Submitted by Dine’ Stephen-Brandon
Being born and raised in Brooklyn of Haitian parentage, Haiti had always been a mystery to me. It was a land of “lougarous” who sometimes took flight. This was verified by my Grandmother “Nenen” who scolded me when I would look out the window at night. It was a place of folklore tales that began with the words, “krik krak”, tales that told stories of people with unimaginable abilities. It was a place where people ate cookies made out of starch, and peanut butter was spicy. Yes. Haiti was mysterious and yes, a bit scary.
Haiti seemed to be the antithesis of the life we lived in Brooklyn. You see, we had become somewhat Americanized as my branch of the family was the first in my generation to leave the island nation. My Aunt Pyzou was the pioneer having left Haiti in 1958. By the mid-sixties, my Mom, Dad, and 3 oldest brothers joined her. The next sets of brothers were born in the US in 1965 and 1966 respectively, and then in 1970 was I, the last of the bunch.
My oldest brothers suffered the wrath of their classmates for their unstylish clothes and inability to speak the English language when they came to the country, but the younger set of brothers and I, having been born here were thankfully spared. We blended easily into American culture, wearing the latest fashions and dancing to the latest hip-hop tunes. In the 1980’s when Haitians were erroneously credited with being one of the high-risk groups for AIDS, my younger set of brothers and I denied our Haitian culture and with a British last name (Stephen), people rarely questioned it. Our father, still staunchly Haitian, chided us for trying to have “style bum”. Our family and many of the Haitians around us did not have the highest opinion of African-Americans. When my oldest brother started dating a young woman from Harlem, there were a lot of negative opinions floating around and when he decided that we would make the trek up to Harlem and meet the young lady and her family, I thought he was out of his mind. Gasp.
The trip seemed to take forever. I remember feeling a bit fearful. I had never been to Harlem before, let alone the projects. We lived in a private house in East Flatbush. Even in our lower-middle class neighborhood, Remsen Avenue kids were called “the rich boys and girls”. My vision of Harlem was shaped by what I had seen on TV and it was not good. I did not know what I was in for. I imagined that we would be accosted in the elevator, mugged or even worse. As we parked and exited the car and made our way to the building, a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. We rung the bell in the lobby and were buzzed in, and made our way up the elevator to the apartment. We were welcomed by her family who were very warm and friendly, and yes, the apartment was tidy and neat. They were not very loud, and were actually very soft-spoken.
I looked to my left and saw a table filled with desserts. I had never seen so many desserts in my life! All types of cakes, pies, you name it. I was impressed! Also, the food was so different from what I was used to. Where was the du ris cole avec pois? Lambi? Grio? Banan Peze? No, here there was Collard Greens, Black-Eyed Peas, Corn Bread and even their Macaroni and Cheese was done differently. I delighted in the different smells, tastes and company. My brother’s girlfriend’s family dispelled a lot of our misconceptions regarding African-Americans. They were a blue-collar working class family who happened to live in the projects, but still found a way to give their kids the best educations (my brother’s girl attended the Private School Chapin on scholarship).
Fast forward to the present, no longer ashamed of our roots, my brothers and I embrace it and mention our Haitian parentage every chance we get. In 2006, I myself am married to an African-American, and very often there is a clash of cultures. These differences are apparent in our parenting styles, and beliefs. As I have grown older, I now understand that people’s beliefs and actions are rooted and shaped by their experiences. African-Americans helped to build this nation but suffered from a system that endured way after slavery ended. The after effects are still reverberating today. I have a heightened sensitivity to the African-American story because their story is our story with roots in our beloved motherland.