Saturday, October 13, 2007

Identity Check and the Realization of Reality

I am constantly juggling my black; female; of Haitian ancestry; American; woman...the list goes on and on... and I absolutely hate it when my identity is challenged. Like others with transnational identities, I occasionally deal with some people considering me to be "too American" to be Haitian. That was a typical thing my father would say to me.
Only recently, in the Ft. Lauderdale airport, a Haitian worker was admiring my son sleeping and she mouthed "belle" to herself. She looked up at me and I responded with "merci". In Haitian Creole, she asked me if I spoke French. I continued the conversation in Creole and said 'no, I speak creole'.
This surprised her and she asked who taught me. I was a bit taken back by this.

Couldn't she just tell I was Haitian like her?

I said my parents taught me; they are Haitian too. This made her laugh. She said she would have never taken me for Haitian. "American or maybe African instead," she clarified.
"Why? Because of my dreadlocks?" I asked.
"No, it's in the way you move, your disposition."

What could I say? She wasn't the first Haitian to mistaken me for anything but one of her people.
While not completely surprising, it still hurt a bit.

Before, I left the UK for the States to get my spouse visa (which I did get-thank you all for your support), I had a minor identity meltdown. I was passive-aggressively hit in the stomach by a colleague I was suppose to respect. This person wanted to make sure that I knew that another student who had begun their dissertation work after me had not only finished before me but was now in employment by a well-credited university.
I felt like this colleague was telling me I was a failure.
What have I done with myself in the last two years?! How many professors have I let down?!

When my shame spiral ended, leaving me in a pool of my own disgust, I managed to call a good friend and colleague back in Austin.

"Am I a loser? You'll level with me, right? Just tell me the truth," I begged him.

Chet chuckled lightly and replied, "Peg, you've had a lot going on in your life. You moved across the ocean--that alone is a huge adjustment. Then, you had a baby and got married, and oh, managed to write most of your chapters. I just moved across town, and I haven't written anything. So what's my excuse!"

I grumbled something but Chet knew I needed more reassurance. He said that my accomplishments of late are far more superior than that of my counterparts. Yes, had I not lost my mother two years, then dealt with my father's refusal to treat his cancer, undergo surgery myself, move to Scotland leaving everyone I love back in the US, then having a baby, marriage...I too, should have been finished with my doctoral writing.
My friend had to remind me that I've never been one to follow the same well-trodden path of others and thus, my route to success will always be questioned (if not controversial). But it will always be on MY terms.

Basically, I just need to suck it up and not be swayed by the voices in my head mirroring my critics back in the US.

As of late, I've taken to reading, just before bed, about the early female blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday (although she was technically a jazz singer).

The inner-strength and perseverance of these women as they forged a career by their own rules is inspirational to me. It reminds me that the petty crap that I deal with from this person or that professor can never compare with the true adversities of racism and sexism that these women experienced in the early 20th century.

Two encounters from friends hark back to the realization of my reality. A few years ago, Jodi, my friend and archaeological colleague, would patiently listen to me whine about all the work we had to do in gradschool. Her answer was always the same: "Well, Peggy-Peggy, at least we aren't picking cotton."
Deana, an older friend who has seen some strife and pain in her 50 odd years, once said that she never wanted to hear me complain about classes, professors or anything of the sort.
"Until you've had to survive on the steps of (Philadelphia's) City Hall with a baby while you're homeless, not knowing how you're going to make it through the day--sweetie, you don't really know what hard really is."

Enough said.

I truly need to remember the reality of my situation. As down as I can get about not accomplishing this or that by this age or constantly sweating and crying over the disapproval of that colleague or that professor-- I AIN'T GOT IT THAT BAD!

I am a wife and mother now. I still have a career and academic future in process but it does not define me.