The Problem with Identity

For some, to be African - American is to be able to trace one’s origins solely back to slavery; there are individuals for whom there can be no recovery of heritage beyond this. For Google, Af·ri·can A·mer·i·can /ˈafrəkən əˈmerəkən/US is simply: “a black American”. I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1998. My mother had been born in Brooklyn as well as my father. For the first two years of my life, I lived in Haiti. The following ten years, I was in New Jersey and these past eight years I’ve been in Montreal. In the third grade, I sat cross-legged on a carpet ( they called it “Indian -style” back before we knew it was offensive) looking up at a teacher who was looking down at her book, reading aloud for all the kids to hear as they huddled around her chair in a semi-circle. She was recounting history through the children's book she shared with us, the history of America. “ And that was the end of slavery”, Teacher says, looking at us over the book with wavy hair and firm voice.


“And if it weren't for that then we wouldn't have Nina!” Jamie exclaims, hands out, big smile, gesturing to me like I'm part of a magic show. Teacher has yet to speak again and all the heads on the carpet swivel back to look at me, to see how I will react to this calling out, to this sudden attention. I also wonder how I should react. “Yay”, I say with sarcasm. I made the right choice, chose the perfect thing to say because they all laugh good-heartedly and turn back to Teacher. Teacher moves on and just like that, the moment is over, ( like slavery apparently). I didn't get mad at Jamie for using me in her quest for attention, I didn't expect the teacher to intervene for me, I didn’t worry about whether or not the class would see me differently now. I moved on, just like everyone else, because I didn't feel different. I didn't feel “Other” in that third-grade class in Hasbrook Heights suburbia (except for in that moment, when I had been forcibly Othered by my friend). I didn't see myself as relating to the story any more than freckled, blue-eyed Jamie did, but I did feel a slight uncertainty as we settled back into the book and I became a part of the group again. Maybe I was different.


Unlike the embarrassment Gary Shteyngart felt towards his family in his essay “Sixty-Nine Cents”, my family didn't seem different at all; two generations in and we were assimilated. We were just as American as anyone else to me.I feel that same uncertainty now. I knew I was black. I knew I was an American. But Jamie saw me in the slavery story before I did. But eventually, I did. However, I’m a second generation American. I can trace my roots directly back to my grandparents and out of the country. As much as I cringed in anger when watching “The Great Debaters” and before that, in fear, my grandma was born in Puerto Rico, my grandpa in the Dominican Republic and my other grandparents, in Haiti.


My college had me recognizing a different kind of racial experience. In class you sit, the teacher stands, they lecture and you absorb. You adapt to different teaching styles, you rise to different expectations six to seven times during your week and its great. It's a good time. But it was in my first semester that I found my self in a seminar-style classroom, a dynamic, high achieving environment learning to articulate philosophical and analytical arguments and facilitate discussion. Halfway through the semester, I look around the room and realize that there are no other black students in the class. I stare straight ahead and furrow my brow, my brain connecting the dots to the realization that there isn't a black boy in this class, that there almost weren't any black boys in my whole program. In that moment, I am shocked. Don't think about it, is what I tell myself. Its nothing, don't be afraid. Don't think about it. And then I am okay and I am part of the group again and the moment is over and it is the end of slavery.


My knee-jerk reaction is the fear stemming from my identifying with the systematic violence or oppression against black Americans, and wondering if this translates to Canada, wondering if there is a reason why there wouldn't be a black boy in my high-level college course. In that moment, the focus of my identity shifted from nationality to skin color and to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an African American is “a person from America who is a member of a race of people who have dark skin, originally from Africa”.


Second semester. We discuss race relations in a poetry class and the validity of a racial microaggression, a whole publish work of poetry made to establish legitimacy, by some, is denied. And identity gets picker, and it’s the third grade and the kids look at me with their words, not their eyes and we all feel that I’m different in an unexpected moment that becomes familiar. We look up at Teacher and he is passionate about her defence of herself and her use of literary technique and the presence of unconventional poetry and he is white. I don't quite feel his passion as I also don't quite identify with all the things she has experienced but it could have been me so I accept the inevitable associating that happens in all of our minds. And one student from the carpet does not believe and he calls out things like “victimizing herself” and “ not racism” and another student adamantly defends the writer and she is white.


I do not speak because to speak is to be a spokesperson and she is not me and I am not her, African American or not. I cast my mind back to childhood in Hasbrook Heights and I am African American. At Dawson I am black. But in truth, Virgen Davilla left Puerto Rico, long after having married and divorced Dominican Ramone Decena, and made her life in Jersey City, raising her daughters. In truth, Tutu and Mama Eva never left Haiti, but my dad was back in New York for University. Grampa Ramone came of age right in the middle of the atrocity that was the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (1930-1961) and father witnessed the brutally violent dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971- 1986), meaning that Tutu lived through the terror of both him and his father, François Duvalier (1957 - 1971), before him. The history of black Americans is a collective story, but accepting that I do not completely fit the narrative does not mean I have to negate all I grew up believing. But I do maybe have to look into my own story and allow my family to be my heritage.


It's fifth grade, the last year of soccer and band and D.A.R.E. and my brother’s spelling bees and Shitō-ryū. We are all in the school gym and the parents are there, the teachers are there and there are tables set for food. I am wearing a little Haitian outfit (not an everyday outfit but probably something a little girl would have worn to Carnival) and Mom has made Haitian spaghetti and all the kids parade around showing off their heritage. We smile and the parents clap and we all eat together and I am not different. We all know that these heritages are fare removed from our classrooms and our decorated gym; we were born here, whatever else we might be. My reality was similar to two statements made by Joseph Kertes in Second Country: “The otherness problem was a serious one because it implies division and is there for- what else?- divisive” (Kertes 109) and “The United States have been the proverbial melting pot” (Kertes 111). I sit with my parents and my best friend Micah ( her Filipino grandma made the best dumplings I’d ever had) and I am not Haitian or Puerto Rican or Dominican or Black. I am American, as we all were. Kim Thúy in her book Ru expressed that she is “nothing at all and everything at once” (Thúy 143), and of course, in truth, I’m always-already all of those things.


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Nina is a book-loving literature student from Montreal. An aspiring writer, she is passionate about creative writing, thrift shopping, sewing, Netflix and Jesus. The last book she read was The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and the next on her list is A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.


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