The last time I saw Haiti
James John Audubon
|Birthplace of John Audubon ,as it might have looked to him, as he sailed away as a child.|
Each evening, I was rocked to sleep by the music of my country. It was as familiar to me as the sound of the sea and the rooster and the bird that wished me good morning. In the day, when I tried to pay attention to my lessons, there were the songs of work, both in the house and fields and the bird in the tree. If the facts of my childhood have blurred with time and history, the sounds of its people and the songs of the birds have not. I was born on the southern coast of Haiti; home to the Taino Indians who lived near us and taught us all how to survive in a place foreign to us all. My father called the land Saint -Domingue but the people called it Haiti. I lived on a sugar plantation near a small port the French named Les Cayes. Boats from France brought us many things and then my father loaded the ships with coffee and sugar cane from our plantation.
There was drumming at night. My father loved the drumming. We would sit by a fire outside and listen. My brothers and sisters would dance and our mother would make us ginger tea with sugar. If my father’s friends came over, he dressed up and only spoke French but when it was just we, we laughed and told stories and were barefoot.
Some said my father had grown wild and uncivilized from life on our island. They encouraged him to leave the plantation and return to France. I heard a man say he did not know how to keep his distance from the Africans. This was true because the woman who I called mother and her children and all our friends were the many shades of brown.
The woman who raised me, as her own said if he ever whipped a slave she would cut his throat in the middle of the night. He laughed but he also didn’t whip slaves. Some people said he let a woman run his life. He had a weakness for loving women and it didn’t seem he cared what color they were.
The mother who gave birth to me, died when I was a baby and so my next mother took me to her breast and saved me. The woman who nursed me said only this. “ Your mother was very beautiful. Her skin was the rich color of coffee with milk in it.” She was Creole and your father brought her home from Louisiana. She loved you and then she died of the fever and there is no more to tell. “
I asked what is Creole and what is Louisiana as these were all I knew about my birth Mamma.
“Creole is the sun shining in the sea. It’s African and Spanish and Indian and a little French. Its all the beautiful landed right inside of you.”
And that’s all they would tell me ever about her.”
My father was always happy when my new Mama was near by. She had babies near every year and we all said each one was cuter and healthier than the last.
We had lessons in French everyday, but mostly we played and went fishing and I filled my schoolbooks with drawings of things I discovered as we played.
When my father landed in Les Cayes, and rode to our plantation, he found the overseer had died and the slaves were pretty much running it themselves. They had their own villages and gardens and farms and doctors and even priests. My father said they were not real Catholic priests but some sort of mix of Africa and Catholic. They spoke a language my father never heard of; just like the religion a mix of Africa and Taino and French. As long as they made enough profit to pay for expenses and send a little to France, he let the plantation be as it was when he arrived.
When we went to Les Cayes I saw them whip the new people who were arriving from Africa. I saw a man hanging dead in front of the church. My father said he had run away and so they took his life. When I got home, I drew a picture of the dead man and then next to it a picture of the man alive. I said to my father, “Look I made him come alive again.” He threw it in the fire and said a drawing can never make a dead thing alive again and sat for a long time with his head in his hands until I crept into his lap and hugged him to me.
One night the drumming lasted all night long and when we woke up the plantation nearest to us was on fire. Some of the slaves came to see my father and they talked a long time. I could hear my mother crying. We all sat outside the door and listened even thought we knew it would be trouble if the door opened and we were there.
“Master, there is no choice. You and James have to leave. We’ll make sure you get out safe and the boy unharmed but you gotta go, sir.”
Go where? This was my home. I knew I had family in a place called France but I did not ever want to go there. Never.
We heard our father say he would never leave our mother and his children. He’d stay and fight. But it was no use. Our mother cried and said she’d be fine. Besides she told him, “ She was siding with freedom and it wasn’t going to be a safe place for any white people.”
“Even if it means we can’t be together and we loose our land and all we love.”
“God knows I love you and all the children you gave me but nothing is worth more than freedom. Nothing is stopping freedom in Haiti. I love you but you have to go. Go make freedom in France. None of us can’t live free while others are slaves. “
“You are free.” My father argued. You never were a slave.’
“I know but I can’t live side by side with slavery. “
A voice interrupted them. “We need to go tonight. There’s a ship headed to France. We’ll row you out.”
“I’ll take everyone. We’ll all go then.”
“Just you and the boy.”
I ran then to the barns and hid out there. I heard them calling me. Old Audubon, my favorite slave, called me with our special birdcall. Finally I came out and put my head in his lap and cried.
