when i was growing up, one of the things i could look forward to on my birthday was my grandmother’s voice over a telephone, singing happy birthday to me in her bouyon-thick caribbean accent.
happy birthday to you
happy birthday to you
happy birthday dear birthname
happy birthday to you!
ok. this is your grandma. i love you.
this is an essay about the name of my blog.
when i stopped going to family holidays, like really stopped, when i blocked all my family members except for k on social media and came out as transgender on facebook, it was around that time that i stopped waking up on my birthday to a voicemail from my grandmother. it could’ve been a bunch of shit – in the last 7 years she has gone through chemotherapy and a tumor removal surgery, her hair has gone ashy white, the last time i’d really seen homegirl before this year was at my nyu graduation in 2013, and that was just long enough for a meal at benihana. my grandma lives with some roommates, including her brother and his young wife and their daughter, on long island. when i was growing up she lived in crown heights.
crown heights is a neighborhood in central brooklyn, bordered to the north and south by bedford-stuyvesant and flatbush, and flanked to the west and southeast by prospect park and brownsville. when my grandmother Denise and grandfather Antonius moved to brooklyn, they came to rest (if “rest” can be used in such contexts) in the Weeksville housing projects in crown heights. in a short if illumnating conversation the other day, one where i learned that my grandfather’s two brothers had been urban professionals in papa doc’s haiti, my mother told me that she had been embarrassed of her address. she was a young immigrant child and teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, and she had come from a comfortable middle-class life in haiti—if such an american concept as middle-class can be comfortably transposed onto midcentury haitian life. she had moved to america and been relegated to the projects; in other words, she had been demoted to american blackness.
crown heights and its neighboring environs are historically black. by this i mean, they are the worlds of spike lee and kompa music festivals. i didn’t realize until i was much older that i must know more haitian creole than i let on, because as a child running up and down dean street, . every summer of the 1990s before my grandmother moved from crown heights to a small black hamlet on long island ended on eastern parkway, exploded into the colors and smells and sounds of jouvert and the west indian day parade: the sharp lines in the jamaican and barbadian flags, the griot and salt fish and rum and sweet plantains shimmering and frying in hot oil on every sidewalks, the inevitable sneers from our section at the dominicans’ (y’all haitian-hating fucks aren’t west indian…).
these neighborhoods are historically black. by this i also mean that the weeksville projects, and Weeksville itself, was one of America’s first free black communities during the 19th century. to paraphrase poorly: this dude, a freed black man named James Weeks, bought some land from another freedman, Henry C. Thompson, in 1838 and then encouraged other black people to come through, buy land, and grow the community. black people from the north and south flocked to Weeksville to escape the race riots of the cities and the slavery of the plantations, and the newcomers named their community weeksville. by 1850, Weeksville was the 2nd-largest conglomeration of free black people in the united states. see? historically black.
(if you’re in the area, and especially if you’re white and live in the area, I implore you to visit the Weeksville Heritage Center for more information.)
i am also historically black. my mother immigrated to brooklyn by way of sodo in the central department of haiti when she was a teenager in the 1970s; she received her united states citizenship in 1986, a year before my brother was born. my father was born in kumasi, ghana in 1956, one year before kwame nkrumah led his people to independence from the yoke of british colonialism in 1957. he went to boarding school in kumasi and college in accra, and then moved to the united states with a student visa to study chemistry and medicine at fordham. i am fiercely loyal to my blackness, to crown heights and sodo and kumasi. i am loyal to the diaspora. (i knew there was a reason the sorting hat put me in hufflepuff.)
i was raised catholic in queens, which is another way of saying that my haitian family (and the families of many haitians) continued to feel some allegiance to the roman catholicism of their former french overlords. my grandmother still goes to church every sunday, sometimes attending services multiple times a week. one summer, however, when i was around 6 years old so it must’ve been 1997 or 8, i took a trip with my mother and aunts to haiti – to the city of port au prince and to our home in the country, saut d’eau (or sodo). saut d’eau is french for waterfall, and our home is named for the great waterfalls that flank its borders. i didn’t know it at the time, but sodo is quite famous place, of significance to practitioners of both catholicism and haitian vodou. from atlas obscura,
Located near Mirebalais and 60 miles north of Port au Prince, the falls became a holy place after it became widely believed that the Virgin Mary had appeared nearby on a palm tree. The palm tree was chopped down by a French priest who was rightly concerned that the cultural significance of the tree would foster a large amount of superstition, but the action was futile, and the area itself became sacred, despite his efforts.
