A Summer with My Father in Haiti
Mary Antonine (Ti Toto)
It is a great privilege to be invited to write the foreword of a book. I feel honored and humbled by Mary Gaetjens’s request to do so for Anse-à-Vodou: A summer with my father in Haiti, the fruit of her many years of passionate dedication, compassionate vision, and tireless study and research.
My wife Nancy and I had the pleasure of meeting Mary in the mid 1980s, while she was in college in Philadelphia, when our dear and regrettably lost friend, her father, Gérard, to whom the book is dedicated, came to our home especially to introduce her. A most affectionate friendship resulted from that introduction, and since then, Mary and our family have remained close. We also vividly remember her visit a few years later to present her future husband, Paul. Since their move to California, we have constantly remained in touch.
I knew Gérard Gaetjens as well as several other members of the family, particularly his brothers Joe and Jean, since the 1950s, when all of us were alive and happy in Haiti. Sadly enough, murderous Haitian dictators were responsible for the untimely death of Gérard and Joe, and the forced exile of Jean. In the book, Mary places her father’s departure from Haiti in 1964. Before coming to the United States and settling in Boston, he spent some time in the Dominican Republic. When he relocated to New York, we became involved with several Haitian militant opposition groups fighting to free Haiti. We also shared a deep interest in Haiti’s history and culture, particularly our native African religious heritage, Haitian Vodou. Upon Gérard’s return to Haiti in 1986 after the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier, he remained active in the struggle for freedom in Haiti until his assassination on August 29, 1990, by cowardly death squads of a neo-Duvalierist movement.
Jean, Gérard’s younger brother, also became a close friend of mine. As a naval officer in Haiti in the mid 1950s, I was a member of an examination committee that selected him from among several other candidates as beneficiary of a scholarship to study at Cuba’s Naval Academy. In addition to his meritorious scholarly distinction, Jean proved that he was also a proud patriot ready to sacrifice a promising career to defend the honor of his country. While he was a cadet at the Academia Naval de Cuba, agents of President Fulgencio Batista violated the Embassy of Haiti in order to kidnap some Cuban citizens who had taken refuge there. In protest against that vile insult to his country, Jean immediately surrendered his uniform to the Academia Naval and returned to Haiti. This noble and patriotic gesture led to Haitian President Paul Eugène Magloire’s decision to award to him the diploma and commission ofaiti Enseigne de Vaisseau (Lieutenant). Jean stayed for several years as an officer of the Garde-Côtes d’Haïti (Haitian Coast Guard), but after President Magloire’s departure and the fraudulent elections of 1957, he refused to serve François Duvalier and promptly left the country. A very smart decision indeed; otherwise, he would have surely been assassinated. While in exile, Jean was continuously active in the fight against the dictatorship.
Gérard’s older brother Joe Gaetjens is the world-famous soccer player who gave the United States its phenomenal World Cup victory against England on June 29, 1950. People in the United States, Haiti, and the whole world celebrated his triumph. Joe’s son Lesly writes about that memorable event: “Out of nowhere apparently, my father came and went head first and hit the ball hard enough to change its direction – so the goalie from the England team was going one way and the ball went the other way.”
Although not involved in politics or opposition movements, Joe, a national and international celebrity, was cravenly murdered by François Duvalier himself. Mary describes the climate that prevailed in Haiti in those times and the circumstances that accompanied Joe’s death: “Duvalier’s Tonton Makout … disappeared many tens of thousands of people…. Gérard’s brother Joe was one of them, a statistic. No one wanted to face the rumors that he was dead, not yet. Joe had refused to flee Haiti even though their brother Jean was openly plotting against Duvalier in the Dominican Republic. When their youngest brother, Fred, returned from prison, swollen, broken, and covered in blood, and immediately left Haiti to join Jean, Joe still refused to go, saying his brothers’ plan had nothing to do with him. He refused Gérard’s desperate pleas to flee for his safety, believing that being a national hero dressed him in armor impermeable to politics.”
