Sugarcane and Magic

"Haitian Landscape", painting by David X Young, Haiti, 1955

I wish I had more time to write. I have so many posts swirling in my head at all times. I write and rewrite them over and over in my mind but rarely do I have a moment I can sit down and compose them. Often I have to jot them in spurts on paper… which is what I am doing now.

For more than a year I have wanted to introduce another section, another culture to my blog by writing about my childhood in Haiti.

Technically that’s not accurate as I didn’t spend my “childhood” in Haiti, nor as Steve Martin says in The Jerk was I “born a poor black child.” But what is true is that I went to Haiti three times as a child, first in 1976 for six weeks and twice more in 1978 and 1980 for three months each. Although my total time in Haiti was less than eight months of my entire childhood, what I experienced in Haiti, and the impact in had on my life is immeasurable. Case in point, as an adult I moved to the other half of the same island of Hispaniola that Haiti shares and lived there for eight years. I am still grieving my departure.

My father, David X Young, first went to Haiti in 1955 after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to paint there. Drawn by the African rhythms, French influence and tropical climate, my father fell in love with Haiti and returned there nearly every two years until his passing in 2001. In Haiti, my father painted furiously, drank plenty of Barbancourt rum and enjoyed the beautiful women. He found the island enchanting and a muse for many creative projects.

"Homfort", painting by David X Young of a Voodoo temple, Haiti, 1976

In 1976, when I was only nine, my father decided it was time to introduce me to his great love. I was living with my mother under her custody and after many negotiations, she agreed to let me go with him on the premise that she would go to Haiti as well three weeks later.

My life up until then had been intense and tumultuous. First hospitalized at three months for an overdose of Vitamin A, I was in the hospital so much as a child that it felt like a second home. Family life was intense as well since my parents had become enemies since my infancy and the custody battle was bitter. In 1976 I was living with my mother in Blue Hill, Maine with my brother Jacob who was just a toddler. My mother and her second husband were not getting along and soon separated. She was pregnant with my second brother Gabriel.

As happens in families, I felt like I wasn’t getting enough attention at home. At school I was either completely ignored or teased mercilessly by my classmates because of the way I walked. I felt like I wasn’t wanted anywhere and didn’t fit in. So even though I had no idea what to expect, I was excited to go to Haiti mostly because I was going to be somewhere different than where I was. But I had no idea how different…

Haitian Carnival, 1956 — photo by David X Young

My first memories of Haiti are filled with color, inquisitive hands, dark faces with flashes of white eyes and teeth, ripe fruit and music. Squalor and vibrance were side by side, all moving to the beat of drums. In Haiti I felt awake in a beautiful dream. There were no custody court dates, no doctors testing and probing, no classmates jeering, no one asking me what was wrong with my leg. In the United States complete strangers would ask me what was wrong with my leg. It made me feel vulnerable and naked. If it was an adult who asked I felt like I had to tell them but I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to be defined by my physical limits. Yet a little girl with a limp was all I was… over there.

In Haiti I was a magic child with magic hair — long, blonde, straight hair that all the kids wanted to touch. Little kids, many as dark as I had ever seen, often naked, always without shoes, and distended bellies which at the time just made them look comical versus sad. To me they weren’t poor, starving children — they were playful imps with outstretched hands always reaching for me while constant smiling,  finding joy in the simplest of things. In Haiti I was not “imperfect” but exotic, exciting and completely welcome. It was such a special feeling.

I embraced Haiti immediately, learning to chomp on the sugarcane until the sweet juices flowed, accepting magic as an every day occurrence, and having oodles of adventures. I have so many stories to share…

"Black Popeye", photo by David X Young

So it is no wonder that 26 years after my first visit, when I was invited to teach a summer class at Altos de Chavón in the Dominican Republic, I felt so much at home. Even though the Dominican Republic is a very different political animal than Haiti, from my memories as a child, there was a lot of similarities: same colors, same light, same music (Merengue), same fruits…same island. I was flooded with sense memories and I knew I wanted to stay.

"Eliza Nine", painting by David X Young

If it wasn’t for Haiti I would never have moved to the Dominican Republic, that seems obvious to me. But Haiti’s influence was even more profound. Because of my childhood experiences in Haiti, where I felt more at home than I did in my own county, I was forever drawn to other cultures and other places. Ever since I remember I have wanted to live outside the United States, not because I didn’t like my country but because I was so fascinate with other places. So I feel like I spent my childhood in Haiti, or at least the most important part. Now, as part of a multicultural family, I see how much it has shaped me into who I am today.

Posted by

Eliza Alys Young, aka CreativEliza, is a free spirit, world traveler, creative expert, and part of multicultural family… Eliza shares her time between the US, Dominican Republic and beyond. When she is not caring for her high-energy kids, writing her poetry or for her blog, creating art or cooking up a storm, she is designing for her own company, Design Intense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *