HOW I BECAME AN AMERIKÈN
“Your presence is requested at an engagement party honoring …”
In Kreyol, dejwe explains the process of wasting your potential, of becoming ruined, of becoming a lost cause. Dejwe is the process of becoming new, being cleaved from the expectations that weighed you down. And sometimes, it is the process of becoming Amerikèn.
I vacillated for months between buying a dress that either matched my skin tone or one that complemented the winter-themed decorations. I imagined making my entrance into the rustic hall to the raucous beat of a standing ovation while my family’s happiness for my happiness—their bursting-with-joy hearts—would be palpable.
Citrus flavored water. Luscious cream fabric strung from wooden rafters. Orb-shaped lights emitting a soft warm glow. Three DIY photo booths. A cadre of high school musicians paid to play my favorite classical tunes. Fried pork chunks served with plantains and pikliz, bruscetta and braciole representing both our cultures. This was the “perfect” engagement party I envisioned.
I imagined a few people tearing up when my partner and I read the speeches we crafted. I distinctly remember crafting a scenario in my head where family and friends, blissed-out and drunk on cocktails, would invoke the Christmas spirit and plead with us to let them stay past the end-time set on the invitation. As we placed invitations into the mailbox, my head spun with excitement.
A week later, with no word from my extended family, I wondered aloud if it was improper to call them. I happened upon my Aunt Olivia, who told me she would be out of town celebrating the birthday of her friend’s mother. I was taken aback. Isn’t the once-in-a-lifetime engagement party of your eldest niece more important than a friend’s parent’s party? I held my tongue and smiled at her. As I walked to my car, I could hear the tenor of my anxious thoughts building. Too soon to worry. I pushed them away.
Silence has an immeasurable weight. It lives in you, trapped, like dirt and smog in your lungs. Are they coming?
Outmaneuvered by etiquette, I did not know and could not ask. As the days progressed, my insides began to churn. When I went to sleep each night, that torsion stayed vigilant, gaining strength and momentum, greeting me more forcefully each new day. Every time I thought of their silence, the heaviness of their abandonment pressed down on my chest. Ignoring the sensation, I compared the prices and textures of off-white tablecloths.
A few weeks later, when we had yet to receive a reply, my mother suggested it was time to return the decorations I had purchased. She could sense that I could not face the finality of the word “cancel” just yet. I was angry with my mother at first, and then I counted and recounted the days until our engagement party, two weeks…
The acid-yellow lights of those department stores underscored my disbelief. How could they do this? Neither my mother nor partner knew how to soothe me. It was not that they were not coming; it was that they had not had the decency to let me down respectfully. I think I could have been less heartbroken if they had not let me wrestle out the meaning of their silence in the precarious space of my mind, alone. They are coming. They had to be coming. They would not let me stand alone. I wrestled with the facts in vain. I had been good and decorous all along. I had been present for all of their joys, hardships, and failures without judgment. I had played by the rules, their rules…couldn’t they just let this one thing go?
My partner let me keep a few things I couldn’t let go of. “Just in case we want to use them for the wedding,” I reasoned. By the last return, I was hanging my head mutely. Inside, another voice had taken over. This voice could not believe the desperate way I had hoped, unabashedly, without tagging-in that nervous perfectionist version of myself, the one which anticipates negative possibilities and assures their remedies, the one which keeps me safe from humiliations like this.
I stayed that way, ashamed, for a year after that. It’s clear in pictures from this period that I had not yet convinced myself to let go of the shame.My eyes did not sit right in my face; they floated, as if to say, “This body is not sure of its worth,” “This body does not know the flavor of a love without conditions,” or “This body is afraid…It has lived too long without a love that would nourish it. I didn’t leave the house. I didn’t want them to see that they had succeeded in making me question whether choosing my happiness was the right choice.
My partner, S, and I are queer and gender non-conforming.
Identity politics had availed me instant kinship with strangers.