Although not born in Haiti, Mary has inherited from her father, her uncles, and the Gaetjens family a deep attachment and devotion to all matters Haitian. To her father, a scholar in his own right in the religious traditions and beliefs of the country, she owes her particular interest in Haitian Vodou. When I asked about her motivation to pursue research in the field, she answered that it was the inspiration and guidance he had provided.
Mary began research for her book in 1989 during her first visit to Haiti. She was determined to spend as much time as possible in various Lakou, among them one in Anse-à-Veau, the region whose name inspired the title of the book. She was there in the summer of 1989 during the festivities for Ogoun and spent time with the Gesner Saint Cyr family. She did not neglect to visit Souvnans, Soukri, and Badjo, the three most important and oldest Lakou of the country, all founded in the 1700s, before Haiti’s independence. At Souvnans she met the ///Lakou‘s sèvitè///I’m uneasy about changing GF’s words without asking him. ??///, I asked him, but I’m sure I’m right and he went off of what I wrote in the book. Ati Bien-Aimé; she returned during the 2013 festival time and stayed a week. She visited Soukri again in the summer of 2016, stayed a week, and had brief conversations with Aboudja, the Emperor of Soukri, and Dr. Grégoire Diiéguélé-Matsua, a Haitian ethnographer from Africa and now the principal manifestation of the lwa Zinga at Soukri. She went to Badjo outside of festival time in 1989, but she had the opportunity to greet the temple and salute the manbo. Mary’s studies in spirituality have led her on several other journeys, to Mexico, Brazil, India, Ireland, and most recently Colombia.
Mary showed the first draft of the book to her father in the summer of 1990. It was very different from today’s publication. She told me it was a young Western woman’s viewpoint of a culture from personal experience of Vodou ceremonies, and the feeling of homecoming she had with a lwa and a gede. He advised her to be more specific about what she had seen and explain it in more detail. In a personal note, Mary told me frankly that she did not like his advice but over the years she came to agree, and after his passing, which was crushing for her, she wrote intermittently, using writing as a healing modality to process his death.
Alongside works published by famous authors like Milo Marcelin, Louis Maximilien, Alfred Métraux, Jean Price-Mars, Milo Rigaud, and others, Anse-à-Vodou: A summer with my father in Haiti will contribute to the defense and illustration of our ancestral religion. It will help dispel the erroneous ideas held by some that Vodou is a cult involving malefic rituals, witchcraft, secret ceremonies, mysterious deaths, bloody sacrifices, and similar false descriptions often invented and exploited by dishonest writers in search of gaudy sensationalism.
Readers of Anse-à-Vodou will understand that Haitian Vodou is in part a religion which, like all others, has its beliefs, its pantheon of supernatural beings that includes one Supreme God, the Gran Mèt, under whom are placed divinities called lwa, gede, espri, zanj. It has its temples and clergy of houngan, manbo, hounsi, its congregation, rites, all the paraphernalia found in religions. Its goal is to honor its spiritual entities from whom the followers ask, to quote author Alfred Métraux, “what men have always asked of religion: remedy for ills, satisfaction for needs and the hope of survival”. A great proportion of the Haitian population lives in constant, though perhaps subconscious, anxiety. The rural population and urban proletariat have difficulty securing and holding land rights and are often victims of crop failures or natural disasters. They and their loved ones are subject to numerous devastating diseases with no hope for medical treatment, except that offered by the houngan, the manbo, or the doktè fèy, the herbalist.
Haitian Vodou is not only a religion, it is also tradition, family and social lifestyle, leisure, folklore, music, dance, theater, visual art, and more. Haitian writer Jacques Stephen Alexis calls it “l’âme du peuple”, the soul of the people. It provides its devotees with a unique and indispensable resource at their disposal to salvage their mental sanity, physical health and social happiness. Worship of the divinities offers recourse and relief, some feeling of control over their spiritual and physical environment.
