Written by Yold Delius
Illustrated by Devon Smillie
Est. Reading Time: 8 min
Yaa waits on the hot street corner for the bus. She can feel the heat of the day through her shoes: the sweat in her socks move freely between each toe as she wiggles them for something to do. The wait for the bus is always a toss-up—it is sometimes too short to read a book, or so long that by the time she opens one, the bus is already there. Yaa believes this is a purposeful mind game. She looks up; the sun is glaring in her eyes. She looks down; the stark white concrete chides her for trying to find relief. How can she take some of that brightness for herself? Rub some on her skin, make her lighter; prettier. Why doesn’t it translate?
It doesn’t translate, she tells herself as the bus approaches. Silently, somberly, she pulls out two sweaty dollar bills, knowing 1. It will be embarrassing trying to get it into the money machine thing and 2. She has depleted her either/or fund: two dollars to either eat or take the bus to the library. She has resentfully chosen the latter.
The assignment was simple: Pick a religion outside of the Abrahamic Religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and write a research paper on it. They were encouraged to interview a follower of their religion and get their first-hand account of it. The religion teacher at Walter Brooks High was Mr. Baptiste. Mr. Baptiste was Haitian and immediately took an interest in Yaa as the only other Haitian in the otherwise white school. They had become close after a student asked her if “Haitians eat cats” and Mr. Baptiste defended her. She trusted him ever since.
Mr. Baptiste urged her to write about Voodoo to “explore what hasn’t been revealed to you.” Yaa was both suspicious and nervous. There were Haitians who lived next door to her who thought they were family friends just because they were also Haitian. Could you believe it? Yaa’s family was Catholic; they practiced Voodoo. Her neighbors weren’t Haitian, they were other. Yaa could remember them having their gatherings and being able to hear the faint thumping of the tanbou and their singing hiding behind the walls of their home. It deeply terrified her. She would lie in bed in the fetal position, clutching her glass beaded rosary to her chest until she couldn’t feel her hands, repeating Hail Marys like it was a broken record until she fell asleep. That was her relationship to Voodoo.
Yaa peered at her teacher skeptically. Why would she delve deeper into a religion that was evil, a shameful stain on Haiti’s character?
Mr. Baptiste smiled so that his Pepto-Bismol pink gums showed. He seemed to know something she didn’t.
“Explore your disgust,” he replied. “let it take you to an uncomfortable place. Sit with the ache of distress and see what you find.”
That “uncomfortable place” was the bus, Yaa supposed. She finds a small opening to insert herself among the other passengers on the bus and embarks on her journey.
Yaa surveys the area. Everyone is literally touching on the bus, they are packed so tight. It reminds her of the illustrations in her textbook showing how slaves were packed on the slave ships that traveled along the Middle Passage.
Yaa marches to the library, triumphantly. Although she wonders why most of the books on Haitian culture and language are in the white part of town (where there are barely any Haitians), she considers how amazing it is to show everyone that she is a different kind of Haitian—smart, well spoken, and polite. Indeed, she would distinguish herself from her Black American and other Haitian American peers—yes, she is different. She lives in a place between the Black American tropes and the Haitian American tropes. There she shines, as the best of both worlds—Haitian enough to intrigue and American enough to comfort. She beamed with pride every time someone exclaimed in surprise that she was Haitian: it meant that she had control of what people got to see and otherwise. She was like a can of Café Bustelo at a Starbucks — a little out of place, but welcome anyway.
The Library in Downtown Orlando is everything Yaa imagines whiteness to be: clean, quiet, exclusive. The Library is so exclusive, it doesn’t even allow homeless people in. It doesn’t specifically say that, but you can’t come in if you have large bags or suitcases with you. Even more, most of those homeless people are Black. It is almost as if the library was excluding Black people, too. Then how was she allowed inside? Once again, Yaa rejects this thought and walks toward the “Ethnic & Cultural Studies” section.
The first thing Yaa notices when she gets to the Haitian section is a man, not a book. It’s her next-door neighbor! Crouched down, he bends over a pile of books he’s picked out. A mixture of disappointment and annoyance plays on his face.
Yaa is at once scared and fascinated—why is he disappointed? She inches closer to where he is crouching, pretending to look for a book near him.
The man looks up with genuine surprise and delight.
