identity and the myth of reinvention

Dominican Writer Lauricely, JuJu, and I.

July 30, 2014 @ 10:05 p.m.

How do we define ourselves for ourselves?

JuJu, my friend, sister, translator and fellow troublemaker in arms, and I have talked much about what comprises our own identities. She is Dominican-American. I am African-American, Gullah and Cherokee. We talk about our families, the food we eat, the way we think, our critiques of our blackness, our gender, our writing, whatever, as also a part of our identity formation. What Juju and I agree on about our identities is that as Americans, we are constantly contesting our American-ness. We love our country and the people in it, but feel some kind of way about it and the people in it, too.

Ask a Dominican or a Haitian: Who are you as a Dominican and it begins with where you are born. Are you from Haiti? Then, you are Haitian. Are you from La Republica Dominicana? Then, you are Dominican.

When JuJu and I asked people — Dominicans and Haitians — how they frame their identity as a Dominican or Haitian it is that simple: the country of their birth.

What does it mean to be an American?

The current immigration brolic and the politics people are playing with the lives of children. The healthcare mess that both Democrats and Republicans have created by not working to take care of people who cannot afford healthcare. The partisan climate. Our right as residents to levy a thousand side eyes against the government and its citizens.

James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Unlike Baldwin, I don’t know if I love any country more or less than another. But Lord knows, I sure can’t beat the freedom of speech here. Yet, our politics, the way we as Americans have serious issues in teaching, remembering, acknowledging and remunerating the victims and survivors of an incredibly oppressive history is simply a hot mess.

As a side note, Baldwin’s birthday is Saturday, August 2 and I will (hopefully) be celebrating his birthday in Haiti as a nod to his sojourn to France. Hope you turn up with me and read this essay.

If this sounds like an indictment against the country I love (and the people I love), it is, you’d be right. When I travel, the vantage point of seeing the way in which U.S. economics and popular culture influences other countries leaves me to ponder what it means to shape my own identity.

The United States is the home of my birth. The place that raised me, gave me family, friends, an education at desks and on the road. It taught me English, the language I speak, write and think in; the language I will spend the rest of my life mastering. When I travel, my passport does wonders for me in moving across borders.

Yet, everything still bends toward what each country believes is American or what American tourists — because we fuel economies, son! — may want. In Mexico, to the vendors who were tyring to figure out my nationality, I was Jamaican, Cuban, Belizean, not American. In the Bahamas, I wanted to visit a museum, any museum on the island of Nassau. While there were shops that catered to every size and flavor of want, the only museum there imported an exhibit from the U.S. like it did its tourists.

In Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, the playa was beautiful, but with a television (Watch the same shoes you watch at home in English!), nightly revues (See the natives dance!), a buffet of food alongside four different non-Dominican restaurant options (Eat the same food you eat back home!), and never leave the resort (So, what does a visitor really discover about the diversity of food, culture, language?).

In the Dominican society pages and fashion magazines, one would think this is a country without diversity in class or race. When JuJu saw some of the magazines in question, she exclaimed that Dominicans don’t look just like this (she said this pointing with allegré at the pictures of a mezcla of white Dominicans with Spaniards and Europeans, no brown or hints of brown faces anywhere).

If anything, it makes me ponder how one type of face becomes the face of a country or a group a people. Here, when I people ask me where I am from, they assume I am Haitian and when I say, in the little bit of Spanish I do know, that I am from the U.S. they say OK, then ask if I am from the U.S. Only a few times out of the many conversations I have had with people here has it been assumed that I could possibly be Dominican, this even after most of the Dominicans are a range of colors even within families.

But with the narrative in place that an American must look a particular way, do I have that power here, to define myself for myself?

Yes, I say, because I can never give control of my identity over to someone or something else. And when someone meets me and talks to me, then they begin to know me, me.

However, I cannot divorce myself from the notion that because there is so much implied information about how someone who looks like me should live and function in the world (or the Dominican Republic) that at least initially, the die of who I am, who I must be, who I must become has been cast.

Indeed, it has only been here, in the Dominican Republic that I feel that mold press so tightly against who I am; this mold that if I look a particular way, then I must be that way and nothing else. And if these ideas are someone’s truths about me, how does the ideology that Haitians work specific types of jobs (sugar cane labor, selling snacks and food on the street, working construction) affect the way that Haitians are treated in this country and the opportunities available to them? How does the ideology that perhaps Haitians are only capable of less affect their ability to prosper, to supersede a past of economic devastation, of political corruption and violence (all in some way caused by the France, Canada and the U.S., in no particular order) and obtain their own piece of sky?

Here, on an island, in a country, on a border, be you Haitian or Dominican nationality is destiny.

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