For many, “the American Dream” is an empty phrase—not a dream so much as the half-conscious state that’s found between sleeping and waking. It’s that wait at the bus stop, shifting from one foot to the other; that intake of breath before the doctor pierces your skin with his needle; that 3–2–1 countdown on New Year’s Eve. You’re stuck. The bus never comes, the needle never plunges, the New Year never arrives.
For some people, the dream deferred is a bitter surprise. They believed this burnished, time-worn ideal, believed their family and friends who said the sky’s the limit, believed in the red, white, and blue promise of America, with its picket fences and green grass freshly mown. Others never subscribed to such a belief in the first place, knowing that they’d wind up disappointed, with nothing to show for their efforts except cuts and bruises … or worse.
Where you fall on this spectrum of believing in the American dream could very well be correlated to what you think of the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Hell, if you want to be efficient, take the rest of the phrase away and leave yourself with just “bootstraps”—when else is that word ever employed, except in relation to making the case that marginalized people and their communities should just, well, you know … pull ’em up! Seriously, I bet you can’t think of a time in which you heard or used the word “bootstraps” in another context. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Many are indoctrinated into the hazy optimism of stars and stripes through the lens of their parents. I was no different, I would come to find out. In 1973, my parents came to America from Haiti looking for a better life for themselves and the children that they knew they would bring into the world. In the United States lay the glittering promise of wealth, of social advancement, of nice boots and their straps. In Haiti, they saw nothing but their past selves staring back at them like ghosts—both dissatisfied with how far they could go in Haiti, both united in their belief that America would provide them with fertile opportunity.
Haiti, the Pearl of the Antilles, so beautiful, once a cash cow for its former colonizer, France, which knew it as Saint Domingue. That was not its first name, and France wasn’t even the first colonizer of Haiti. Before France, there was Spain—that genocidal maniac Christopher Columbus knocked into the island in 1492 on the Santa Maria and thought he’d arrived in India or China. He dubbed it Hispaniola and matter-of-factly set about enslaving the island’s original inhabitants, the Taíno people, who had migrated to the island long before from South America, and who had named it Haiti, meaning “the land of the high mountains.”
In a letter to Luis de Santángel, Spain’s escribano de ración to monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I—a.k.a. treasurer, a.k.a. sugar daddy to Columbus—Columbus wrote of the Taíno, “They never refuse anything that is asked for. They … show so much love that they would give their very hearts.” That’s a mighty convenient viewpoint for you, Chris, but okay, sure.
Colonizers gonna colonize, though. Columbus wasted no time claiming what was not his to claim in the name of Spain and, in short order, enslaved the Taíno people, treating them so sadistically that it’s estimated up to fifty thousand of these Indigenous people committed suicide, diving off cliffs or offing themselves in any other way they could, to avoid forced marriage, slavery, rape, torture, murder, and other mistreatment by Columbus and his men. Many who didn’t die by murder or suicide were killed off by the diseases that the colonizers unknowingly brought with them.
There is no precise number to be given for how many Taíno died at the hands of Columbus, his men, and their germ warfare—the prevailing notion is that almost all were wiped out by Columbus’s genocide, with only a fraction surviving and/or intermarrying and having children with the colonizers. When Spain ceded Haiti to France in 1697, this “extinction” was also a convenient argument to justify French colonizers bringing over enormous numbers of enslaved people from Africa to work the land, much of their labor used to farm the sugarcane and coffee plantations they established there.
Most of the enslaved people the French colonizers brought over to Haiti hailed from Central and West Africa. West African culture in particular was instrumental in influencing Haitian vodou, which many Haitians to this day intermingle with the Catholicism brought over by the Spanish and French—my family was no exception here.
The French were making a killing (literally … the life expectancy of an enslaved person during this time was shockingly low—twenty-one years) off of the labor of African enslaved people, gorging themselves on the profits from the aforementioned coffee and sugarcane plantations that the Africans worked; in the 1700s, Haiti was one of the richest colonies in the world. The French were greedy, though, and they couldn’t let a good thing be, could they? By the late 1700s, they had brought close to six hundred thousand enslaved people to the island, and whites were outnumbered twenty to one.
