How My Trip to Haiti Changed Everything by Barry Thomas

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28

old jacmel
Old building from the times of French colonization in Jacmel.

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.

rice lady
A woman carries bags of rice on her way home from the market.
the hustle
A man cuts blocks of ice as means of making money for the day.
street merchants
Street market vendors, sell their produce on the side of the road.

 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.

lambi
Stewed conch at the Cyvadier Hotel.
lobster
Fresh lobster tail at the Cyvadier Hotel.
lobster and cigars
Lobster in a buttersauce and fried plantains at Cyvadier Hotel.
breadfruit
Fried breadfruit

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.

heaven in haiti
Taking it all in.
barry as bassin
Climbing down into the cove at Bassin Bleu.
barry bassin bleu
Plunging into to the beautiful waters at Bassin Bleu.

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.

barry and michel
Alongside Michel, who was our guide and blessing on this trip.

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.

Prestige dinner
Cheers from Barry and Ashley at the Colin’s Hotel sponsored by Prestige.
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This is Haiti : A journal of two friends in a land greatly misunderstood.

The Call

It was about 5:30 am on Friday, and I received a call from Barry. His flight from Omaha to Atlanta had been canceled. Immediately, I began to brainstorm solutions. I went online and searched for other flights departing from Omaha that day. They were all in the evening. I then looked for flights leaving out of Kansas City; about a three hour drive away. Still, to no avail. It didn’t look good. We were only going to be in Haiti for four days and to miss Friday would really be short changing the experience. I remained calm and sense my flight wasn’t until noon, I eventually fell back asleep. 

An hour later, I received a second call from Barry. He was able to find a flight to Miami, on American Airlines, which connected to a flight to Port-au-Prince. 

The Land of My Parents

Because of the flight mix up, we actually ended up arriving at Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport just minutes apart. As soon as I landed, I met up with Barry in front of the currency exchange hut. He stood there, the biggest person in the room, face down in his cellphone. He looked up, smiled and we slapped hands. We had arrived in the land of my parents. 

Tap Tap
The colorful patterns on a tap-tap, which is a jitney that takes people, through and fro in Port-au-Prince.

The Plug

When traveling to Haiti, you need a contact. You need someone who knows the lay of the land. Someone who can get you from point A to point B, and back. My good friend Fabrice, grew up in Jacmel and still has family there. With Fabrice’s help, I arranged to have his cousin Max, and our driver Abdul meet us in Port au Prince. We rented a small SUV from Dream Rental Car. Fabrice knew the owner, which gave us important leverage. The last time that I was in Haiti (August 2017), I tried to rent a car through Avis and though the price of the rental was $50 a day, they actually required a $1200 deposit. At Dream, the prices were comparable, at $60 a day. Instead of paying an outrageous deposit, they hold your passport as a security deposit. I thought it was a fair exchange. There is no way our trip would have been possible without our own transportation. The public transportation in Haiti is too unreliable for the short time that we were going to be there.

The Plug
Navigating through Port-au-Prince in our rental car.

Abdul was an expert driver, who knew Port au Prince and Jacmel very well. He especially knew the route to Jacmel which was dangerous, if you were not familiar with driving along steep mountainsides. It seems as if Abdul had memorize every turn and twist along the 2-hour right, as he took the mountains with ease. 

Jacmel

Jacmel is considered the cultural capital of Haiti and once you get there you understand why. The downtown area is reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter. As a matter of fact, much of the architecture and style that you see in the Quarter was inspired by Jacmel. During our time there, we stayed at the Colin’s Hotel, one of the few hotel’s along the beachfront. It’s an old boutique hotel, with an old feel too it. The rooms were small, but clean. Nothing fancy, but it did the trick. We had a pool, bar and restaurant in the courtyard, all facing the ocean. It was all we needed. Quite reasonable too, at $85 a night, I must say it was a definitely a good find. After getting checked-in, Barry and I had chicken wings, fries, pikliz (spicy Haitian-style coleslaw) and Prestige beer, as our first meal in Haiti. 

Saturday morning I went for an early morning  3 mile run, while Barry grabbed his phone and took photos of the city. We later met up at the Jacmel Art Center, next to our hotel. It was curated with paintings, metalwork and wood sculptures; done by local, Haitian artists. We later had breakfast and watched the World Cup at the Florita Hotel, just across from our own hotel. The Florita was a really cool place. It’s lobby was a former sugar cane storehouse converted into rustic bar and restaurant with beautiful Haitian artwork on the walls and handmade furniture that made you will only find in Jacmel.