My whole life long, my family smiled beatific at me up until the day they received that gold envelope in the mail. I had assumed that my Haitian family’s love for me was not conditional. I had not known that certain identities were lines drawn in the sand.
A few weeks later, my new Amerikèn identity was taking root as my partner suggested eloping.
My skin itched with the thought of marrying without their blessing, but I did not want to have to forgive them for not showing up for me again, nor did I want to have to forgive myself for hoping beyond reason.
Laid out before me, these options felt like impossible choices. Particularly because, when your mother and father are Haitian, there are a few things you learn through cognition. You must never point out the errors of granmoun. You must never put your needs before granmoun’s needs. You must do the bidding of granmoun without questioning them; you must do it as soon as they tell you to. If you refuse, you run the risk of receiving mal diok, a jinx you incur when you fail to honour thy granmoun.
Needless to say, my partner and I kept our secret marriage a secret for two months after that.
What could be more Amerikèn than getting secretly married?
Ten years prior, opinions on the “gay issue” were being formed along party lines. Being “right” seemed to be a condition predicated on one’s ability to argue, with less emphasis on truth, or justice. Politics were the real-world application of the persuasive writing lessons I learned in Mrs. Gropper’s 9th grade English class. I flexed my newly formed debate muscles in earnest. I know plenty of husbands who cheat on their wives… Have you seen the figures on divorce rate? What ‘sanctity’ do you speak of when you speak of marriage? These debates all took place in my head. Whenever Baby Bush appeared on the television in our family room, I walked away. It was too soon to demonstrate my fledgling abilities to my parents.
Driving home from school one afternoon, my mother shuffled through radio stations. The grey rain made me heavy-eyed. She found no objection from me when she switched from my preferred station, 94.9 ZETA Rocks to NPR. “Enter Sandman” was grating anyway. The voice of the host droned on in the background, barely audible over the schwump schwump schwump of the windshield wiper. My skin itched when I heard it: constitutional ban. I turned the volume up, boiling in my teenage skin, and grumbling in my seat while my mother and younger sister glanced at me, quietly mystified.
“Why do you get so emotional about it?” my mom said flatly. It being the issue of queer people receiving equal treatment in American society. “Are you gay?” she asked, the beginnings of a laugh rumbling in her throat. She locked eyes with me for a moment, and I felt my brain become unhinged with exhilaration and fear. I was taking too long to answer, but this was an unexpected interruption to the debating that I carried on alone in the safety of my mind. Who was she calling emotional? My objections to discrimination stemmed from a clear sense of logic and understanding of humane decency.
“Yes,” I answered, falling back onto the headrest. Some things you cannot prepare for.
We continued our drive in silence.
Married now and fully Amerikèn, I could enjoy the freedom of having weekends all to myself. I no longer ran errands for my parent’s siblings; I no longer braced South Florida traffic on weekend trips to my family members’ homes.
For a while there, I felt stuck in the here and now, the aching now, the deep down and low now. Then, it felt like a fever overtook my brain. It would not let me hope. On any given day, there were weeks’ worth of things that I had experienced and I could not share with my family. Soon, there would be months’ worth. How many years’ worth of experiences would I try to commit to memory, so that I could tell them, before I realized I would never get the opportunity to tell them?
I dropped out of my Ph.D. program with no plans for establishing a new career path. I lost sight of myself. Or was it that I had been so violently untethered from the possibility of making my family proud of me that I began to reassess whether spending the prime of my life in the field, writing a dissertation, and moving from one adjunct professorship to another was something that I wanted for myself or for them? What is more Amerikèn than pulling myself up by my bootstraps and from the depths of despair, despite the family-sized hole in my chest and the lingering scent of a lack of self-worth, crippling self-doubt, and self-hatred? What is more Amerikèn than suffering under the weight of a racist, heterosexist, and capitalist society with no family to rely on?
“Family” has teeth. When it done with you, you must be vigilant so that it does not devour you.
