At home on my kitchen table sat a prominent reminder of my childhood.ï¿½A fragment of the little girl I was, the young woman I am and a sort of tangible question mark about who I will become. When I noticed it the other afternoon, a wave of nostalgia blurred my eyes with tears. Quite profound for a bottle of soda.
A bottle of soda--I'm not kidding. But this wasn't an average coke can and my feelings were not the average nostalgic sentiments. The soda: Cola Lacaye, an artificially flavored fruit champagne. The feelings: days of way back I can not bring back. All those years I spent ashamed of my Haitian heritage.
I'm a Brooklyn girl, born and bred. An eighties baby. As much as I loved growing up there, the neighborhood and time I grew up in were both strikes against my background. This led me, even from kindergarten, to lie about where my family came from.
P.S. 279, The Herman Schreiber School. I walked into the gymnasium to line up with my class and saw a boy in the next line with his head bowed. The kids around him were laughing, pointing and holding their noses.
"You've got HBO! Haitian body odor! HBO!" They taunted between fits of laughter. I looked as the boy slowly lifted his face. His dark skin turned beet-red. "I'm not Haitian" he screamed at his tormentors. They only continued to laugh. I stood there hoping, praying these bullies would not pick on me next to tease. I hoped they could not read my mind. Will they know I had sauce-pois for dinner? Do they know my mom speaks Creole? And then, like many other times to come, I prepared myself to repeat the same four words. I.Am. Not. Haitian.
Since immigrants first started coming to America, it's become customary to ridicule different ethnic groups. From African slaves to the Irish, Italians and modern-day Arabs, America finds a group to tease. Not that anyone deserves such prejudice, stereotyping and embarrassment, yet that sentiment hardly puts a stop to the racial humor we laugh at on comedy programs. Nor did it keep me from being ashamed of where my family came from.
Whenever I made a new friend, I remember grinding my teeth and rubbing my sweating palms together when asked ethnicity.
"I'm American" I would say sheepishly. "I'm Jamaican," was my reply when more Jamaicans started moving into our area. It became chic to be Jamaican.
"Me? I'm from Trinidad," I said when being Jamaican got tired--or when I forgot in which Jamaican town I was born. (Nobody believed Kingston. An entire island can't all come from the capital).
Lying to even my closest friends tore away at my pride. I lived in a world of self-imposed fear to escape ridicule. I cried night after night, wishing I was someone else. While other kids wanted food or money or loving parents, all I wanted was a new nationality.
I was fiercely in denial about being Haitian. I educated myself with facts on various Caribbean islands and states from the south. Anything to make my stories sound more authentic. Anyplace but Haiti. I felt somehow responsible for the refugees that escaped the island on boats; for Haiti being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. I felt responsible for the stereotypes: Haitians don't wear matching colors, have body odor, practice voodoo, have AIDS.
It didn't phase me that historically, Haiti is one of the richest islands. Nor that Haiti was the first black republic to gain their independence from France in 1804. It did not strike me that it is a place wounded by oppression, unrest and political turmoil; and yet, so many Haitians throughout the world have a strong sense of unwavering pride.
None of this got in the way. All I had was shame. One afternoon in elementary school, my mother made an unannounced visit to meet with my teacher. While my class was walking to the gym, I noticed her signing in at the reception desk.
"Isn't that your mother?" a classmate asked me. I ignored them and snuck a small wave to my mother as I hurried myself into the gym. I made sure that no one saw me look my mom in the eye. I couldn't risk being caught. Her thick accent was certain to giveaway who I really was. Not the shy, "cornbread n' grits eater" I claimed to be, but the banan pese ak griot (plantains and fried pork) girl who wore her hair in the fluffy ribbons all Haitian parents tied over their daughters' dozens of braids. My heart pounded wildly with nervousness. And sadness. I thought of the shocked, disrespected look on the face of my mother who was only stopping by to see how I was doing.
I paid for that later. At home, I received one of the rudest spankings ever. My mother also gave me a lecture about respect and hiding where I came from. Even after the beating, though, her words fell on deaf ears. I continued to pass throughout elementary and junior high as a girl from a "better" country. I even joined in the taunting of the "real" Haitian kids and became strongly defensive if I was told that I looked or dressed like one of them.
When I started high school in midtown Manhattan, I thought it was my chance to start over. I would force myself to accept my background whether or not anyone else did. I was no longer surrounded by all the friends I thought I was deceiving for so many years. (Deep down, I now think they knew the truth, too). I was in a melting pot of a city, would it really make a difference where I came from and what language I spoke?
It did make a difference. Opening up about my heritage freed me on the inside. Some of my new friends had never heard of Haiti and I had a chance to expose them to a Haitian person apart from the negative stereotypes. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin, in my own heritage. I also learned that my ethnic background was only a part of who I was. Being Haitian became a compliment to my identity as a whole.
When I think of all the Haitian patties I used to eat and the Cola Lacaye I would happily sip at gatherings, I realize how stupid I was as a child. How could I let something cause me so much unnecessary pain? I also think of how proud I am of myself as a person. I have my own strong sense of pride today and will gladly acknowledge: I. Am. Haitian.