Our taxi driver this evening from Newark airport to downtown Manhattan emigrated from Haiti. He was a black man who spoke in that beautiful Caribbean patois, though few of his words were wasted when I asked him if conditions were improving in his country. “Haiti is Haiti,” he mumbled in an inflection that I took not to be an endorsement. Coming from a place historically ravaged by corruption, poverty, hurricanes and earthquakes there was not much good to say. So instead he talked about the sites along the way on this wintery night when the darkness was broken by the yellow streetlights and the beams from the traffic around us. As we got close to Manhattan there was a site in the distance that truly excited him. “Look,” he said, pointing across the Hudson River, “the Empire State building is lit in the colors of the South African flag.” Indeed it was, illuminated in horizontal sections of blue, red, yellow and green.
Once we got through the Lincoln Tunnel, the view was closer, and better. His excitement was more exuberant. This was the weekend before Nelson Mandela’s funeral so it was obvious why those colors were on display that night. I was touched though by how much the gesture meant to the taxi driver who began reciting the names of world leaders who would attend the funeral. He was, I realized, a man without a country. His native land had provided him no heroes; no inspiration; no hope, but he had emotionally adopted South Africa. The Empire State building that evening was showing him respect.
A day later we attended a choir-rich service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue. The congregation there is from a different world than that of the taxi driver. They are mostly white, Anglo-Saxon, and from the way they were dressed, largely affluent. The ushers wore boutonnieres on their blazers. But I had my Empire State moment there too when the minister climbed the stairs to the wood-carved pulpit. He spoke of Nelson Mandela and compared his death to that of Pope John Paul II. In neither case did their death come as a surprise, but they were both spiritual leaders who had a big impact on the world. To hear an Episcopal priest speak so admiringly of a black activist and a Catholic Pope was both thoughtful, and charitable.
A day later we were outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral where even the outside doors are art. One series of panels depicts people who were important to New York Catholicism including St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, whose history is shared with New Orleans. There is another panel for a man who is the only layperson to be buried inside the cathedral. His name is Pierre Toussaint and he was born a slave in Santo Dominique, now Haiti.
When the slave rebellions started there his owners moved to New York City and brought Pierre and some other slaves. Pierre went to school in New York. He would also fall in love with a slave woman. He purchased her freedom to marry her. He became wealthy because of his popular hairdressing business and his frugality. His portfolio of charitable works, including opening his home as an orphanage, was so extensive that he is a contender for being canonized as a saint.
I wished I could have seen the taxi driver that day in front of St. Patrick’s. Here was a hero, from Haiti. I wished I would have told him that I come from a city influenced by Haiti, not only prominent people driven here by the rebellion, but by the Voodoo culture that followed. Also, it was the weariness of having to fight that rebellion that made Napoleon more eager to sell Louisiana. Without the Haitian slave rebellion the United States might not be whole. Without a whole United States the world would be less secure.
I hope that one day the taxi driver can feel better about his native country; and I want to believe that some lights in the skyline made him proud to be in America.