#ShamelesslyHaitian by Raygine C. DiAquoi | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

NewBlackMan (in Exile)

The Digital Home for Duke University Professor and Left of Black host Mark Anthony Neal


On this day, whenever I walk out of the house, my grandmother reminds me that my ancestors are walking with me.

Toute moun, vin al regle afè Raygine. Ale avèk Raygine/Everyone, go and handle Raygine’s affairs. Go with Raygine.

She always recites these words as I unlock the door to go outside. I imagine my most immediate ancestors forming a protective phalanx around me, accompanied by many ancestors whose names I will never know. They’ve been leaving the house with me for as long as I can remember. I imagine that they walk with me in my journey through graduate school even though I am far from my home in Flatbush, Haiti.

Every time I left the house my grandmother let me know that I was well equipped to overcome any battle that I might encounter outside of our home. She was reminding me that I was her little warrior, the descendant of warriors, and that my ancestors were always around, intervening when necessary. They would help me in all of my battles. She armed me with a sense of connectedness and continuity, locating me within a past that is ever-present. She was making sure that I was familiar with Zansèt yo/The Ancestors, making sure that I would never disremember them.

Haitian culture is a culture of remembering. Haitians celebrate their Independence Day on the first of January and the Day of the Ancestors on the second. After spending a day celebrating its bright and promising future, a newly independent Haiti devoted a day to remembering the sacrifices of foremothers and forefathers. In my family, we continue to do the same. The entire first day of the January is infused with a sense of triumph and victory and the smell of soup Joumou.

The feeling of pride continues into the second day but is tempered by the call to think of those who have come before us, who have sacrificed so that we could have this present moment. For Haitians the idea of revolution, of progress, of change is intricately intertwined with the past and the ancestors. All endeavors that we undertake occur under the gaze and with the aid of our ancestors.  The past is always present. This is apparent in the Desalinyèn, Haiti’s national anthem.

Every January 1st, parts of the Haitian national anthem envelop my parents’ home, weaving in and out of boisterous telephone conversations, seasoning our pumpkin soup, and blaring from the kitchen radio that picks up Haitian radio stations.

Pou Ayiti ak pou Zansèt yo

For Haiti and for the Ancestors
Fo nou kapab vanyan gason

We must be able, valiant men
Moun pa fèt pou ret avèk moun

Men are not born to serve other men
Se sa-k fè tout Manman ak tout Papa

That is why all mothers and all fathers
Dwe pou voye Timoun lekòl

Must send their child to school
Pou yo aprann, pou yo konnen

so they learn, so they know

What Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe, Petion
Te fè pou wet Ayisyen anba bòt blan.

Did to remove Haitians from under white people’s boots.

The anthem repeatedly invokes the ancestors, reminding Haitians to honor and revere them. However, this stanza speaks specifically to the importance of teaching children about the deeds of those who came before them. Specifically, Haitian parents are charged with making sure that their children get an education that will teach them about what their ancestors have done for them. My parents have been relentless about making sure that I know whom I have been, who I am and who I will become.

Through stories, poetry, songs, prayer and artifacts, my family created a syllabus for remembering. As a child my mother fed me stories about the importance of African indigenous knowledge, in the case of Bwa Kayiman, to the Haitian revolution, and poems that placed Haiti’s achievements against the backdrop of Africa’s many firsts. One of the songs that my grandmother taught me had this repeating refrain, which referenced both a hatred of the French and a removal of the color white from the French flag to create the Haitian flag: Desalin pa vle wè blan/ Desalin wants nothing to do with the white man.

However, for my grandmother it wasn’t just about songs, stories and poems. My grandmother lives in a constant state of remembrance. The words that she would recite as I left the house, the prayers that she made to her mother and father to protect our family, and the dreams that she interprets for us at the kitchen table or over the phone are glimpses of the constant state of being which allows her to live simultaneously in the past as well as the present. These practices were lessons in survival and strength. There was an understanding that I needed these lessons to thrive, to fully understand my place in a world that would relegate me to the margins.

I recognize these practices to be a part of a diasporic indigenous ontology, particular to Haitians who have a penchant for speaking about Dessalines and Toussaint as if they just saw the two men on the platform at the 2/5 Church Avenue train station. My sister and I do this too. We talk about “our man Dessalines” and how “that cat was really not trying to hear anything about slavery”. It is a way of being, particular and native to peoples who live and are at home in the diaspora, people for whom the diaspora has become a place of permanent residence.