We later met a local gentleman name Michel Jean-Baptiste who eventually became our guide. He was very friendly and knowledgeable about the culture, history and happenings in Jacmel. Michel took us to Bassin Bleu, a hidden blue waterfall about 45 minutes outside of the city. For lunch, he then took us to the Cyvadier Hotel where we had amazing cocktails and fresh lobster. He even had the hook-up on Haitian cigars. Before we parted ways he took us to the oldest hotel in Jacmel, the Emanuel Alexandre Hotel, which was in its final stages of renovation and ready to open at the end of July. It was an immaculate hotel with amazing views of the entire city. Michel had us meet the owner, a local, who lived in Brooklyn for 40 years as a doctor and decided to come back home.

We had had a full day, but we were not done. After coming back from our daily excursion, Barry and I sat pool side and enjoyed a few more bottles of Prestige, our drink for the weekend. All of a sudden we heard a young lady complaining about someone stealing her phone, but in actuality, her friend had it all the while. Crazy enough, one of her friends, happened to be a former student of mine, Tammi. I had taught her 10 years ago at North Miami Beach Senior High School. It was her first time in Haiti and she shared with Barry and I how she remembered all the things I had taught her about Haiti; the history of the Haitian Revolution, the national heroes of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacque Dessalines. She remembered it all and now she was here, in Haiti with her teacher. I was so proud of her. That was the most profound moment of the trip and one of the proudest moments of my teaching career.

Later that evening, I went onto my Facebook page and a friend of mine Kara, who lived in Jacmel for nearly 10 years commented on my page about a live music performance happening that night at Vue Sur Mer, just about 25 minutes outside of the city. It was close to midnight and I was reluctant at first, but Barry motivated me to check it out. So we took taxied a motorcycle outside of our hotel. Three of us, on one bike took off in the middle of the pitch black night down a country road along the sea. When we arrived, it was a wooden shack along the ocean. We paid the 250 gourdes ($4 US) door charge. It was red lights, people dancing from wall to wall to the sounds of Afrobeat, Reggae, Hip hop and Kompa. Barry danced along with his Prestige in his hand, while I stood back and enjoyed the vibes, enjoying a Prestige of my own. During the last hour, we were blessed with a live performance from Steeve Valcourt, a local artist, who was good friends with Kara. By now it was well after 2 am and unbeknownst to us, our chauffeur was outside waiting, to take us back to town. We went back the way we came, on the dark moonlight road to Jacmel. The the ride was 600 gourdes each way ($10 US) and totally worth it.

The next morning, Max and Abdul met us in the lobby at 11 am. Barry and I had our final meal and drinks in Jacmel. It was off to Port au Prince.

img_4561
The French influence is seen building in Old Jacmel.
jacmel street art
Street vendor with colorful Haitian paintings along the road.
lambi
Stewed conch at the Cyvadier Hotel.
colins hotel
The Colin’s Hotel.
barry bassin bleu
Barry takes a plunge at Bassin Bleu.

Petionville

The 2 hour mountainous, winding road through the countryside to Port-au-Prince was beautiful. Mountains and lush vegetation went as far as your eyes could see. Beautiful people walked along the side of the road in their Sunday’s best, adding accents to the green mountains with with brightly colored shirts and dresses. Old men and women took to the mountains with ease. And everyone seemed to have a bible in their hand. This was Sunday mornings in the southern countryside of Haiti.

Once we arrived in the capital, we checked-in to the Royal Oasis Hotel, which is located in Petionville, about 4 miles south of Port-au-Prince. Petionville is very different from Jacmel. It’s far more populated and metropolitan. It’s a suburb where many of the Haitian upper-class reside. The Royal Oasis rivals many hotels that you find in the U.S.; concierge, elegant restaurants, shopping, views of the entire city, huge rooms, pool, room service, shuttles to the airport and a full workout facility. You name it, they had it. Our room was much larger and more modern than room what we had at the Colin’s Hotel. As soon as we entered the room, Barry let out a loud “Wow!” He was pretty excited about our new digs.

