Writer Marie Moïse describes her search for her roots and traces her family’s history of cross-Atlantic displacement.
I spent my youth seeking to recover my roots, which were severed by migration from one shore of the Atlantic to the other—from Haiti to Italy. I investigated, interrogated, and sought to understand. From the time of my birth, I have suffered a strange nostalgia for the pain of a journey I have never taken. It seems like my family’s psyches were divided in the course of that journey, with half their minds here and the other half there. And they brought as my gift the anxiety of nonexistence. It has never been possible to speak of this condition: there was never a language to give it voice, no framework to make sense of it. But here in Italy, at one time, everything had to be categorized, defined, restrained. Above all, nothing abnormal could freely roam. It was simply called “pathology”—madness, psychosis, delirium. This is how my family found itself confined once again, taken back to its island condition.
The Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “The Black man cannot take pleasure in his insularity. For him, there is only one way out, and it leads to the white world.”
So here I am today, teaching science and pathology at a university where my students are shocked when I tell them that it has only been a few decades since pathology has denoted the knowledge of desires and passions. From the ancient Greek, pathos-logos. The study of passion concerns everything that moves us, and it excites us precisely because it can make us suffer. It is a study rooted in practice, in the body’s experience and its intrinsic relational existence. We have not abolished suffering. Instead, we have put an end to a form of society that sickens with a disease that imprisons. This illness is what people used to call normality.
Finally, we can now speak of the past. Now that I desire, now that passion gives meaning to my life, now that the cage of madness is destroyed, what happened can be told.
To the Root of the Absence of Roots
I was born in a family bleached by an unexpected split. I spoke my first words in the language that forced my father, his sisters, and my father’s father to forget theirs. I inherited only one noticeable trait of their foreignness, this unusual and unpronounceable surname: Moïse, with the two dots on the “i.” But for the rest, born to a biracial Haitian man and a white Italian woman, I was raised to be normal among the normals, unlike my father, grandfather, and aunties.
For an entire lifetime, I grew up without a past. My family preferred to silence it rather than to confine me to a Black past. Yet I inherited a surname with a slave origin. Moïse means Moses in French, and its etymological definition is “saved from the water.” It is one of those biblical names that slave owners gave to slaves transplanted to Haiti from Africa. With the rite of Catholic baptism, they erased the lives that those enslaved bodies had known before their deportation. The new name, in the colonizer’s language, marked the beginning of a new (non)existence in subhuman conditions.
Moïse. Saved from the waters. What more fitting name for a body that survived the torture of a forced transatlantic journey? Once they arrived in Italy, the Moïse family began to accept calling themselves by the Italian version—by also pronouncing the surname’s final “e.” The French pronunciation, in which the closing “e” is phonetically silenced, was reserved for family members who remained on the other side of the ocean.
Nevertheless, normality was my inheritance. And so, even though they Italianized my surname, every time I had to create a family tree at school, those severed roots came out. I saw in the strange expressions on the faces of those around me that I, after all, was not a normal person like them.
So, I began to wonder, and I began to ask many questions. Yet, I always received only a few brief answers. As if there were nothing to know, as if there were no words to respond to me, or that those words were too painful to utter.
On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake brought Haiti tumbling down upon itself. For the first time, I saw the country on television. Friends and family died in the ruins. For the first time, I heard Haiti being spoken about, albeit not directly. My father wrote newspaper articles; I cut them out. And my nostalgia for those severed roots that had gone missing, swallowed by the shaken earth, continued to grow.
From an early age, I spent a lot of time in books. Yet, there were no traces of Haiti in them. No book of geography or literature, much less philosophy, related the history of the island. It was my grandmother who told me that Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on December 5, 1492, and found it so beautiful that he wanted to baptize it with the name Hispaniola, little Spain. I was taught to be proud of Christopher Columbus, a heritage entirely Italian, so I looked at Haiti at first through his eyes, and I saw it bright, full of water, flowers, and rainbows. I found only one short mention in a history book which referred to Haiti in passing as the first destination of the transatlantic slave trade.
The Moïse were saved twice from the water. First, they survived inhumane deportation by sea, which erased their history, obliterated their memory, criminalized their mother tongue, and extinguished their desire to live. Then they survived a second journey thanks to the distance that the ocean had placed between Europe, the land of salvation, and the Haiti of Duvalier. After having fought and risked their lives against that bloody dictatorship, the Moïse went underground to escape violence and torture. In 1965 they left the island of Haiti forever. And so, even the uprooting was done twice. Saved by the waters, but once again condemned to never set roots down into the land.
