Teanna had never been to college, but she dreamed of giving her children that chance, and with Sister Caroline's help, Bill was able to start kindergarten at age three. His mother worked hard; still, she made sure that her children enjoyed their childhood. When she got home from work, no matter how exhausted she was, she always warmed water to shower them. If the children misbehaved, she would ground them, but never hit them.
"Sundays, after church, my mom would cook different foods like fish, bananas, some salad," Bill recalled. "She would make something special for us to make us feel happy and comfortable, showing us the way she cared about us. And she would take us out and go to the public park to play with other kids. She was a good lady."
Shortly after Teanna moved the family to Hinche, her brother followed. Young Bill never completely understood why, but sharp tension existed between his mother and uncle. Bill and Shayla once went over to their uncle's house, and he grabbed them angrily. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Where is your mother?"
When Teanna heard the story, she decided that if anything happened to her, her brother would be an unreliable caretaker for her children. She expressed her concerns to the two neighborhood families that employed her.
One sweltering July evening in 1991, Teanna fed the children, and tucked them in bed. Bill, who was seven at the time and just learning to read, fell sound asleep. In the middle of the night, his mother began to wail. "Bill! Shayla! I love you, my babies," she told her children. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I feel like I'm dying." It was the last thing she said.
The day after she died, Sister Caroline came to their house to offer her condolences. The two neighbors Teanna had worked for bickered over who would take the children. They compromised by splitting up the siblings. Immediately after the funeral, Bill, still in shock, moved in with the Gils. Wilton and Sealon Gil owned a restaurant and had two boys and two girls of their own. They were a lower-middle-class family, with no car but enough to eat. Although his sister moved in with a nearby family, Bill rarely saw her.
Everyone assumed that the children would be well cared for, as the two families had seemed compassionate when Teanna was alive. And for the first two months, perhaps out of sympathy, the Gils treated Bill decently, letting him attend school and giving him a comfortable bed, which he shared with the other two boys. All of the kids had chores, but there was a paid servant in the household who cooked and cleaned. After the first month, Sealon began treating Bill less like a family member and more like a slave. "Day by day, there were certain things like carrying water that they made me do," he said. Still, Wilton was a gentler soul, and tempered a simmering rage in his wife.
Politics, as so often in Haiti, intervened to make things more miserable. On September 30, 1991, Aristide fell, and the purges of his supporters began. Wilton, a member of Aristide's Lavalas ("Avalanche") political party, knew Aristide personally. One night, paramilitaries came to the Gils, demanded to see Wilton, fired shots into the house, and broke down the door. Wilton surrendered. He was hog-tied, imprisoned, and tortured. After a month he escaped via Port-au-Prince to the United States, where he soon took up with an American woman.
With his sole protector now gone, Bill's life changed drastically. In the disastrous post-coup economy, the restaurant sank. Sealon could no longer afford the servant, so she made Bill do her work, and more. Starting at five every morning, he mopped the floors, swept the yard, boiled the water. Then, even in torrential rains, he worked outside for several hours, feeding and watering the pig and tending to the vegetables. He was no longer allowed time or water to bathe, and could not sit at the table with the others to eat. Sometimes Sealon gave him leftovers. He became dangerously malnourished. His new bed was a pile of rags on the floor in Sealon's mother's house. When his clothes grew threadbare, Sealon gave him the other children's castoffs.
Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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