Family is deeply important in American Street: Fabiola and her mother, Manman, are extremely close, while Fabiola must try to integrate into her cousins’ tight-knit sibling group once she arrives in Detroit. This proves difficult, in part because Fabiola has an idealized view of what family should look like and how family members should act. As she grapples with her own shifting understanding of what it means to be a family, Fabiola remains firm in her belief that family should always come first—but the novel shows that this can be difficult in practice. Indeed, Fabiola discovers that part of being family (chosen or biological) means forgiving family members for their mistakes; accepting and supporting them; and going out of her way to be loyal and protect them when necessary—even if that means putting herself at risk.
Having grown up with only Manman in Haiti, with her aunt and cousins only on the other end of the phone, Fabiola has an idealized vision of what life will be like once she and Manman settle in with Matant Jo. Fabiola essentially expects to enter a home that’s an American version of what family life looks like in Haiti. She expects unlimited food, love, and companionship from her cousins and from Matant Jo. Having a family, in Fabiola’s understanding, means having people who are always there for one another and who connect by sharing food, space, and time. This is reinforced by the fact that Matant Jo worked so hard to get Fabiola and Manman to Detroit in the first place. Additionally, for Fabiola’s entire life, Matant Jo has sent money to her sister in Haiti to fund Fabiola’s education and for Manman to save and one day come to Detroit. Fabiola thus believes that in Detroit, she’s wanted and loved already.
Once in Detroit, however, Fabiola discovers that there’s more to family than food and love. Being a family member requires learning about who her cousins actually are and appreciating them for that, not just fixating on who she wants them to be. Matant Jo, who suffered a stroke some time before the novel begins, is far less welcoming than Fabiola expected she’d be—this is in part because Matant Jo was counting on her sister’s presence, not just Fabiola’s. And for Fabiola, it’s a shock to discover that neither Pri nor Donna (two of Fabiola’s cousins) are entirely happy with the kind of person Fabiola is—that is, a person who doesn’t like makeup or hair products, and who prefers academia to anything else. Fabiola didn’t expect to have to earn her cousins’ love, and for that matter, she’s disturbed by her cousins’ reputation at school as violent and loyal to each other, almost to a fault. Fabiola wants to make her own reputation at school and hates that people treat her with caution or suspicion so as to avoid upsetting Pri and Donna. But as Fabiola grows closer to her cousins and learns their stories, she gradually comes to see that they’re nevertheless worth fighting for and will be loyal to her, even when she makes mistakes. In other words, Fabiola discovers that just because her family doesn’t look like she thought it would doesn’t mean her family members aren’t still unwaveringly loyal.
But even as Fabiola learns that loyalty is what ties families together, she also discovers that loyalty isn’t a simple concept. Rather, there are times when people have to decide which family members are worthy of loyalty—possibly at the expense of other family members’ well-being. Fabiola first learns about this when she begins a relationship with Kasim, a friend of Donna’s abusive boyfriend, Dray. Kasim seems to be the exact opposite of Dray: he’s kind and generous where Dray is mean and manipulative. Because Kasim and Dray grew up almost like brothers, Kasim is willing to sell drugs on occasion to help Dray out, which he describes to Fabiola as the “Shit you do for fam.” This emphasizes to Fabiola that when it comes to family, choices aren’t always easy—but, in her understanding, a choice is always worth it if it will help or protect the people she loves. This is why, when a detective approaches Fabiola with the promise to get Manman out of the detention center if Fabiola helps her catch Dray in the act of dealing, Fabiola agrees to help. Things become complicated, though, when Fabiola discovers that unbeknownst to the detective, it’s Fabiola’s cousins who are selling the lethal “designer drugs.” In this situation, Fabiola feels stuck—she has to decide if it’s more important to be loyal to her cousins or to her mother.
While this idea of unwavering loyalty sounds good in theory, it nevertheless can come with major unforeseen consequences. Ultimately, when it comes to Fabiola’s choice of whether to save her cousins or free Manman, Fabiola makes a third choice: to frame Dray, which she believes will save her cousins from persecution and free Manman as well. In Fabiola’s mind, this is an expression of her loyalty to all factions of her family, including to her budding chosen family with Kasim (doing away with Dray will, she believes, save him from having to be involved with drugs at all). But instead of saving everyone, Fabiola’s choice results in police killing Kasim, and a neighbor killing Dray when Dray comes to seek revenge on Fabiola. Loyalty, the novel suggests, is essential to have within families, but it’s impossible to be loyal to and protect everyone.
Family and Loyalty ThemeTracker
Family and Loyalty Quotes in American Street
And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where this good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.
The living room of this house, my new home, is a sea of beige leather. The furniture crowds the small space as if every inch of it is meant for sitting. I’ve seen bigger salons in the mansions atop the hills of Petionville, even fancier furniture and wider flat-screen TVs. But none of that belonged to me and my mother; none of the owners were family. Here, I can sit on the leather couches for as long as I want and watch all the movies in the world as if I’m in the cinema.