I sensed the need for those roots when the yearning for the journey began to sicken first my auntie, then my father, and then me. I needed to understand why.
There is white normality, and then there is its opposite. But the opposite of normal is not merely abnormal. Normality defines who has the power to make you feel wrong, to sanction you as inferior, and to brand you a failure. Thus, the opposite of white normality is failure.
I was born white to those who failed to be white. I was born and raised with the implicit responsibility to cancel the mark, hide the unspeakable from which I originated, and break the chain of failure. I grew up in the anguish of having to disguise an original shame. I did not learn my father’s language, I had never seen his homeland, and I didn’t know my family’s story. I was white, yet normality was an affliction. Failure is a mark that is passed down from father to child from the colonial era. The colonized, the enslaved people, could not meet the full dignity of man, and because of this, my father could never entirely fulfill the role of father. In fact, the only possible version of a fatherhood is that of the head of household who imposes his authority on his wife and children. Since the time of slavery in Haiti, only the master of the enslaved, the white colonizer, could be a father. “Man” is an intrinsically white gender category.
The enslaved woman is the only biological parent legally recognized. The Black man has historically been Black because he is raté de père, a failure as father. My father was a father until I finished elementary school. Soon, he hurtled into oblivion. He stopped dedicating the weekends to his kids or giving money to my mother. He never had any money for us, and when we asked him for some, he disappeared. He would reappear months later and then disappear again.
His father had done the same thing. My dissident grandfather was more often imprisoned than at home with his family. My grandmother and her children had the task of encouraging him, of giving him the strength to resist, by greeting him from beneath his cell window. Once they arrived in Italy, they had only my grandmother’s salary. Grandfather found ways to squander it. In the end, soon after they divorced, he also disappeared.
My mother once told me that in Haiti “this is what they do,” and that my father had learned from his father. That in Haiti, it is mothers who are the heads of the household, who act as both father and the mother.
And so, caught in the anguish of normality, in the absence of the tools to understand and the words to say so, for years I called my father a failure in the hope that he would react and show me that he wasn’t. In my eyes, he was a weakling impassively watching the end of his relationship with his children, making no attempt to mend it. He let me call him a failure, he turned his back to me, and he left. Yet, the more my father failed, the more I agonized over inheriting his failure. And the more I found myself failing.
The Haitian Syndrome
I could not learn their language, I’m not Black like them, and I knew nothing about their past. Yet there is an illness that I suffer from, which is not whiteness. “It’s the curse of your Haitian family,” my mother once told me—a type of defective gene, she said, that I inherited from my Black side. I don’t know what happened inside of them when they abandoned Haiti. Perhaps my grandfather was already mad when, a second before illegally embarking for Europe, he raised a fist in salute to his homeland, for which he never stopped fighting. It is one of the few things that I found out about him from my father. The ignorance of children protected Auntie and Dad. Still, they only had the length of a transatlantic journey to become old enough to face this new world and all of its whiteness.
Once, in elementary school, during an Italian lesson, the teacher dictated to my father’s class the story of how the intelligent white man arrived in the land of the stupid Black man. And how the white man seized the bountiful land that the foolish Black man, who preferred to wallow in laziness and vice, did not care about. My father wrote down what the teacher said, word for word. He stopped speaking and eating. When my grandmother learned why, she confronted the school principal, who shrugged, “I’m sorry, we did not realize that the boy was Black.” I wonder if, from that moment, my father no longer found it simple to behave in a way that would ensure no one realized his Blackness—to permanently whiten himself and to stop being Black.
I didn’t even realize that my father and his sisters were not white. And I never met my grandfather. There was a single incident while I was drawing the faces of my family for a family tree, my grandmother told me that I needed a brown pencil to color my grandfather. The effect of that brown face on the paper depicting my ancestry made me realize that there was also Black blood in me. The one-drop rule: the historic racial law that makes you Black if you inherit even one drop of Black blood. With that drop of blood, I inherited an entire history of misfortune and madness.
I feel afflicted by a hereditary pathology—we are Haitians. The reasons for this madness are inside of us. Lazy, thieving liars, incapable of looking after ourselves, irresponsible, incapable of behaving like real men, cowards shirking our responsibilities, like all of our kind. And the blame is entirely and ultimately ours. The symptoms make it evident that the cause is endogenic: the Moïse are afflicted with the Haitian Syndrome—disease without a cure. And now I—the daughter of an irresponsible, lazy man, caught up in her whiteness—want to sever my roots having only just found them. I feel only shame. I would prefer to be the daughter of no one, to not have a father at all, than to have a failed father. The father that I would like is a real father—a white father.
