I Did Not Ask To Be Born On This Planet
"I would have much rather been on a planet in which we sang kumbaya all day long, climbing trees and drinking the juice from coconuts. A utopia, the garden of eden, in which starving and greed does not exist. But here I am, here you are."
Before attempting to explore the relevance of identity, I must first recognize the privilege I have been granted with no request of my own. I will never know why I was born in Queens, New York, in 1988 and not in a remote village somewhere off the coast of Indonesia in 1888. I will never know why I came from a fair skinned Puerto Rican woman and a brown skinned Haitian man, who is often mistaken for being mixed himself. I will never know why I was born with watered down African features that include curly hair and light brown skin. I will also probably never understand why people with darker skin have been bullied, silenced and oppressed.
I can not be one hundred percent sure, but I suppose it is because of my background and the features I bare that I am constantly with a conviction to explore the lines of identity. The world is constantly attempting to tell me who I am, which side I represent the most and why. Their explanations eliminate the father in me who has played a crucial role in how I hustle in this world. This father of mine, a trilingual Haitian man, has been a part of my life since day one: conceiving me at night and planting seeds to shade me by day. He has always been loud in his language, hanging out and collaborating with his brothers all day, everyday. They’d debate on politics while cursing Haiti and loving it at the same time.
The earliest project I remember them working on was an electronic store they opened on Beach 20th Street in Far Rockaway. We lived in a two-story white house at 1084 Gipson Street. I can still remember the nights in my little mind when I was scared of the dark. I’d run up the stairs, passing the large mirror that floated above the fireplace with an urgency, as if being chased. What was I so scared of? My father always left early in the morning and returned late in the evening. Sometimes my sister and I would join him. On the days we were there until closing, I remember sitting in the car watching as he and my uncles shut the large garage door with a chain and lock. Summer time was the best because there was a pizza shop across the street, Papi would give us money to get Italian ices. I always felt like a big girl whenever he let my sister and I cross the street alone. When tired of being in the electronic store, bored, I’d trut to the library not too far away.
Some nights he’d pull me up into bed with him, a book in his hands, trying to teach me how to say words like ‘rooster’ in Creole and French. He would point to a picture and I’d repeat after him several times. Then he’d proceed to lecture me on the importance of learning these words, the importance of being Haitian. It wasn’t as consistent as I now wish it was. His lack of consistency has made me the butt of jokes, a woman who isn’t really Haitian.
My mother and her family were the fun ones. Their Spanish was colorful, always accompanied by music, dancing and parties. Our house was always filled with cousins, toys and weekend gatherings that felt like holidays. They drove sports cars, with large Puerto Rican flags on the hood or hanging from the rearview mirror. I remember taking an empty beer bottle from the dining room table during a Thanksgiving party, filling it with water and trying to be cool while drinking. My father saw me as he arrived home from the store. He snatched it from me, sniffed the liquid and yelled at my mother, “Look at what you’re teaching Bianca!” I, not knowing why he was upset, ran off to play with something else. Even now, my father blames all my mistakes on my Puerto Rican side, all my successes on his.
On my face I wear Mami’s. Her thin lips shaping my own, her straight hair combing mine. She hugged my sister and I often, taking us to the mall and being a girl with us. She made sure we experienced Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. She made sure we had everything on our Christmas list while Papi would gift us with jewelry or neon lights (literally). My neon light was purple and spelled my name; my room buzzed at night when I turned it on, my skin glowing. Mami’s greatest passion was sewing clothes and she’d always dressing us in the most unique gowns for weddings. On trips to Jamaica Avenue, we’d spend a lot of time in fabric stores.
When I was old enough to express what type of toys I wanted to play with, I told Mami that I didn’t want any white baby dolls because I’m black. What provided me with that distinction, I do not know for sure, especially considering Mami’s skin is not the same color as mine. I suppose I figured one looked less like me than the other. I overheard one of my aunt’s asking about my black dolls, Mami casually replied, “She asked me why would she have a white doll when she is black. So I’m only getting her black dolls.” I do not remember if there was continued dialogue about this or whether my family members expressed disagreement. Mami never argued with my point of view and if a doll I wanted didn’t come in darker shades, she wouldn’t get it. That time period is the first revolution I can remember being involved in and, oddly enough, it started at home and pertained to the color of skin. I wasn’t aware of the political climate in the world at seven years old, where did such a conviction come from?
