Crudeness and Creole Part 5:
Anecdotes, memory and blood
February 29th was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. He was, and still is in many ways a saint to me, someone whose sins, I hadn’t known. When I think of home, of parental warmth, I think of my grandfather, a man that I picture in his white linen shirt, the cover of his glasses tucked in a pocket. His hair was always fussy and thinning at the front, and he had a habit of patting his well-trimmed mustache with a handkerchief he always kept in his back pocket. To me, he is the smell of earth, musk, coffee and whiskey, the fatherly smell of gentle authority, that I only started recognizing in the mirror not long ago. I was very young when he died, nine, and shock followed grief, after the violence of his murder. He was butchered and bled to death at the hospital. That was my first experience with an actual death in the family, the first time I truly felt absence and finality.
I think of death as a space of non-existence. I close my eyes and I see a black hole through a rift and it resembles what I felt when my grandfather died, or when I made the decision to fully Americanize myself and put my native culture in the dugout. And I think that decision comes from him, from a moment when, years ago, everyone in my family expected me to shine and I failed a test to enter a prestigious elementary school. Though my parents outwardly expressed their disappointment, my grandfather brushed it off. He started me on a coin collection, old American $1 coins. I never forgot this, it was the first time I felt like failure wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and I am now realizing that my grandfather helped me overcome something deeper, self-conscious shame and an acceptance of my short-comings.
I also feel this rift when I speak English, how it became my first language. My small-town Haitian perspective has changed into an American one and my eyes opened to a wider range of possibilities and quality of life. Ironically, it’s only after I had stored my native tongue in a time-closet that, when I came back to Haiti, I began to understand the language of Creole, and also began speaking it with renewed freshness, as if this distance had helped me see through my origins. My new and distant perspective, I am no longer a national, made me see my fortune from the street vendor’s, or shoe shine’s, and their work wrinkled hands that can’t feed them adequately or pay a decent education for children, let alone my private schooling. This new field of vision came with trauma, guilt and shame, a loss of identity. It is through English that my curiosity in Vodou birthed and gave me binoculars through which Vodou and Creole became one language, and that I saw the parabolic beauty, redemptive effort and cruelty of this fusion. Spoken creole is almost meant to fool you and common sentence turns have in them the poetic finality of death or murder, as if each sentence reserves an end or a threat, coded in the roots of slavery.
My birthplace: Port-au-Prince Haiti draws itself starkly against my American citizenship. One is a weight and the other a privilege. My grandfather had made sure that my brother and I became Americans, through having my mom born in the States and making sure she did everything to pass on this citizenship to us.
There is an expression in creole that says ale nan peyi san chapo, “When you change locations / countries, take off your hat,” which means to pay respect and dampen your pride when going somewhere foreign. I’m not sure where to take my hat off, but I am at war with the idea masculinity and manhood in my homeland, the way it shuns vulnerability and gender equality; and maybe that is why I find myself estranged in my homeland almost in culture shock. To me, America vs Haiti is white vs black, but also freedom vs archaic, and I find myself stuck in a gray area, caught between the violence that my people have endured, and the need for change and progress. I can’t seem to find a good center to settle my identity. I do however, consider myself American.
This same black and white duality generally exists in Haitian culture, but more in the form of light vs black, which translates into bourgeois vs proletariat. This takes me to an anecdote. A short event from when I was a teenager. We were three friends in a car, driving around my hometown. The three of us, although varying in shade, brown, white, and the darker side of white, we would all qualify in Haiti as light. The girl in the car (white), broke down and cried when we saw a poor beggar in the street, something ordinary, but her reaction moved me. I think she had realized what had taken me much longer, the omniscient slope of hierarchy that separated us from that man and how big of a rift that was. My other friend (darker side of white), made fun of her, and though this bothered me, I stayed silent. The dualities of our triptych’s reaction to this beggar is very much a reflection of Haitian history, of the class and race struggles therein which determine our Haitian social interactions like a genetically predisposed mechanism.
However, even with these fictive binoculars, I notice that I am looking at the landscape and categorizing it more ruthlessly. Like how I notice that 3 out of 4 waiters can’t remember my order and 4 out of 5 of them can’t remember the menu. Do I pity them and blame their upbringing, their possible illiteracy and unfortunate set of circumstances? Or do I reprimand their services, whose quality, I know won’t change in my lifetime? This beckons the deeper question, at what point does one take responsibility for one’s actions, or for the consequences of one’s inaction? This judgement is aimed at both parties, the privileged and the unfortunate. We Haitians are ravaged by a brutal and perverse history, and though it hurts, shames and irks me, I take the passive position of inaction, the selfish path to my own happiness. Maybe we’ve stabbed each other too long with our actions and inaction, and our language? Or maybe I’m looking at the mechanisms too much? Maybe this cruel element is what’s unique about this language, and is just the way that this people, my people, communicate.
The images I get from my hometown are of a sinister graveyard of dead hopes and of a landscape mysteriously beautiful and maybe, in their convergence I find a truer idea of my hometown’s identity, and consequently of my own identity, through the sunrises and sunsets that back the outlines of tumbling hills, ridged with sloping slums that are reaching unsuccessfully for the peek. It brings me to the dead goat I saw decapitated with a machete as a child, and it’s blood filling a bucket, to my dead grandfather’s hopes that I would be something different, more cultivated, and to the working hands and proverbial tongues that have simultaneously murdered him and nursed me as a child, in this place where Caribbean sunsets torn from African sunrises had promised gold.
Every Sunday my grandfather would come over with pastries, and before he entered our house, he’d whistle three times, and like a pet, I’d get excited every time I heard it. We always had coffee with the pastries. So I blow the Haitian conch for you, the signal of independence and freedom of the oppressed, and hope that you enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry on us today.
‘If you get your shoes shined, tip the shoeshine.’
Darryl Wawa: "I am a Port-au-Prince born Haitian-American who studied Photography and Creative writing. I enjoy chocolate and good books. That said, maybe a movie is a good book. I love to work with images and words and their pairing."