Despite a difficult start as a Haitian adoptee in Duluth, MN, Al Sands channeled his Haitian roots into successful boxing and cooking avocations.
DULUTH, Minn. — When the baby boy was 18 months old in Haiti, a single white woman adopted and moved him to a primarily-white area of Minnesota. By his early 20s, that adoptee had come to be known in the boxing circuit as “The Haitian Temptation.” In between is a range of peaks and valleys depicting the life and times of Al Sands, now 36.
Sands, born Gregory Sean Noel, has never been to Haiti. Never tasted soup joumou. Doesn’t have a lot of Haitian friends. And yet, the Floodwood, Minn. man has developed “Haitian Heat” – his own hot sauce created, in part, from a hunger to recognize his Haitian roots.
That’s the magic of Haiti for Sands. It may be so, perhaps, for other Haitians who find themselves “stranded” or “othered” in parts of America where Haiti and Haitian culture can feel far away, even exotic. Haitian-born Americans like Sands often don’t feel grounded until they discover a connection between their past and present.
Sands found boxing. And like his sauce, he again linked himself to Haiti, calling himself the “Haitian Temptation.”
“I love the different athletic disciplines that it takes to be good at this sport,” said Sands. “I love the fact that everybody’s respectful. I really love the social aspect of the sport, that I don’t think gets enough credit. Especially for the kids that may be lost or have no guidance or maybe don’t fit in team sports. Yeah, boxing definitely, definitely, changed my life.”
A difficult youth
The youngest of four, Sands was adopted, like his siblings, from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. His adoptive mother, Gloria Sands, took her new son and a baby girl, who she later adopted from Colombia, back to her home. The family lived in the well-to-do east side of Duluth, a city of 85,000 known as much for its shipping port on Lake Superior and for its separation by water or forests from everything else.
Minnesota’s Black population is only 6.6 percent of its 5.6 million residents. It has a Haitian population statewide of 2,016, according to ZipAtlas, a marketing firm that has developed a website showing estimated counts of people by ethnicity.
Being a young Black person in Duluth, where residents had little experience with people of color, Sands said, was a struggle.
For years, the ruling advice for parents who adopted children of a race or culture different from theirs was “to love and raise them from a ‘colorblind’ perspective, according to “Parenting in Racially and Culturally Diverse Adoptive Families,” a factsheet from Child Welfare Information Gateway. However, adults raised by parents who ignored their racial and cultural origins, acknowledged their journeys to a healthy identity could be lonely and confusing — even traumatic.
Sands recognized his own differences.
“I was like a raisin in a bowl of cheerios,” Sands said in a phone interview in late July. “I was still sweet and delicious, but I was definitely the outcast,” referring to both his color and the troubles he encountered as a Black adolescent male.
As a middle schooler, Sands was often singled out for troubles in which he had not acted alone. He sought advice from his mother, but she didn’t know how to effectively counsel him. Eventually, he was placed in foster care.
Tim Myles, a retired linebacker for the Cleveland Browns who is Black, and his wife, Jennifer, had parented two boys in Floodwood, a village of 500 west of Duluth. They took Sands as foster parents into their home, where he felt loved and supported by both the Myles’ family and the smaller, welcoming community of Floodwood.
Sands played football, basketball, track and field, then eventually tried boxing. He stayed with the last. He won the Golden Gloves in 2010, went pro soon after and took both state and national titles subsequently.
The Mayor of Duluth proclaimed February 18, 2022 – a date coinciding with his Cruiserweight Title – Al Sands Day.
In parallel, Sands built a reputation with youth groups, like Northwoods Children’s Services and local school districts, and developed his own boxing mentorship program. Coaching kids became a natural offshoot of Sands’ interests, talents and close relationship with the boxing community.
“I know what it’s like not to have any support. I know exactly how to support these kids,” Sands said.
Sands’ lifelong friend, Tod Urban, has watched Sands from their teenage years onward. He recognizes Sands’ ability to turn adversity into a learning experience and to help all sorts of others, including Urban.
