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.


At Oct 13, 2007, 8:25:00 PM, Blogger Dirty Red said...

You know I get the same reaction that you get from people only in reverse. My Great-grand-ma was from Haiti. American Blacks and Africans think I am from Africa, and Haitians can see that I have Haitian roots. I was born and raised here in America though. I don't speak any foreign language (unless you count the few phrases I know in Spanish)In my opinion I look just as American as Denzell Washington, but I take all this as a compliment. I figure that it means that my roots are pure and untainted. Nothing promotes power more than a Tall, Lean, Dark Skinned Black Man walking down the street with his head held high, which describes me to a tee. Why do you you think we are the most hated human beings on the face of this earth? We are powerful beings and the world knows it. It is a damn shame not all of us here in this country are as proud of being a black man as I am.

At Oct 13, 2007, 11:58:00 PM, Blogger FUNKYBROWNCHICK said...

"Well, Peggy-Peggy, at least we aren't picking cotton." Ah, how could anyone not love Jodi? :-)

I know what you mean about the identity thing. When I lived in Florida, people routinely thought I was Jamaican. In England, they thought I was South African. In the Netherlands, people thought I was from Suriname? The truth, I'm from Illinois. Oh, and, yeah, don't even get me started on the "black enough?" stuff ...

At Oct 14, 2007, 7:17:00 AM, Blogger Peggy Brunache said...

Dirty Red: I agree with you that we are powerful beings. But while the world may know it, we as a people don't cause we still can't get our sh*t together!!! We need a revival of the Harlem Renaissance or something! I don't any suggestions to get our act together?

FBC: girl, how do you have time to read anyone's blog with as busy of a schedule as you have--living the life of the black (I'll leave out your possible ethnic origin) Carrie Bradshaw! Still, with everyone thinking you're from some place else, do you ever find it liberating that you can't be pinned down no matter where you are in the world?

At Oct 15, 2007, 4:23:00 AM, Anonymous Nate said...

don't worry cuz, in broward I'm Jamaican, in Miami I'm Dominican or Panamanian, and everywhere else i'm just Black American.... except the time i was in Chicago and told that I just sound foreign... lol

Nate (and yes I am Haitian)

At Oct 17, 2007, 3:11:00 PM, Blogger Jamie Brandon said...

Chet's on the money, Peg...People do these things in there own order and've just packed a hell of a lot into a very small time...and in the final analysis the shit you are taking care of is more important than a'll get that, too, when you get "real life" sqaured away.

At Oct 19, 2007, 9:19:00 AM, Blogger Vakker Kvinne said...

Dear Peggy,

This is by far the best blog I’ve read in a long time. I think I was lead to your blog by a higher power because I really needed to read about someone else’s life. Someone who I can identify with and someone who gives me hope that my situation in Norway will work out for the best. I moved to Norway three months ago from Germany in order to live with my Norwegian boyfriend. Things have been very hard for me-all of the adjusting and changing. I get really scared some days that I am giving up too much or that all of this work isn’t worth it. I’ve been questioning myself a lot and my choice to come here as well as stay here. It’s for me to decide-BUT I did appreciate reading that others in similar shoes feel that way I do sometimes.

The post you wrote about balancing identity is amazing-I can totally relate to that one too. I feel like a “loser” a lot of the time here because I want a job and a “real life” so bad, it hurts. It’s frustrating to know that every day when I get up, I don’t have a job or school to go to. This is the first time in my life that I’ve been without either to fall back on. I come from a family of sharecroppers from Arkansas (my Grandfather and older generations), so we were always taught to work, work, work and/or be in school. No that I don’t have either-I feel really lost.

I’ve discovered in the last week that I’m not lost per se, just impatient with my situation. It takes time to begin a new life with all the trimmings in a new country-especially a non-English speaking one. I should give myself more time to make things happen-and not be so impatient. And I agree with your friend-no matter what. . .this is better then picking cotton (for free all day in the sun). I have options, but for now, I choose this. The time may come one day when continuing to make this choice isn’t what I want to do anymore.