Mary weaves her nascent understanding of Vodou into a compelling and heart-expanding narrative of Haitian history, family history, and her own spiritual development. Anse-à-Vodou: A summer with my father in Haiti is destined to become one of the great classics of Haitian Vodou’s religious and ethnographic literature, along with the exceptional artistic and esthetic character of its photographs.
Gérard Alphonse Férère, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Saint Joseph’s University, Author of Le Vodou Haïtien sans mystification
Lwa Dife – The Fire Goddess
– Ti Toto, July 1989
Vodou Ceremony, Anse-à-Veau, Haiti
The day she was born she was pushed to the edge.
She jumped, and rose on broken phoenix wings.
She lives in the space betwixt light so bright and dark so dark that both are blinding.
At night, the luminous tears of ten thousand ancestors wash over her, and she shines.
And she shines.
Her coal eyes have seen her people stolen, raped, skinned alive, and flayed open.
She has felt every blow.
She has wept every tear.
Her wail is a symphony in the space between breaths of sweet nectar and body numb agony.
She walks in the morning of her own sun fire.
We, her children, are her spark.
She is, was, and will be invoked and ignited again and again, forever.
Her love for us rests here, in the soft underbelly abyss of this moment.
Of this moment.
She would not be without we.
She is passion that strikes so hard we fall.
She is the espri that enters us like bolts of lighting.
She is the grandmother that held and rocked us.
She is the goddess we have prayed to through all the ages of time.
She is there, in each moment.
She is here now.
Europeans called Haiti the Pearl of the Antilles.
The name represents what they stole from her.
The real Pearl of the Antilles cannot be cut from its shell.
It is the cultural phenomenon known as Haitian Vodou.
Chapter 1: Growing Up Mixed
– Ti Toto, July 1975
Littleton, New Hampshire
We hum wet words to the river song. The wateriness slides over slippery rock feet. Cold aches and numbs and we feel alive. The water’s path breaks and meets itself again. Leaves glisten in sunlight and filter shade like hands opening and closing. Sun dances liquid blue diamond shine on the water. We are whisper quiet, listening to cascade melody, bird chorus, and leaf rustle drums. We are water, rocks, trees, and sunlight.
Then quiet shatters, happy goes. Hearts in throats, we frog leap up and fly, knees shaking, legs blood pumping. Venom spit hate screams “nigger, nigger!” Fat leech monsters come creeping, sneaking, sucking joy out of angel wing breeze, slaughtering summer. We run fast and those monster boys chase us all the way to the bottom of the hill. They never come up to the top where we live. We’re good runners, better than they are. They scream “nigger!” like they could kill her with a word, like they want to. Neither of us knows for sure that they can’t. My sister acts tough; she never cries in front of them. I always do. They call me a sissy and a nigger lover.
On summer days my sister sits by the big window in the living room waiting for the shadows to get long. She says it’s too hot to go out. It’s not true. She’s afraid to get darker. It’s better not to get too dark. She cries in her chair and thinks no one knows. But I do. I know because I see everything. I see her eyes glistening with wet and I know they’ll overflow. I know that tears will bead on her long black paintbrush lashes and she’ll disappear them with the fingertips of her left hand and squeeze the bottom of her nose. I know she won’t use a tissue because if she does someone might hear her blow her nose and know she was crying. When she isn’t wiping her eyes or her nose she holds the edges of the chair with her hands real tight. I ask her what she’s doing there, even though she knows I know. She always says “nothing”. She keeps looking out the window. Her feet don’t touch the ground. She swings them back and forth, her ankles crossed. Mouths lie. Eyes can’t lie. My sister’s eyes say, “Tell me I won’t have to do this forever, every summer.” My eyes say, “I can’t. I don’t know.” Our eyes tell the truth but she says nothing and I’m silent. Both nothing and silent are lies.