This way of being, which is apparent in many facets of Haitian culture, is remarkable considering the fact that the victories of the first black republic are something that history likes to forget. This constant remembering is an act of resistance, a way of ensuring the longevity of a people and their strength in world that wishes that they did not exist, a world that refuses to see them, a world bent on diminishing and distorting their history.

Today I remember Edmé Azaël Henriette Jeanty Delpé Jeanty, Lonpré Jeanty, Lucrèsse Azaël, Marcel Azaël, Antonine Azaël, Mona Brifil, Marie-Marthe Azaël, Marco Jeanty, Ulrique Jeanty, Bosier Jeanty, Hypolite Jeanty, Jiocher Jeanty, Richard Jeanty, Loulouse Jeanty, Inez Jeanty, Diaquoi ainé (present at the signing of the Act of Independence), Zabelite Théophile, Paulimuce S. DiAquoi, Felicia Dubois, Feaux Théophile, Jacqueline Théophile, Bathelmy Théophile, Malgrey Théophile, Cill Théophile, Coléstine Théophile.

Toute moun, vin al regle afè Raygine. Ale avèk Raygine/Everyone, go and handle Raygine’s affairs. Go with Raygine.




Raygine C. DiAquoi  Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences Assistant Dean, Office of Diversity, Culture, and Inclusion at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Source: #ShamelesslyHaitian by Raygine C. DiAquoi | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

The Traumatic Return of Michael Moses Ward

The Traumatic Return of Michael Moses Ward
My wife and I will go see Let the Fire Burn this evening, the only time theaters in or near Ann Arbor are scheduled to show this acclaimed documentary about the disputatious back-to-Nature group, MOVE. Oddly, although I am very interested in seeing the film, directed by George Washington University professor Jason Osder, because it occurred just prior to this film’s limited national release and because the reviewers mention it only parenthetically, I am just as curious about the September 20th death of one of the film’s central figures, Michael Moses Ward, a truck driver and part-time barber who survived of the massive fire of May 13, 1985 that ignited when a bomb was dropped by the Philadelphia police on the roof of MOVE’s row house.  While the autopsy performed on his body has not yet been released, I can’t shake the feeling that the 41 year old man’s death was another tragic result of the 40 year battle between MOVE and my native city.   At the very least, the unhappy irony that Ward, who was taught as a child that modern technology and life were physically and spiritually pernicious, died on vacation aboard the Carnival Dream, a cruise ship that is a floating signifier of lavish modern excess, is indisputable.
Christened “Birdie Africa” as a toddler soon after his mother joined MOVE, Ward was separated from the group permanently when the world he knew was destroyed.  After enduring hours of sustained terror as tear gas, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, a small pond’s quantity of water, bomb blasts, and the threatening pronouncements of a police commissioner claiming to represent America, the dazed, ravenous 13 year old Birdie was burned severely as he escaped the group’s blazing home.  He then nearly drowned in a large puddle of water that had been discharged from fire hoses whose emissions failed to dislodge either the group or its rooftop bunker.  (At dusk, the police and fire commissioners decided against using these hoses to extinguish the fire while it was eminently manageable, hoping it would destroy the bunker that afforded MOVE a tactical advantage over the heavily armed police force.  This horrendous mistake, along with the menacing presence of police whom the home’s residents had every reason to distrust, helped to cause the deaths of eleven MOVE members, including Birdie’s mother, and the destruction of sixty one houses owned by black working class neighbors whose rights the city was endeavoring to protest against MOVE’s escalating acts of verbal and physical harassment.)
After Birdie’s escape – and despite the terror he experienced during the siege as well as the deaths of his mother and other people whom he loved, he insisted he was grateful that the fire had freed him from MOVE’s tyranny – he pursued a mainstream American life as Michael Moses Ward, a life that included bicycles, television, video games, football, marriage, parenthood, divorce, military service, and, in his last days, a family vacation aboard the ornate technological marvel, the Carnival Dream.  Still, his traumatic past intervened with regularity: nightmares of being trapped in a house engulfed by flames; scars imprinted upon his flesh that no surgery could wholly erase; an abiding fear that he would be harmed by or forced to rejoin MOVE; memories of abuse so distressing that he refused to detail its precise nature except to his father, whose earlier efforts to liberate him ended when members of the group threatened to kill Birdie if he persisted; and, judging from widely distributed photographs of his somber visage, painfully uncomfortable interviews with local and national media that sought his input for stories marking major anniversaries of the bombing.