“Yaa! Koman ou ye?”
Yaa looks around, embarrassed that she has to speak in Kreyol to be polite. She then decides to respond in English, determined to prove that she’s not that kind of Haitian:
“I’m doing okay. What are you doing here?”
Yaa realizes two things: 1. That her neighbor knows her name and she doesn’t know his, and 2. That her reply to his kind greeting was much more curt than she had intended. For a moment, Yaa is ashamed. How could she be so automatically rude with someone she didn’t necessarily have any qualms with?
If her neighbor notices her rudeness, it doesn’t show.
“I came here to see if these white French authors knew anything more than I did,” he mentions bitterly.
Yaa takes a good look at her neighbor. He is a tall, thin, and dark skinned man with unruly dreadlocks that reached his waist. Yaa is immediately judgmental of his look. If he has dreadlocks, they should be neat. Right? What if they were neat to him? What was neat, anyway? Yaa pondered this as her neighbor continued his soliloquy.
“How can people who have never been to Haiti or speak to Haitians decide what is written about us? They talk about lwa like they describe the spirituality of rats! Little do they know that the lwa live through, between, and among all creation. Lwa recognizes the spirit within a rock! How could you not have respect and reverence for all things, then? These books, they chop up our religion like they chopped up Africa— without our input or consent.”
Yaa’s neighbor notices the look on her face—one of disbelief and of fear. He may have gone too far.
“I can see that you have a lot to think about, pitit. When you are ready, let’s talk.”
Her neighbor—she realizes that she never caught his name—walked away at that moment, with the pile of books still on the floor. A sign of resistance, she guesses. And just as quickly as it began, it ended. Yaa’s spirit is simultaneously empty and stirring. The way her neighbor described Voodoo made it sound like it was grounded—in the people and the physical Earth. Who is they? Who is Boukman? Why doesn’t she know this information?
Relief and dread creep through her body like ice: first freezing the fingers, up her arms, and right to her heart. She knows she’s being dramatic, but she could have died right there. Fear, terror, shame, embarrassment bring hot tears to the brim of her eyes, obscuring her vision. She doesn’t want anyone to look at her. If Voodoo was all that, then what was Catholicism? Could they both exist together? Yaa looks up Boukman—he was the catalyst to the Haitian Revolution and a Voodoo priest. Every Catholic figure Yaa knows is white. The Pope is always white. It doesn’t make sense to Yaa. What place did Black Haitians have in Catholicism, if any at all? Yaa realizes that the tanbou that plays at the Voodoo gatherings is the same tanbou that plays at her Haitian Catholic church. What is she to make of that? President Aristide was a Catholic priest… until he wasn’t. What is she to make of all this?
The two clashing ideas shake Yaa’s core. It felt as if the very ground she stands on is opening up and threatening to swallow her whole. She leaves the white library with her head down, careful not to show anyone the hot tears that now streak her cheeks. Indeed, she had a lot to think about.
In an instant, Voodoo moved from an enigma—an evil stench that always followed her identity around—to a person. To a tree. To everything around her. If Voodoo was in all of creation like her neighbor said, was it inside her as well? Was it inside her when she didn’t feel right getting baptized? Was it inside her when she felt a slight longing one night during her neighbor’s rituals? No, she would surely go to hell for even considering the validity of Voodoo… Right?
Back at home, Yaa lays her head on her pillow. It is now dusk in Florida; all the furniture in her room has turned blue-black. She looks up to her ceiling and tries to metaphysically take herself away from where her body is currently. Was that Catholic? Spent, she closes her eyes with the intention of falling asleep. She closes her eyes and allows her subconscious to dream against the Black backdrop of her eyelids. She dreams that her ancestors dance around her, happy that she has returned. She sits like a child in the center of the circle, cross-legged, on hard red clay. Her unknown family dances around her, weeps, and shouts with joy at her homegoing. Yaa is not completely sure how she knows that she is home, but understands this nonetheless. She tries to feel shame for being happy amongst idolaters, but it doesn’t work. She supposes shame has no place in this realm.
Published August 31, 2020
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
My name is Yold Yolande Delius. I am a Haitian American interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, New York. My work focuses on the artistic expression of Haitian diasporic narratives. I focus on academic writing, cultural critique, short story, acrylic & watercolor painting, and dance.