Haitian Cultural Stories and Immigration Experience in America

In 2009 the Brooklyn Children’s Museum did a program on Haiti cultural exchange titled:  Krik? Krak! Storytelling & Songs at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The program was the first in a series of cultural programs focusing on oral history traditions.[1] Caroline’s Wedding a chapter in Krik? Krak!, explores the themes of cultural betweeness and assimilation of Haitian immigrant women who are trying to maintain their traditions while forming their identity in America. However, one should remember that these stories are not just Haitian stories. They are important for us to learn about the experiences of people who are part of our communities, and whose struggles reflect the story of American immigrants throughout history.

In Caroline’s Wedding, the two sisters Grace and Caroline live with their mother. While Caroline is an American citizen, her sister Grace is not. Grace says that when her parents were in Haiti they worried about having more children and struggling to take care of them. Her father decided to marry an American woman in order to get citizenship and be able to bring his family to America. This is one of the controversial issues of immigration, people are desperate to come to America and will marry American citizens in order to come here and get their family to America.

Although it seems dubious for people to get married to become citizens it demonstrates the lengths that people like Grace’s father will go to in order to bring his family to America and have a better life. Their desperation to become American has consequences for their own families and for society. Grace’s feelings towards getting her passport and becoming an American citizen depicts the feelings many refugees and immigrants feel about becoming citizens in this country. When she received her passport Grace stated that “For the first time in my life, I felt truly secure living in America,… we had all paid dearly for this piece of paper, this final assurance that I belonged in the club.”[2]

Both Caroline and her mother rely on Grace to support them in their differences. Caroline is marrying an American and does not want a traditional Haitian wedding. Her mother disapproves of Eric, because he is Bahamian, not Haitian and is struggling to realize that her daughter is happy with him. Their mother is afraid that Eric wants to marry her to become noble and to raise his social standing in America. She is very superstitious and makes soup hoping that the soup will make Caroline not want to marry Eric. Her mother would like Caroline to marry a Haitian man, and have a Haitian wedding. Caroline is having an “outside of church wedding and her mother says, “so much like America, everything mechanical.”[3] But throughout the story, she slowly accepts their marriage.

Another example is when Grace attends church with her mother. Her mother mourns for the refugees of Haiti who died at sea, and struggles with the fact that her children are assimilating into American culture. Grace feels more connected to her roots and feels empathy towards the Haitian refugees, while her sister does not attend church. Grace also reports having several dreams of her father when they are preparing for Caroline’s wedding. These dreams are symbolic of Grace’s cultural betweenness. Grace feels more connected to her Haitian roots than Caroline. Grace struggles to keep her Haitian stories, traditions, and history alive while assimilating and learning how to be an American. She is proud of getting her passport and that is something her family has always wanted and strived for, but she also wants to remember the stories, jokes, and advice of her family and her Haitian roots.

Grace demonstrates the cultural betweenness that many immigrants feel coming to a new country and trying to assimilate into a new cultural but also maintaining their roots. Grace feels like she is the in between child, having been raised when her parents were struggling to come to America.

This story brings up questions about what it is like to be an immigrant in America and to aspire to have American citizenship, culture, and opportunities. What does Grace and Caroline want to aspire to? Do they want the marriage and lifestyle of American women that Caroline has, or the educational opportunities that we often take for granted? Refugees often come to America with fear and hope for new opportunities. After reading this chapter, I think we should consider the opportunities or privileges we take for granted as American citizens.

Photograph from Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Archive: Krik? Krak! Storytelling & Songs at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. http://haiticulturalx.org/archive-krikkrak-storytelling-songs .[4]

[1] Reginae M. Roumain. “Archive:  Krik? Krak! Storytelling & Songs at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.”

Haiti Cultural Exchange. Brooklyn Children’s Museum. 10 August 2012. http://haiticulturalx.org/archive-krikkrak-storytelling-songs.

[2] Edwidge Danticat. Krik? Krak! “Caroline’s Wedding” pg. 214.

[3] Edwidge Danticat. Krik? Krak! “Caroline’s Wedding” pg. 197.

[4] Regine M. Roumain.  Archive: Krik? Krak! Storytelling & Songs at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Brooklyn Children’s Museum. 10 August 2012. http://haiticulturalx.org/archive-krikkrak-storytelling-songs

14 thoughts on “Haitian Cultural Stories and Immigration Experience in America

  1. The most fascinating thing I found with Krik Kak was the fact that the girls had chosen to avoid their wearing their red panties. They decided to welcome their father’s spirit. I wonder if that was them being teenagers or Americanized?

  2. I’m curious about the reception to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s programs about Krik? Krak! Exploring oral history traditions is a great idea, but I’d like to know more about how the museum connected the stories of Haitian immigrants to modern-day life. How did their audience engage with the material? Was it well-received?

    You make a good point about how these stories are not just stories of Haitian immigrants, but they reflect immigrant experiences throughout American history. Each person who comes to this country has a unique story, and we should honor that, but there are definitely similarities in their experiences.

