One of my oldest memories growing up in Haiti under an authoritarian regime is the sound of the phrase, ou konn ki es mwen ye? Whether uttered in a whisper, loudly, with sustained bravado stretched over every syllable, or with a chuckle, the meaning was clear. For the question was simply, do you know who I am? Honestly, I had no concrete sense what that meant until years later when I became conscious of the small ways I was taught what power is, how it operates, who has it, how it was wielded, who abuses it and who dared to challenge it. There was an ongoing joke among some adults when presidential election results were announced which favored the dictator several millions to one.
On New Year’s Day, at home and abroad, Haitians and Haitiphiles are all about soup joumou. A squash based consommé laboriously made with chunks of beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, some kind of pasta, seasoned with epis-that concoction of Haitian spices, which was hopefully brought to perfection by an expert who uses enough scotch bonnet pepper without overshadowing the fragrant aroma. This soup is traditionally consumed to commemorate Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ proclamation of Haitian independence from France on January 1, 1804. Thirteen years after the only successful slave revolution started that abolished colonialism and slavery, Haiti became the first Black Republic in the world, second only to the United States. For many of us, the soup is as much about its gastronomic delight as it is about redressing history.
There is a mini-poster by the journeyman printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. on one of my bookshelves. This black block print on cardboard contains an equals sign with the caption “Equality is a special privilege for Blacks these unitedstatesofamerica.” The USA is spelled out in lowercase (as presented), as a single word, bracketed by the stars and stripes upside down ― a signal of distress. I also keep a copy in my office where I teach to look at everyday as a crude reminder that in the eyes of the law, Whiteness is supreme, we (Blacks) were never equal, and know full well, we still are not. We live in a market economy, where the value ascribed to Black bodies remains high only when we reinforce the state of our original conditions as human chattel.
Well, there was this book, Mama Lola, about a Vodou priestess in Brooklyn. Did I know the author? No I did not. The subject was close to home. We had inherited responsibilities that have been overstretched by migration. It’s not something that we talk about. Maybe after your dissertation on Jamaica, you’ll write another book on your family’s story. In the meantime was there enough interest in this work to bring her to campus? Mere thoughts of that someday became inspiration enough to help me keep my eyes on the prize.
Imagine, what Haiti would be like had it been supported and nurtured instead of disavowed and shunned in its infancy. Imagine what we would think of Vodou, had its imaginative spirit of resistance been recognized instead of dishonored.