A lot of Black folks, especially in the Haitian community struggle under the structure of single-parent households. The roots of the separation and dismantling of minority families has historical and contemporary implications. The term “family separation” evokes images of slaves on the auction block and children being teargassed at the border. It’s an issue of extreme importance. As I converse with my contemporaries in my community, I notice the absence of fathers is a recurring motif, whether via the “rolling stone” narrative or an untimely death. Of the people I do know with active relationships with their fathers, they’ve described a disconnect between themselves and their paternal history. This led me to interrogate my own paternal history: Who is my father? What is happening underneath that stoic, hardened exterior? What is his story? And who am I because of who my father is?
After spending some time working in the digital humanities, I felt energized by a passion to not only document but also learn my own history. I spent 23 years learning the histories of white men, women and the white-washed ghosts of marginalized communities so I wanted to revise the histories that’d been projected onto me and explore the ones embedded in my genetic makeup.
I wrote a series of questions and told my dad to speak for as long as he’d like. This piece examines two prominent themes: discipline and community. It places them in conversation with 20th century Haitian history. It aims to discuss the ways in which various interwoven systems impacted my dad’s development and thus my own. I use Bronfenbrennerr’s ecological systems theory as a framework for my historical analysis.
My dad was born in May 1957 in Cap-Haitian, the second city of Haiti. He described the city as “very beautiful.” He loved it. Immediately when my dad mentioned his birth year, I was intrigued. 1957 marked the beginning of a “full-fledged reign of terror using sheer violence to create respect for authority.” Though this year may not carry much significance for others, it was a year that marked a significant shift in Haiti’s political climate. In 1957, Papa Doc or Francois Duvalier was elected president of Haiti. The Duvalier reign is one of the most infamous regimes the country has seen. Though he ran on a campaign that was not only backed by the Eisenhower administration, but also stressed democracy, honesty and waging a war against poverty – his legacy was the antithesis of that. Once Duvalier was elected, he quickly named himself president for life, dismantled the national army, developed a civilian security force composed of his supporters and engaged in a political purge campaign aimed at dismantling any institution that represented a threat to his political security. His political purge threatened and demolished the army, the commercial sector, the church/clergy, mass media, the education system, labor unions as well as democratic institutions like government and administration. During the course of his reign, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were disappeared, murdered or imprisoned extra-judiciously.
As I spoke with my father more, I realized how growing up under a dictatorship where censorship, political intimidation and corruption were rampant, impacted my father’s perceptions of authority, politics and thus parenting. In order to dig deeper into these relationships, I continued the interview by asking my dad about his home life, his mesosystem. His father was absent, similar to many Black youths. He lived with his grandmother and maternal uncle after his mother left Haiti to come to the United States. His gran’s name was Etienice Étienne, “a beautiful lady, she always wanted everything to be exactly her way otherwise you’d pay the consequence.” Though I knew what this meant, I pushed my dad to unpack this euphemism to which he responded, “if you don’t wanna get whip up, especially my grandma, when she whip you up, she was like a man so, therefore, you don’t play games.” As my dad spoke, I thought about how his ideas of discipline were informed by the political climate of the Duvalier regime as well as the violent authoritarian interpretations of parenting. As I reflected on my experiences of corporal punishment and discipline, I felt my heart soften for my father. I’d spent years wondering how he could discipline his princess so harshly and this new context helped me to identify a thread of generational harm and history. I’d always compared his parenting against white American upper-class norms, when instead I should’ve seen it in the context of the only authoritarians and disciplinarians he’d ever known. How could he learn to be the father (projected in my consciousness through Western media) without experiencing connection to neither his paternal history nor American conceptions of male parenting?
Throughout the interview, discipline came up as a recurring theme. The next time he talked about discipline was when we talked about his early childhood education. Though many describe Haiti as having limited education opportunities, my dad says the schools were not inferior but rather conceptualized differently. He said with the knowledge he gained in primary and secondary school, he could’ve had a college degree in America, but America didn’t recognize the legitimacy of my father’s mastery. The schools were very tough though he says they’ve changed tremendously over the last 30 years. He said his teachers were invested in him because they didn’t see him as a student but rather as one of their own children. This meant that “whatever [he] did wrong in the school, they could do the same thing, whip [him], the same as they would do with their child.” He continued by saying that if he tried to respond to any social/educational indictments, he would be doubly punished so whether he “liked it or not”, he would be quiet. This juxtaposition of silence, disembodiment and violence was a recurring pattern in the interview as well as in his parenting. Though corporal punishment in schools is not a reality for most Americans, my dad said if he could say anything to those teachers, it’d be “thank you to all my teachers because they were wonderful, for discipline and school work – they don’t play games and I love them.”
After being in this country for 30 plus years, my dad recognized his stance as being anomalous to contemporary ideas of child rearing and youth education, so he addressed it by saying: “It’s when I came here, I saw the difference and I saw the meaning of what they used to do to me. I thought that was child abuse but when I came here, and I see, no, and I really appreciated them.” I’d never heard my dad utter the words “child abuse” so it was a shock to see how he made sense of corporal punishment. I could tell his stance was mixed because he’d experienced feeling unjustly punished for childhood curiosities without the opportunity to speak on his own behalf. However, once he came to America and experienced American cultural norms, especially media’s criminalization of the Black male image, he understood that disciplinary practices rooted in respectability politics were meant to lift him to excellence as a means of protecting him from the world’s unfavorable gaze.
Another theme that emerges here is the importance of community and a unique collective Haitian identity. Not only were the teachers a source of community and stability for my father, but he also comments on the value of neighbors and community members. Though his father was absent and his mother was in America during his formative years (from age 7 to 17), he was not alone. He said “when you live in a neighborhood, you have to think of your neighbors as your second family – growing up all the kids had to, no matter what it is, respect them – otherwise they will give you a “good treatment” and you won’t like it.” Suddenly, my dad gallivanting through Queens made so much more sense. Every holiday, especially on Haitian Independence Day, my dad would fill china bowls with soup joumou or bouillon and hand deliver them to our neighbors. It wasn’t uncommon for my dad to collect shopping periodicals to give to coupons to elderly Haitian couples in the neighborhood. Since community played a vital role in my father’s development, he unabashedly and relentlessly is a champion in his community as a neighbor, friend, honorary “son” and clergy member.
As I asked more questions, my heart continued to soften for my papi, my king, my Jacques. I knew so much more about him and I loved him for it. I was so thankful that I had time to have my dad tell his story without judgement. It was great to elevate my dad to the status of expert and allow him to guide me through a history that’d been absent from my consciousness. I was extraordinarily grateful for his presence and willingness unpack intimate moments of his life for my personal edification. It opened up so much room for me to love him, forgive him and continue to forge a beautiful life together characterized by an overwhelming and overflowing desire to love, honor and respect one another. Our reconciliation and his history were the keys to our liberation. I thank God for my King, my origins and my heritage. I pray for my dad’s longevity and many future conversations.