Bahamian. Haitian. American. Where can I fully belong?
At age sixteen, Cholet Josué arrived on the shores of Miami in a wooden boat—and immediately put the past behind him. More than two decades later, the elusive question of identity pursues him, forcing him to confront a difficult truth: the cultures that formed him have each indelibly stamped his soul. Courageously, Cholet dismantles his own story to uncover a way to unashamedly, unabashedly fit in with three different worlds while belonging to none.
Honest and compelling, Twelve Unending Summers is a deeply personal journey that resonates with the universal human need to find a home and embrace the legacy of family heritage.
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Here We Go Again
"Cholet, did you see? CNN just reported an earthquake in Haiti."
I could not tell if the words were coming from my head or from the other end of the phone. Then I felt the pressure of the phone against the palm of my left hand and realized it was an actual voice on the line. "Are you sure?" I said.
"Yes, Cholet, and it looks bad."
"Okay, okay, I'll take a look."
But I was not about to turn on the news right away.
I had just gotten home from a long, tiring day at work. It was one of those crisp and cold but sunny January days in Maryland, when the frigid air makes the indoors feel bigger and emptier than usual. The once-green grass on the hill outside my home was yellow and dead; the raspy trill of the American sparrow was long gone from my windowsill. The fear of what I might see was a heavy weight keeping me in place.
The sun was setting early in Baltimore this winter day, but daylight still lingered in Haiti, I knew. Inside my apartment, the air was cold and still––remarkably quiet. You could cut it with a knife and there would be no trace of the blade.
Minutes later, I received a second phone call, this time from my younger sister, Marthe.
"Did you hear there is an earthquake in Port-au-Prince? I have been trying unsuccessfully to reach Luckson; I cannot get through."
Among my many family members living in Port-au-Prince, my youngest brother, Luckson, was foremost in my mind. I was also thinking of my first, best childhood friend, my cousin Will, still in Haiti. I had seen them both just six weeks earlier during my last trip there. I hoped they were all okay. The prospect of something else was too much for me to contemplate.
I talked briefly to Marthe, asking how she was, but I did not want to inquire more. The only thing I wanted was a nap, and to wake up later, refreshed and relieved to discover that the earthquake was all a misunderstanding. I struggled to relax on the couch, reaching out for the remote control that was even colder in my hand than the phone. I hesitated several times before turning on the TV.
Haiti had been in the news continuously for the past thirty years or so for one catastrophe or another or because of some political turmoil. For a while, it seemed as if we had a coup d'état every week. I was tired of the bad news, and the international community, rightfully, was becoming tired of helping; they had sent Haiti hundreds of millions of dollars since the fall of Baby Doc in 1986. To this day, no one can tell where all that money went.
I was proud of my roots, but none of us wants only bad news coming out of our homeland. When I left South Florida to go to medical school in Atlanta, one silver lining in that cultural shift was that because of the distance, I could pick and choose when I wanted to check on the news in the Haitian community there. And during that time, there was a lot of bad news, not the least of which were dead Haitians washing up on the South Florida shoreline. Sometimes I could even make believe that the trials and tribulations the Haitian diaspora was experiencing within the United States and on the mainland of Haiti were not real.
The moment the TV clicked on, I heard the crackling of huge white columns crumbling into a thick cloud of white dust. I was watching the destruction of the Haitian palace, the most iconic building in Haiti and one of the most beautiful palaces in the Caribbean, if not in all of the Americas. Out of all the buildings in Haiti the palace stood above the rest, and I always thought it to be indestructible. Who could have expected this huge palace to crumble so fast?
Before I could process what I was seeing, another scene flashed onto the screen, and for a few moments I felt like I was there, inside the action. I leaned forward as though to touch them, to be among the crowd. A throng of people, mostly women, appeared, all dressed in white robes, the devastation, grief, and shock showing on their faces as they walked down the main road in front of the US embassy with both hands held up and arms wide open. They were singing in unison, as if calling on God––and the Americans––to have pity on them.
I sat back. Here we go again, I thought: We Haitians are begging the White men with their "White God" to come and save us from yet another catastrophe.
The procession stopped and the singing grew louder. I turned up the volume as I watched the people's faces becoming more grief stricken — almost as if they were acting, putting on a show, and that is exactly what was happening. I think as soon as they saw the TV cameras they started singing, shouting, and kneeling down because they knew how to send a message to the outside world.
I sat frozen in the middle of my living room, caught in an out-of-body experience that whisked me across the continent and out to sea. For one moment, I was in the middle of that crowd with them, feeling their helplessness and hopelessness, caught up in that same conviction that we would never be able to help ourselves.
Here we go again.
When you come from a place whose birth was the result of the tragedy of slavery, you don't want outsiders to see you naked and vulnerable. Seeing people who looked like me––like my aunts, cousins, and nieces––filing in front of the American embassy, singing to the CNN cameras with open arms, asking for help, made the wounds of our tragedies one inch deeper.