I know I’m good with numbers, but it certainly doesn’t take a Wall Street genius to understand that those odds clearly were not in France’s favor. In 1791, Toussaint Louverture—former enslaved person and the first Black general of the French army (get it, guy!)—and other brave Black folks kicked off the Haitian Revolution, which must have been a real pain in the ass for France, given that they were already dealing with the French Revolution and all. I’m going to bet there were some heads apart from Marie Antoinette’s that rolled for not being able to contain the Haitian uprising. Twelve years into the fighting, short, smelly handed Napoleon Bonaparte had to concede defeat to Louverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who pronounced Haiti to be a free nation on January 1, 1804. Oh, and while Dessalines and his crew were at it, they abolished slavery, becoming the first country in the world ever to do so, not to mention that they were the first state ever to be established by a slave rebellion. A bloody birth, to be sure, one in which the country was delivered after a long labor, and the doctor needed to slap it on the butt to start it squalling, but eventually, red-faced, it did, and the name on the birth certificate was now the Republic of Haiti, or Repiblik d Ayiti in Creole, which, along with French, became the mother tongue for Haitians.
Do you feel transported back to school where you’re doodling idly in the margins of your notebook or etching feverish declarations of love into your desk while keeping an ear open in case the teacher calls your name? There’s a point to this history lesson, I promise.
See, after the Haitian Revolution, France pulled some real shady shit: In exchange for recognizing Haiti’s independence, France required Haiti to pay France 150 million francs (about $21 billion in today’s currency), which was more than ten times the annual budget of Haiti. By comparison, the United States had a few years earlier paid only 15 million francs for Louisiana, a swath of land much larger than tiny Haiti. The thinking was that France needed to be compensated for its loss of revenue stemming from its slavery. Yes, you read that right—the people who had been enslaved were forced to pay their enslavers for their enslavers’ profit loss.
The result? Starting in 1825, Haiti was forced to tax its citizens severely to even begin to pay off its debt, which—get this—with interest from the loans it was forced to take from French banks, wasn’t paid off until 1947, a whopping 122 years later. Public infrastructure—from hospitals to schools to roads to bridges to sources of drinking water—was constantly underfunded, and Haiti was unable to develop in ways that other, more financially unencumbered countries could, what with that debt hanging over its head for nearly 150 years. But tell me again how you think people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If this isn’t an argument for reparations against slavery, then I don’t know what is.
Other countries, like the United States and Germany, paternalistically insinuated themselves in Haiti’s politics—for their own benefit, of course—over the years, and the government has been more often than not in upheaval, making the path to prosperity for Haitians that much more difficult. Since declaring its independence, Haiti has been through thirty-two coups! (In case you’re wondering, that’s a lot.) Today, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and it ranks 145 out of 182 countries on the United Nations Human Development index. Not great. Many Haitians strike out from their homes in an attempt to create better lives for their families—it’s one of the only means of egress from a life of poverty.
Which brings us back to Mommy and Poppy.
My mother was born in a small town in the northeastern part of Haiti, before her parents moved the family to a farm on the “good” side of Port-au-Prince (“good” meaning wealthier here). The second oldest of eight children, Mommy rarely spoke about her siblings or her parents or life before New York, so what I know of her childhood and early adulthood is pieced together from the brief reminiscences that I could pry from her. When I was young and would ask her what she was like as a kid—Did you wear barrettes in your hair like me? What was your favorite song? Why didn’t you like your family?—she would usually frown and say, “It doesn’t matter,” before hurrying off to complete some joyless adult task. But every so often, she would let down her guard and her eyes would soften, and it was during these rare moments that I could see her remembering the deliciously sour smell of rum mash in her nostrils or the feel of the Caribbean sun on her face.
By American standards, my mother’s family was very poor—you might even say destitute, without necessities like plumbing that Americans always take for granted. But in Haiti, the family was considered solidly middle class. They had livestock and farmed sugarcane, and they even had workers farming the land for them, whom they either paid in cash or, if the workers preferred, in alcohol (always rum) or other supplies, like food or clothing. In a country as cash poor as Haiti, many people lived this way and got by through bartering, whether it was for services, labor, or goods. They might occasionally have household help as well—in Haiti, there was always someone worse off than you, willing to work for almost nothing.
But most of the time, Mom and her seven siblings maintained the house and helped their parents with chores while the staff did the harder work of farm labor. The farmhouse was large—five whole bedrooms—but with such a large Catholic family, there were inevitably younger siblings who’d be forced to share a room if not a bed. Ermilienne Jacquet was the oldest daughter, then came my mother, Oline, then Johnny, the first son, then Thonine Fleurantin, Elcie Francois, Hermite, Frito Lapomarede, and the baby of the family, Paulette, who was eighteen years younger than Ermilienne, the firstborn.
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