“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28
These gatherings didn’t truly start out with this purpose, but Haiti has clearly defined our outcomes moving forward. From the start we just wanted to reunite. Old college friends that would not relent on maintaining our lifelong friendships. It just so happened that the two of us who could make it that first year ended up being the two Social Studies teachers. Historical inquiry and research were an unintended consequence. Over time the trip’s purpose evolved to be more historic in nature. We found a complicated and pluralistic history in New Orleans, but what is expected from a place that gives you gumbo as its most perfect metaphor for its people? It left me wanting to understand more about black people and our history. The next year was more of the same as we ventured to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we got a true touch of the famed African Diaspora. Though we were still in America, the place only hinted at what we were familiar with. It had a different Caribbean feel that was only American while the sun was up. Because at night time, the Afro-Caribe music and dance beat on every ear drum and pounded on every floor. Still we were getting closer to our purpose.
The African Diaspora is a complicated Rubik’s cube that is colorful and different on all sides, ever changing, but still connected by one core. By the time my brother and I set foot in Port Au Prince, we had received our mission impossible. We were going to pursue an explanation for this puzzle and make sense of what it means to be black in the Diaspora. How do various forms of blackness tether to our distant homeland? How are we all staying connected? Haiti gave me such a diverse offering of characters that completely crushed any notions of monolithic stereotypes that may have been falsely established as doctrine before I arrived.
Upon first landing one could be misled about Haiti’s diversity. Outside the airport there were a few dozen cab drivers standing cab-less in a winding and twisting line eagerly waiting to be selected to take you to your destination. It would have been difficult to differentiate amongst all of my dark-complected cousins, save the rapid-fire sales pitches in creole and occasional French, or English. The entrepreneurial spirit found in the Diaspora’s children was in full view from this moment until the wheels lifted again at the end of the trip. After establishing our travel accommodations for the weekend our predetermined driver, Max, unfortunately did not have a license, so he turned into a navigator and we paid another man, Abdul, to drive. We took off for the city.
Driving through Port-au-Prince was dizzying, both literally and figuratively. Our driver helped me understand that there was assumed lawlessness on the roads of the city. People swerved and honked at each other while driving trucks, vans, motorcycles, and cars on both sides of the hilly roads, with neither speed limits nor stop lights in sight. The mountainous backdrop created streets that had no symmetry, nothing perpendicular nor parallel, the snaking road was the only thing that slowed the vehicles down, barely.
What caused more friction to my westernized mindset than the speed of the roads was the volume and pace of the people themselves. There appeared to be people on top of people. Black people everywhere. Black people on the roadside laying down next to their pile of sharpened green sugarcanes. Black people packed into the back of bite-sized trucks that served as public transportation. Black people carving designs into cement mason blocks. Black people converting dollars to Gourde before they pumped your gas at the gas station. Black people waiting. Black people going. Black people without chairs that were squatted in a trained and adapted comfort that reminded me of my friends from the Omaha Tribe. Black children. Black poor. Black women. Black old. Black people. My people.
In high speeds they all blended together. Where Port-au-Prince was like sprinting in the opposite direction of Usain Bolt, the mountains of Jacmel were far more intimate, like wading in shallow ocean sands with Sade. Jacmel’s mountainside roads appeared to be a dangerous trek to the uninitiated. We bent curves on mountain paths that by nightfall were as black as a pupil but the people driving the roads knew where to speed up and where to slow down. The people walking these paths knew when to step off the road and when to stand next to it. This was the first social norm that I picked up. It later reminded me of how street runners in the city will often run against traffic so that they can see what traffic is coming at them as opposed to getting clipped or surprised from behind. There were unwritten rules to road travel but those who embarked were skilled in this non-verbal communication well-enough to have survived to this point. So the mom walking her 3 year-old daughter along a dangerous mountain road in pitch black lighting was no more distracted by her surroundings than the innocent toddler who was none-the-wiser herself. We were still traveling fast but it was slow enough for a foreigner to start to figure some of the pieces out.
