Searching for roots

In a recent modern American literature class, I was pleased to see three African-American students. It’s been several years since this has happened, and I wanted their perspectives as we discussed the works of African-American poets Dunbar, Cullen, Brooks, Hughes, and Clifton.

A few weeks into the semester, I learned that dark skin in Miami County of Ohio does not define origins, and my students were South African and Haitian. All three students were initially rather quiet; and then they found their voices. I was relieved and happy.

I was happier still when they began to write papers exploring African-American literature and making connections to their roots. When I learned that student Betsi Ford would be traveling to Haiti at the end of the semester, I knew that I wanted to know more, so Facebook allowed me to take the trip with her.

VBB: Give the details of how you were born in Haiti but grew up in Rosewood, Ohio, a predominantly white town.

We lived with Ruth (Ford’s biological mother) for about a year, and then she got typhoid and could no longer care for us (Betsi has a twin, Patrick). She had to make a seven-hour trip down the mountain to go to the orphanage. When Ruth came into the orphanage, she asked if anyone could take both her children. The director said, “Yes, I have a family right here.” Dan and Patti Ford had just learned that the two children they had planned to adopt were no longer up for adoption.

Growing up in a white town, I realize I am black, and I am a girl. For me, it’s almost as if the odds are against me. But I see it as a challenge. I want to prove people wrong and show that I am different.

VBB: Why did you go to Haiti and what did you learn about your biological family?

I wanted to meet my biological family. My mother recovered from the typhoid and had another family. You can’t really miss something you’ve never known, and I really didn’t miss my biological family. I know that sounds terrible, but I’m being honest. I wanted to meet them, but if it turned out that they were horrible people, then I knew I still had a life in America. I will be honest: I was somewhat skeptical until I met them.

Patrick and I first met our biological family in the Port-au- Prince International Airport, and that was extremely stressful and disappointing. I was trying not to get lost in the thousands of people, and when I stepped out for the first time into the blistering Haiti sun, it was almost like I stopped breathing. At that same moment, I looked over and my cousin said, “This is your mother; this is your mom.” In five to seven minutes, she was gone. I had waited 17 years for this. I was ready to get on the plane and go back home. But a few days later we went up the mountain to where she lives in a little village. She had a meal for us, and after we ate, she showed us around the little village where she owns a restaurant and has a rather large garden and grows potatoes.

The language barrier made me a little sad. I wished that I had learned Creole so that I could communicate with my mother firsthand and did not have to use a translator.

VBB: How do many Haitians view Americans?

Many Haitians see Americans as if they are royalty. They see America as the land of opportunity, and street vendors would rather have American currency than their own.

VBB: What’s important for Americans visiting countries like Haiti to know?

Americans have the wrong idea about what mission trips should be. It bothered me how our team went in with the mentality that America is the only hope for these people and how much better we have it in America. Other countries do not need white Americans to come in and save them. My personal reason for going was to meet my family and learn about my heritage: the food, the culture, things like that.

My advice to those going to another country is as follows: (1) It is not all about you. You have to adapt to their lifestyle; (2) Do not try to change them. Unless people are legitimately doing things wrong, you have to remember that this is their life. They know how to make food and take care of their children. (3) They have learned to adapt to their surroundings. In the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake five years ago, a lot of people lost their homes, their families, and many other things, but that does not mean they lost their sanity or their ability to be competent, to take care of themselves.

That week I learned more than I could have ever taught any of them. You cannot go into a third-world country with a superior mentality. They may let you help them because they need your money and support, but no one appreciates people who come in and change their systems or make them feel lowly and unimportant.

VBB: Will you go back to Haiti and what is the next stage of your journey?

Many of the people I met there have Facebook, and we are all friends in that way. Uncle Paul talks to Patrick and me regularly and has promised to help me learn Creole.

In the 10th grade I traveled to Morgantown as my older sister had gone there to West Virginia University to study law. I fell in love with the university, and no other college felt right for me. So I’ll be going there this fall to study physical therapy.

VBB: The final question must be about your adopted mother and how she feels about this search for your roots.

Patti Ford, Betsi’s adoptive mother, writes, “I wanted to assure the twins that our love for them never changes except that it grows as we see them expand their worlds. We never felt threatened by a loyalty they might feel when they met their birth family. Instead, we have encouraged them to be free to love both families.”

VBB: I wish Betsi well as she moves ahead with her life. She says that she’s a hugger and those in Haiti responded positively to her. I say that she is an intelligent, articulate, motivated, warm human being who brings joy into the lives of those whom she touches. She’s blessed to have two families in a world where many are searching for one. She will, I know, “pay it forward.”