Updated: Mar 22
What is my Black identity? For a good portion of my life, I have been struggling with my true Black identity, the plight of many Black
Black in the States
I was born in Haiti and immigrated to the States when I was two years old. Although, the States is essentially the earliest memory I have, I’ve always identified as Haitian. Many people would challenge that identity once they’ve learned how early I’ve been living Stateside. Many would say, “Oh, so you’re basically American” and “So, English is technically your first language,” which is not entirely true, I might have been schooled in English, but my first introduction to language and my first words were in Haitian Creole, and Haitian Creole was always spoken at home. Once, there was a time when our schools discovered that another language was spoken at home and immediately placed my siblings and I in ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages). Of course, they removed us not too long afterwards once realizing our proficiency in English.
I grew up in South Florida where it was extremely easy to connect to being Haitian and my father made sure we knew the culture, language, and food. In our social life, we were only around Haitians. We went to a Haitian church, our neighbors were mainly Haitian, and my father’s friends were Haitian. My siblings and I are first generations in the States, so the connection in being a Haitian was always strong. There was a time in my life, before we had American citizenship, that I only identified myself as Haitian. When I was 13, my father became an American citizen, so by default, my siblings and I became one too. I don’t think I immediately picked up the “Haitian-American” terminology until college when it really mattered for scholarships, grants, and government financial assistance. I grew up so immersed in Haitian culture that there were many “American” things that I really didn’t know. I remember moving to central Florida for college and having to ask my non-Haitian White-American roommate a lot of questions about American-ness as if I was an international student. In South Florida, I was Haitian. I grew up in an area that had a lot of Haitians, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, etc. We were our own little melting pot, our own little Caribbean in the States. I was used to seeing written documents and advertisements in English, then in Spanish, and then in Haitian Creole. I’ve always said we were our own little bubble in South Florida, so when I moved out, it was uncomfortable being the only Haitian in my college classes. People were in awed at the fact that I was Haitian. I went from being just another Haitian to the only one in my nearest circumference most of the time.
One time, I had a White-American roommate tell me: “Ester, you’re not Black, you’re Haitian.” I was confused for a very long time about her comment. What did she mean that I wasn’t Black? If I’m not Black, then what am I? I thought I was black my whole life. After some reflection, I connected her statement to a comment my father made when I was living at home, one time he said that I was acting like a “Black-American.” In my adult years, I would soon discover that there is a clear attempt from Black Caribbean people in the States trying to separate themselves from or avoid being confused for a Black-American (Americans with African descendants). It’s a shameful practice that’s done out of survival mode to avoid the same treatment or regard that many Black-Americans face (which is a different story for another time). Basically, my roommate meant I wasn’t Black-American/African-American, I was another Black. I was Haitian black. Those memories are the earliest I could remember of the beginning of my black-identity crisis.
There are slight cultural differences between Black Caribbeans and Black-Americans, and I discovered some of those in college when the small black-population at the school was mainly compromised of Black-Americans. This was also the time that I learned some black people just identified as “just black” whenever I asked what they were, and I know to some people that’s an offensive question, but growing up in South Florida that was a valid question because you’d always get back “Jamaican,” “Haitian,” “Dominican,” “Cuban,” “Puerto-Rican”, etc. I wasn’t completely ignorant to Black-American culture, I knew we had more in common than we did differences. I was never challenged with our slight differences until those comments were made by my father and roommate.
Black-Americans and Black Caribbeans are aware of their black identity at a certain point, as Black Diasporans, we share the commonality of not being able to fully trace our African ancestry like many Black Africans are able to do. Sure, I know that I am Haitian, and my Haitian ancestors and family lineage can be traced back to a certain countryside in Haiti, but prior to that lineage, I have no clue about my African ancestors, who they were, where they’re from, and who my African family are today. The same applies for many Black-Americans who can trace their ancestors to the South, but prior to slavery, they have no clue as well about their African ancestry. Due to historical documents and logistics, we all have a vague idea where our African ancestors have come from in West Africa.
