I was born during a hurricane, I am told, in Gonaïves, capital of the Artibonite department, Haiti. The small house my parents were renting was built in the Gingerbread style, its flexible timber frame made to withstand tremors and storms, its fanciful wooden lattices meant to please the eye.
A strategic port, Gonaïves was among the first theaters of revolutionary combat in the 13-year fight by enslaved and free people to wrest their independence from France. The Haitian Declaration of Independence was proclaimed here on January 1,1804, making it the cradle of independence for a nation explicitly anti-Colonial and constitutionally antislavery.
The weather in Gonaïves and Boston could not be more different. My family made its way to Boston in the 1970s, during a long climate event I will call “the hail of stones and slurs.” The Boston busing crisis, now chronicled as a case of school desegregation gone terribly wrong, was in full blaze. We were greeted by this phenomenon as well as Boston’s racism and de facto segregation.
We were received more warmly by the Haitians who had preceded us to Boston. Later, we welcomed those who followed: friends, colleagues, acquaintances arriving in thin clothes meant for warmer climes, just as we had. Some would live with us — for a month, two months, five, a year even — in the three-bedroom Cape-style house my parents bought in Mattapan. We too had lived with friends upon landing in the States, first in New York and then in Boston.
The roughly 70 Haitian families in the Boston area at the time of our arrival were already linked. Most of us were part of the 1960s and 1970s migration by young professionals to work in Francophone Africa for UNESCO, often in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We had first escaped the repressive Duvalier regime, only to find ourselves under yet another US-backed dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Boston, our new home, contained no such dictators, yet we quickly understood the proposed limits and informal surveillance of our movements. My brothers and I were enrolled in St. Angela’s Catholic primary school in Mattapan, where we mostly felt safe. Portions of Dorchester and Roxbury were safe zones of after-school circulation, including to the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts for classes. Savin Hill — now a perfectly reasonable place to amble and admire New England architecture — then carried the moniker “Stab and Kill,” a not-subtle reminder that one might take one’s Black life in one’s hands when venturing too near its borders. Other parts of Dorchester, where I now live, were also out of bounds. South Boston, of course, everyone knew about. Many of Boston’s suburbs were off-limits. There was no book titled Places Where Black People Should Not Go in Greater Boston. But there was redlining. There were anecdotes. There were scars. There were house fires.
When an incendiary device was thrown into the yard of the Sylvestre family’s Dorchester Victorian, everyone in the Haitian community knew what had happened. White neighbors had made their hostility clear the day the Sylvestres moved in, shattering most of the house’s windows with stones. Another time it was bricks, thrown by youths chanting “white power” and yelling racial slurs early in the morning.
Such incidents were revealed around Haitian kitchen tables, and discussed at Sunday gatherings among friends and family in my childhood living room, gatherings which included heated political debates, as is the Haitian way, that took on Pan-Africanism, a liberated Haiti, the US civil rights movement, Black Power, Latin American nationalism, and the way the winds of the world were blowing.
To weather the squalls of US racism, relocation, and culture shock, Haitians banded together. To celebrate our joys and lives; the communions, graduations, and weddings of children; to properly send off the departed and honor the ancestors; to celebrate Haitian Flag Day every May 18 (in the early years, a stomp by children and adults around what is now Harambee Park in Dorchester), Haitians banded together. To rest and find succor in cultural norms grounded in Black humanity and agency, Haitians banded together — creating crucial social-service networks, along with vibrant civic and arts organizations in the Boston of the ’70s and ’80s.
Boston Haitians also partnered with other Black immigrants, and with Black Americans (in French, Noirs Américains; in Haitian Creole, Ameriken Nwa) despite differences across groups. Haitians benefitted from Black American knowledge, organizations, and institutions; longstanding Black Bostonians likewise benefited from Haitian and Caribbean alliances, knowledge, and reach. Young Haitians became Haitian-Americans, and identified easily as both Haitian and Black American.
Attuned to the local, Boston Haitians nonetheless remained committed to friends and family in other parts of the Haitian diaspora — and especially to those in Haiti, where political dissent to the Duvalier government was brutally silenced until the fall of the regime in 1986. Boston’s first Haitian newspaper and radio programs functioned as vocal outlets of opposition. The power of Haitian radio, in Boston and across the diaspora, lies in its connective power and reach — along with its accessibility, especially when literacy can’t be taken for granted. To listen to Boston Haitian radio is to be educated on issues from the commercial and cultural, to the religious and the political — with the consistent critique of imperial interference and corruption, and the call for transformed Haitian institutions.
In addition to radio’s sway, Haitian theater groups and artists in Boston created and presented works within the Haitian engagé tradition, with political dimensions enhanced by honed aesthetics. There were many evenings my brothers and I sat as youngsters in The Strand Theatre or the Lee School auditorium watching Haitian revolutionary and historic events recreated by members of the theater group Haiti Culturelle. My father, architect by day, artist by weekend, painted the backdrops of lush Haitian landscapes against which the actors, himself included, performed.
No one in the community can forget the ’70s and ’80s balls of the Alliance Feminine de Boston. Held in rented and beautifully decorated spots like Florian Hall in Dorchester or the old Skycap Lounge in Grove Hall, these events were organized by proper Haitian ladies, my mother among them, who on the evening of such affairs were transformed (from teachers and factory workers, scientists, nurses, CNAs, and accountants) into brown angels in floor-length white or pink gowns over platform heels, faces powdered. Their cavaliers: husbands and boyfriends, and just friends who put out of their minds chache lavi, the daily grind, to ask the ladies for dances, these fine men dressed in impeccable dark suits and the latest, wide-collared fashions. The music would sometimes come from Volo Volo, the internationally famed Haitian band hatched in Boston, hired by the ladies to bring the heat to the cold of Boston winters.
In the four decades since I arrived, Boston has calmed. Enormous demographic and political change disallows the kind of overt racism the pioneer group of Haitians and Black Bostonians in general encountered. My Haitian community, too, has changed and been broadened by several waves of immigration — and by the children and grandchildren of those first immigrants who have made the US, American Blackness, and Boston Blackness their homes.