They never leave her alone, because of her dark skin. They try to scare me, but they don’t call me a nigger, because I’m a passer. I learned about passers in a movie called Imitation of Life. Passers are people with “black blood” who look white. Well, no one has black blood really, all human blood is red, but for some reason people say that someone has black blood if anyone in their family has relatives from Africa. In Imitation of Life, a white woman and her daughter, and a black woman and her daughter, live together. The black woman is a live-in maid. Her daughter passes for white and pretends she’s the white woman’s daughter. She has only white friends, just like my sister, only my sister has only white friends because no one else where we live is dark. The girl in the movie brings her white friends home when the white woman is away and pretends her mother is her maid. Her mother never says anything. When the girl’s white boyfriend finds out she has black blood he beats her up and leaves her in lying in the street, in the rain.
The family in the movie is kind of like my family. I look really white. I’m almost as white as my mother and I have blond hair and blue eyes like she does. When I say my father is black I get laughed at. No one believes my dark-skinned sister and I are sisters, or that my father is my father, even when my mother dresses us exactly the same, like we’re twins. My sister’s skin is even darker than my father’s, her eyes are brown and her hair is black. My father says his skin gets lighter as he grows older. My sister is like a brown-eyed Susan, a dark-centered flower in a yellow world. My mother wanted to name her Susan. My father wanted her name to sound more French so they spelled it Suzanne, and we call her Suzy.
Debby lives with us too. She moved in when I was three and Suzy was a baby. She’s like a really big sister or another mother. Her mother is our mother’s best friend. Debby’s mother wasn’t much interested in mothering, so my mother mothered Debby for her, and now Debby mothers Suzy and me.
At night, Walker, the leader of the fat leech monster boys, shapeshifts into a wolf and scares Suzy by looking through her window. She knows the wolf is Walker because he wears Walker’s baseball hat.
I saw the Walker wolf only once, and I haven’t seen other shapeshifters outside Suzy’s window, but I see ghosts and other things that no one else sees. Ghosts always want to hold my hand or talk to me or show me something. Monsters want to scare me because they think it’s funny, and fairies just want to make me laugh.
I don’t want anything to do with ghosts and monsters, but I can’t make them go away. They’re always there. They don’t knock on doors, they can go through walls, they can be anywhere, anytime. With ghosts, it’s not really their fault; most of them don’t know they’re dead.
When people die afraid, they don’t move through the worlds between this one and heaven. Their spirits get stuck in memories of their lives and they become ghosts. The worlds in between are like worlds in dreams. Ghosts dream all the time, even during the day, but they don’t know they’re dreaming. They keep dreaming the same dream until something changes and sometimes I’m that something that changes things. When they see me they realize I don’t belong in their dreams and it wakes them up. I want them to stop dreaming so they’ll go away. To stop dreaming they have to stop wanting to fix the bad things that happened in their lives. After they do that they can fly away into the light, like birds.
When I’m asleep we dream the same dreams, the ghosts and I, and that’s the worst because their dreams are always bad. When I dream with ghosts I wake up tired and cold even when it’s not winter. Ghosts are always so cold.
My mother taught us this prayer to keep ghosts, monsters, shapeshifters, and bad people from hurting us: I clothe myself in a robe of light made of the love and the power and the glory of God, not only for my own protection, but so that all those who come in contact with it will be drawn to God and healed.
The first time my sister and I ate dinner away from home the family told us they were going to pray before they ate. We looked at each other and braced ourselves. We thought something bad was about to happen, because we only prayed when ghosts, monsters, shapeshifters, and bad people were trying to get us.
My father says that everyone and everything has their very own zanj. Zanj means angel in Kreyòl. My angels make me feel happy in dreams. They take me to beautiful places and teach me how ghosts are different from fiends and devas and angels. The angels taught me that everything has a spirit, even every drop of water. Most of the spirits I’ve met are laughing, singing kaleidoscopes of everything. They’re wind that tickles tree leaves, silver shimmers in water, blue sparks in fire, and rainbow colors in flowers.
