Growing up, I have always felt trapped between two worlds. I identify as a proud Black Haitian American man, but growing up in the U.S I have always been forced to accept the African-American identity. There is nothing wrong with identifying as African-American. In fact, the only difference between Haitians, Haitian-Americans and African-Americans is only a boat stop. As the child of two Haitian immigrants born in a foreign land though, one cannot help but proudly identify with the culture of their roots while at the same time assimilating onto the culture they were forced to believe they were born into. I used to think this feeling of confusion was a curse, but I now view it as a blessing because it freed me from the “Dangers of a Single Story” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so adequately puts it in her TED Talk:
It is as if one culture filled with backgrounds and traditions become completely erased from the spectrum of history.
As an individual with multiple identities, this erasure of our background and history through the assumed assimilation of our two experiences hinder us at a young age from any potential of fully understanding our past to get a deeper understanding of oneself. The Akan in Ghana call this process Sankofa; to go back and fetch in order to move forward for a more prosperous future. This alone hinders people from a young age. There is a direct correlation between knowing one’s true history and background to the life trajectory of individuals. In Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot “examines the suppression of the role of Africans in the Haitian Revolution to demonstrate how power silences certain voices from history.” I unknowingly experienced this exact suppression first hand in the classroom.
As a young Haitian-American growing up, at home I was Haitian, and at school I was African-American or “Black-American” as my pops would so often say.
At school I was taught that my ancestors identified with being African-American and that I was the descendant of slaves in the U.S. who bravely fought for racial equality, which the privileged believe equates to a present notion that color blindness is an acceptable remedy [amnesia] to the existence and severity of chattel slavery, 3/5, and Jim Crow in the U.S.
At home I was taught that my ancestors were great revolutionaries who started and won a slave revolt against colonial powers that led to the establishment of the first Black Republic of the Western Hemisphere in 1804.
At school I was taught that my Haitian ancestors, African & Caribbean brethren were poor, “third-world”, uncivilized and destitute. At home, I saw first-hand the power and education emitted from my family.
At home I witnessed the self-confidence and intellect radiating from the words, lifestyle and actions in my immediate family.
At school, I was taught that my ancestral line began in enslavement while my Caucasian classmates were taught of the explorers, kings, queens, popes, inventors and scholars who colonized and “created” the world we see before us today.
At home, I felt pride for having a culture, understanding a different language, and felt like I mattered, somehow.
At school, I was taught to identify as Black and African-American.
At home, I didn’t feel the need to consciously identify as Black and Haitian.
At school, I was taught to believe that everyone regardless of skin color were all the same inside.
At home, I was taught that we were different and had different cultures & experiences, and it was okay.
Never feeling Black enough for African-Americans and never feeling Haitian enough for Haitians, I was trapped in between two worlds. I was in the margins- out of place at school, and more out of place at home. At school my story was simple- my past was in chains. I had no questions because I was told what it was. At home, my story was too complex for me to understand and unpack. I craved to know more but did not know if it was appropriate for me to ask because of the conflicting stories. I even developed a bias against my own people because of ease to believe the nonsense I was being fed in grade school about my own history that was quickly slapped out of me a few times if I do say so myself. There were no connections between my two worlds made at all.
I developed an unconscious identity crisis that I did not fully surface until college at a Predominantly White Institution. It was there that I was forced to be aware of my identities and how that played many factors to where I made it to this point. It was the first time I experienced first-hand how social constructs come into play on my own. I was pulled in with the black experience at school, and while still having to maintain my Haitian identity to stay connected to my family and my roots.
Attending Lehigh, I faced a self-absorbed campus, divided by difference. I felt as a non-traditional student, I was undeserving of any institution. Coming from a place where community was stressed and difference was at least recognized and accepted, I found it difficult to adjust to this apathetic environment. It affected my focus on school work and my education. It affected my social life, and decisions that I would make for myself in terms of pursuing opportunities and getting involved. I was also paralyzed with fear to take on some of the things I was passionate about for fear of being categorized into a stereotype. There was something bigger.
My identities were a topic of conversation and insecurities clouded my thoughts every day. I am a Black, Haitian American, 1st generation college man on a high level of financial aid at a Predominately White Institution. Feelings of isolation, silencing, lack of confidence, and invisibility pervaded my spirits throughout my time there. I tried to transfer at three times during my undergraduate career at Lehigh- after my freshman year, during my sophomore year, and right before the start of my junior year, but each time the thought of leaving made me feel like a coward. I had to do something for myself for once, instead of expecting others to fully understand.
Coming to Lehigh intensified this identity crisis for me, as well as strained the relationship between my family and myself because they could not relate to my experience of growing up and attending college in the United States in general. To them, my experiences of isolation and hostility became insignificant and a distraction to me getting a degree. “We are black, this country has a racist past that may render its face a few times these days but we already know that. Ignore it, keep to yourself and focus on your studies” was a constant mantra from my family. Ignoring it did not solve a thing. Facing it first hand is what created a change within myself, my community, and my future.
Dealing with my double identity I feel distant yet more in tune with myself once I sought out the truth. Through the process of building and creating community, I grew and became more self-conscious. The adversity forced me to seek community and also transform me into the person I am today. This struggles and harsh realities of this place made crave a full answer to my history and self-truth. I uncovered the revolutionaries, kings, queens, scholars, doctors, academics, erased from my own past. Exploring your own history firsthand is a beautiful experience. I no longer felt trapped in two worlds because for the first time I was able to connect the two worlds and the multiple stories that composed them. I realized that these two worlds were constructed for me so I could feel powerless, and stick to one powerless story. This struggle and crisis made me fall more in love with my complex history and multiple identities for what they were.
In her TED Talk, Adichie says herself “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Being taught about my history by White American teachers most of my life, who are most likely descendants of colonizers themselves from an institution of a nation that is responsible for the existence of African Chattel Enslavement and the forced African Diaspora is an exercise of their power over my life the moment I was born. My past and history is a statement- an act of activism against the status quo. It proudly boasts itself with conviction throughout history and gives me the power to do so when creating my own story in history.
Had I not learned to think for myself, I would have remained chained to the definition of myself by those in power. My identities and the history that come along with them are something that make me whole, unique, and powerful. There is infinite power in defining and creating your own self and powerlessness in allowing others to do it for you. My double identity was not a curse. That feeling of being trapped in between two worlds freed my mind, and helped me realize that there was more than what met naked eye. There is a connection between the two worlds and with that an infinite power to define and create the world around you. We are the manifestations of the power exhibited in our past. I am a proud Haitian-American man who grew up in the United States with a Black experience. I am consciously taking the path less traveled by and freely owning my unique, complex and multiple story-line life.