I also identified with your race identity comments. I’m American BUT grew up in Arizona where black people make up about 3 % of the population. Most people ended up there from military service or after studying at one of the Universities. It was very difficult as a child to feel “right” with all of the messages about being a black woman-most of which I picked up from other blacks. Since I’ve been traveling to and living in Europe for the past five years, I’ve had people assume I was every other nationality besides American-usually British, Senegalese, Ghanaian, Nigerian, you name it. Never American. It used to get on my nerves but I realized that no matter what anyone else thinks-I am a child of God and a human being. Racial identity is key-I would agree but what can you do about anyone else’s hang-ups?

Please check out my blog when you get a chance.

At Oct 21, 2007, 7:18:00 AM, Blogger Peggy Brunache said...

Nate: Dominican?? When did Afro-Dominicans move to South Florida? I thought they were holding down NYC until the Revolution comes!

Jamie: You're such a great friend and colleague. I guarantee your past and present students will throw you a huge ho-down when it's time for you to retire. Course, that is, if you ever would--you love this field too much! You'll be bury with a shovel in your hand, won't you?

VK: sista-girl, it's good to know that we can find strength and companionship in each other. We'll hold each other up!

At Oct 23, 2007, 3:30:00 PM, Anonymous Nate said...

sweetwater & west kendall there is a fair share of them... I'm actually interested in seeing how things play out because although cubans are still the majority there is starting to be a large influx of Nicaraguan, Columbian, and Peruvians.. at least where I'm working at... and if the school is an indication of the real world everyone is sticking to their cultural lines... guess we'll see though I still think not much will change

At Nov 1, 2007, 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Bhuidhe said...

You goddit.

Identity is a changeful and subjective issue, but there is one vital thing always to remember: people can only make you feel bad, inadequate and not up to it if you LET them.

And I had to correct that because I unwittingly wrote half of it in Italian, I'm so melted in my identity!

I wrote this a while back, maybe you can find an echo in it? Scroll right down to the very bottom, "Borderland":

I wrote it and then after that used it as part of a short story about five generations of women in my family, and the hysterical thing is that it won a prize for lots of reasons including "the outstandingly strong sense of identity it communicates". Ha ha ha.

Stuff the labels, they are the food of desperately small people in small finite worlds with a deep and infantile need to contain and name and so control. You don't look like this so you're that. You walk fast, you're this, you walk slow you're that. Label, tag, judge, contain, control.

I think you're bigger than these people. Like Dirty Red, walk proud, walk loud. Reject what they throw at you, project what you know of you.

At Dec 6, 2007, 5:15:00 AM, Blogger Slutty McWhore said...

Hello, I can relate to all the stuff you wrote about academia (but you seem to be doing so much better than I am - I'm about to get kicked out of my Master's program!) and found the stuff you wrote about race and identity really interesting, too (although I'm a pasty Scottish lassie - well, not too pale but pale enough). One of the things I like about living in the US now is that it's way more racially diverse than Scotland is.

I just thought I'd drop by and ask if you'd ever heard of the Black Scottish author, Jackie Kay? You mentioned Bessie Smith, and I believe that she wrote a biography of her. She also writes about what is was like growing up black and Scottish. There is also another great Black Scottish author (Luke Sutherland)who grew up in Orkney! Don't know if this is of any interest to you, but thought I'd just mention it.

At Dec 6, 2007, 8:06:00 AM, Blogger Peggy Brunache said...

S. McWhore: sorry to hear about the academic woes--god, they suck, don't they? grrrr...
Anyway, good luck on that front!

As for the authors, yes, I'm famaliar with Jackie Kay (although I haven't gotten a chance to read her yet) but I have NOT heard about Luke Sutherland! From Orkney?!!! Who was punishing that boy?!

Thanks for the tip! Will check him out!

At Dec 6, 2007, 8:20:00 PM, Blogger Slutty McWhore said...

Hello, thanks for the comment on my blog!

Here's a link to a short article about Luke Sutherland:,6000,1168736,00.html

The only book of his I've read is "Venus as a Boy" and it was beautiful. It was made into a play and got great reviews at this year's Edinburgh Festival.

By the way, did I hear you mention that you lived in a certain Texan city when you lived in the US? If so, I'm there, too! Weird coincidence.

At Jan 15, 2008, 3:03:00 AM, Blogger Gloria said...

Damn, Peggy. It's good to hear you come to that realization. You define your life, and you know have a good life. For all of the difficult situations, you've come to be in a wonderful place on your own terms and in your own time. Love you, girl.


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