Sometimes my angels get very serious, like the time they taught me about fiends. Fiends act like ghosts but they really aren’t people that lived and died. They come when bad happens in the world and they like people to be afraid. If I get afraid of them it makes them bigger and stronger, and when that happens, they want to stay around me and never leave. They can get stronger just because I see them, so I have to ignore them and never look them in the eye. I have to be brave and pretend I don’t see them, and I have to pretend they don’t scare me and do a good job of pretending, and that’s hard. In dreams when I can’t find my angels I have nightmares.
On the front lawn of a church in town there’s a big white sign with black letters. It’s so shiny I can see my face in it. One day as my mother and I walk past, it says “Receive Ye The Holy Ghost”.
“What does receive mean?”
Maybe a Holy Ghost can come into my dreams and help me when I can’t find my angels, so I ask my mother if the Holy Ghost is a good ghost, like Casper the friendly ghost.
She laughs. “Probably so.”
“People are afraid of Casper even though he’s friendly, but I don’t think people are afraid of the Holy Ghost – otherwise they wouldn’t say it in the sign. Most of the time when grown-ups see Casper they get scared and run. But children play with him. They don’t care that he’s a ghost; they usually don’t even notice until a grown-up says so. Casper only wants friends. When something bad happens – which is always – Casper saves the day and then everyone loves him. I bet the Holy Ghost is like that.”
“Yes, the Holy Ghost seems to be a feeling of comfort for people, something that assures them they’ll be able to carry off whatever they get into.”
“That’s why I want one.”
She laughs again. “You think the church is giving out Holy Ghosts?”
“That’s what the sign says.”
“The Holy Ghost, not a Holy Ghost. There’s one. What makes you think she can fit you into her schedule?” She’s teasing me. I don’t like teasing, so I don’t want to talk to her anymore.
“Well, I’m going to get one.” I bite my lip and kick at pebbles.
“Okay, let me know how it goes.” She gives me the wrinkled-brow squinted-eyes look and keeps walking. I walk behind her.
My mother says she’s spiritual, not religious. She says if there is a God, religion isn’t the idea behind the force. My father says he’s a Vodouist, but we don’t really know what he means. Both my parents were raised Catholic. My parents don’t go to church, but my sister and I have been to Catholic church with aunts from both sides of our family.
The first time we went we got in line so the priest could feed us a candy on our tongue. Only it wasn’t really a candy and it didn’t taste good, so we spit it out. We got in trouble and after that we didn’t stand in line to have the priest put anything on our tongues, which was okay by us.
Then I went to church by myself so I could receive the Holy Ghost, only it seemed no one got onto her schedule. She must have canceled because she didn’t even come to church that day.
I went to all the churches in town. Everywhere I went people in fancy clothes read stories from a red book and told us what the stories meant. I never heard a story about ghosts. Still, I was sure if I went to enough churches I’d eventually meet her, and she could talk to the ghosts in my nightmares and make them go away.
I liked the Pentecostal Church best. People “got the spirit” in that church. They fainted, screamed, moaned, and shook, which was really fun to watch. I went there with Andrea, who wasn’t allowed to listen to music, watch TV or movies, or wear pants. She had to be home at 7 p.m. sharp every night for Bible study. After a while her family didn’t want me to come to church with them unless I followed the same rules, so I stopped going. My friend didn’t follow the rules either, except when she was at home, but her parents didn’t know that.
Only my family knew about my nightmares. My mom got mad when I said I got scared. I got scared anyway. One dream I had over and over. I’d be walking through a long tunnel lit by a light I couldn’t see. I’d run my hand along the wall feeling the cool wet of the glistening gray stone walls. I was always trying to find a way out because I knew that at some point I would see a little dead boy. He’d be there, in front of me, sitting up high on a ledge. He always wore the same clothes: gray knickers, white button-down shirt and black cap, little black socks and black shoes. He looked like the children I saw in old black-and-white family photographs. I knew he was dead, but he didn’t. Mostly when I saw him, he screamed. We both did. Eventually I had enough courage to talk to him and I asked him if he was lost and he said no, this is my house! – but it was my house! I didn’t want to talk about it. I ran. Finally in one dream I asked him how he died, and he disappeared, and there were no more tunnel dreams.