After my parents split up when I was ten, Mami took my sister and I to Florida where everything we’ve ever known was downsized. I witnessed the packaging of marijuana when my sister and I were young adults, hanging out in the projects of West Tampa. I experienced the fruits of hard labor when my mother was finally able to take us out of there and into a small and nice apartment complex with a pool. I learned what it felt like to get nothing for Christmas, now living between two homes in two states.
When I got to high school, my closest friends were the girls who were pretty and smart, always had an opinion and were involved in extracurricular activities. We were neither the losers or the most popular, we were neither in the drama or completely removed from it. We were writers, always trying to find ways to express ourselves. We were always talking, whining about and crushing over boys. I was a band student, playing the alto saxophone, singing in the gospel choir and a part of the Yearbook staff. On days I stayed late on the Howard W. Blake campus, I wrote poetry and recited them with my oldest friend.
The friends I had who lived in the projects often referred to me as white girl. They sometimes mocked my accent, but I do not remember this ever hurting my feelings. I remember, instead, laughing with them and never changing who I was or how I spoke. I’d have the most fun with them because we’d walk around the neighborhood, visiting the park and watching people play basketball. We’d go to the corner store, buy junk food and then sit on the porch watching the block flow. Hip hop songs by Juvenile and Khia were hot and would blast through the cars passing by.
As an adult, my way of being is a mixture of all of this. I talk with my hands, animated and full of energy. I eat novels and books, formulating deep thoughts and theories on limitless subjects while being wrong and right often. I am attracted to men of color who enjoy making their brains work while representing deep rooted cultures of diversity. My hips dance fluidly to reggae, and I can get lost while listening to Marc Anthony, Lupe Fiasco or 2 Chainz.
As I command larger spaces of myself in this world, I am forced to confront the notion that I must pick a side; be one thing, one person. The choosing is something I am uncomfortable with, the pressure to wave a flag and check a box is overwhelming. When the world responds to me, the picking is being done on my behalf: black people tell me I’m not one of them; white people tell me not to get it twisted; fair skinned Latinos tell me my hair is too thick, straighten it out; black people say it’s not thick enough.
What those people do not know about me, though, is that I’ve been involved in this revolution of self preservation for a very long time. I do not take kindly to demands that do not serve me. Ask those baby dolls.
I did not ask to be born on a planet that concerns itself with separating creatures based off cultural differences, features and skin color. I did not ask to be stripped bare of the parents who made and raised me simply because I do not aesthetically wear the features of what others have accepted to represent black. I would have much rather been on a planet in which we sang kumbaya all day long, climbing trees and drinking the juice from coconuts. A utopia, the garden of eden, in which starving and greed does not exist. But here I am, here you are.
We, humans, maintain a need to have a word for everything, naming things and engraving it within the compounds of our language. Words exist for the tangible and intangible, serving as a vessel for things we can not touch and need to organize. Like, for example, identity. Our consistent belief in ‘identity’ provides it with true power. Like magic, though, we can choose to make it disappear. Instead, we’ve allowed ourselves to be sold on ideologies that do more harm than good, building walls of anger and separation; stripping people of the person they see in the mirror. It's as if the purpose of identity is to simply provide people with something to fight for, something to have pride in, as if it is impossible to generate personable reasons without outside help. Those who are upset with Colin Kaepernick, for example, are serving as an ugly reminder about what can happen when people are given things to identify with, instead of accumulating their own convictions.
I've never struggled with my identity until people started to lend their thoughts on who I was, who I represented. I've always been very confident and sure about myself, my parents and have always been open to learning new things from different people. It is the world who can not gather themselves to accept my ability to live in two worlds, claiming two cultures, being two people. The world’s need to check a box for me has led me to sometimes wondering if I was experiencing an identity crisis; making me feel uncomfortable to call myself either Puerto Rican or Haitian.
I learned that my reflection is very specific to me. While everyone else's interpretation of me is tainted by a list that is accompanied by a box that needs to be checked, my vision is clear and sound, allowing me to be a black Puerto Rican and Haitian woman who was born in America.