I hated the fact that they were playing the same refrain that we Haitians had been using for centuries, because we have been conditioned to see ourselves as helpless victims. At the same time, here I was sitting in a cozy place watching their misery, not mine; but being a flawed human being, my response was also about me and my pride. I was embarrassed for them and for myself, and yet I was not in their shoes, feeling their devastating loss. I was safe inside my apartment in Maryland.
I knew my anger was misdirected at these poor, mostly uneducated people, whose only crime was that they lived in a country whose corrupt leaders have all but abandoned their people for the past two hundred years. What choice did they have but to ask outsiders for help, when all their lives their government has never adequately provided for them? These people were braver, more hopeful, and more resilient than their leaders, who were mostly foreign educated in some of the best universities in the world.
I, too, was foreign in a way. I had left Haiti for Miami on a wooden boat twenty-five years before, and it was only during my most recent trip to Haiti six weeks before the earthquake — only my second trip back — that I felt ready to acknowledge myself as belonging there once again. I hadn't realized when I left my friends, my village, to come to America, and even for years afterward, that during my childhood Haiti was the right place for me. Here among my own people, with my own tribe, I had received the confidence and self-esteem, the sense of collective community and belonging vital for any child to grow into a stable, functioning adult.
And yet South Florida became the perfect place for my teenage years and young adulthood. America represented that free space and fertile ground where I could develop my faculty for critical thinking and attempt to reach my potential. Both the United States and Haiti were intimately connected to the person I had become, both existentially indispensable in my life. If Haiti and America did not exist, I would have had to invent them.
The past few years had brought with them a slowly emerging understanding that all three countries — the Bahamas, Haiti, the United States — were fully part of who I was and who I would become. I had begun to entertain in my mind's eyes the notion that maybe, just maybe, amid America and the Bahamas and Haiti, I might create a home where I could totally, truly belong.
Then the earthquake came and shattered that dream.
I stepped away from the TV for a moment, trying to distract myself. I did not want to know, and yet I did. I had to. I bolted back into the living room when I heard the CNN anchor reporting the latest images from Haiti. Transfixed, I saw an image on the screen that still haunts me: a lone soul, a tall man running about the palace amid the dust and smoke, with walls and ceiling pieces crumbling all around him. He went first in one direction, then abruptly turned back when he saw the ceiling fully collapse. I still wonder what happened to this man. Did he make it out alive? Did he have a wife and children? What became of him? Did his family ever know?CHAPTER 2
A Place to Belong
By the time I began my medical training in Chicago, it had been more than twenty years since I stepped onto the shores of Miami, my home throughout my teenage years and into young adulthood. I had certainly experienced challenges in South Florida — living undocumented, barely on the edge of society, trying to make ends meet — but South Florida's tropical climate and the large Caribbean population, more specifically the large Haitian immigrant population, had never left a question in my mind that the United States was where I belonged. In fact, I considered myself a fully assimilated American, and why not? I spent my teenage years here. I ate apple pie, Bojangles chicken, and KFC, and I enjoyed the county fairs and the movies, just like any other American kid.
Chicago was different. The hot tropical sun that gives me energy was gone. There were no palm trees to remind me of Haiti, even when I tried to forget it, and the warm, soothing breezes of the Atlantic Ocean were replaced by a persistent chilly wind blowing in from Lake Michigan. I sat inside the university library one afternoon, resting comfortably where the benches met the window, and waited for my freezing brain to warm up. I had just walked in after braving the bone-chilling cold of Chicago in mid-February, when even crossing the parking lot makes you do things you normally don't do unless you feel like your life is in danger, like reciting the Lord's Prayer five or six times to convince your body with each step that it's not as bitter cold as it seems. But now, as I delved into my exam review materials, a soothing warmth touched my back. I turned to see the faint yellow glow of the sun amid a sea of gray clouds — a welcome sight during winter in Chicago, when the sky often was morose, depressed, overcast.
Hi, friend, where have you been, Mr. Sun? We have not seen each other for the past ten days.
Fond memories of the Haitian sun flowed into my mind then from another place and time, when I played soccer, when I ran up and down the rolling fields of sunflowers in rural Haiti — memories I would rather not have dwelled on while I was busy studying for a difficult medical exam. I felt the pressure of my body against the cold surface of the chair and forced my eyes to the white papers in front of me, but the warm glow of the Caribbean sunshine came flooding back into my mind. And even as I wished I could escape these thoughts of bygone years, the visions of rolling sunflower meadows and days spent chasing mourning doves with my cousin Will overwhelmed me. I put the papers aside.
* * *
I had moved from Atlanta to the Midwest in 2003 to start my medical residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Windy City was several thousand miles from the Caribbean, but it felt light-years away, and it seemed almost a century had passed since the last day I'd spent in Haiti as a teenager. I recalled picnicking by the beach in my coastal hometown, playing volleyball with my soccer team, and eating mangoes and corn on the cob in the soothing, salty breeze of the Caribbean. Life was good for us young people then, and it was only going to get better. Or so we thought.
Almost ten years had passed since my last trip to Haiti, my first trip back, which came right before I moved to Atlanta to start medical school.
