Haitian Book Club: Restavèk from Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American by Jean-Robert Cadet

Written by Kat with 18 Comments

This book should be read by all. The first time I read this book, I thought it was taking place in the 1980s or 1990s. And then midway through the book, the author hits us with the fact that the story is taking place in the 1950s. The more the years pass, the more they remain the same.

So many aspects of New World Slavery is presented in this book. Jean-Robert, or Bobby, as he is called, is a chore boy in the house of Florence Cadet, passed on to her by Phillipe Sebastien, her white Frenchman lover. Bobby is not acknowledged by his white father, who sees him as disgraceful nuisance, and that has a toll on him for much of his life.

There’s so many echelons of slavery in this autobiography. Florence is kept in sexual slavery by her many lovers, which includes a priest. Bobby is in child slavery because he is not the legitimate son of Phillipe, and because his mother was an illiterate, low-class Haitian. Bobby’s mother Henriette was kept in social slavery because she was born into the wrong class. And for a long time, Bobby kept himself in mental slavery, unable to exterminate all the years of mental and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of Florence and her entourage.

I think that there may be people who might argue that Bobby’s survival has a lot to do with his immigration to the United States, a move that may not have been possible, had it not been for his biological father, the very source of his miseries. That his transition, as the subtitled states, from Haitian slave child to middle-class has more to do with his father, than his own assertion. To me, that wouldn’t be too good of an argument.

Once in New York, Bobby didn’t have to succeed. He could have subjected himself to drug abuse. He could have prostituted himself when Denis, Florence’s son and Lise wanted him out of the Brooklyn apartment, and he had to fend for himself. But instead, he chose to make it through life through hard work and perseverance. He could have been one of those people who blame their dysfunctional upbringing on how dismally their lives turned out, but he chose to take responsibility for himself.

It’s true that his father gave him a big boost by using his connections to get him a visa to the USA, but without Bobby’s own determination to find himself, to make his past oppressors proud, that passage into the USA and all the opportunities that the Land of the Free provides could have gone by Bobby. Once in the USA, Bobby is able to assert himself, to rid himself of his programmed inferiority complex little by little. But he’s faced head to head with racism. And he did move to the United States, pre-Civil Rights era, and as someone who is black and an immigrant, the path wasn’t exactly smooth.

And, oh, if you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts on it. Restavek deserves a sequel truly. Since I’ve read the book, I’ve wondered how Bobby is doing. If his father is still alive. As a matter of fact, we’re going to try to track down Mr. Jean-Robert Cadet. Surely you have some questions for him too. We’ll assemble them all, and make it part of a Q&A.

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18 comments on “Haitian Book Club: Restavèk from Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American by Jean-Robert Cadet”

  1. Ask him How does he feel when he hear about “Restaveks” living right here in the U.S in places like South Florida and New York? Also ask him are there still pychological effects from being a Restavek that lingers on for the rest of his life?

  2. I wanted to know how did u get over these things without it effecting you as an adult, was it your spiritual strength, what? I know abuse first hand and i knew my jouney out of darkness so I cam imagine yours. Is Bobby still on speaking temrs with his biological father, how did their relationship flourish and I agree a sequel is a must. Child slavery is still alive and real in Haiti more awareness should be place on this issue!

  3. The situation of restavek in Haiti is a very complicated and delicate matter. Because so many vulnerable families can’t afford to take care of all their children, the need to find places where they can live and be fed continues to exist. What kinds of socio-economic solutions can help reduce the need for the restavek system to continue? If fewer families were struggling to survive, would the number of children living as restavek naturally diminish, or is it a phenomenon that would continue for cultural reasons?

  4. I read this book years ago and through it, I realized one of my cousins was a restavek. I appreciated Cadet opening up about that experience b/c we often silence our past (M.R-Trouillot) voluntarily and involuntarily. In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “pale pou n ka pale anko.” (Speak so you can speak again)

  5. When writing the the book and have to relive the memories how did you feel? Do you feel that telling your story gives you closure and other that can’t tell their story?