Now that we were settled in, I thanked Max and Abdul for all their help, put some money in their pockets and they headed back to Jacmel. In usual fashion, Barry and I went out to find some food. We found a place across the street called The Backyard. It was a soccer themed sports bar, with a TV’s everywhere, world flags hanging from the ceilings and a miniature indoor soccer field, right in the center of the establishment. Of course, the World Cup was on every monitor. Like clockwork, Barry and I ordered “de Prestige” along with some chicken wings and fried plantains. 

When we got back to the room, we changed into our swim gear and headed to the pool. There had been a kids pool party all day and we finally had the pool to ourselves; at least the adults did. We relaxed, had more beers and watched more world cup soccer. We weren’t the only ones enjoying. There was a group of three couples who had two bottles of Hennessy and they were all taking swigs, directly from the bottle. Barry and I looked on with intrigue, as they took down the bottles effortlessly.

By now it was night time and we had to find something to get into. After all, it was our last night in Haiti. I searched a few places on the internet, but nothing seemed to really be happening near us. So we decided to explore the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a party in which everyone was dressed exquisitely. They literally had a red carpet laid out. We walked in casually as if we belonged, but with us both wearing short pants and t-shirts, it was clear that we were out of our element. A young man with a suit approached us and informed us that it was a private party, by invite only. I can’t lie, the vibes and music was dope, but they kindly turned us away. We ended up going to a few a spots closer to the hotel. The first, an outdoor restaurant where they had a live singer, who covered songs in English, Spanish, French and Creole; rather impressive. But the vibe was dead. We finally ended the night by grabbing some good old American food at an Italian restaurant. Barry ordered a burger with fries and I orders a personal pizza (not recommended). And that was our last night in Haiti.

petionville
The bustle of Petionville.

Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien

I woke up in the morning refreshed, but not ready to leave. There was a complimentary breakfast downstairs that ended at 10 am and I didn’t want to miss it. Barry and I went down to the fancy La Villa restaurant and grabbed breakfast. I had the Omelette Creole; scrambled eggs with sautéed onion, peppers and slices of ham, along with a cup of Haitian coffee. For the first time, I had eaten more than Barry, who simply had some coffee and fruit.

We checked out, just a little after 12 o’clock and headed for our final stop, the National History Museum in Port-au-Prince. We were on our own now and drove the rest of the way through the city. Barry was my navigator and used Google Maps to get us to our destination. Parking in Port-au-Prince was actually pretty easy. We parked right in front of the museum and walked in. Entrance was 250 gourde ($4 USD). Photos and videos are not allowed, so you have to be there to really gain an appreciation of the history.

One segment is a gallery filled with beautiful and colorful Haitian art. The other section is dedicated to preserving the the history of Haiti. It does an excellent job of beginning with the culture of the Taino people and ends with the current state of Haiti. Tours were done in English, French and of course Haitian-Creole. It was the perfect way to end our trip. Haiti continues to impress me and I am proud of my heritage. This trip really helped me to further gain an appreciation of Haiti’s role in the world and that it’s true beauty has yet to acknowledged by the mainstream culture. 

black and abroad 1
Wearing our Black and Abroad t-shirts, promoting the movement.

Next summer, Barry and I will embark on our 6th Annual Brothers Retreat in Charleston, South Carolina. Our annual retreats have become a tradition, in which we seek fellowship, reconnection along with researching history of the African Diaspora in various cities throughout the world. More enslaved Africans were transported through Charleston, South Carolina than any other city in America. We want to explore the history of slaver in Charleston, as well as the richness and stories of the impact that Charleston has had on America. It should be a great experience and maybe our greatest journey yet. I’m excited. 

 

Thy Kingdom Come: Hidden History and the Fall of Haiti

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The story of Haiti, is the story of a fallen champion. Today, Haiti is tagged as, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. However, this tag it is unfair, incomplete, inaccurate and therefore misleading, as it proclaims Haiti’s present, without giving a full scope of its past.

Why don’t headlines ever talk about how Haiti was once, one of the most prosperous colonies in the world and one of the world’s leaders in coffee and sugar exports? Why don’t headlines emphasize how it was the first Black republic in the world and for that, it was isolated, punished and blackballed by its former colonizers and their slave-holding allies? Why don’t the headlines report how Haiti was occupied by the United States military for nearly 20 years and how the Haitian people were exploited for cheap labor against their will? Why don’t the headlines mention how the United States government sponsored Jean- Claude Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc,” one of the most ruthless and notorious dictators of the 20th century with money and arms to rule Haiti for decades under pure fear and terror? I don’t hear many headlines tagging Haiti for having its already fragile economy destroyed in the 1990’s by Bill Clinton’s backdoor deal, that bankrupted and pushed out Haitian rice farmers, while subsidizing farmers from the Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. And more despicably, the hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake that the American Red Cross used to build gated communities for its workers, instead of homes for the victims of the actual earthquake. Oh yeah! What about the United Nation “peace keepers” who have impregnated hundreds if not thousands of Haitian girls and women, while leaving them to raise a generation of children on their own.  Did I mention how those same “peace keepers” brought cholera to Haiti, by contaminating the Haitian water supply with their human waste and feces, leading to the deaths of thousands of people?