For over a century, Haitians have trekked in from miles around, even more so since the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, to ask the Virgin Mary (or the closely associated Vodou Lwa, Erzulie Dantor) for her blessings. The sick and the needy let the water of the falls wash over them as they perform various rituals of both Voodoo and Catholicism in a religious festival that lasts for three days.
The festival begins in July, two days before the annual July 16th feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
this place where vodou and catholicism dovetail is where my story begins. for quite some time i have been drawn further and further towards haitian vodou and other forms of indigenous spirituality, particularly as they resist dominant forms of religious practice. in the western imaginary, vodou evokes images of evil, pain, and suffering: the blood-eyed “voodoo doll” in saturday morning cartoons and goosebumps books, the black sorcerors wearing human skulls ’round their necks on greeting cards on bourbon street and lurking in the shadows of disney’s the princess and the frog. i recently moved from new york to philadelphia, and because i am an obnoxious beer snob, a friend thought to introduce me to pennsylvania’s (white-owned, obviously) voodoo brewery.the brewery proudly hosts events at its “european-style beer hall”, and some of its most popular beers include the limited-winter-seasonal “Big Black Voodoo Daddy”, described as
a big, viscous Russian Imperial stout rich in notes of chocolate, vanilla, roasted coffee, and dark fruits.
the “Hoodoo”, which they describe as
forged in the bowels of the Meadville bayou, this IPA ushers your soul down a twisted journey on the 7C’s. This Voodoo brew will insight your dark side and open a portal to your hoppiest senses.
and the “Killapilz,”
Matt [Voodoo’s head brewer] has dubbed this a Voodooized Kellerbier by blending Czech, German, and Polish style pilsners, creating a one-of-a-kind freakish hop monster of a beer. KillaPilz lays the smackdown with its 8 varieties of European hops.
i could honestly write an entire essay about the racism, eurocentrism, and violent appropriation in just the descriptions of these beers, but that will have to wait for another monday. my point is, do a quick google search of “voodoo” and come back to me. i’ll wait.
in short, whiteness imagines vodou as dark, twisted, freakish, monstrous, and evil. in actuality, as my understanding of haitian vodou grows and evolves, it becomes more apparent to me that it is a complex system of stories, practices, and beliefs that – yes, do [involve] suffering – but actually emphasize healing, change, and radical resistance, above all. there is a reason that the french colonizers feared vodou and sought to stamp out the practice of west african religions and their counterparts in the black diaspora. likewise, there is a reason that white developers fear the black denizens of historically black neighborhoods like my grandmother’s crown heights. from an article in the wall street journal, infuriatingly entitled, “crown heights turns its image around,”
After World War II, waves of immigrants from Europe and the West Indies settled in the neighborhood. Race relations soured and Crown Heights became synonymous with crime.
A low point came in 1991 when a three-day riot between Jewish and black residents left two dead and nearly 200 civilians and police officers injured. Dozens of storefronts were looted, and cars and homes were damaged.
(i should mention that my grandmother lived in Weeksville during those “riots,” and i was 2 months old)
there is a figure in haitian vodou called the houngan, and they would be the equivalent to a “male priest” in western/abrahamic religions. their role in the community is to preserve vodou’s rituals, stories, and songs, and maintain the relationship between the lwa, or spirits, and the community as a whole.
as a black transgender haitian person, i often write and think about my transition as a way of healing myself, of learning and growing. what if instead of thinking of my transition as fundamentally at odds with my blackness, as western queer thought might have me think, i recognized shifting ideas of gender as essential to haitianness, as essential to diaspora, as essential to storytelling, as essential to vodou? and the histories of vodou and resistance as a response to the damage done by negative change (gentrifcation and colonialism).
if i were a superhero, some queens-bred, mets-loving luke cage/spiderman hybrid, it would look something like a vodou hougan, young and gifted and black on the streets of my grandmother’s crown heights, using my words and the tenets of west african and west indian spirituality to resist the twins colonialism and gentrification, and their bastard the gender binary. call me the crown heights houngan, the keeper of my people’s rituals, stories, and songs, and resister of white supremacy in its many-fanged forms.
i am here to continue to sing happy birthday in my grandmother’s voice.