When we arrived in Jacmel we paid our driver and our navigator a rate that seemed to be redundant but I was in no place to speak out this judgement, being such a novice but also being linguistically ill-equipped as my Creole was worse than my French and my French was worse than my Spanish and I only flirt with Spanish from a distance like a middle schooler at a dance. Nonetheless, we met our hostess at the hotel where we were able to throw our luggage in to our dorm-room sized studio before going back downstairs for dinner in the hotel restaurant. This was the first of many meals that would be accompanied with Prestige, the Haitian crafted beer that at various points of our excursion I had to question whether they sponsored our vacation. The chicken wings were different, but I wasn’t here for chicken wings. I was here for the conch. I love conch. I fell in love with conch during spring break of 1999 and it is the first and last thing that I want to eat anytime I am close to the Caribbean Sea. The thrill of getting my stewed conch, plantains, and picklese (sponsored by Prestige) was so overwhelming that I got emotional. I’m sure the fact that I had starved myself for months to lose weight for the trip and I could finally eat had something to do with it. But even more so, this was food that I was now tasting outside of America in its native state. There was a calming and soothing effect to this meal. There was something in it that helped me to rationalize not just my diet of nutrition that led up to my vacation, but also my diet of social activism in opposition to the constant barrage of assaults and violence that America has become for so many of us Diasporic children. I was a weekend refugee. I was a voluntary political prisoner. I had my fill of America and this meal was my first opportunity to break bread as a pretending ex-pat. It tasted different because it wasn’t home but for the first time in my life I actually enjoyed a meal more because it wasn’t homecooked.
During the following hours and days the pace slowed down enough for me to actually meet the people. After dinner the previous night, we had taken a brief walk along the oceanside to get acquainted with our surroundings, but with the lighting being so limited it was hard to get a feel for things. My brother, a marathon runner back in Brooklyn, decided to wake early the next morning and get a “quick” three miles in to take advantage of the morning light. I, on the other hand, was proud of myself for waking up before noon while on vacation. Not to be outdone, I took the extreme step of actually putting on some work out clothes and walking a few block radius around the hotel. Workout. Check. Interestingly I found my brother at an intersection on his way back. We negotiated a room key exchange and we both continued on our separate paths. At this same intersection, I found my first English-speaking Haitian friend. Michelle was a smaller and rounder Haitian man in his 50’s. He initially addressed me in Creole. When I responded in my quickly acquired “Anglais?”, he responded in the Queen’s and we were able to carry on a conversation. For the record, I do hate my limited American exposure to foreign languages and acknowledge that this is a long-standing reason for contempt towards Americans in world travel, but still it was refreshing to have someone meet me where I was at instead of being forced to stretch myself. I was already exhausted with my madam and mademoiselle from dinner the night before. I mean how much can you expect from this Yankee? I digress. Michelle ended up being our tour guide and in retrospect, the most underpaid man on the island, both sides. Michelle and I talked briefly about his willingness to be a tour guide to my brother and myself as we traversed the mountainous terrain. I, trying to avoid getting hustled, kept up a brief conversation with him, took his card, then categorized him in the left as I doubted we would ever meet again. Michelle’s multiple languages would come back to pay dividends for him later in the day but that is how the Diaspora will have it sometimes.
After finishing our workouts, I met with Ashley in the hotel room. We got our hygiene together and settled in to eat breakfast at Hotel Florita across the street from our residence for the weekend in the Colin’s Hotel. At the Hotel Florita there was a taste of west meets Africa. The wood tables had everything that said Hotep except the incense. We ordered coffee, which is always and forever better in the Caribbean, and got Omelets Creole. Our waitress was patient with me as I struggled through my order. Thank God, the most prominent feature of Hotel Florita and the most West meets Africa feature of the landscape was wi-fi and my ability to connect to Google Translate. We stayed at the restaurant for a while for a couple of reasons outside of the wi-fi. It was a comfortable and quaint local. I was admittedly ashamed that the one place I didn’t want to leave was the one place in Jacmel with the highest density of people-of-no-color. We stayed for the wi-fi. We stayed for the food. We stayed for the ambiance. We stayed for the post-noon bottles of Prestige and shots of Barbancourt. But most importantly we stayed for futbol. The soccer game was on. Excuse me. The World Cup was on. I can’t tell you what teams were playing that morning, but I can tell you that this weekend Haiti was in a frenzy about the World Cup. It was confusing and contagious all in one because as a novice soccer follower I have never understood the global appeal. Though I have come to the realization that you can not understand the Diaspora without understanding a love for soccer. In Haiti there were two teams to cheer for this weekend: you cheered for Brazil or you cheered for Argentina. I think Argentina was playing that morning, but I am not sure. Again, I’m a novice. I heard a Somali sportscaster try to explain the love of the Diaspora with Brazilian soccer as one that is tied to the idea that all colonized nations have the ability to do what Brazil has done in being able to grow economically and independently. It makes sense, but I think it’s more weighted on black folks’ love of the hero story and Pele being that hero for decades.