To continue to simply tag Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is like watching Mike Tyson’s last fight against Lennox Lewis and deciding that Mike Tyson’s legacy would be cemented from the results of a fight, that should have never happened in the first place. Tyson had been far beyond his prime and to say that he was damaged goods, would have been a compliment. Tyson was merely a shell, a shadow of what his name meant to millions, who watched him in his prime destroy anything that dared to stand in the square with him. And let us rest assure, that his fall from glory, was not by happenstance. The untimely death of his mentor, coupled with his exploitation by the infamous Don King among others; lead one of the greatest fighters the world has ever known, to his back on a canvas mat, in an arena filled with perplexed eyes, pitied hearts and the realization, that this once great boxing warrior-god, had been reduced to a mere mortal. But still, in his downfall, Tyson will always be recognized as one of the greatest. We do not honor hour heroes in their defeat, but in their glory. We should do the same for Haiti.

Haiti has been down for quite some time now, but its true historical and cultural narrative, still outweighs its current calamitous present.  The black sheep, the dark child, prodigal son, the underdog. All these metaphors hold the real story of a nation that continues to fight for its rightful place in the history books and in a world that is quick to forget and dismiss the mighty legacy of the land where black people actually came together to achieve the unspeakable and the unthinkable… FREEDOM.

Many nations have built tremendous wealth on the backs of the oppressed. Just over 200 years ago in 1804, when New World slavery was at its relative peak in places like Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, 1000 miles away, nearly half a million slaves had flipped the script. Greater than any March on Washington, Million Man March, Emancipation Proclamation, Thirteenth, Fourteenth Amendment or Black Lives Matters hashtag… Just as the Patriots had defeated the British, the Africans on the island of Hispaniola had defeated the French army.  Inscribed on the Haitian flag you will find the quote, L’union fait la force, In unity there is strength; which is a kin to the motto of the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution… “Join or die.” To be Haitian is to know that you come from the same ilk of the only nation on earth to ever lead a successful slave revolt and to know that running in your veins is the same blood of men in women, who were the original freedom fighters. This is what Haiti should be known for. Because if not, then to be fair, accurate and transparent, we must tag those countries responsible for Haiti’s economic demise … France, the country that still owes Haiti billions in reparations. England, the country that colonized and enslaved millions of people and bled their resources dry until the mid 20th century. The United States, the wealthiest country in the world by inheriting a lucrative slave economy from the British and continued to profit for nearly a century from free labor and has yet to provide reparations to the families of former slaves, while the families of former slave owners continue to thrive from generational wealth.

With the recent landfall of Hurricane Matthew, today, Haiti is clinging onto the ropes. The combination of natural disasters, political and economic sabotage have taken its toll on Haiti. Her opponents have hit her with every hook, jab, uppercut and combination imaginable. She is hurt, wounded and bloodied. And though she has been knocked down and knocked out, she continues to pick herself up and fight again. What a mighty people! What a mighty nation! Haiti, the strongest country in the world, the champion of the people. 

More Than a Game

Since 2010 I have worked and partnered with a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization called Community2Community. They help to build self-sufficient communities in Haiti, by working with the community.

The organization is focused on tackling four areas the impacted the people of Piton, a mountainside village just outside of Petit Goave, Haiti:

1. Building a road to allow supplies to come in and out the community, as well as allow commerce and transportation to take place more efficient and effectively.

2. Reforest the mountainside, which had been ravaged after years of excessive production of chabon, which is Creole for charcoal.

3. Providing a centralized clean water source, so that the people of the community no longer have to spend 6-8 hours a day fetching buckets of water to perform their daily tasks; such as cooking, laundry and bathing.