Even then I knew the country had changed; when I lived in South Florida, the daily news was full of Haiti's political turmoil and the unending drama of rickety boats washing up on the Florida shores. But as I approached from the air on that first trip back, I cringed. The houses appeared to tilt precariously below me, leaning against one another like dominoes in disorder. The calm inside the plane, along with the eerie silence of the passengers, belied what lay beneath––devastation, grief, and abject poverty.
As we drove away from the airport, I realized that the devastation was a hundred times worse than I had thought. Delmas, a street that used to be clean and well paved, looked like a tank had driven through it, leaving craters every few yards. The dilapidated houses had bricks falling off them left and right, and the place was full of so many people it looked like an army of ants milling about. The pungent smell of misery pervaded the stale, hot, humid air. It was hard to breathe, let alone think.
Had it always been like this, with houses built in such disorder? No, Port-au-Prince in the mid-1980s was orderly, as I remembered it; or maybe we did not have as many houses or people then, and everything fell apart after the fall of Baby Doc. In the wake of the uprising, countless families had moved from the countryside to the city, and because of corruption the zoning codes were not applied, which meant you could build your house anywhere. I knew from the news what had happened since I had come to America in 1984, but still I could not reconcile the sight of this Haiti with the Haiti I had thought was waiting for me.
After that first trip in 1998, I tried to bury the painful memories in the back of my mind. It was as if I hoped the passage of time or the busyness of medical school and residency would allow me to forget. Maybe things would look different by the time I visited again, if ever I could summon the courage to revisit all things past, all things human — loss, regret, guilt, vanishing footprints in the grass, missing people and places––the remnants of my lost childhood paradise.
So, I was surprised when right in the middle of that intensely cold Chicago winter several years later, with my tired eyes squinting at fuzzy medical material, I found myself thinking of my childhood in Haiti again.
It was not until I moved to the Midwest that I truly experienced what it was like to be living as a minority in a majority culture. I thought I had experienced culture shock when I arrived at medical school in Atlanta, one of the first times I had ventured farther north than Disney World. But living in Atlanta meant I could take a break after every eight-week test block and drive straight down to Florida. As soon as I crossed the state border the sight of palm trees brought the warm feeling that soon I would be home.
I liked Chicago, with its wide-open, clean streets and awe-inspiring architecture. Even now I tell friends it is the American city that feels most European. Yet this city, and the Midwest also, seemed to represent the real America, so unlike the multicultural community I knew from South Florida. In some ways, Chicago is quite diverse, with Mexican, Polish, Greek, and Italian immigrants, but often it seemed only two cultures existed: White American and Black American. I spent most of my day at the hospital among the majority White population, and my social life was focused on the Urban League of Young Black Professionals and Trinity United Church of Christ, with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But in neither setting could I fully belong; in fact, time after time I was mistaken for Nigerian or some lost tribe from a nameless African country. I was told that my protruding cheekbones gave me away as being West African. The whole time I had lived in South Florida, with its large Haitian population, my Haitian roots were never mistaken.
Here even the doctors asked me where in Africa I was from.
I am a medical resident who reached adulthood in America. Yet I am still the other.
Living in the Midwest made it clear that I was not fully American after all, despite being an American citizen — despite living here for more than two decades. Then again, my 1998 trip to Haiti had left me feeling distanced from my childhood as well, although at that time I could not verbalize what I was feeling. A trip to the Bahamas earlier in 2007 resulted in much the same emotions. I remember walking up to the huge steps of Princess Margaret Hospital, where I had been told I was born, looking for a lifeline of memory that could connect me to the land of my birthplace. After a few minutes I left feeling sad, an errant bohemian with no real place to call my own. The questions came fast and furious: Who am I? Where do I belong? Can I ever find a place, both physically and in my mind, where I feel I fully belong?
All my life, I have been aware of the many identities I have collected. I was born in the Bahamas before it became independent, which made me a British subject with Bahamian citizenship. And though I understood why my parents originally moved our family to Haiti — the mistreatment of Haitian immigrants in the Bahamas was common and they did not want their children to be seen as less than equal — I never questioned my acceptance in the Bahamas. Perhaps I did not think about it much after we moved to Haiti. I was only four years old, after all.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Twelve Unending Summers"
Copyright © 2019 Cholet Kelly Josué.
Excerpted by permission of Authority Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Here We Go Again,
2 A Place to Belong,
3 Can We Ever Go Home Again?,
4 "Stupid Rotten Haitians!",
5 My Tree of Life,
6 Superstition in My Genes,
7 Did Voodoo Kill My Father?,
8 Somber in the Sun,
9 Pigs, Politics, and the Pope,
10 One Last Summer,
11 Pèpè Express,
12 Revisiting Paradise,
13 Who Is More American Than Me?,
14 A Greyhound Hunt for a College Education,
15 Alien Invader,
17 Chak Koukouy Klere Pou Je Ou,
18 Why Not Me?,
19 Risking It All for a Green Card,
20 The Mother of All Trials,
21 The Decision,
To the Boys and Girls Club of America,
About the Author,
The Next Step,