Papa, Patriarchy, and Power: Snapshots of a Good Haitian Girl, Feminism, & Dyasporic Dreams

By Ulysse, Gina Athena | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Papa, Patriarchy, and Power: Snapshots of a Good Haitian Girl, Feminism, & Dyasporic Dreams


Ulysse, Gina Athena, Journal of Haitian Studies


(ProQuest-CSA LLC: ... denotes text missing in the original.)

Decked Out with an Attitude

On my writing desk, there is a picture of myself standing on sundried grass at what was then called the Duvalier Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I am dressed in a red sleeveless leisure suit that Mother, a couturière, had created-she always made some of our clothes. A long brown sling purse rests against my right hip. Both hands are folded gingerly on top of the hard leather in front of one of the four white lace trimmed pockets that decorate the tunic. My visible white socks are encased in a pair of sturdy brown leather shoes that Papa brought from Evanston, IL. There are three of us siblings. All girls. Whenever Father visited, he returned with gifts (especially shoes and jewelry) that soon became symbols of differentiation among our peers. Around my neck, a thin gold chain with a small medallion falls in between the unevenly starched Peter Pan collar. Father had also brought that for me. Except for the time when he forgot, he always brings three of everything, one for each of us. My hair is neatly coiffed, separated in sections that form three large braids: one on each side and a big one on top. Two fluffy white double bows and colorful barrettes hold my hair down on each side. The emotions on my face are a combination of undeniable disinterest and suspicion. On the back of the photo, his elongated script reads:

Très bien Gina... Mais il faux que tu parles avec ton papa sur la cassette. Ok. Ton papa.

Well done Gina... but you must speak to your father on the tape. Ok. Your father.

I keep the photograph there on my desk because it contains the earliest family documentation of my confrontations with Papa's patriarchal power.

Over the years, I have fought to reclaim memories that verify my defiance, as these make me even more cognizant of the hidden transcripts that underlie what I would later recognize as my staunch feminist practices and ideals. However, it is the photos (we have tons), letters (written by Father to his mother) which my older sister found years ago, and nostalgic remembrances among the siblings that are indisputable evidence of how we grew up in Haiti, a patriarchal republic, outmaneuvered by masculine power, despite an "absentee" father who had migrated to the U.S.1 Indeed, his presence was always felt. His remittances paid for our education, our clothes, food, and healthcare. His inconsistency and especially our numerous illnesses contributed to our wavering social standing.

After several failed attempts on Father's part to gain permanent residency for us as a family, we all received residency status. As is customary of U.S. Immigration, on occasions Mother had been offered a green card that she rejected as she refused to leave us behind. On March 3, 1978, we boarded an American Airlines jet and finally landed at JFK Airport. We arrived in NYC to live with a man who had not been physically present in our daily lives for nearly a decade. Needless to say, there would be confrontations. Indeed, the power battles were frequent and exaggerated by the language barrier and other intergenerational culture clashes.

While this piece concerns the lives of five individuals (my mother, father, two sisters, and me), I focus on my experience and consciously avoid commenting on theirs; they have their own perspective on these events. In spite of my aversion to discussing their viewpoints and feelings, I am only too aware that I will be (reconstructing all of our lives. Yet, I write this in my father's name knowing the broader complications that this entails.21 take full responsibility for the views I present here and acknowledge them solely as mine.

In this auto-ethnographic montage, I revisit the development of my feminist consciousness as a young Haitian teen in the United States in the aftermath of migration. I interpret my struggles with my parents' patriarchal authority as oppositional to their attempt to protect their investments in us as their social capital. …

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