“I’ll run away and be a maroon and live with the Taino in a cave. I will. I will.”
He laughed and said the maroons didn’t much need a boy to help fight a revolution.”
“Do you want a revolution?” I asked him.
“I want to be free, like everyone.”
“But what about me?”
“You are going to France and will get a fine education and sail in a big boat. That will be an adventure for you.”
“No, you are my teacher. You taught me all the birds and their calls and where to find their nests. You are my best teacher. “
He took out a small mahogany bird and pressed it into my hands. ‘There are birds everywhere.”
Then my father came and shook me and said we were leaving. It was dark and the drumming had begun again. He had a bag packed for us and we were taking a path down to the sea. It was a trail we had taken often when we went to the beach but it was dark and there was no moon. We hid by the firestones; the place where we cooked fish and lobster and swam all afternoon. It was the most beautiful place in the world.
When we got to the sea, a mango canoe was waiting and the slaves who had walked with us, held me tight. They had taken care of me all my life. I was scared now and clung to them.
“We can’t be found helping a white man escape.” they told my father.
Just then my mother burst through the underbrush with my sister, Rose.
“Take her too. Take Rose.”
She did not wait but made off from where she had come. There was no time to wait and so we took Rose too. She was my younger sister and I was glad to have at least one of my family coming with me.
The two, who came with us, rowed us out to the ship. It was quiet; only the sounds of drumming and singing up in the mountains to bid us good-bye. Not even my mother or my sisters and brothers. They were already gone.
“Can we come back? Please. When everyone’s free can I come back?” But no one said anything. Only the oars in the sea and then arms lifting me into the ship and the canoe slipping back into the dark.
My father made us a bed and we lay down and watched the clouds disappear and the night grow bright with stars. We were woken by shouts and a great fire which was our plantation burning. My father put his head on the ship’s rail and cried. The ship slowly pulled away.
The ships deck held a cage of birds that were worth a lot of money in France.
“They want to be free too.” I said in a whisper. They want to stay in Haiti too. I opened the cage and watched the birds rise and fly back to shore. The sky was filled with fire and smoke.
I watched my homeland slip into the darkness; a silhouette of greens glowing wit fire. I stood there for a long time; watching her slip away.
Then my father put a hand on my shoulder and said sternly, “It is done. You are French and you must never speak of your mother or your family. They are dead to us. We two will know they live; that they eat mangoes and coconuts and swim in the sea, but we will never speak of them again. We are French. No more Creole. No climbing tees to look at birds nests. We will live in the city. Never tell anyone about your life here. We will say your mother was French and that you are white. No one can ever know where you came from. The world is not kind.”
“But my brothers and sisters?”
“They are taken from us.”
We passed a small island off the coast we passed fisherman who waved and called a hello. We stayed there on the deck, until it was only the sea all around us. My father kept us out of the sun so our skin would grow pale. He worked for hours to straighten our hair and our change our speech.
After a long voyage we arrived in Pairs. I was punished if I ever spoke Creole. My father said I was his only son and that my mother had been the daughter of a French plantation owner who had died at my birth. I was never allowed to speak of Haiti again.
When Haiti won the revolution I hoped we could return but my father had reunited with his French wife and she knew nothing of our life in Haiti. The French sent another army to fight and try to win Haiti back but they lost again and my Haiti was free forever. My father talked about all the money he lost but he never talked about the family we lost. My new mother ran her hands through Rose’s and my hair. I think she knew but she was a loving woman and a good mother to us.
In Haiti, they said, when we die we return to the place of our birth. They want to go home to Africa but me I only want to return to. Haiti. In my dreams, I see Haiti as she slipped from view that last morning and I know when I die, I will return to Haiti and the sea and the birds and my brothers and sisters. We will catch many fish and lobster and make a fire on the beach and listen to the drums as the stars come out – just as it was the last time I saw Haiti.
When I was in Haiti, I visited LesCayes and thought of the young James Audubon as he sailed away from everything he knew, to start a new life in France. He later said that he was not allowed to speak of his origins in Haiti. Biographers wondered if he feared people would see something of Haiti in his eyes or hair or skin; things that would hurt his family and career. I think of the woman who gave birth to him, the woman who nursed him and the woman who adopted him. I consider the fates of his brothers and sisters left behind during the revolution and how they survived those times. . I think of the many people who forced him to “pass” as white, then and now, the many people who refuse to say, “Ah yes, Audubon – the famous naturalist and artist from Haiti. ”