In Haiti, Fabiola’s mother, Manman, was a mambo, or a priestess of Haitian Vodou. When Manman is detained upon entering the U.S., forcing Fabiola to enter the country and start her new life with her aunt and cousins alone, Fabiola does her best to maintain her spiritual relationships with the lwas (Vodou spirits). Fabiola’s spirituality allows her to see her cousins and peers as human iterations of lwas, interpret things as signs, and ultimately manipulate events through prayer. American Street thus portrays spirituality as something sacred but also as something that’s a normal part of daily life. And given that Fabiola’s new reality in Detroit is so strange and dangerous, her spirituality is also an important source of comfort and security—and, possibly, a way for her to control things that she otherwise couldn’t.
The novel initially portrays spirituality as an antidote to loneliness—and, in some ways, as a stand-in for close familial relationships. Fabiola’s first night in Detroit is difficult at best: after being separated from Manman at the JFK airport, Fabiola is reeling from the loss of her closest supporter and spiritual guide. And to make matters worse, Fabiola’s Matant Jo and her cousins Chantal, Pri, and Donna don’t welcome her with the traditional Haitian feast and neighborhood party that Fabiola expects. Instead, Fabiola is left to feed herself in their poorly stocked kitchen—and the food in the kitchen is nothing like Fabiola is used to. Feeling hungry and alone, Fabiola promptly constructs her Vodou shrine so she can pray for guidance and for Manman. These first prayers in the U.S. give Fabiola a vision of Manman in the detention center, which allows Fabiola to feel close to Manman—and they also make Fabiola feel like she’s doing something to bring Manman to her. Praying, at this point, is as much a way to feel fulfilled spiritually as it is a way to feel close to Manman and feel more in control of a frightening situation.
As the weeks wear on and as Fabiola encounters more scary situations, she starts to gain a sense of control by reframing her experiences in terms of Vodou spirituality. Religion, in this case, is a useful lens for understanding her new world. For instance, during Fabiola’s first week in Detroit, she meets a homeless man who’s known to the neighborhood as Bad Leg. Most people believe that Bad Leg is a mentally unstable drug addict—but Fabiola is convinced that he’s a living version of the lwa of the crossroads, Papa Legba. Meanwhile, Donna’s abusive boyfriend Dray looks like the lwa Baron Samedi, the warden of the cemetery. Later, when a detective contacts Fabiola and promises to get Manman out of the detention center in exchange for Fabiola’s help convicting Dray of dealing drugs that killed a young white woman, Fabiola becomes increasingly confident in her ability to channel and interpret the lwas’ messages. Indeed, it’s essential that she hone this skill if she wants to free Manman and save Donna from Dray’s abuse. With this, Fabiola’s spirituality helps her develop confidence and feel safer. For instance, Fabiola finds Dray terrifying as a person—but when she thinks of him as Baron Samedi, she’s able to reframe the situation and feel that she, as a Vodou practitioner, has the upper hand.
However, spirituality also provides difficult lessons in humility and limits; even a budding mambo like Fabiola cannot expect to control everything. When Fabiola discovers that it’s actually her cousins and not Dray who sold the lethal drugs, she decides that Dray should still take the fall for killing the white woman. For Fabiola, framing Dray—who deals drugs, but is innocent in this case—is worth it if it means she gets Manman back; Dray stops abusing Donna; and her cousins stop selling drugs. She hatches a plan to fabricate a doom-filled vision so as to scare her cousins away from dealing at a party, while calling on the lwa of fertility and using her own sexuality to convince Dray to sell at the party instead. But though Fabiola carefully crafts her prayers and lays what she assumes will be a trap for Dray, the police don’t get Dray—instead, they shoot Kasim, who’s one of Dray’s best friends and the boy Fabiola has been falling in love with. Fabiola didn’t know enough about how dealing works for her plan to be effective. She had no idea that a high-powered dealer like Dray wouldn’t go to a party himself to sell—he’d send a surrogate, like Kasim. In this sense, Fabiola discovers that Vodou may provide comfort and a sense of control, but it’s not something she can totally manipulate to serve her own purposes. Indeed, trying to do so can bring about terrible consequences.
But despite this, Fabiola’s spirituality still protects her, guides her, and extends protections to those she loves—just in ways that she might not be able to foresee or control. Most notably, when Dray shows up at Matant Jo’s house to get revenge on Fabiola for bringing about Kasim’s death, it’s Bad Leg—Papa Legba—who shoots Dray just as Dray is about to murder Fabiola. And further, the novel implies that Bad Leg is indeed Papa Legba in that he gets away with murder, a privilege only afforded to lwas. Furthermore, Fabiola’s prayers for Manman to return to her end up paying off, as Fabiola and her family will be able to fetch Manman from the airport the day after the novel ends (the detective makes good on her promise to speed up Manman’s processing, even though Fabiola technically doesn’t hold up her end of their bargain). With this, the novel suggests that spirituality can indeed provide comfort, bring families together, and rescue people from abuse and prosecution—but it’s impossible to control how or when those things will happen.
Spirituality Quotes in American Street
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.
“Leg. Bad,” I say loud and clear, because I now see him for who he is—the old man at the crossroads with his hat and cane and riddles come to open doors for me. He is the lwa who guards the gates to everything good—to everything bad, too. “Bad. Leg. Legba. Papa Legba.”
“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.
“Matant Jo,” I say. “Bad Leg at the corner, he’s not just a crazy man. He is Papa Legba and he is opening doors and big, big gates. I will show you. I promise.”
She turns to me. “Child, this is Detroit. Ain’t no Papa Legba hanging out on corners. Only dealers and junkies. You don’t know shit. But don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.”
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.
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.