“He’s like his own YouTube channel in the sense that he’s all positive self-talk,” said Urban.
Finding a cultural connection worth passing on
Being of Haitian descent wasn’t a part of Sands upbringing, as no one in his adopted area knew much about Haiti. At one point, he tried to raise funds to help himself afford a trip to his homeland, but the organizer stole the money. He has yet to visit.
Still, it’s not unusual for adoptees from Haiti to have a desire to visit their homeland or otherwise experience the culture. Lanise Antoine Shelley, an adoptee advocate, said adoptees from another country often have nothing to remind them of where they came from. Shelley, herself born in Haiti and adopted by an American white woman, has seen many try to capture that missing piece in their own way.
“We, as adoptees, have been made to fit in for so long, to assimilate, to be agreeable, to be likable,” said Shelley, host of the podcast,“When They Were Young: Amplifying Voices of Adoptees.
“Now we’re given the opportunity to strike back at that with a positive spin, which is, ‘No, I’m going to lean into who I am,’” she continued. “When [an adoptee] starts from nothing, sometimes you overcompensate, sometimes you course correct, but it is in the pursuit of finding a deeper sense of belonging, a deeper sense of identity and a deeper sense of ‘I am okay.’”
Sands’ successes as a boxer grew and he wanted a unique brand — not just to be another Black man boxing. He chose the name “Haitian Temptation,” to give both a positive spin to his work and a nod to his culture.
In 2020, he learned from his girlfriend that he had a child on the way. Sands wanted to pass on to his future daughter something which wasn’t a type of combat.
“I wanted to build something that was non-damaging to the body, and to build a positive reputation, build a positive business, build a positive brand,” Sands said.
Cooking, part of his weight management program, was necessary to his boxing success. Friends were already demanding access to his barbecue sauce recipes and, so, he created “Haitian Heat.”
Sands sold 4,300 bottles of his signature sauce its first day at the Duluth Farmers’ Market, a success he willingly attributes to his boxing fame. Since then, numerous food trucks in Florida, New York and Los Angeles have become customers. It’s a staple in area restaurants like Caddy Shack, OMC Smokehouse and the Duluth Grill, according to Sands.
“It was wild and really turned into a thing,” said Sands. “It turned out exactly the way that I wanted — for my daughter to have something that wasn’t athletics. She can be any kind of person at all — just follow this recipe and go make money.”
Out of tragedy, an education opportunity rises
Around the time Sands was starting “Haitian Heat,” the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis – a mere 155 miles away from Sands’ home – took place. The ensuing conversations about race put a spotlight on the boxer. Friends asked him about being a Black man in Minnesota and a local Duluth TV station even interviewed Sands.
“Imagine trying to build a business as a locally well-known person and then trying to raise a family,” said Sands, looking back. “When everywhere you go, people are looking at you like you’re gonna steal from them, that you’re gonna do something bad.
“So one of the things I always say is ‘[Imagine] that a person might own a business, they might have kids, they might buy their house, they might help kids, they might coach your kids.’ [ Then I ask], ‘But you’re gonna treat them badly because they look different?’”
Over the years, Sands has met a few people with a Haitian background. He even met someone from the orphanage where he was adopted. The music director at University of Minnesota at Duluth is Haitian and includes Haitian music in concert performance selections.
Between that Haitian presence, albeit small, and openness of Minnesotans to learn more about his unique experiences, Sands is pleased with the differences taking place.
“What has changed over the years is that [the Duluth area] is much more welcoming to different cultures that aren’t all Caucasian,” Sands said.
All that, mixed with his family, career and business accomplishments, leaves Sands with a sense of contentment in his forever home.
“Life has been good,” he said.
This story is made possible through the support of the Ford Foundation.
An earlier version of this story indicated Al Sands’ birth name was Doughdon. That was his birth mother’s first name. The article has been corrected to Gregory Sean Noel.
In that same story version, Sands’ foster father, Tim Myles was said to be a defensive end for the Cleveland Browns. His position has been corrected to linebacker.