I am a Creole, but not the kind that you are most likely thinking of. I am not from Louisiana, nor do I resemble Beyonce. I speak Kreyòl, but I was not born in Haiti, and neither were my parents, or my grandparents. So why do I claim a Creole identity? And what does Haiti mean to me? My answer might surprise you. I believe that our world is comprised of both visible and invisible forces working together to create our experiences. In the visible world, my skin color, hair texture and body shape are the phenotypical identifiers of a Black woman, yet Blackness is not a homogenous, fixed social category. My ancestors are European, Native American, Asian and African. At my core, I am and continually strive to be a vessel of Light, sprouting forth and filled daily with the love of God. Because I am multicultural, multilingual, and multireligious, I am a Creole.
From birth to my early twenties, my experience was that of an African American girl from Savannah, Georgia who was raised in the West Indian neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn. My step-father, God-bless-the-dead, was Jamaican, and my best friends were Haitian, St. Lucian and Trinidadian. On holidays, we ate jerk pork, griot, candied yams and macaroni and cheese. We also sipped on rum punch, carrot juice and cremas that sent us straight to sleep while the adults socialized through the night. We listened to R&B, Rap, Reggae, Soca and Ska. Although culturally rich, my neighborhood was no utopia. In a city as diverse as New York, inter-ethnic prejudice is no secret, particularly among the international Black communities. Insults such as “Haitian or African Booty Scratcher” were common in my childhood, and the internalized racism was rarely addressed by adults, and sometimes encouraged. It is true that too many of my family members would whisper disparaging things about the habits of “foreigners” who were taking over New York. As a smart and well-mannered African American girl, I was an anomaly to many of my West Indian peers whose parents had cautioned them that Americans were lazy and were jealous of them.
As Black children developing our self-concept, we objectified ourselves and each other in manners that, as bell hooks writes, “were compatible with existing images and ways of knowing, constructed within the social frameworks that reinforce domination” (Ford and Dillard, 1996, p. 233). Painstakingly, I tried my best to use such prejudice as a motivation to work harder in school and in extra-curricular activities, as I not only had to counter stereotypes of my race, but of my class background and ethnicity, as well. In the space between high school and college, in a search for myself, I began to challenge my notions of work and pleasure, choice and obligation, assaulting myself with a barrage of doubts and hypotheticals. Gradually, everything that I thought that I was sure of had become a waste of time, and I questioned whether I truly had earned the privileges that I enjoyed—acceptance at elite institutions of learning, scholastic and public speaking awards—or whether standards had been lowered to accommodate me. I grew tired of having to prove my worthiness to others because the work came to easy, or too hard, or because I switched like I had diamonds between my legs when I had been expected to apologize for the sight of my voluptuous booty and thighs amidst the stellar student-athletes.
During my sophomore year in college, after a Spring Break Learning Expedition to Ghana, I decided that I was not going to comb my hair anymore, and after several days, it began to naturally sprout dreadlocks. They were different sizes and shapes and absolutely beautiful. They started in the back of my head and worked their way around the sides, but the very top and front of my hair refused to lock. These strands were too straight and were what Black people referred to as my “good hair.” In all of my efforts to be “pure” African with the distinctive strong, tightly coiled hair texture to match, my own truth was literally staring me in the mirror. I joked that the behavior of these strands could be traced to my maternal Irish great-great-grandmother saying to me, “You better respect me, too! You ain’t all African.” My elders tell me that she was very light-skinned with long red hair and freckles, so I assume that she shared the Scotch-Irish heritage of several White Americans in the South. Across my cheeks and nose are both freckles and moles, which my mother refers to as “Black people’s freckles.” If I was not all African, and clearly not all European, then who was I? Why do I often find similarities between myself and people from the Caribbean when others claim that we are “totally different”?
I turned to God. I called on my ancestors for guidance, and they served it in a huge way. The more I prayed, the more I dreamed, and listened, and witnessed, and loved. It was revealed to me that somewhere in my lineage, I had Haitian ancestors. Moreover, they had been priests and priestesses of the Vodou religion. It was my path—the African American girl from Savannah—to initiate into the religion, as well. This news entirely changed my life. It shocked me and at the same time anchored and fortified me. I believed wholeheartedly in my connection with God. I believed wholeheartedly in my connection with my ancestors, so I trusted my messages and began my training in the theology and liturgy of Haitian Vodou. I deepened my cursory knowledge of Haitian culture and began to learn prayers and songs that were in French, Kreyòl, Fon, Yoruba, Kikongo and other indigenous languages. This process affirmed my whole being, and I began to develop what Ford and Dillard (1996) referred to as the “critical social consciousness” that allowed me to deconstruct notions of race and religion.
Historically, ‘Creole’ has been used to refer to people with mixed African-European parentage, but not always. ‘Creole’ also has referred to people with a mixed cultural experience, who were often multilingual. I contemplated what it meant to be a mixture of different skin tones and cultures. Supremacist narratives of any kind would undo me. Did my African and Native American ancestors truly worship the Devil in their indigenous religions? If so, then their historical enslavement and decimation at the hands of Whites makes sense. Yet, if the Devil seeks enslavement for his followers, then God must seek liberation. I must credit God for all triumphs against enslavement and institutions of oppression. I must credit God with the success of the Haitian Revolution on January 1, 1804, which formed the first independent Black nation in the Americas and provided a beacon of hope for all others who remained enslaved.
Haitian Vodou is a religion of Creoles, of people from Senegal, Nigeria, Benin, Dahomey, the Kongo who called on every name of God that they knew of to escape death and persecution. Powerful ancestors and forces of nature known as orisha, vodun and bisimbi in Africa (Ginen) became zanj and lwa in Haiti. Male and female, husband and wife, mother and child, they united to lead the Creoles in their fight for liberation. In reconciling the religious customs that he was taught with his emerging critical social consciousness, B. Kanpol (1997) writes, “I must challenge traditional Jewish ways, or even social efficient systems, as I did as a boy, and read for myself the New Testament or/and create possibility out of a simple and mechanistic mindset” (p. 30). What Kanpol describes in challenging religious norms and seeking truth for himself is precisely the kind of “leap of faith” that strengthens my belief in religious plurality and my commitment to practicing the beautiful religion of my ancestors.
Ten years since I first received my call, I have become a Mambo, an initiated priestess of Haitian Vodou, and my husband Hermann is a Houngan, a priest. He initiated at 19 years old and has been active in supporting and preserving Vodou sacred traditions throughout Haiti and the dysapora. I am a Southern girl at heart, and he is as country as they come, so our movements are often synchronized in some way. We meet over stewed turkey wings and white rice, mayi moulen and grits, lima beans and sos pwa. We meet over Kongo square and Neg Mawon. We meet over loud talking and bay blag, all day, toujou. Through the practice of Vodou, I have learned that only God has wisdom, and it is precisely our arrogance, or frekan-ness, that keeps us from moving forward. My spirituality is my defense against oppressive social practices. It is the critical lens through which I see the world and make sense of its infinite multiplicities. I am a Creole, a Savannah Creole, and I could never be more proud.
Ford, T., & Dillard, C. (1996). Becoming multicultural: A recursive process of self-and
social construction. Theory into Practice, 35(4), 232-238.
Kanpol, B. (1997). Establishing a criticality and Critical pedagogy and the multicultural
project. In Barry Kanpol & Fred Yeo (Eds.), Issues and trends in critical
pedagogy (pp. 21-32, 49-63). NJ: Hampton Press.