Fatherless in the society of family men, I fed on rage and shame for a long time. I wanted to act violently and sabotage this society, but I was only able to sabotage myself. Still, my anger helped me not to feel the pain coming from the outside—an overpowering yet anesthetized pain of which I was the architect. Failure was the first, albeit painful, way of refusing to belong to a toxic society that compels you to win a contest with death in which the only expected outcome is your demise. In my own Haitian syndrome and in the way my family contracted it, I found the bacteria of an ancient resistance in a society that dictates a harmful and singular way of being healthy, becoming sick was the best way to resist. In failure, I found a way to repel from myself and from us any form of the injunction to normalcy. In yet another superhuman attempt to not collapse so as not to die, I finally chose to taste death. Never more so than in that hellish fall did I live with my whole self. I gave up everything, the competition, the anguish of failure, the hatred, and anger.
The white father is a huge lie. I will never have one, nor will any of you.
I decided to let everything go. To leave this poisonous and caustic Europe. I decided to escape.
Escape is only called a failure in the language of the master. In the language of the enslaved, to run away is to take the first step toward freedom. The story of the Haitian maroons has left its mark. “Marronage,” originating from the vocabulary of the indigenous Arawaks and Tainos, indicates the enslaveds’ escape from the plantation. Hidden in the mountains, runaway enslaved people formed genuine underground communities—spaces of deep and collective freedom, where they put together forces and strategy and shaped the counterattack. The battle of the Black Jacobins for their liberation had its beginnings in marronage.
I fled a land where I had no roots and once again crossed the waters of salvation. Using the money I had saved for years, today I am taking my father back to Haiti, and I am also returning. I emerge from a vicious circle of a defective madness and an imploding present and affirm with my marronage the possibility of my desires.
Often, after my crises, I told myself that I could do it, that I could take pride in my ability to endure. But it’s not true. I only see myself dying a little more each day as the little contact I knew how to maintain with the world outside my cage of madness shrinks. I swallow questions about who else I might be and I can’t answer myself. Then I wonder why I can’t answer myself and still can’t find an explanation. I am so consumed with the fear of failure that I have begun to kill myself a little bit each day. Just so I don’t admit that I have failed at living.
We left everything behind, and we disappeared. We laid down this unbearably empty legacy, and we stopped enduring.
Dad, let’s go. I’ll take you all the way there, but then I’ll lean on you. I want you to take me to see the house where you were a baby, the places where you played with your friends and your sisters. I would like to see with my own eyes where the aunts lived and for you to tell me a little bit about them. I want to see the school where Grandmother taught and the prison where they kept Grandfather. I want to see where the dissidents held their underground meetings. I want to see the house where you hid before running away to Italy. I would like a close-up view of where Grandfather held you in his arms in that photo that Grandmother only recently showed me.
I want to see the hospital in Port-au-Prince where you were born. In fact, let’s begin this long walk from there. In Italy, you seemed so Black to me, here you appear so white to me . . .
We begin to walk, and we will only stop walking when it feels like we never left.
We walk and we walk until little by little, the reality around me takes form and color. Gradually, my father begins to speak. His memories color the landscape: the still green mountains of Kenscoff, the downhill runs with the dogs, dives in the Artibonite River, the mud and the light breaking through the waterfalls. Let’s walk, Dad, and everything you show me sets into motion: the four wheels of the tap-tap, the women at the market with the full baskets of fruits and poultry on their heads. More distant from us is also the long and profound economic, political, and environmental crisis. I know it, but only vaguely, from your eyes, and I can only see it in the distance. I frown and squint to focus on the horizon and see a mom with her newborn, despair on her face. She puts the newborn in the arms of a white woman, begs her to take care of the child, and disappears. And then again, a man was forcefully pulled out of a bus by two armed men. They shove him into the trunk of a car, and the scene vanishes a second later.
We walk onward, and while we feel the exhaustion of the journey in our lungs and our limping gait, unreal images of the life that we would have lived if we had remained here or had been born here take shape. And what if you grew up and became an adult in Haiti, Dad? What if you became a father here and, holding me, as a baby, in your arms, you had sung goodnight to me in Creole? I brought you here so that you could finally tell me. We walk for days, looking for traces of memories and reflecting on all the reasons they were erased. Almost as if it could return to the present to make an impact, every day, another small piece of this incredibly difficult story emerges. And already, it does make an impact. I feel you beside me like never before. You don’t look at me while you speak, you look ahead, but you talk to me.