  6. Calling a restavek a child slave is hyperbole. The exploitation of children isn’t just a Haitian peculiarity. How much does it cost to buy one of these kids? What happens to them once they reach adulthood? If they are slaves is their slavery recognized by the country’s legal system? If Haitian law does not recognize them as slaves and they cannot be bought or sold then they are not slaves but mistreated children. In mr. Cadet’s case he was an inconvenient child who’s father didn’t want to care for him. Most restaveks have parents who do care for them and are willing to take them back if they are too badly mistreated. As a kid in Haiti I lived in a household with several restaveks. When they didn’t want to do something the first thing out of their mouths was ” I’m not your slave”. I hope no one here will be silly enough to take my comments as endorsing the way these kids are treated. The restaveks are victims of Haiti’s generalized misery, with vacuum cleaners, washing machines, etc. there would be no need for them in a well appointed home.

    1. Thought your comment was rather insensitive but after thinking about it maybe restaveks shouldn’t be called child slaves but rather abused children. But there is definitely some slavery conditioning involved when you look at it. I read this book in my freshman year and I definitely would love to take a second look.

  7. For Mr. Cadet, how do you deal with audiences who accuse you of portraying Haitians in a negative light? Though this is the first open discussion I’ve seen on you book, I imagine some within our community might’ve had the same reactions U.S. African Americans felt toward Alice Walker’s _Color Purple_. People don’t like having their dirty laundry aired, speaking of which that scene when you had to wash her underwear is an image that haunted me for quite some time.

  8. KreyolGal, I’m sorry you found my comments insensitive. What do you mean by “But there is definitely some slavery conditioning involved when you look at it.” I’ve read elsewhere that after Haitians destroyed the French slave system we turned on each other and reduced the less fortunate amongst us to slavery. If you don’t believe me checkout the comments on Amazon to Mr. Cadet’s book. Such comments are untrue. No Haitian Government ever tried to impose slavery on the Haitian people because Haitians wouldn’t tolerate it. King Henry tried to keep the peasants down when he ruled the North of Haiti but by 1821 the peasants overthrew his regime. Based on my personal experience with restaveks there was nothing slavish about them. Hell, one even fought with my sister before she left our household. Mr. Cadet’s story is singular because he was related to the people who reduced him to his state of servitude. Most restaveks are not related to the householders that I knew. The folk song “Angélique, O” (http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=1179) gives a more accurate description of the relationship between householder and restavek than the degrading situation described by Mr. Cadet. No self-respecting Haitian matron would put a boy in charge of washing her soiled linens. As paradoxical as it may sound to you there is an element of philanthropy in the restavek system. I know of two of them who were allowed to go to night school and whose former employers helped them come to the U.S.A. where they managed to become middle class homeowners themselves. A more nuanced view is required when dealing with a complex phenomenon.

    1. I think that it is slavery somewhat because the restaveks aren’t treated like equals. I remember going to Haiti with my uncle and my dad and while we were eating I asked one of the girls to come sit by me (how dare I) and there was this look of horror on the face of our host that I will NEVER ever forget. That’s what I mean by slavery conditioning. Like this girl was being made to believe that she was not our equal. It would take a few years for me to truly understand what happened that day at the table. @GroJo

  9. KreyolGal, thanks for clearing up your point of view on “slavery conditioning”. I bought Mr. Cadet’s book to see what the fuss was about. I’m mystified by two facts 1) He was allowed to call Florence “Maman”. 2) The weirdest part of the story was finding out that his mother had family in the countryside who did not mind having him around in the middle of the book. I’ve never known any householder who allowed a restavek to call her mother no matter how kind she was, for someone like Florence ,who clearly hated the boy, to allow him to do so stretches credulity to the breaking point.

  10. @KreyolGal, I read this story for pleasure when I was a senior in college. It touched my heart and made me want to try and do something. Its a crying shame that Haitian kids by the thousands are being enslaved by our own people. Now, that’s a crab in a box mentality. Lord, help Haiti and the Haitian people.

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