4. Rebuild the school that had been damaged by the earthquake and subsequently destroyed due to a series of hurricanes.

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Being a teacher, I naturally gravitated towards the rebuilding of the school. After a few conversations and brainstorming with Marie Eusebe, the found of C2C and I came up with an fundraiser called Change04Change.  It started off as a basic operation of having students and staff members bringing in loose change and donating it to our cause, coupled with a bake sale and a few other activities. The homeroom that raised the most money won a pizza party and was celebrated at a school-wide assembly. Our goal has always been that and we have met our goal essentially each year. Our hope is to get as many schools in the New York City area to do the same. But it has not been an easy task.

Five years later, Change04Change has evolved into a more focused and engaging initiative. During the month of May which is Haitian Heritage Month we not only fund raise, but we really engage our students throughout the month.

1.Our Global Citizen Essay Contest– students write essays about what it means to be a global citizen and how they can get involved in assisting with our efforts in Petit Goave. The top three finalists are awarded at our annual Hope and a Future Celebration.

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2. Hats04Haiti– students and staff all wear the hat of their choice for a day and give a kind donation to show their support.

3. Flag Day & Dance04Haiti– In commemoration of Haitian Flag Day, students wear the flags of their national origin to school and after school, students who make a donation can come and celebrate at the school’s Dance04Haiti celebration.

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4. Hoops04Haiti– The students and staff play each other in a “friendly” game of basketball. It’s a great way to celebrate what our kids already love, but also bring the school together to play for a purpose.

This year something special happened. After years of tension with our neighboring school, as we are in co-located space. We were able to work collaboratively to have a game in which our students played our neighboring school’s students and then the staffs of each school played each other. We all came together for a good cause and as a result have started the beginning of a beautiful partnership between my school, which is a charter school and our neighboring school, which is a public school.

Thus far we have raised  nearly $800 but are still well short of our goal of $1000. After sending out a thank you email to all the staff members and everyone involved, the assistant principal from our neighboring school called me down to his office and said “We didn’t make our mark, I want to make sure that you reach your goal of $1000. Let’s have a rematch before the end of the school.”

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Do You Speak Haitian?

Florida has the largest Haitian population outside of Hisapniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Nearly  400 hundred thousand people of Haitian descent reside in Florida and yet Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, did not know that Haitians do not speak Haitian. I was aghast. Haitian is not a language. This is a sad example of the lack of cultural awareness on the behalf of Zimmerman’s legal team. Do Americans speak American? Do Cubans speak Cuban? Do Jamaican’s speak Jamaican? For the record, Haitians speak Creole (Kreyol). I would not expect someone from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to know that. On the other hand,  anyone who lives in Florida and is working a high-profile case such as this one, should.

Even after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the entire planet witnessed  the toll over 200,000 lives taken,  while  another million people were left homeless, you would think that Zimmerman’s counsel would get it right. Granted, Rachel Jeantel is not the most articulate witness. Being Haitian-American myself, I will admit at times that I was embarrassed by Ms. Jeantel’s behavior and demeanor on the stand, but she was totally out of her element and dealing with the loss of her close friend. Zimmerman’s defense team had no excuse for not doing their research on a case with obvious cultural implications. In America, we have this disconnection that gives us the silent permission to dismiss certain subcultures. This is dangerous and quite frankly irresponsible.

Mr. O’Mara, after this is all over, please purchase a map and locate Haiti. I hear that the people there led the only successful slave revolt in human history and established the first black republic in the world in 1804.

“Do you speak Haitian?” Really?

Rachel Jeantel is being questioned by Mark O'Mara, George Zimmerman's defense attorney.
Rachel Jeantel being questioned by Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney. During his examination, Mr. O’Mara asked Ms. Jeantel if she spoke Haitian.

The Haitian Mother

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. My parents migrated to Miami, Florida from Haiti in the early 1970s to escape the notorious Duvalier regime. In those days Duvalier ruled Haiti with an iron fist and terrorized anyone who would dare oppose him. He and his tan tan makout left Haitians living in constant fear, from Port au Prince (Haiti’s capitol) to Port de Paix (My father’s hometown in Northwest Haiti). Like millions of immigrants before them, they came to the shores of the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Since I can remember, they had always instilled in us the importance of education.

Every morning my mother woke us up at the crack of dawn. We did not attend our neighborhood schools because they were some of the worst schools in Miami. Our parents sent us to school in the white and Hispanic suburb of Miami Springs, from elementary to high school. This meant we had to wake up extra early to make sure we made it to school on time.

