Two Haitian American boys — Marcus, in yellow shirt, and Jean-Luc — at the West Indian Labor Day Parade & Carnival in Brooklyn, N.Y., in September 2022. Photo courtesy of Macollvie J. Neel

BROOKLYN—My kids, 10 and 6, have a tendency to ask the most obvious, yet poignant questions. It’s generally a good thing to have curious children, but man, can it get awkward. One of our more typical Q&A moments happened a couple weekends ago, at the Haitian Culture Day celebration in Flatbush. Tabou Combo had just started singing “Ayiti Cherie,” and the crowd took up the lyrics at “a la kontan m kontan, aswè ya m nan peyi m.” (how happy am I, tonight I’m in my country) When the crowd belted out “Ayito, a la m kontan weww - o” (Haiti, I’m so happy to see you) into a crescendo – with their voices and arms rising as bodies began swaying – the 10-year-old wanted to know why everyone was so excited.

“What are they singing about, mom,” he asked.

“It’s a song about how great it is to see and be in Haiti,” I told him

“Why aren’t they singing it there?”

Woyyy, men li! There it is.

And, also…ouch.

Truth be told, I, too, felt like the song was out of tune. When Tabou got to “Port-au-Prince, a la m t’anvi wew,(I wanted to see you) the thought that flashed in my mind was, ‘hmmm, these days, not so much.’ So I kinda got it, and I said something to the kids about Haiti being tough to visit safely now, as they know, but that doesn't mean Haitians don’t still love it and want to go there someday.

Now, my boys ask about Haiti pretty often. Usually, they want to hear stories about growing up there, climbing mango trees I wasn’t supposed to as a girl, getting “the whip” or being sent a genoux (kneeling on the floor as punishment) for throwing rocks or sneaking off to the river to see if the water monsters were real. These are typical hallmarks of my childhood in Haiti’s countryside. They also ask when we can go on vacation there.

Again, ouch. Ugh.

So as they’ve grown more curious about Haiti, my answer has been some variation of ‘We’ll go when it’s a little safer.” But with time ticking away and Haiti not getting safer – and watching as some of our teens and young adults feeling less and less connected – I’ve had to be more intentional about infusing Haitian culture beyond the day-to-day. Being with grandma and the aunts and uncles is great, but it’s not enough as they grow older. I felt like I had to bring the culture to them since they couldn’t go to it.

The author, Macollvie J. Neel, with her sons Marcus, left, and Jean-Luc, right, on their way to the West Indian Labor Day Parade & Carnival in Brooklyn, N.Y., in September 2022. Courtesy photo.

With digital tools to search and connect to the culture, I’ve had some help strengthening the links.

That’s why a few months ago, I cracked open a book I had bought 10 years ago called “When Night Falls, Kric! Krac!: Haitian Folktales.” It’s been an amazing opener to two worlds – storytelling and the version of Haitian culture I remember! At first, the book was too dense for baby bedtime stories. But over time, as they’ve expanded their reading and I’ve gotten over reading bedtime stories every night, this book is a great substitute for the storytime hours I had, sitting in a row on our porch in Saint Michel, with the moonlight and stars illuminating our faces, enraptured by some tale of lougarou or Bouki ak Malis. My kids won’t know the joy of falling asleep under tropical nights so warm, you mingle with the characters in the stories as you drift off.

The next best thing, then, is to try to pass on as many of the great memories and unique parts of our history, canons, and oral storytelling as possible. It’s a lifelong gift I think my kids will enjoy even if we never make it to Haiti before they have kids.

Obviously, the number one thing is to infuse your household with Haitian music, food and art. Taking them to grandma and grandpa’s house, if that’s an option for you, is even better so they get tasty Haitian food, pick up some Creole and chill with cousins. Ultimately though, it really comes down to you not being shy about your upbringing, your memories and why Haiti is special to you even when we can't get there physically. It’s about giving them a view of the country or your Haitian household all year-round, not just during Independence Day or Haitian Flag Day.

It’s about infusing and supporting that part of their identity holistically, and presenting new aspects or contexts through age-appropriate conversations, materials and experiences. Yes, it’s yet another duty for moms, but a welcome one.

Macollvie J. Neel, a writer and communications consultant, serves as executive editor of Go West Now. Her company Comms Maven LLC helps mission-driven professionals and organizations tell their stories in workplaces and media spaces. Her professional development ebook — Scripts for Success: Workplace Communication Templates to Advance Your Career — is available on Bookboon.

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