  3. Falicia, I also found the scene where Grace gets her passport in the mail significant, especially in juxtaposition to Caroline’s marriage. The piece of paper affirming Grace as a citizen is comforting and evokes feelings of pride in Mrs. Azile, and yet Caroline’s new, assumed identity through marriage is disconcerting to her: “‘That will never be my daughter’s name,’ she said, ‘because it was not the way I intended her name to be said'” (187). In Mrs. Azile’s estimation it is acceptable to become “American” by becoming a citizen but she still expects her children to remain true to their Haitian roots through marriage. Mrs. Azile seems to want her daughters to walk a fine line between remaining Haitian and becoming American.

    1. Falicia, I have never heard the phrase “cultural betweenness” but I think that is a very accurate way to verbalize the conflicting Haitian and American identities presented in this short story. Like Emily, I want to learn more about Krik? Krak! I have been trying to do more research on the program but I could only find this: http://haiticulturalx.org/archive-krikkrak-storytelling-songs. Could anybody find a good description of the program?

  4. I found Grace to be such an interesting character in this story. She was truly the support system for both her mother and her younger sister because of her “cultural betweeness.” Mrs. Azile is still Haitian to the core, with her traditional bone soup, and superstitions about how to properly mourn her husband’s death. She and Grace have their special talks at night when Grace explains to her mother why Caroline makes the choices that she does in regards to her upcoming marriage. On the other side we have Caroline who is a typical American girl who never had to worry about deportation, or any other stress of an immigrant. She too depends on Grace to explain why her mother is being so difficult about her marriage. I think in many ways, life was most difficult for Grace because she vaguely remembers life in Haiti, and understands her mother’s struggles, but she also grew up in America and wants the rights that Caroline enjoys. I thought this story was a wonderful view into the struggles of an immigrant family. Falicia, I think you said it exactly right when you said this is not just a Haitian immigration story, but also a story very much universal to immigrants from all over the world.

    1. Caitlin, I really enjoyed your post because you were discussing this idea of being from both worlds. I found this the most striking element in the story. This idea that Grace is Haitian and has memories from there, while also beginning this life in America. I think that this role she plays between her mother and sister helps to express some of the difficulty with immigration. It’s important to be able to come to America and experience all it has to offer if that’s what you want, but you also need to feel that it’s okay to hold onto these other traditions. Grace’s mother and sister clearly sat on different sides of the fence, but it is important for Grace to feel comfortable holding onto pieces of both worlds.

    2. I agree, you capture both sides beautifully. I would think that Grace would be extremely jealous of the fact that her sister was born with the rights of a citizen. But, Grace sees and understand the big picture, which helps her to help her family navigate their differences.

    3. I also found Grace to have the most difficult life in terms of balancing two sides. Her mother and sister have different lives – from religion to tradition – and Grace tries to bridge their two worlds. I thought using a sister as such a bridge was an interesting idea, as Grace and Caroline are from the same generation but have such different ideas because of where they were raised. Even though I’m not a recent immigrant, I was able to empathize with Grace’s feelings of bringing together different family members.

  5. Caitlin, you bring up the family’s superstitions, which I found to be a very compelling point of the piece. Grace and Caroline’s mother is so adamant that the girls drink their bone soup and wear the appropriate mourning clothes and she is met with resistance and defiance. Were they doing so because they truly did not believe in the superstitions or because they did not want to identify with their Haitian roots in that way?

  6. Caitlin and Melissa, I really enjoyed your exploration of Caroline and Grace’s relationship with their mother and their culture. To me Caroline and Grace clearly represented the struggles immigrants and first generation Americans deal with today. Grace herself is an immigrant, and can hold on a lot closer to her Haitian culture while Caroline was born in America and never had to deal with the struggles of not being a citizen as the rest of her family did. Grace holds on tight to her culture, and wants to maintain her strong relationship with her Haitian roots, while Caroline seems to want to be an American and not follow the traditions her mother would like her to. The story of these two girls’ struggle reflects a very accurate representation of the identity crisis that many immigrants and first generation Americans have today, and in years past.

  7. Several people have touched on the point Falicia made near the beginning of this post that it is important to remember these are not just Haitian stories. With few, if any, true exceptions each of us comes directly from an immigrant experience, whether by our parents’ generation or by hundreds of years. It has always been interesting to me that for all of the strong imagery associated with what it means to be an American: money, professional success, justice, equality, innovation, baseball, or apple pie…..the truly uniting factor of the United States is that we are all of immigrant stock. We all come from people who had to, for better or worse assimilate to a new society, and address the phenomenon of cultural betweenness, as Falicia puts it, head on.

  8. Falicia, your comment about “cultural betweenness” made me think of the NPR article we read earlier in the semester about people who identify as Hapa. As Caitlin pointed out, Grace lives her life in the spaces between her mother and her sister – not completely Hatian, but not completely American, either. It must be very empowering having a word to express a similarly in-between identity as something that is not an incomplete version of two other identities but as something that is whole and true and valid. I wonder if even something so simple as a word to describe herself would have made Grace feel more at peace with her identity.

  9. Caitlin, I love your comment. I felt like a light bulb went off when you said that Grace was basically the literary and physical bridge between her mother’s Haitian identity and her sister’s American one. I had assumed that the family as a unit represented the cultural “in-betweeness” that can happen after a family immigrates, however I really like the idea of Grace having one foot in both worlds to shed light on each. Unrelated, I greatly enjoyed how powerful this story was, how much emotion and cultural expression came through just from the imagery alone despite very little plot.

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