- Despite a decent overall job of explaining the significance of Jean-Robert Cadet's memoir Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American in her Journal of Haitian Studies article (Spring 2005, Volume 11, Number 1) entitled "The Restavek Condition: Jean-Robert Cadet's Disclosure," Professor Lucia Suarez could have done a better job of researching some of the details in the piece.
- Briefly, Jn-Robert Cadet is the unrecognized son of a haitian businessman of syro-lebanese descent --"Blan Philippe"--and a haitian woman who worked in one of his factories. Let's just say Cadet's story is parallel to Bob Marley's in that regard (apparently rich white father, black uneducated mother). However, unlike Bob Marley who by and large was raised by his mother, Cadet was raised by a woman believed to be Blan Philippe's mistress at the instigation of Blan Philippe himself. Whadayaknow, instead of raising him properly (Blan Philippe provided money sporadically), the woman raises --for lack of a better word-- Cadet as an unpaid child domestic, a "restavek" as Haitians say.
- I read the book years ago and it is quite touching. Essentially, Cadet describes the factual and psychological blow-by-blow of how before he could even walk properly he was reduced to a state of quasi-servitude, developing a self-obliterating servile mindset that followed him in his adult endeavors, so ingrained it became. Cadet rose above it against great odds, joining the US Army shortly after migrating to the US and later becoming a schoolteacher in the Midwest.
Slave Narrative a la Frederick Douglass?
- Suarez places the memoir in the tradition of the African-American slave narrative a la Frederick Douglass. Fair enough. She sees it as falling in an American tradition of "here is how I became a person and a man" narratives, belonging mostly to former slaves. She also places the book in stark opposition to previous accounts of restavek life in Haitian literature. She mentions "Zoune chez sa Nainainne" by Justin Lherisson, she also mentions Maurice Sixto's "Ti Saintanise." She concludes that aside from Sixto's work, most Haitian fictional accounts of the subject have done a poor job of leading the reader to empathize with restaveks. (My memory would indicate differently but this one will have to lie for now as most of the novels are out of print.)
- She mentions rightly that haitian society being so personalistic i.e. "regardless of your accomplishments, you are who your parents are," the aspect of the memoir in which Cadet admits to his unfortunate status as a slave child falls more in line with the American literary canon than Haitian or Caribbean literature. Here she hits the nail on the head. (It is worth mentioning that Dumas Simeus' framing of himself as a rags to riches son of haitian peasants turned Texas multimillionaire CEO also breaks with Haitian tradition in that he too uncharacteristically frames his humble origins as a strength.)
Blan Philippe as Nineteenth Century Slave Master?
- Where Prof. Suarez loses me in her analysis is when she explains Blan Philippe's abandonment of his son by placing it in the tradition of nineteenth century slave masters who fathered children with slaves. Namely:
- "Blinded by the need for his father's recognition, Cadet does not understand the complicated legacy of slavery his situation reproduces. Philippe will never accept the paternity for a child he had out of wedlock with a black woman, a woman he never would have married. Cadet is rejected throughout his life because of the attitudes of nineteenth-century slave-owners toward their female slaves..." (p.35)
- Here despite all the good juices I had flowing while reading the article, my bullshit-o-meter started blaring. There was no slavery in Haiti in the nineteenth century, the country having become independent in 1804 and slavery having been abolished there by the likes of Toussaint as early as the 1790s. But let's assume it's just a typo and the author meant to say eighteenth century slave master. And, let's focus on how her analysis, despite the typo, is just faulty. To my recollection, Blan Philippe is a Haitian of Syrian descent, not a local mulatto or a descendant of slave masters. That in itself may not wash him of Haitian culture since he is first and foremost a Haitian but it bears mentioning-- and analyzing. Cadet himself mentioned his father's arab ancestry in the book, if my memory serves me correctly.
Twenty-First Century Realities?
- So many Haitian men of all walks of life raise children out of wedlock and fail to hide their connection to these children that Prof. Suarez' analysis is beyond caricature. To this day it is not uncommon for men, especially rich men, to proudly support several households. In fact it is fair to say that Blan Philippe believed he was in some way providing for Cadet by removing him from his factory-worker birth mother and placing him in a more comfortable urban home with a seemingly more upwardly mobile woman. I don't endorse that logic but neither do I get most Haitian or Caribbean attitudes toward child-raising. (I suspect the throngs of Caribbean children whose parents leave them behind with relatives or acquaintances while they go look for a better life in the United States would agree.) It is simply false that Haitian men like Blan Philippe "never accept paternity" for children like Cadet. But we also need to account for the racial element here.
- As it turns out, many upper-class Haitian men of Arab descent marry women of very visible African ancestry --of the urban bourgeoisie, granted-- so again on this account, the analysis fails. (I can think of over four prominent Haitian-Syrians married to Haitian women of very very visible African descent, the most notorious of which was late businessman Antoine Izmery who was killed in a political murder in the early 90's.)
- But what about class? Though I know of no data on cross class marriage in Haiti, cross class child bearing is very common, poverty being so rampant. Many Haitian families raise or actively participate in the raising (especially the education) of children fathered by overtestosteroned men. Often, women in the family take it upon themselves to look after the "pitit deyo" of male relatives.
- Blan Philippe being an individual, many factors may have lead to his choice to reject Cadet. Haiti is definitely a classist and colorist society but that fact or attitudes of eighteenth century slave masters cannot alone explain the intricacies of Philippe and Cadet's life in the twentieth! What more recent sociological developments could be at play here? What personal psychological factors could be at play? How does Duvalierism or the Noirisme that emerged in the 40s alter those eighteenth century dynamics?
Jean-Robert Cadet - Jean-Robert Cadet -Restavek
- Haiti - Caribbean
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