Claiming My Hyphen

Over the years, I’ve gotten into several arguments, or debates, rather about how I identify myself. Being an American-born child of Haitian immigrants, I usually balk at being called African-American. The term seems to haphazardly lump all dark-skinned people together, regardless of what part of the earth we’re from. Because I do know some of my history, I am aware that during the days of slavery, the island of Hispaniola (which now makes up Haiti and Dominican Republic) was a trading center: Africans were traded for sugar. However, these slaves eventually gained their independence and became citizens—that is to say they became native Haitians and Haiti became their home and the homes of their children and grandchildren. Why then all these years later, am I forced to identify as African-American, as if my Haitian culture—although Americanized a bit—does not matter?

The history of “colored” people in America is a very tumultuous, yet fascinating one, and I sometimes wonder where I fit in. My teenaged goddaughter wanted to research our family tree on Ancestry. com. I didn’t have the heart to discourage her by telling her she’d hit more than a few roadblocks. It’s difficult to stomach all the horror and injustices millions of people endured simply because of the color of their skin. I can relate to the stereotypes, racism, discrimination and feeling like an outsider in your own home country that black Americans face today as the trickled-down after effects of slavery, but sometimes those feelings are compounded for me by the fact that my parents are Haitian. Even within the black community there continues to be ignorant lines of division: light versus dark-skinned, straight versus kinky hair, wide nose versus thin nose and even whether we’re born here in America, Africa, or West Indies.

My parents made sure to always remind me that I’m not American, which always confused me because I was born and raised here. However, my strange sounding name, the exotic smells of the foods we eat, and the fact that I speak another language support their argument to a certain extent. I remember growing up and sometimes seeing black children disrespecting their parents or not having an absolute fear of not bringing home straight As like my siblings, cousins and I did, and figured it must be an American thing that they didn’t have the same values we had. I didn’t know that it was a cultural custom to greet my elders “hello” and say “good-bye” with a kiss on the cheek or else be called disrespectful; I thought all kids did that. I didn’t know that Haitian culture and not American culture deemed it disrespectful to whistle or suck your teeth in the presence of an adult.

When asked directly, I call myself Haitian-American, but more often than not, I call myself black. I think it’s important to make the distinction that I’m not fully Haitian nor am I fully American. Being a mix of the two cultures has made me who I am. This country is the only home I’ve ever known. America certainly doesn’t recognize me as fully American, yet when I made a trip to Haiti in 2003, Haitians didn’t accept me as Haitian either. Complete strangers would talk about me and my fellow US-born cousins as if we couldn’t understand: “Look at the Americans. They’ve come to show off.” Some of these same people would ask us for money or the things in our suitcases (which we gave), believing that because we came from America, we were rich. Even though back in America I was working two jobs and living paycheck to paycheck, compared to them I was rich. At that particular point in time, I was happy to be American. When taking surveys, there’s usually the selection “Black/African-American, not Latino,” which I’ll select, but if there’s a box that says “Other” with a blank line to fill in, I often write in Haitian-American.

When do African-Americans get to drop the African and just become American? I once worked in a bookstore and had a white co-worker who was the same age I was. He was born and raised in Scotland and had been in the US for less than 10 years. During a conversation about race I voiced my aggravation that when we have kids (separately), his white kids will walk into a room and be called American, but my kids will be African-American, even though they’ll be second generation born Americans. He couldn’t quite get my aggravation, and to be truthful, I don’t fully get it either. There have been plenty of more intelligent and articulate people to expound on the issue of race far better than I can. In simple terms, I hate being made to feel like I’m an outsider simply because of the color of my skin, which I love—that in itself was a journey.

In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin states: “…then negro, now black middle class. Whatever one may imagine oneself to think about these terms, the terms imply a journey.” The quotation stuck me because in the short history of this country, the descendants of native Africans have gone through many evolutions: slaves, niggers, colored, negro, the former negro, the so-called negro, African-American, Afro-American, black, Black. With each new phrase has come a different consciousness , pride and slight change of how the darker race is perceived, but it seems no matter what, we’ll always be perceived as the other Americans.


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