From day one, education was a priority in my household. There was only one thing greater than education, and that was God. There was zero tolerance for doing poorly in school and even less tolerance for heathenism. As a result I received numerous perfect attendance awards throughout elementary school. Ironically, I probably traveled further than any of my classmates each day. Most of the students at my elementary school lived within in the school’s boundary however, my siblings and I lived about 6 or 7 miles away in a neighborhood known as Allapattah. Mommy would drop us off on her way to work or she would leave bus fare for us to catch the MTA (Metro Transit Authority).

School started at 8:30 a.m., and our commute was about 30 minutes by car and about 45 minutes by bus. Not only did we get to school on time, but we arrived at least thirty minutes early in order to take advantage of the free breakfast.  Therefore, Mommy would wake us up each morning at 6 a.m. She’d first knock on our door like a drill sergeant, as if we were new cadets in basic training. Then she would flip the light switch and yell out to us in Haitian Creole, Leve’, leve’, leve’, li le pou nou al lekol (Wake up, wake up, wake up, it’s time for school).

From kindergarten to my senior year of high school, Mommy was my alarm clock. Even when she stopped barging into the room at the crack of dawn, I could still hear her floating through the house, washing up and making her daily cup of Bustello Café’. This was our morning ritual and we never missed a beat, we were always in school.

Today, I still have a long commute, but I do not let that stop me from being there and on time for my students each day.

Like all cultures, the importance of parental guidance and support is crucial in ones development. I was blessed to have two parents and my mother was a true disciplinarian. The portrait above demonstrates the unbroken strength of Haitian mothers.

Ayisyen on Campus

I speak in front of people all the time, but for some reason I was a little nervous tonight. The first speaker was a young professional Haitian-American by the name of Jean Pierre-Louis. His organization  Capracare Haiti is fairly new, less than two years old. His work is familiar but not taken for granted.  He is rebuilding and changing Haiti, one step at a time. Jean’s vision is written powerfully at the bottom of his business card, mete men nou ansanm pou nou viv an santé ( promoting health change through individual acts of courage).

Then it was my turn. I had been up since five in the morning, worked a full load teaching and debating with  7th graders about whether Christopher Columbus should receive credit or acknowledgement for discovering America, when in actuality he thought he was in Asia. Furthermore, my principal decided that we are going to have professional development on Fridays; afterschool.  After a less than inspiring P.D. session, I grabbed my materials hustled out of the building, ran across the street to the local bodega, grabbed a Nutriment and hopped on the 4 train.  I was tired from a long day and a longer week. But the idea of being able to talk about two of my passions for a few minutes in front of an intimate audience at NYU gave me the surge that I needed. What an incredible way to end the work week!

So I introduced myself, loosened the stoic crowd with some of my subtle humor, and it was on. The Community2Community video was a hit as always, and I used it to bring a real connection to what we are all doing in some form or another. There is something for everyone to do and that was my message this evening. “Give a man a fish…” I’m not a fisherman, but I am teacher and a coach; educating young people is what I do. Tonight I had the esteemed privilege of educating and informing others about the great work that Community2Community has been doing.

As the evening moved on and other groups presented, you could feel the energy and passion in the room begin to emerge. After the last presentation by Artists Village, we were all on our feet, inspired, energized, ready to mix, mingle and share ideas. They had just come back from Haiti, less than a week ago with an inspiring message of love and hope. It was beautiful.

The high point of the evening for me,  was when one of my former students walked into the room with about 20 other young men. Instantly, I knew was the leader. It was powerful to see. I could see my own influence and work after eight years of teaching begin to manifest, right before my very eyes. His name is Gerald Jean-Baptiste, he was a student of mine at North Miami Beach Senior High School, where I taught for six years. He is now a senior at NYU and the president of an organization on campus called Gentlemen of Quality.

At first he did not see me, but when he did, he immediately introduced me to his group of 20 or so gentlemen and the networking exploded. They all signed the Community2Community Volunteer Sheet and have agreed to help out whenever they can. Before long the once small, quiet, stoic room, turned into a buzz of life, laughter and excitement. I am more than proud of the work that H.A.S.A. is doing. They are bringing like-minded people together to work towards one cause.

I look forward to next year’s event. It will be a testimony to the work that we are all doing. This year’s event has already done that and more. Our dreams will not be deferred, for they are being realized each day through the great efforts of our young brothers and sisters on NYU’s campus.