Quick Trip to Haiti
Although I was identifying as a Haitian-American, I didn’t put much emotional investment into that term. At the end of the day, I was both Haitian and American, so there was really no arguing that. It didn’t resonate to me the extent of such term until I visited Haiti for the first time since immigrating. During one Thanksgiving break in college, a group of students, my sister, and I went on a service trip to Haiti. We helped a well-established non-profit organization for a week. My sister and I felt optimistic about connecting with Haitians. We knew the language, the culture, and the food. But what we didn’t anticipate for was Haitians calling us “Blan” (white/foreigner). We were both shocked that they could classify us as “Blan.” We quickly spoke to them in Haitian Creole, which some were surprised that we knew the language and spoke it so well. We would tell them that we were born here, just raised in the States, and near Miami to be exact. The fact that we were raised near Miami gave us a little bit of credit because Haitians in Haiti know about Miami and Brooklyn, and how it’s a little Haiti outside of the Haitian borders. My sister and I would stress that we have always been Haitian no matter where we grew up. The trip made me realized that I wasn’t “black” in the States and I wasn’t “Haitian” in Haiti. I was so confused. My identified crisis intensified. I never imagined that I had to fight for my Haitian-ness in Haiti. I remember questioning if I had the right to still claim being Haitian if Haitians in Haiti didn’t even recognize it, and that maybe they had a valid point about me not being raised there. The local Haitians really emphasized the American part of my Haitian-American. Meanwhile, the other volunteers there assumed we were local Haitians since we were speaking the language, and we had to clarify to them that we are Haitian but also American. And once again, we were back to explaining how those two worlds could exist.
Black in Africa
After my undergraduate, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Namibia (a country in Africa) to represent the American government as a business volunteer. During my time there, I had no problem saying that I was Black-American. I am Black and I am an American. And I was there representing the American government but saying something simple as Black-American was never easily accepted. The conversation typically started off with me being mistaken for a Namibian:
Me: I’m not Namibian.
Person: You’re not Namibian? Are you (proceeds to list the neighboring countries: Zambian, South African, Angolan, etc).
Me: No, I’m from the States. I’m Black-American.
Person (perplexed): Black-American?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
From this point the conversation could either go two-ways, depending if the person knows that there is black people living in the State, if they knew, I would be asked a lot of questions about being black in America, and if they didn’t know, depending on my energy level that day, I would briefly go through American history and how white people were also not even there themselves and immigrated from Europe at one point and how black people were there just as long as they white people were. The country is a melting pot of immigrants.
Person: But where are you really from? Where were you born?
Whenever I was asked where I was really from, I felt like I was caught lying trying to be a real Black-American and that I somewhat validated their belief that black people could not be from the States, so I would quickly answer them and mention my Black-American groupmate that had generations rooted in the States. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t have the right to claim being a Black-American because I was first generations and didn’t have Black roots in the States. At this point, I was questioning the most appropriate term to identify myself.
Person: You’re African, come home!
Well that is true too. I am African. But history took another course and I am other Black identities. Sometimes I felt like Namibians thought I wasn’t trying to be seen as an African, and truthfully, I didn’t see myself as one for a while, I was always Haitian. In Africa, I wasn’t Haitian, I wasn’t Black American, I was African. Part of me appreciated being told and being accepted as African and that I should come back “home” but it did bring forth a lot of anxiety as to who I really was and the appropriate way to label my Black identity. When I arrived back to the States from my Peace Corps service, I took a DNA ancestry test, and of course, a lot of it was traced back to West Africa, mainly Benin, Togo, and Cameroon. I was excited to see a list of specific countries, but it didn’t give me insight on where I’m really from in terms of tribe, because at some point, Africa was not separated by borders but by tribes. If I knew my African tribes, it would have given me such a greater sense of my Black identity.
Although I am not fully aware of my full Black identity, I choose to embrace what I do know. I’m Haitian because I was born in Haiti, my family roots are there, and I was raised as one. I’m Black-American because I grew up in the States and carry an American citizenship. I’m African because that’s where it all began in my familial history. I choose to celebrate things that are Haitian, like Haitian Flag day and Haitian Independence Day. I choose to celebrate things that are Black-American like Juneteenth and MLK Jr Day. I choose to celebrate things that are African like the day of the African Child. I choose to embrace the people, food, music, and culture of all these different black identities. There’s beauty in all of it. I am all those things. I’m Haitian. I’m Haitian-American. I’m Black-American. I’m a Black Haitian-American of African descendent. I’m African. I’m Black.