblet,” a butchered sentence from my brother when he was about eight years old, has us in stiches whenever we hear it. The sentence was uttered by Junior one afternoon when he came home screaming various French sentences changing them purposefully to make them comical in Kreyòl. As we were all together, he commanded: “vide le café dans la goblet” to my mom in all seriousness, pretending to be an aristocratic figure speaking erroneous French. This was a parody of the self-important figures we were all forced to endure in public, pretending to us that French was superior to our native tongue while doing nothing to implement a workable bilingual education program.
Instead public officials forced French books in public schools and created generations of school children who only knew and spoke Kreyòl but studied from French texts. To bridge the gap, many teachers taught in Kreyòl, aggravating the confusion. It failed. So, unsurprisingly, over 90% of the Haitian public could not speak, read or understand French, the language of business and professional engagement in the country then. By the mid-90s, the Haitian government did move to formalize Kreyòl’s role as an official language of Haiti. It is now a written language and the source of disciplinary studies. There is a long way to go, however, to undo the long standing educational inequities.
My parents, keenly aware of the arduous process of teaching oneself French, enrolled us in Catholic schools early. There were just a few institutions that still had scholarships for poor kids to attend. We were lucky to find a spot. And, when I won a competition to attend secondary school at a reputable Catholic school, my father breathed a sigh, hoping that maybe, just maybe, I could find a window of opportunity in that upside down world.
To help increase that chance, he fed me endless books. He introduced me to Albert Camus before any teacher. I became enamored with the talent and engagement of Haitian writers when my father’s library opened my world to authors like Jacques Stephen Alexis and Jacque Roumain. They were in few schools’ curriculum then.
With these books, my father gave me an early exposure to complex linguistic structures. It sped up my comprehension. I became fluent in French. Later, my schoolteachers, observing my propensity for language, fueled my thirst for literature with varied authors. With books as my best friends, languages once foreign became a second skin.
Still, watching children on my street struggle to learn lessons in French books, availing themselves of streetlights due to frequent blackouts, I have never forgotten this educational disparity. My mother eventually moved to teaching in public schools for a more humane schedule. Comparing the Catholic schools’ curricular offering to theirs, I saw the same lack and neglect.
Junior and I embarked on separate and equally long journeys to our respective schools beginning age 7. The fact that our little bodies, shouldering heavy bookbags walking miles, made it to school and back daily speaks volumes. On lucky mornings, we hopped on taps taps—crowded Haitian buses—to bridge the miles. A long commute on foot to school without parents or adults shepherding us is such a different upbringing from my daughter’s that I sometimes have to pinch myself.
Haiti was not safe then. It certainly presents dangers now. However, I would be remiss to paint either a romantic or horrific picture. I love the grit and resilience I learned commuting to school. But as a parent, I know that my folks had their heart in hand. After one of our coups d’étâts, on my way from school, I came smack dab face to face with a man burned to a crisp, shreds of a tire around his body, by those seeking retribution for a dictator’s horrors. This exacting practice—necklacing called chaine kawotchou or Pè Lebrun—was common after the fall of Duvalier. Everyone was at risk. Schools and work would close for weeks after each upheaval. But inevitably, we would all have to get back on foot commuting to work and school to make ends meet. Between that, and time spent under the bed hiding from stray bullets and military cannons during conflicts between the various military units, normal life was permanently distorted.
That is why laughter meant so much to our family. My best memory of my parents consists of them reciting classic poems gleefully, recalling their own time learning the famous lines. When I studied Pierre Corneille‘s Le Cid and had to memorize lines, my mom went around screaming “Ô Rage, Ô Désespoire” while hanging clothes, conjuring a memory of her performing a famous soliloquy from the play. Knowing this and wanting to bond with my parents, I often shared with them puzzling philosophical lessons or lines that I had learned in school.
When I got acquainted with Louis Arnold Laroche’s Ode to Toussaint Louverture in our Haitian literature course, it matched the details of Toussaint’s strategical prowess from those lengthy history lessons we had to memorize in early grades. My mom helped me learn the poem, Les Plaintes de Toussaint Louverture, for a competition. “Dans un sombre cachot au Fort de Joux en France, languissait un viellard qu’admirait l’univers. Trahi par. . .” I signed up for plays without prior evidence of talent because my parents were so happy when I would come home reporting my decision to do so.
My mother could never make these events. My father would rush from work and barely catch the last few lines of my character. Or, he would show up as they announced the competition’s results. He never knew all that was going on, but he was always proud. During one performance, he walked in as I was spewing my last lines. I was playing an elderly character that lacked balance and was prone to physical outbursts. As I recited my lines loudly, stumbling around the stage with my powdered grey wig slightly uneven, the audience laughed. I caught my father’s face at the end. His eyes gleamed and a slight smile of recognition showed on his face.
He was a man of few words. After the performance, he listened to one of the Catholic nuns describe how much of a ham I could be on stage. Performing, I became someone else. The nuns, always armed with faint praise, thought it humorous juxtaposed with my intensity in the classroom.
The fact that my father worked to get to these school events was love in action. For many years, I would carry disappointment that my parents never saw me in full bloom at these events. Being a busy mother now, I understand the sacrifices and stressful maneuvers it took for my dad to even show up. I get it now.
My parents’ reminiscing about their own moments of joy as I encountered similar themes in my studies crystallizes memories of them as joyful, multi-dimensional, wicked smart and piercingly analytical people. In our conversations about history, they would teach me their values about respect for human dignity and black pride. In seeing my love of theatre and letters, they bantered about age old philosophical questions. I’ll never forget hearing my mother recite: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” well ahead of me encountering philosopher Blaise Pascal in French literature.
They primed me for finding joy and laughter in my own educational quests. They took banal opportunities to teach me this. I have carried numerous lessons from my teachers and mentors that have shaped me. But, before all of them, Rose Marie and Emmanuel were my first teachers. The beauty of this to me is that, aware of their own positioning in life, they did so while modeling the art of never taking oneself seriously.
Years later, I find myself impersonating Rose and Emmanuel’s pointed lessons in my own public pedagogy and my interactions with my daughter. In the classroom, I am prone to jump up unexpectedly and gesticulate happily to ease class discussions. At home, I tease my daughter mercilessly. Her nickname for me—Silly Mommy—makes me smile as I burst spontaneously into wild facial contortions inches from her face.
Black joy. It is passed down. If we are able to hand down even a small percentage of the collective joy and resilience we have been given by our folks, we will have made the ancestors proud.