I grew up on sos pwa and collard greens. My sport of choice was American football, not soccer. Mixed with Systeme Band and Top Vice records were 2 Live Crew and Eric B & Rakim. Haitian Kreyol is the language that my mother spoke inside the home; essentially my first language. But English with a slight southern accent is what emerged as my dominant tongue. My mother and cousins still make fun of the way I speak Kreyol to this day. They call it lang lou (heavy accent).
There was definitely a time in my life when being the son of Haitian immigrant parents seemed to be more of a burden, than the asset that I recognize it to be today. We were the only Haitian family on the block. My neighborhood (Allappattah/Liberty City) in Miami was mainly Hispanic and African American, so I simply assimilated into African American culture. It was easier to just be black. I was embarrassed by my mother’s heavy Haitian accent and my father’s frugality. But would probably annoyed me the most about growing up in a Haitian household was being forced to sit through Haitian Catholic church serves each Sunday morning… an nou la priye! I could not wait until mass was over. As soon as the final procession was done, I’d search for my dad, pushing and shoving my way through the true believers. I’d ask him for $1 so I could buy pate’ and soda from the old lady in front the church.
No matter how much I tried to downplay my culture, when I was back in my neighborhood or in school, I couldn’t deny my love for Haitian food. Like most adolescence and teens, I wanted to fit in. However, as I got older, I realized that people didn’t care if I was Haitian or not. I created this notion that they did. Occasionally, I’d be the subject of an argument. “Hey Ashley, come here.” “Ain’t you Haitian?” I’d reply calmly, but not necessarily proudly, “yeah, I’m Haitian.” Then the infamous “but you don’t talk like a Haitian or look like a Haitian.” At first, like an idiot I, felt cool. Eventually I had to ask people, “What do you mean I don’t look like a Haitian?” These types of encounters and conversations began to ring in my conscience and piss me off.
Was I going to let them talk about my people like that? The same people who raised me, taught me right from wrong and loved me unconditionally. They are talking about my mother, my father, my aunts, my uncles and my grandmother. They were all Haitian. What was wrong with them? The problem wasn’t them, the problem was me. As long as I stood by and said nothing, it would continue to be a problem. I had to stand up for myself and my heritage.
Haitians had a bad rap in the 1980s and 1990s. They said we had A.I.D.S. They said we smelled bad. They said we had no fashion sense. I was in unique position to be an ambassador for my people. I’ve always had the knack for getting along with people from all walks of life. In the neighborhood I was cool with the dope boys. At school I was down with everyone, the whites, Hispanics and blacks. What did it matter where my family came from?
Looking back on it, I’m happy that I realized the importance of accepting and embracing my culture. Some may disagree, but the most influential Haitian of my generation was Wyclef Jean. When the rap group, the Fugees (Lauryn Hill, Praz and Wyclef) came out during the mid-late 1990s, not only did Clef make being Haitian relevant, he made it cool. I can remember him coming down the aisles during the MTV Music Awards waving a huge Haitian flag. I felt connected to somebody who was like me, going through the Haitian American experience, but instead of muting it, he was wearing it on his chest.
Unfortunately, there are still so many undercover Haitians. They exist at every level of the American, Canadian, Caribbean and European social hierarchies. It’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed by the Haitian community. It’s time for us all of us to pour the gifts, talents and opportunities back into the country that has been stripped of so much.