My distress at the news of his passing is heightened, perhaps, by my regret for deciding against discussing Ward in the brief examination of MOVE that appears inPhiladelphia Freedoms, a new book that explores traumatic black American experiences in the post-civil rights era. Curious to consider what I might have written, I reread newspaper articles and books on MOVE, along with digesting from the first time the Special Investigation Commission’s Report on the bombing.  Despite my thorough investigation, I’m still unsure that examining the child survivor would have proven a better choice than discussing, as I did, the still-traumatized city’s first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode, who, on the 25th anniversary of the bombing, assumes responsibility for the highly destructive raid while absolving himself of responsibility in the same breath.
In the Report’s Foreword, its chair, William H. Brown III, insists that “the process of the work of the Commission and its involvement with the public was absolutely necessary if Philadelphians are to work through their collective pain of May 13th.  It is necessary if our community is to heal the scars that remain from the tragedy that occurred on Osage Avenue” (272).  Brown’s concern with communal healing is echoed in an addendum where, in the section entitled “The Blood of Children,” Commission member Charles Bowser argues that “at the heart of this tragedy is the indelible stain made by the blood of innocent children,” a stain that “also marks the lives of every person who accepted a role in their death from the highest office to the Osage asphalt street.”  The city officials whom Bowser criticizes include Goode, its police and fire commissioners, and its head of Health and Human Services (who was a third cousin of mine), all of whom displayed “a wanton and callous disregard for the lives and the safety of the children” affiliated with MOVE.
Taken together, these acts of atonement implore us to recommit ourselves to fulfilling civil responsibilities by attempting to: 1), make sense of the MOVE bombing, an unparalleled example of the sometimes-destructive clash between our ideals and our sometimes-irrepressible human frailties; 2), attend to its traumatic effects on survivors such as Ward and millions of others; and 3), approach local and national tragedies in general in a manner that ultimately enhances our efforts – in the nation’s First City and elsewhere – to achieve the American ideal of e pluribus Unum.   The pain Ward suffered and the obstacles he sought to overcome obligate us to consider the entirety of his life along with the circumstances of his death.
By all accounts, Let the Fire Burn compels its viewers to look closely at the complex causes of the MOVE bombing.  Unfortunately, however, in his published comments about Ward’s death, Osder speaks only about his role as a survivor of the MOVE siege. “In a strange way,” Osder claims, this death “has reminded us of the nature of the event itself: it’s tragic that he died young, but it serves as a reminder of the other five children that didn’t even live to age 41.”  I feel strongly that we owe it to the young man who suffered through outrages not of his own making to assess his life in broader terms than the filmmaker does in assessing the possible meanings of Ward’s death.  But no matter how strong my compunction to do so, the best I can muster is a list of what are, for me, provocative questions for which I have no confirmable answers.
How difficult was it for the former Birdie, while in the midst of working to remake his life, to rehash aspects of his troubled life and to offer psychological progress reports on each occasion reporters deemed important?   Had he fully embraced all aspects of modernity, a condition that John Africa taught his followers was evil and wholly destructive?  How anguished might he have been as he vacationed on the Carnival Dream, knowing that, because of the acclaim earned by Osder’s documentary, upon his return to suburban Philadelphia, he would be asked to undergo yet another round of public scrutiny of the damage that had been done to him and of the current state of his wounds?   Could he have appeared, as his father describes, to have “put the past behind him,” to be “doing well” and “very joyful” as he swam “with the dolphins” during a family vacation on the Carnival Dream, a floating symbol of modern excess, yet remained inescapably within the throes of childhood trauma?  How disconcerting might it have been for him to know that the videotaped testimony of his former self and identity, the 13 year old Birdie Africa who, according to a film reviewer for The Nation, “seems more like a shy 6-year-old in the deposition, answering the gently coaxing interrogator so guilelessly that you adopt his viewpoint as the simple truth,”was used as a crucial narrative device in Let the Fire Burn?  How fearful might he have been if and when he learned that, in this documentary, “the people, places and things on-screen seem uncommonly immediate,” that no significant effort was made by the filmmaker “to distance the images, which come before you with the air of something irreducible, as if they were not representations of the past but solid pieces of it”?
