During Haitian Heritage Month, The Haitian Times is running these mini-profiles that look at how different people experience being Haitian in America. Have a story to share? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
During his senior year in high school in 2016, a friend saw Caleb François’s last name on the ID badge hanging around his neck. Curious, the friend asked François if he was French. François immediately felt trapped between those walls of insecurity again.
The Haiti that François, of Bradenton, Florida, heard many non-Haitians describing was that it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the one cursed by Vodou. It was also the country others falsely claimed brought AIDS to the United States.
Although he didn’t subscribe to the negative narratives about his parents’ home country, that version of Haiti other people believed made him feel ashamed.
“I was like ‘I’m French, yeah,’” said François who was 18 at the time. “When the nation of which you are descended from is constantly being portrayed as horrible, it becomes difficult to embrace it. Everything I heard, every image about the nation was always negative.”
Since those teenage days, François has grown to adore Haiti and is the founder of a Haitian club at his college, The George Washington University. Like many young Haitian-Americans coming of age, François overcame the shame of being associated with Haiti and now proudly represents his country.
The turning point for François came when he heard other students at Southeast High speaking positively about their countries of origin. He later began learning about the positive aspects of Haiti through books and documentaries. During his first year of college, François had graduated into being a proud Haitian-American. He has since memorized Haiti’s national anthem and visited Haiti.
“Most of my peers were always so proud to discuss their heritage,” François said. “I went to school with Indian-Americans, Filipino-Americans. But me as a Haitian-American, it was something [I] didn’t discuss. I hated that.”
When he got to college, François embraced being Haitian. “I was tired of being ashamed of who I am,” he said.
As François dove into books like “The Avengers of the New World” and “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History” he couldn’t help to be proud of leaders of the Haitian Revolution like Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture, whom he memorized his final words. He was mesmerized by the resilience of the people, among other features of his ancestors.
François, whose father emigrated from Haiti in 1991 and mother is Haitian-American, said he also learned that many of the stories he heard about Haiti were exaggerated.
“Had I been more aware of how rich and beautiful Haitian Heritage is, it probably wouldn’t be an insecurity to begin with,” François said.
François fully connected with being of Haitian origin when he took a trip to Port-au-Prince, Saint-Marc and Cap-Haitien, where he visited the Citadelle Laferrière, an historical site, in 2016.
“Peyi pòv men peyi dous,” said François, quoting a Creole saying that a lady in Haiti shared with him. “A poor country but a sweet country.”
Upon his return, François felt compelled to express his love for Haiti with other people. In 2020, the International Affairs student founded The George Washington University Haitian Alliance club.
“I’m committed to my mountain now,” said François, referring to Haiti being a mountainous land. “Nobody can take that fire away from me.”