There are studies that speak to a first-born’s propensity to follow the rules. Probability states that as a first-born, my primary mode of maintaining citizenship in my familial network is by upholding the edicts my parents pass down to me. This is how most first-borns come to understand who they are.
The first time I said “No” to my Uncle, when he asked me to translate a work document, I felt guilty and ashamed.
When asked to help with a family member’s rent, I said, “I can’t. I’m saving.” On American television shows, twenty-something-year-olds did this; they put their needs first. For sure the limits of mal diok did not extend to Amerikèns. Couldn’t I do the same?
My family took note of my “insolence.” Breaking from the orthodoxy given to me with my breast milk, I became a petulant Amerikèn. “This isn’t you,” they reminded me, and some went as far as to blame my partner for the change in my behavior.
I thought they would change their minds. I thought they would understand why I was distant, why I seemed lost. I thought they would apologize.
Months after my wedding, when my Aunt Linnet came to visit, I realized there was more to lose than the love and respect of your family. That Linnet did not broach the fact of my marriage did not matter to me, but I paid attention when she hissed things to me about my partner’s “suspicious” behavior. An addiction to Tumblr and Facebook served as proof of my partner’s adulteries. When I looked at my Aunt Linnet, I saw her with a new understanding. She loved me still, deeply, but she would persist in her attempts to stop me from becoming fully dejwe if I did not put a stop to her machinations. For Linnet, it was better to sully my image of S, to plant seeds of doubt in the hopes of creating discord between us that would eventually lead to the dissolution of our relationship, or better yet, completely undo my sexuality.
For the first time, I did not feel the urge to make sure Linette reached her home. The urge to call her ended soon after.
Historically, when S, who is white and of Italian-heritage, has conversations with their family about the abjection of Black people in America, they are left with tears of anger. Years of debating on the side of racial equality have not softened the rough edges of S’s family’s opinions. Media coverage of the mistreatment and murder of Black people have not changed S’s family’s anti-Black prejudices.
The day news of the lack of indictment in the case of Michael Brown’s murder dropped, S and I cried ourselves to sleep.
On social media, S tried to counteract the racist narratives that were underway. Unfortunately, S’s stepmother, Becky, left racist diatribes on every single one of S’s posts. Becky’s messages comprised of bullshit like: the “sheer size” of Michael Brown “was reason enough” for Wilson to fear him and kill him in “self- defense.” Becky stated that Michael Brown was an “asshole” who got “what he deserved,” because he was a “bully” and because he “beat up” Wilson so badly that “his eye was hanging out of his orbital socket.” I had never been so close to white rage in my life.
All at once it occurred to me then that people called “family” might one day imperil my own life and the lives of my future children; it occurred to me that my homophobic family members might not grieve with me if I were assaultedor grieve with my mother if someone murdered me for chosing to be unbound to and disobdient to normative standards of sexuality and gender expression; it occurred to me that perhaps my partner’s racist family members might not mourn if our Black children were taken from us by police violence.
The CDC reports that the most American thing a woman can do nowadays is to become a parent at an “advanced maternal age.” They define “advanced” as 35 and up. Just this summer, I told my partner I might feel comfortable raising children in ten years. I’ll be 38 years old then; that is 11 years older than we had planned when we got engaged.
Before, when I was still Haitian, I could practice a sort of detachment from the realities of my American friends. When I became Amerikèn, I gained a new citizenship, which came with a new culture and furnished me with a different history. As an Amerikèn, I was obliged to come to terms with the fact that the context of my children’s Blackness would be different, as well. I became one of those Amerikèns who often have to bury their sons while the media plays non-stop coverage of them being gun downed in the street by the police.
I am trying to tell you that I will be giving my children more than the legacy of a people who have been repeatedly attacked by foreigners on sovereign land, their resources decimated, their culture ridiculed, and their homeland called the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” Now, I would be giving them the extermination of Black and Brown bodies on this soil, on televisions and on live-streams on social media, too.
