Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sad for Hispaniola

Something makes me sad this morning.

I'm researching our family origins. We are one of the few multi-generational black families in America that can actually pinpoint a place outside the United States as our origin. Many generations and more than a century ago, our foremother was taken from the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti/Dominican Republic) and brought to New Orleans, LA. The descendants of this woman are of the colorful and vibrant Creole culture. Our ancestors included wealthy Creole women and French men who lived, worked, and prospered on the French Quarter during the famed New Orleans ante-bellum heyday. The three-tier, decidedly French society, included my family, the Guyols, gens de coeuler libre, or "free people of color." Their world was one of refinement, social graces, balls, cotillions, servants, and education. Their wealth came from sugar plantations back on the islands, real estate, and business holdings in the states. As was the custom in creole society, the women were property owners and our female ancestors had homes on the French Quarter. The men were educated, the women were educated and taught to be ladies, the custom of the pre-Civil War 1800s. They were society. They spoke French.

The rich culture of my family,now 6 and 7 generations from our foremother, gives me great joy. We are a deeply spiritual and connected family. This one foremother spawned generations that number in the hundreds. These beautiful people range in hue from creamy vanilla to deep cocoa. The numbers include those with businesses, multiple degrees, and positions of power and influence. While not all members are Catholic, the Catholic church is a great influence in the lives of the Guyol offspring. There are priests, deacons, and Eucharist ministers among our number. Deeply spiritual and committed people share my heritage.

Yet this is not what makes me sad today.

I visited a site about Haiti. We can trace our heritage to Hispaniola and are sorting through the details to determine if our ancestor came from the Dominican Republic side or the Haitian side. We have learned that she was wealthy and the family owned sugar plantations. Haiti in the mid-1700s was French dominated and formerly Saint Domingue. It split from The Dominican Republic during the time of Napoleon and a slave revolt that won independence in 1804. Haiti was the center of commerce and culture at the time with the Dominican side being less developed, mostly supplying labor for the sugar plantations. Then something shifted.

The Haitian side is primarily French-speaking ruling or wealthy class along with the poorer majority Creole-speaking class. There is no middle class and no chance to move from ultra poor to rich. There is entrenched civil unrest and corruption right alongside the beautiful sky, lush mountains, and joyous people. The small eastern side of the island that is the Republic of Haiti is beyond poor, it is poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. There aren't any tourist destinations or lush sandy beaches to draw snow-birds like the neighboring Dominican Republic.

The Dominican side is primarily Spanish speaking. There is rich tourism, lush beaches, airports, and many reasons to visit. The black people identify as Spanish and many deny their shared African heritage with their Haitian neighbors. In reality, they descended from one people, a captured people from the shores of West Africa and brought to the West Indies during the Spanish and French slave trades. The ghosts of the 1700s rings out from the mountains of both places, yet when the French overtook the Spanish in gaining control of the island,the Spanish side retreated into itself and refused any connection with the French side. The result has been devastating on Haiti since 1804.

It makes me sad, it makes me wonder what happened. Was it the voodou religion? The deep adherence to centuries-old practices that keep people ill and dying? Is it the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has ravaged the island? Is it the elimination of the middle class and the deep divides that make Creole, the language of the people, seen as an inferior language? Is it the wealthy, lighter skinned, French-speaking, educated Haitians that oppress their own brothers? What is it? Why is this beautiful island ravaged with soil erosion and filth in the water, trees cut down for warmth, huts next to mansions?

I am saddened as I research this island more and more. What can I do? How can I make these beautiful people remember their proud heritage and will to live that made them the first black republic? How can I get them to stop destroying their infrastructure and begin to grow their trees that will help clean their water? How can I influence the ruling class to destroy the walls of civil discord and help their brother? Is the history too entrenched to change? It has to change in order to survive.

It makes me sad but hopeful.

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