(written August 2017)
Of the many wonderful opportunities I’ve had this summer, I’m especially grateful to have been able to read at my own pace. This applies to the audio books I’ve listened to during my morning jogs; the growing pile of French and English novels that I’ve chosen to analyze for my upcoming honors thesis; books from this past school year that I read for various classes and felt the need to read again.
One book, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, falls into the third category. It was a great read within the context of my African Feminisms course, if not a little rushed, so I was excited to read it more thoroughly. This time, I read it in large portions–between inspired bursts of thesis research, on my family vacation, late at night when I couldn’t sleep. Instead of skimming to find clever things to say about it in class, I wanted it to speak to me, to my life.
Long story short, it didn’t just speak this time around: it screamed in it’s relatability. It shouted its themes of identity, race, the black presence in academia, friendship and romance, woke-ness, and self-representation in a way I’ve never read and didn’t know that I’d been so desperate to find. In many sections, it really felt as though Adichie was writing to ME.
Looking back, I’ve learned so much during my time at my liberal arts PWI. As unbelievable as it sounds, I’ve learned how to be black. I’m excited to finally embrace my true, complex black identity. I’ve also realized how hard it is to embody and defend my blackness in various spaces, like school and social media. With this book, I’ve also deeply analyzed a lot of personal experiences, because it validated several micro-aggressions that I had tried to dismiss. I know this doesn’t make much sense up front, so allow me to explain. I’d like to introduce a few of my biggest takeaways from the novel, because I will definitely revisit them in the future.
That being said, welcome to my Americanah.
1) Life as Haitian-American(ah)
In the novel, Adichie uses the terms ‘American-Black’ and ‘Non-American Black’ (AB and NAB), and I immediately identified with both of them. I was floored by their sudden, wonderful intrusion into my personal vocabulary; it felt like putting names to two familiar, elusive faces. I’ve never been able to define my double identity–or the wishy-washy, in-between space that I occupy– so clearly before. I have always considered myself as more Haitian than American. Sure, I was born here, I was raised speaking English, and I prefer the occasional burger to tassot cabrit, but that’s about it. My parents are Haitian immigrants and I am rooted in Haitian customs, so I couldn’t possibly be anything but Haitian, right?
So very wrong. Especially when everyone else, from both halves of my mixed nationality, feels they should weigh in:
Haiti recognizes both Haitian Creole and French as its official languages. You would never know that if you could see the way fellow Haitians react, when they find out that my siblings and I don’t speak much of the former. First, they become visibly uncomfortable when they speak to us in Creole and we answer in English. Then, they look from side to side and whisper, “Don’t you speak Creole?” with a surprising amount of shame. When we have to admit the truth, we quickly soften the blow with, “But we can understand it!” and “JoAnn speaks French!” It’s never enough. They’re still horrified, and in their minds we are no longer Haitian.
I didn’t understand that being unable to speak Creole could make me so stateless until I went to college. Around that time, we stumbled upon a Haitian church nearby (a very rare find in the greater DC area), so I was finally able to experience my parents’ language and culture in a space that wasn’t our living room. This was a huge deal for me. I had always resented the fact that they only ever spoke to us in English, but going to the new church showed me that they had made our lives easier. By only speaking English, we would never have to face the degrading hurdles that they jump every day. Practically speaking, of the many things that my parents had worked so hard to be able to give us in this country, they knew that their native language could not be one of them, at least not right away.
But by only speaking English, Haitians think they can tell me I’m not Haitian enough– or not at all. And that’s just not true.
On the American side of things, lines also get a little blurred once people find out that my roots don’t actually lie in the USA. More specifically, black people treat me under the assumption that I’m African American until they find out that I’m not. This wouldn’t bother me so much if they didn’t also try to take back the validation that they had previously given me and my problems. But they do– especially African Americans and ABs.
Suddenly, it’s as though I’m no longer allowed to praise the works of James Baldwin, MLK and Zora Neale Hurston. It’s like I can’t get angry about the still-open wound that slavery has left on the modern American social dynamic, because the particular slavery to which they’re referring happened to their ancestors in the American Deep South.
To that mentality, I call foul. Somewhere down the line, my ancestors were slaves, too– just in a different part of the world. There are black people in America, AB or NAB, who might not have any slavery in their ancestry. They are allowed be just as angry at systemic racism, because the reality is their roots don’t always prevent them from going through the same struggles. We are all black in America. Our society might lump us all as ‘the same,’ but we are not, that there is power in that diversity. There is more than one way to be actively, consciously black. Our individual grievances and triumphs might stem from different places, but they are valid. They are valuable.
Sometimes I’m more NAB than I am an AB, and vice versa. My ties to another country do not make my roots less important, simply because they don’t resemble those of someone who is African, or someone else who is African American. I’m still every bit as Haitian as the next first generation Haitian-Americanah, regardless of the language that comes out of my mouth. My identity is only up to me.
2) The Imaginary “Blackness Scale”
“Yeahhhh, you’re ‘black’ but you’re not really black…”
“You are such a basic white girl.”
“An Oreo is black on the outside and ‘white’ on the inside…especially if they talk that way [”white”] and have the stereotypical interests and hobbies that Caucasian people have… Do you find it offensive in any way? if so, I apologize it’s just a term meant only for humor. ” [sic]
Sadly, none of these are quotes from Americanah. They were all directed at me– real quotes that I will never, ever forget because they cut so deeply. They are chips off a huge, internal iceberg that just will not melt, regardless of the white-hot fury that surrounds it. They stem from the many experiences that compelled me to create this blog in the first place. They will be said to me again, in one way or another.
The first dates back three years, to the beginning of my freshman year of college. These words were said by a non-black POC who would eventually become a good friend of mine, but we were still getting to know each other at the time. I had mentioned that I was really excited for our English class, since it would be interesting to approach the theme from a black point of view. That was his response. I doubt he remembers saying it.
The second was said about a year later, by a white female with whom I had also become good friends. The context? I said that I enjoyed going to Starbucks, and that I went so often at home that I had earned a gold membership card.
As cruel luck would have it, the third quote is from a few months back, and I know exactly when because it was said while I was reading Americanah the first time around. They are the exact words of a white, male former classmate who would probably deny saying them until I pulled out the receipts (That entire conversation deserves a whole other blog post. Or series…). We haven’t seen each other in years. He does not know me anymore. And yet, he felt he was in a place to say such a thing.
To be frank, my demeanor, personality, and “stereotypical hobbies and interests” apparently make me “white,“ too white to even register on the imaginary “blackness scale.” I’m an Oreo at best, a black shell for a “white” soul.
Do people not see how ridiculous that is? Better yet, do they not recognize the toxicity that lies within the need to label certain attributes, activities, and interests as ‘white’ or ‘black’ or any other ethnicity?
I get this all the time. Black and white people are either very direct or very backhanded in how they calculate me, as though I’m just an unbalanced equation and not a multi-dimensional human being. I’ve tried to explain that I do not “talk white,” because of how I choose to speak, and liking certain things does not equate to “trying to act white.” They won’t listen, so I’m done trying to reason with them.
I know that blackness is not a monolith; there is no set way to act. In the same way that my mixed nationality does not make me any less American or any less Haitian, my personality does not make me any less black. I refuse to let anyone put my identity on their imaginary scale.
As far I’m concerned, I am 1,000 layers of black on black on black.
And as far as naysayers are concerned? They shouldn’t be.