Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American. by Jean-Robert Cadet. Univ. of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-71202-2.
This is a remarkable and very important book. I rank it alongside Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, which was published in 1900. I view it through the prism of the assessment made in 1903 by W.E.B. Du Bois of the condition of black people in this country and in the context of the amelioration of this condition up to the end of the twentieth century. Over the period from 1994 to 1999, this reviewer has compiled a bibliography of over 880 nonfiction books by or about black people published between those years. Jean-Robert Cadet and Restavec stand out in this distinguished company. Restavec is to my mind one of the most significant of these books.
This autobiography of Jean-Robert Cadet, a Haitian-born black man, calls attention to child slavery as practiced in Haiti and highlights it as a widely accepted practice there. These slave children are known as "restavecs," a term derived from the French verb "rester" meaning "to stay" and the French preposition "avec" meaning "with." Poor children become "staywiths" in the homes of the wealthy. Here we have a situation where wealthy descendants of African slaves in Haiti who had emancipated themselves from French rule in 1804 and created the first independent black republic in the Western Hemisphere now enslave and abuse the children of the poor. White people have nothing to do with this. Black people have all to do with it.
Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American by Jean-Robert Cadet is the story of his life as a restavec. This is not an account "as told to." It is a self-written, gripping, chilling page-turner that stuns even hardened veterans of black life in a racist society. What boggles the mind is the fact that that this story is unfolding in the era from 1955 (when Cadet was born) to the present. The chilling aspect of the whole thing is the fact that the travesty is being visited on black children by their own flesh and blood. We cannot help but see parallels between Cadet's determination to get an education and that of Booker T. Washington a century ago. Cadet's getting himself into school in Petite Riviere after being abandoned by his owner who had migrated to the United States is but one example of this. We are relieved by Cadet's escape from bondage in Haiti, albeit to what we might call tacit indentured servitude in the United States. In a word, every step in Cadet's life is marked with evidence of his determination. His getting through high school, his service in elite army paratroop and Ranger units, and his getting a college education are monuments to his resolve.
One of the themes that permeate this book is the psychological/psychiatric ailment that is inflicted on Cadet by three scourges: racism, frustration in his efforts to get his father to identify with him, and his veritable torture by Florence, whose slave he was. Happily, by the end of the book, one gets the feeling that, at the very least, this experience is already making him an excellent father to Adam. Further, it is clear that Cindy is the perfect wife for him.
A second theme that is perceptible in this autobiography is the development of Cadet's identity as an African-American man. From his unsuccessful effort at Spring Valley High School in Rockland County, New York to befriend two male black African-American fellow students, through his experience with other blacks in the U.S. Army and elsewhere, he has come to terms with this aspect of his identity. When he becomes a teacher at Hudson High School in Pasco County, Florida his identity development proceeds from another point of vantage. His mission as a teacher, "to be a Mr. Rabinowitz to black American students," is an eloquent tribute to his former history teacher at Spring Valley High School. Rabinowitz's kindnesses to Cadet in the difficult days when he had just come out of slavery in Haiti and was placed in Rabinowitz's history class may be said to be a pivotal event in Cadet's life journey. In any event, as a teacher in the public schools of Cincinnati he has a real grip on who he is. Everyone, black and white, is better for it.
What are some of Jean-Robert Cadet's goals today? One is to earn a Ph.D. degree. A second is to be an instrument in ridding Haiti of the evil "restavec" system. He has autographed at least one book in the following manner: "Thank you for joining the campaign to rid Haiti of the 'restavec' system." We salute Jean-Robert Cadet and believe that he will reach both of these goals.
I commend this well-written book to all. It contains a message which needs to be heard. There are Jean Cadets in many schools in this nation. There need to be more Mr. Rabinowitzes in these schools to identify and help them. What if the perceptive and empathetic Mr. Rabinowitz had not been at Spring Valley High School? There would be no Jean-Robert Cadet to call attention to the evil child slavery system in Haiti. We would all be worse off for it.
Copyright © 2000 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved.
Dunbar on Black Books