As one game ended the next game began. The next game would start with cashing in on my happenstance meeting with Michelle and end with Mer de Matine. Michelle needs to be appointed Secretary of Treasury of Haiti. My one regret of my travels to Jacmel is that I didn’t give him more. In retrospect the time and work that brother put into my Saturday is priceless. Michelle met us at our hotel that afternoon and led Ashley and I in our rental through the market of Jacmel. The market was sad and promising all in one. He crossed us literally through a river and then through mountains to our first destination, Bassin Bleu. After another mountainous trek we crept up on our location and then found ourselves having to be very trusting of our guide and hike leaders. Michelle took us to a village post where we rolled up on 30 young men glued to one television that showed the soccer game, of course, posted to an outside wall on what I could only describe as a makeshift gazebo. We peeled the hike leaders away from the television long enough to take the journey that many Haitian maroons escaping from slavery had taken, hundreds of years ago being led by Native American allies deep into the mountains. We were headed to a mystical and spiritual place. Ashley called it the fountain of youth. When we arrived at Bassin Bleu it did not disappoint. It was glorious blue water. Rugged, but with scene stealing rocks and ledges. Irony filled the shallows and depths that the appropriately titled tourists, who braved the terrain to get to this apex, could pick up on. I can recall being a child driving through the snowy capped hills of the Pacific Northwest. I can recall a glorious spring I found by a Buddhist temple in Juateng, South Africa. I can recall being taken aback by the imagery of a jazz player blowing his horn and crooning my wife on the Mississippi Delta off of Jefferson Square in New Orleans. I can recall chasing pelicans on the beach of Miami on Spring Break. I can recollect walking through the trees of my grandma and grandpa’s back yard to dig down lost wiffle balls as a child. I am blessed to have a recollection of many beautiful images throughout my life. I can tell you that I have few blessings that I could offer up as competition to the imagery I found at the Bassin Bleu, as well as the cove in Jacmel, Haiti that we ate lobster. I can feel the increasing perspiration just thinking about how solid and magnanimous those mountains stood. Haiti is a trip. In the midst of it you figure out what Toussaint D’Overture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Boukman were willing to die for. It also makes sense of why Napoleon and the French found so much value in it. It is a glorious land despite the “shithole” report you may have read about it. I can’t thank Haiti enough for my Saturday.
Eventually, we left Bassin Bleu. We took a quick walk around a federal park that held some political value that Michelle only loosely alluded to. He was far more focused on us seeing a hotel that was being developed smack dab in the middle of the city that surrounded Jacmel. Michelle was proud to introduce us to Dr. Paul. Dr. Paul was a Haitian doctor who had returned to Haiti after years of practice in the United States and was singularly focused on growing his country through tourism commerce. Dr. Paul was a darker-skinned man in his 60’s that was fully-equipped with everything that Mike Epps perfectly described in his bit about Old Men/Players during his Inappropriate Behavior stand up special. Gold chains. Gold rims on the glasses. Fair-skinned woman at his side. Cigarettes. Chest exposed. Documents on the table in front of him. Imagine Biggie Smalls cussing into his cellphone minus gripping the money wads in the Warning video and make him 30 years older and you have a good idea of who Dr. Paul is. Dr. Paul was taking his acquired wealth from the U.S. and bringing those funds back home to increase the wealth and sustainability of his beloved Jacmel. Michelle respected it enough to see the significance of Dr. Paul’s work with my brother, a first-generation Haitian-American. Michelle wanted to make sure that my brother saw the growth and opportunity. This was the sneak hustle, the unintended consequences. Michelle was not only showing us the town and all its beauty, but was showing us the town and all its potential. He was Magic and we were Lebron. The door was open as far as we saw it and the Secretary of Commerce was making sure we saw the potential there, covertly and overtly at the same time.