Even as he admits to being baffled about how his “extremely fit” son, a “41-year old man with the body of a 17-year old” who “worked out every day and was very particular about what he put in his body,” had died on the final day of their vacation, Andino Ward expresses profound gratitude for having had the privilege of nurturing the son to whom MOVE had denied him access.  His equally grateful son spent the last 27 years of his life recreating himself as someone whose identity was no longer subsumed by MOVE, efforts which, like all attempts to overcome trauma, seemed daunting, halting, and likely not wholly successful.  (It is impossible to read of the fastidiousness of Ward’s diet and exercise regime without surmising that they were healthy responses to the perverse extremes of MOVE practices.)  As he insisted during the Commission hearings and in newspaper interviews, though he continued to have terrible nightmares about his past victimization and found it difficult to trust people, he was committed, with his father’s help, to overcoming both his life with MOVE and a day of unimaginable terror when Philadelphia used what its mayor acknowledged was “any means necessary” to evict the city’s most disruptive residents.
It takes roughly 6 weeks for toxicology reports to be completed, so we still do not know the general condition of Ward’s internal organs and the precise cause of his death.  However, the other survivor of the Philadelphia fire, the still-active spokesperson, Ramona Africa, is sure that he died because he’d been separated from MOVE and was immersed in the corrupt modern world against which the group’s leader had warned his followers: “if he was still with MOVE and hadn’t been snatched from MOVE, he would not have drowned on no cruise ship. We don’t go on cruise ships. It just shows you how protective MOVE’s belief is. John Africa taught us that it is dangerous to be out in a body of water like that.”
Unlike Ramona Africa, I cannot pretend to know why the young man she knew as Birdie died. (Given what I’ve learned of MOVE’s violent treatment of members who rejected or expressed serious doubts about its teachings, however, I am skeptical of her claim that MOVE would have been “protective” of Ward had he been left alone with its embittered members either as a child “snatched” away by Philadelphia authorities or as a thoroughly modern adult.)  I suspect, however, that on the eve of his return to Philadelphia, his presence on the Carnival Dream felt disharmonious with “MOVE belief” he imbibed until he was on the eve of adolescence that, like the benefits of careful diet and strenuous daily exercise, continued to shape aspects of his being.  Unlike Osder, I feel strongly that, in his death, we must honor his efforts to transcend his MOVE origins and his status as a (perhaps guilt-filled) child survivor.  I want – and, in a not fully rational way, need – Ward’s post-MOVE life, his hard-fought battles for normalcy and psychic peace, his triumphs, large and small, and his painfully inevitable setbacks, to matter.
Saved from drowning by a white policeman who refused to see the malnourished boy as a terroristic combatant, nurtured back to health by a father who encouraged him to rename himself, Ward made choices as an adult – to join the military to defend values that John Africa et al despised; to drive products along the East Coast, perhaps as a curative to a claustrophobic childhood existence; to cut others’ hair to keep it from forming into dreadlocks that MOVE members believed properly symbolized their antagonistically natural lifestyle; and to exalt publicly in the fact, because of the otherwise lethal fire, he “got out” – that fly boldly in the face of the precepts of the group that, long before the siege, he wanted desperately to escape.  I doubt, however, that he ever completely threw off the effects of his childhood existence in that long-incinerated MOVE home in which he had been trapped both by his putative family and, finally, by representatives of the city of Philadelphia.
Our sporadic attempts to revisit moments of collective trauma that might otherwise be misunderstood or unremembered kept pulling Ward figuratively back into a burning house of horrors.  We need newspaper articles, Action News reports, and widescreen spectacles to link our present circumstances to the nightmarish pain that Ward recalled too clearly.  But, unlike the rest of us, Ward desperately needed to block those fiery images, to silence blood-curdling screams we could only imagine – to overcome that fateful day – in order to live a productive life.  The edification, morality, and civil responsibility of the rest of us require that we have access in perpetuity to images of him escaping the Osage Avenue inferno.  No matter what the autopsy concludes, because our collective needs and Ward’s needs diverged so dramatically, I suspect that, aboard the Carnival Dream, his return to Philadelphia, to his starring role as Birdie Africa, might have seemed unbearable.

Michael Awkward, Gayl A. Jones Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan, is the author, most recently, of Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat and Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity. Professor Awkward’s latest book, Philadelphia Freedoms: Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture after King, was published by Temple University Press in October.