I think there were catacombs underneath the house where we lived. I think the little dead boy was buried there and that something bad had happened to him in our house, because at night I dreamed his bad dreams. His dead mother lived in my house. I only saw her when I was awake. She smelled like flowers and she was always crying. The little dead boy and his mother talked to me through my mind. That was the scariest thing about them. I would look at them and know something about them – something bad.
After a while I decided to go to the Unitarian Church because Mrs. Ivy taught Sacred Dance there. My sister and I walked to the church together for practice on Wednesdays and danced for the people who came to church on Sundays. We danced with other girls we liked. I lived for Sacred Dance. My favorite was the Saul dance. In the Saul dance six girls walk in three pairs with their hands crossed behind their backs and their heads lowered. They shuffle down the aisle of the church, which was carpeted the same color as the red book. I have my own red book now. Mrs. Ivy gave it to me. She said it’s called a Bible.
The girls shuffle because they’re pretending they have chains on their feet. When they get almost all the way past the pews Saul dances in front of them. I loved to play Saul! I got to cross my hands over my eyes like when Saul saw Jesus as a bright light and was blinded on the road to Damascus. There was really light too! It streamed through the tall windows and hit the aisle just right. I drop to my knees and Jesus (but really he’s another one of us girls) asks why I’m persecuting him. I don’t answer and then one of the girls blindfolds me and I stumble dance up the aisle and there’s a song playing called “All Good Gifts” from an album called Godspell and it goes:
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above
Thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love
I really wanna thank you, Lord!
Toward the end of the song I stop being blind and take off my blindfold and we all dance around so happy! We all liked to play Saul, so we had to take turns.
It was a long time before I upped the nerve to start asking people in the Unitarian Church about the Holy Ghost. Then I began to collect bits of information, like Nancy Drew. There was a Father, a Son, and a Holy Ghost. Jesus was the Son of the Father. The Father never lived and died, so he couldn’t be a ghost. He was just always there somehow. Jesus had lived and died, and rose from the dead, but he wasn’t a zombie. Jesus wasn’t a ghost either. He lived in heaven even though he wasn’t dead, so he must be like an angel. No one really knew who the Holy Ghost was. When I asked the pastor if he’d ever seen the Holy Ghost, he said no one ever saw the Holy Ghost or the Father, who was God, or the Son. They just felt them and believed they were always with them. Maybe my angels were there even when I didn’t see them.
One night I had a dream that I was in a church by myself. I was really, really scared. A warm hand touched my back. The warmth felt like it went all the way through my body and out through my heart. I ran. I ran out of the church as fast as I could. I never turned around to see what it was. I could still feel the heat of the hand on my back. The sun was shining in the churchyard and I lay face down on a grave. I pretended I felt the sun. Suddenly I felt sleepy and not as scared. I closed my eyes.
After I woke up I kept thinking about the warm hand on my back and wished I’d turned to see where it came from. Eventually I decided it was the Holy Ghost and I felt like I could ask her for help if I got scared, so now I’m more brave in dreams.
When dead people walk toward me instead of toward the light or want to hold my hand, I don’t usually run anymore. I imagine that the Holy Ghost and my angels and Jesus are always there even when I can’t see them and then, like magic, they appear in my dreams. They hold dead people’s hands so I don’t have to. I never think about the Father coming into my dreams. I figure he’s too busy, like my dad.
When dead people come toward me asking for help I don’t get scared. I tell them to go toward the light. Often they don’t want to. They’re afraid of it, which is funny because the light is from them. It’s the part of them that stays alive after they die. I like to watch dead people go toward the light.