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.