In your fullest presence, I realize something for the first time: in your life, you have been my father for longer than you were your father’s son. We begin to slow down and speak in whispers. I don’t even know where my grandfather was buried. You never told me. I only know that you were eighteen years old. That he had already left the family and that he was found dead in France. Yet, no one really knows where nor why. It’s still hard to ask, but I brought you here for this.
We arrive in the center of the capital, in front of the presidential palace, which was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. It is still Sunken in on itself. Instead, after the quake, what has remained intact is the enormous statue that gives this square its name: le Marron Inconnu, the Unknown Maroon, erected in commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the abolishment of slavery. Over eleven feet tall and eight feet wide. The statue’s right knee is on the ground, and its left leg is stretched behind him, a broken shackle on his ankle. His body arches upward and at the same time, with all of its magnitude, proudly occupies the ground underneath his feet. The half-naked body, marked by violence, immortalizes the gesture of the Black Jacobin who, putting a large conch to his lips, called for the revolt of the enslaved peoples in the name of freedom.
Dear Dad, although I don’t know where my grandfather was buried, I inherited more from him than anyone else in this unhinged family. So, now that we are here, I long for only one thing: to organize the most beautiful funeral for Grandfather for the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here, underneath the statue of the Marron Inconnu.
So I raided my old life, delivering a special invitation to those who thought I had vanished forever. It went like this:
After months of silence, I decided to send you this short message to let you know that I am in Haiti with my father and that I would really like you to join me. Even if only for a day: the day of the funeral of my deceased grandfather, my father’s father. If you receive this invitation, it is because you are among the few people who knew, loved, and hated him, or—as is much more likely—because you know virtually nothing about him; only slightly less than I do. It has been years since I celebrated birthdays or other ceremonies. Yet I have a deep desire for this, and I would like for you, who have accompanied me for a lifetime in this troubling path, to be here.
I ask that you join me. To come to learn my roots, which I spent a lifetime missing, with me. I want you here as I celebrate the end and finally prepare for this farewell. If you receive this invitation, it is because you are one of the people who told me, “I am not like you,” and I suffered without knowing how to respond. On this day, I would like you there to celebrate what makes me different from you. And yet, if I am writing to you, it is because you live inside me. It is because you are part of my body, and to find the strength to leap into the future, I ask this body of mine, I ask you, to consider me starting from my passion for life, from my vital strength of desire.
It was an exhausting wait. In the square underneath the statue, my father and I awaited them one by one. Then the conch rang, and all our loved ones huddled around us—sisters, friends, cousins, professors, mothers, doctors, and colleagues. We were surrounded by intense connections from the past, the loves of my life, comrades in the struggle. First, all the people who knew my grandfather spoke: each story that flowed finally gave us back the sense of nostalgia, the toils and anxieties, the failed failures. Witness after witness, my roots absorbed the nourishment and, coiled around them, a new flower bloomed in the middle of my belly. It was the most intense celebration of my life. After several days of going deep into my family history, the Haitian syndrome began to dissolve. It gave way to an unrestrained passion for the life that I had. To this grandfather without a history, to the one who, for me, was just a brown face in marker on a notebook, I dedicate the struggle that I chose, or perhaps that I finally took on.
Goodbye, Grandfather. “Goodbye, Father,” my dad said. Or thank you. Thank you to all the Jacobins who came before you: cowards, traitors, fools, and failures. Long live you nameless fugitives, who lie nowhere because that conch still resounds inside me.
The disease collapsed in a scream of deep rage, it was expelled from our nonexistent bodies, and it spat on its creators. That scream lasted for days, weeks, and then years. In the end, the last exhaled scream of rage began to trudge until it turned into a syncopated sound, more and more similar to roaring laughter.
We died from laughing, we were reborn from laughing, we laughed until we cried a river of laughter. And then again, the tears swelled with sorrow. We flooded the world with our suffering. Yet, finally, we let it drain away. The anger had breached the banks of that island of nonexistence. We released our pathology, shed our restraints. And we finally found the words to speak of our most passionate desires.
From “Abbiamo pianto un fiume di risate.” © Marie Moïse. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah. All rights reserved.