With all the free time I gained, when family gave up on me, and when I gave up on trying to win them over, I found it, the thing I had not even known I was missing when I started this whole process. I found self-reliance. I found a new career. I started to take my writing seriously.
A few months after my first wedding anniversary, my younger sister asked me if I wanted to join her at my Aunt Fabienne’s home, where a few out-of-town cousins had congregated for a night of Barbancourt drinking and shit-talking. I was in the middle of filling out an application for another writing residency. I completed my application in fifteen minutes, but then I remembered something. This was the aunt who, for two months prior to those invitations being sent out, had called me repeatedly to talk about her own personal issues and to whom, I had offered my ear and my sympathies. This was the same aunt who had not bothered even sending a text message with an excuse for not attending my engagement party. This was the same aunt who had not called me since news of my elopement spread up and down the Haitian grapevine that exists along I-95.
I told my sister, “No, I have an application to complete,” and I spent the next few hours rereading my words and looking for errors that I knew did not exist, until the guilt subsided and I could click SUBMIT.
I was learning to be responsible to myself. Alone.
When you are an Amerikèn, it often feels like you are journeying through life weightlessly. In the beginning, that sensation ached of loneliness. In the two years since S and I eloped, I have been taking advantage of the other side of weightless, which is unburdened.
I’m an Amerikèn, and I take this project seriously. I follow in the footsteps of those who have come before, who say they are “American” with an accent, too. They have inspired me to write for my sons and for your sons, to rise to the occasion of my new becoming.
The personal narratives that line my bookshelves usually conclude with the White, heterosexual American women getting married, yet for me, as a queer Amerikèn, my sexuality and my love is transgressive. The outside world will try to make me hurt, so marriage cannot be my happy ending.
I am writing a speculative fiction novel.
My queer, female protagonist comes from a loving family. In revolution, the family bond unravels along the seams of unspoken truths…
At the end of her journey, she will find a true understanding of herself, her family, and of her Haitian roots.
It is a love letter to myself.
Bestiary for S
The horse, without insistence,
asks nothing more of you than to look at it,
claim the cube of sugar it offers with its wild, pink tongue.
The horse asks nothing of you
except that you mount it. Ride it, even if you fear
your hips will become unhinged.
The horse, eyes wet and vivid like their own strange animal,
wants to gallop, wants to trample through the brook with you.
The horse wants to scream into the still lost dark for you.
The horse wants to praise at your feet,
wants to tent its steaming body
over your face in the storm.
Follow it into the deep brambles,
which smell of fire.
Even in a dream, follow it.
In our partnership, I began to make right what my family had undone. Or was it that I began to uncover how futile wanting to be loved by others was, esepcially while I persisted in my unwillingness to love myself without shame and without fear?
In the end, the rider and the horse could not dream the dream of the lush forest of love indefinitely…The occasion came when I, this time, did decided upon the soloist’s march, instead. Yet, oh, how courageously did we try! I cannot tell you how much our endeavors changed me.
The path to finding a love that would hold me, always, without conditions, the path of letting go of past hurts, is unveiling itself to me, slowly, and I am savoring the taste.
Amerikèn. A-me-ri-kèn. An adjective.
Tacked on at the end of sentences describing one found lacking and suspicious. In the Haitian diaspora, one is always at risk of becoming Amerikèn.
When you become an Amerikèn, you do not have the privileges and allowances of “real Haitians.” Your opinions are not valued. When you become an Amerikèn—this is the one that will hurt the most—you will no longer be trusted with the stories of your family members. You will miss the tintinnabulation of Kreyol syllables. When you become an Amerikèn, you will find yourself repeating the jokes to yourself you have not yet forgotten so that you might be able to laugh in Kreyol again.
I cannot tell you with much certainty if the process of becoming Amerikèn begot me being dejwe, or if it was the other way around. I can tell you that in the beginning all I knew was pain, and then, in my new, raw skin, I found freedom.