After guiding us to the most beautiful and affordable lobster lunch cove that one could ever come to interact with, our time with Michelle ended. I do hope that brother is doing well. We got back to the Colin’s Hotel and decided to chill for a bit. We went down by the pool side and took in some more of our sponsored libations. We socialized with a backpacking group of African-Americans from Florida, New York, Colorado, and other locations. They had recently crossed over into Haiti from the Dominican Republic and were next headed to Jamaica. They had their own version of a Diasporic excursion at play. They had interesting tales of being whisked away on a motorcade with Spanish speaking black folks that they just had to trust to not put them in danger. Their group’s leader told us a cautionary story about how you shouldn’t smoke weed in the club one night and then go back to that same club the next day because you will get arrested. Sound advice. One young sister was belligerent about her missing cell phone and how it was the group’s responsibility to look after her stuff while she was swimming. Her screams were so off-putting as she cussed out the group members. It was the most American sight I saw the whole time I was in Haiti. I told Ashley that I had observed her voice to be noticeably more voluminous than the Haitian women that we had interacted with. This, coupled with a discussion we had earlier in the trip about Rep. Maxine Waters’ threatened safety, sparked a good debate between my brother and I about how I was generalizing black American women. He had a subtle way of chastising me for bottling all of them into one group. How could I still do this after witnessing first-hand the rich diversity that is our blackness? I accepted the defeat in this debate battle and we moved back to people watching and chilling. Before we left the pool, we had one more conversation with a brother that had just recently been deported from the U.S. and sent back to Haiti. His mannerisms and vulgarity reminded me of a person who might be putting on a front. His stories were questionable, and he seemed to know a lot about things that he probably shouldn’t. He felt more American than Haitian, which was odd because I hadn’t yet seen this behavior in Haiti. Nothing was American in Jacmel. No car. No dish. No commercial establishment. No cash. Nothing. But here, this Haitian man stood in the middle of all things that were not American giving anything but an assimilated, acculturated, and appropriated American vibe. His perspective was one of note as we traveled through this Diaspora. I wouldn’t have believed it existed had I not seen it myself.
After that lively and serendipitous social hour by the pool side, it was time for dinner. I had made friends with the owner of the Hotel Florita while we were there earlier that morning. He offered yet another perspective as he was a coloured South African who transplanted himself to Jacmel as he controlled his aquaculture business in Cape Town from a distance. Over drinks and soccer that afternoon he shared how he’d come into his family’s fortune and was currently exploring ways to fund and support efforts to create change in multiple countries. He was the most liberal person I have ever met. It was interesting talking geopolitics with him. His spirit was magnetic. We bonded a bit more over dinner as Ashley and I broke his bread and drank his wine. I could see the night was starting to weigh in on Ashley a bit. It had been an emotionally and physically overwhelming experience. We had run and jogged and hiked and swam and jumped and climbed. Though all of this was true, and we had plenty of reason to be exhausted, it had also been one of the best days of my life and I wasn’t quite ready for it to end. Listening to the adventurous stories of the “blackpackers” inspired me. They had exorcised my 38-year-old mentality. I wanted an adventure. I didn’t want my Saturday to end. It only took a bit of encouragement to get Ash back in the game and we were off into our Saturday night in Jacmel.
That Saturday night is its own separate story that I will write about another time. It deserves it as it was one of the most spectacular nights of my life. Days after we left Haiti, the government raised fuel prices to such an exorbitant price that the country rebelled in protest. I hope that Michelle, our driver Abdul, and navigator, Max, are okay. I hope that Lincoln the South African that gave us free everything at his bar at Hotel Florita, is fine. I hope that our hostess and waitress are okay. I hope that the young man that gave us a ride on the back of his moped to and from Mer de Martine is okay. I hope my brother’s family in Haiti is okay. I hope all those black folks are okay. I hope all my Diasporic family is okay. I feel confident as I type this that everybody’s alright. Why wouldn’t they be? We’re talking about people who have overcome everything. We are the salt of the earth. We are Africa’s children. We are the church that Paul wrote to the Galatians about. In all of our differences, in all of our experiences, from soccer affinities to bongos that accompany live music. To airport goat sandwiches to softly roasted peanuts by hardened hands of my grandma’s cousin. We are tenacity. We are perseverance. We are the moral arch. We are Haiti and Little Haiti. We are John Brown Avenue to NW 62nd Street and 2nd Ave. We are the Diaspora.