This is your home now, Fabiola. This is Phillip’s house—the house he bought with the last bit of money he had from Haiti. He had dreams, you know. That’s why when he saw this house for sale, on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, he insisted on buying it with the cash from his ransacked and burned-to-the-ground car dealership in Port-au-Prince. He thought he was buying American Joy.
She stares at the magic things for a while without touching them before she asks, “Does it work?”
“Well,” I say. “Has anyone ever tried to kill you?” I have to speak loudly over the music.
Pri turns around and closes the bedroom door, muting the music a bit.
“Kill me? Ain’t nobody rolling up in this house to kill anyone.”
“I know. We made it so. Me and my mother. Every day we asked the lwas to protect our family in Detroit and their house,” I say, adjusting my bra.
I see you clearer now because I light my candle and pour the libation, rattle the asson, and ring the bell to call all my guides, the lwas. You’ve told me that they are here for me. All I have to do is call on them so they can help me. I believe you, Manman. Even without you being here to hold ceremonies with drummers and singers and a village of followers, I will practice all that you’ve taught me.
I look all around the restaurant. “But this is your job,” I say.
She inhales and looks around, too. “Yes, it is. But our work is not without the help of good American citizens like yourself. You are an American citizen, right?”
“But I ain’t no kingpin, know what I’m saying? So it’s just favors here and there. Shit you do for fam.”
A cold chill travels up my spine. Shit you do for fam. The way he says it, it’s like he would do anything for his family, like for love and respect. I say it out loud. “Shit you do for fam.” I turn to him.
“Shit you do for fam,” he repeats.
“On American Street, I will live with my aunt Jo and my cousins, and go to school, and have a cute boyfriend, and keep my mouth shut because in Haiti I learned not to shake hands with the devil. But on Joy Road, I will tell the truth. The truth will lead to my happiness, and I will drive long and far without anything in my way, like the path to New Jersey, to my mother, to her freedom, to my joy. Which road should I take, Papa Legba?”
Then I begin to see him for who he really is. Dray, with his sunglasses even as night spreads across the sky, and his gold cross gleaming, and his love/hate for my cousin, reminds me of the lwa Baron Samedi, guardian of the cemetery—keeper of death.
But I don’t want to look like a church lady. I still want to look...good. So I take off my mother’s church dress and put on a plain sweatshirt that belongs to Chantal and a pair of new jeans. I wear the Air Jordans that Pri picked out for me, but I keep my hairstyle. Now I don’t look so...Haitian. So immigrant.
“You did well in Haiti with my money. You think I was going to let my sister rot in the countryside with a new baby in her hands?”
“We prayed for you. When I was a young girl and I couldn’t even understand anything, I knew that it was my job to pray for my aunt and cousins because it was the only reason my papers said that I am American. We were grateful for that, not just for the money.”
This is a makeshift altar for Ezili with all the things she loves in the world. My whole body tingles when I realize what’s happening.
Again, Papa Legba has opened another door. How could I have missed this? Of course, I need Ezili’s help, too. And she’d been right under my nose, working through Donna with all her talk about hair, jewelry, clothes, and beauty.
“Catholic school for all three of us out here was just pennies. But your ass over there in Haiti cost her like twenty Gs every year. Your school, money for your mom, your clothes. Hell, all this time, Ma thought y’all were building a mansion near the beach and she swore she’d go back down there to retire.
“But she’s getting sick. We don’t want her to do this loan-sharking shit anymore. Money was running out. We still gotta live, Fab. We still gotta breathe. Money’s just room to breathe, that’s all.”
I used to stare at that address whenever those white envelopes with the blue-and-red-striped edges would make their way to our little house in Port-au-Prince. I’d copy the address over and over again, 8800 American Street, because this house was my very first home. But for three short months only. This house is where I became American. This house is the one my mother and I prayed for every night, every morning, and during every ceremony: 8800 American Street.
So in 2000, Jean-Phillip François, the Haitian immigrant and the first occupant to actually land a job at a car factory—the Chrysler plant—paid the city three thousand dollars in cash for that little house on American Street.
And maybe because the little house had been revived with the sounds of babies and the scent of warm meals and love and hopes and dreams, Death woke from its long sleep to claim the life of Haitian immigrant and father of three Jean-Phillip François with a single bullet to the head outside the Chrysler plant.
Death parked itself on the corner of American and Joy, some days as still as stone, other days singing cautionary songs and delivering telltale riddles, waiting for the day when one girl would ask to open the gates to the other side.
We are all in white. Even Pri has shed her dark clothes and now wears a white turtleneck and pants. I had wrapped my cousins and aunt in white sheets after making a healing bath of herbs and Florida water for each one, and let them curl into themselves and cry and cry. This is what Manman had done for our neighbors who survived the big earthquake. The bath is like a baptism, and if black is the color of mourning, then white is the color of rebirth and new beginnings.