Monday, January 18, 2010

To Haiti, with Love

I love Haitian people. That probably sounds like a racist generality along the lines of "I love black people," or "Some of my best friends are...fill in your blank." Let me clarify. I am Haitian. Second generation. One Hundred percent. My parents have inhabited America for forty-five years but they are Haitian to their core. Not one ounce of them reads American. Their accents are strong, their French and Creole are in tact, and their perspective is other. They. Are. Haitian. And I love Haitian people. But it isn't just my immediate family that I love. When I hear a stranger on the street release the song of a Haitian voice whether it be in accented English or French I introduce myself and tell them I am Haitian, too. I adopt them as an Auntie or Uncle, cousin, friend. We speak in French. Theirs is beautiful. Mine not so much. I try to excuse my American accent and compromised speech by explaining that I understand French better than I speak it because English was already in my household when I learned the language due to my older sister attending school. I forge ahead in the conversation because I love them and the sounds coming from their mouths. Haitian-French doesn't sound like Parisian-French. Parisian-French is light, clipped and whispers like a secret. Haitian-French is a loud, rich, lilting, musical, expressive echo of place and time that transports and connects me to anything good about my childhood. If invited, I would gladly follow my new Haitian relative home in hopes of meeting more Haitians. Maybe I would stay for a home cooked meal of chicken, red beans and rice, with plantains, pate and soup. I love Haitians.

I am an actress. Throughout my career, I have attempted to master the Haitian accent. I'd like to say I have played many Haitian roles or as an artist it was simply an accent I wanted for my toolbox. In actuality, I wanted to learn the accent in order to perfect the imitation of my Mother's voice for when I told stories about her. It's a great touch to throw in the accent whenever I say, "Then, my Mother said..." She's a real hit at parties. I recorded my parents in a series of interviews on various topics. On one tape, my Mother describes the Haitian accent as passionate, and rhythmic. Nothing is said with a soft touch. The simple is complex and everything; even "it" has meaning. I like that. The attack of the language makes one stand up and pay attention. I have never met a native Haitian without presence. My parents are two of the most commanding presences I've ever witnessed.

In addition to my emotional attachment to Haitian people, I happen to think they are one of the most physically beautiful people in the world. My grandmother's face was the essence of Haitian features. Her jaw line was square, cheekbones high, nose: broad. She was not tall. Her body carried nine children so her breasts were ample and her figure full but not fat. Her skin was Crayola-Crayon-Brown, unblemished and wrinkle free. Gray hair pulled back in a bun couldn't age her. Almond shaped eyes projected a fierce self-pride and the key to an inner knowledge that left me drawn to her. My Father's Mother, Christiane Andre Richard was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

Haitian pride and spirit is easily caught in the most casual of photographs. When posing in pictures, my parents, aunts and uncles don't smile. Instead, their chins jut out with a slight lift. Their shoulders are back and they look directly into the camera emanating pride. That is a happy pose in their minds. When I was a kid I often posed the same way. There is a picture of our family at my sister Lissa's eighth grade graduation. We all take that stance. Despite our ages, (I am twelve, Lissa is thirteen and Gina is seventeen) we look like sixty year old women holding the secret to life. My Father is tall with the same color brown skin as his Mother and he looks like the Haitian Sidney Poiter in a tailored blue suit. My Mother is simply gorgeous in a peach suit fashioned to a T with stunning accesories and styled hair. We are stunning. We are Haitians. Occasionally in pictures, my two and half year old daughter strikes the pose. My husband, step-kids, me, even our dog will be smiling ear to ear and she stares down the lens with shoulders thrown back like she is daring it to try and make her less proud. "It's the Haitian in her," my husband will say. It's in our blood.

I was part of a Haitian prayer circle that consisted of my parents, sister Gina, and three Haitians who came to our house after my sister Lissa died at age twenty two. This was eighteen years ago, now. The woman leading the prayer directed us into a circle to hold hands. This was not typical fare for my sister and me. Despite our sadness we had to avoid looking at each other in order not to laugh. The woman launched into a repetitive chant in French. She sang at the top of her lungs and released all the pain she felt and we felt but had yet to express. In an almost trance like state she pounded through the prayer, raised her head up and back, threw it down, rocked and swayed. I was horrified. I was desperate to laugh as a way to keep myself from being swept into her wave. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life.

Now I can't guarantee that her style of grieving was based solely on the fact that she was Haitian but it was certainly representative of the power of Haitian people. She unleashed it all, refusing to let the pain infect her or pin her down. Consequently, I was nailed to the ground by it. That woman could have stopped a train with her prayer. That is the Haitian spirit. As you listen to the news, don't just focus on the sorrow. Seek out the melody of a Haitian's voice. Look at their face and eyes. Love their beauty. Whether mourning, fighting, dying, laughing, dancing, celebrating, living, their spirits can stop this quake. See them. Love them.
Then, help them.