When I was a child and would visit my Poppa, he would always ask me to tell him about my humble beginnings. My face would light up out of sheer excitement because I was able to say something other than, “I don’t know.” I was able to say that I was born in Haiti! I would point to a map or a globe and feel absolute pride in the fact that I had come from somewhere foreign and magical. As a small child, the question of where I was from, was a point of connection and pride with my adoptive family and the Haitian family that I had no clue about.
When I was young, I had this amazing ability to use my imagination when it came to Haiti and when it came to my story before being adopted. Haiti had always been this wonderful place where I was sheltered and protected from afar and where everything was perfect. We all know perfection isn’t real, and if it is, it doesn’t last.
As I got older, I began to realize the truly complex place Haiti was. This cast a shadow on my childish belief system so that suddenly the story of “my humble beginnings” was far from exciting, bringing shattered assumptions instead. My “illusory Haiti” equaled being black and proud, but how was I to do this when I had become embarrassed?
I remember working at a farmer’s market one summer, and a customer asked me where I was from. I said, “Richmond,” but he pushed on with, “Where are you from?” I felt flustered and quietly gave him the truth, “I was born in Haiti.” He then began to describe how poor Haiti was and how corrupted it was, which made me feel small. As a teen, being associated with Haiti meant embarrassment. I started to realize that the Haiti that I had dreamt of and fantasized about was not real. The thing that I was proud to own and call mine when I was a child was something that I wanted to run far, far away from now. With my deeper and more mature understanding of Haiti came my further disengagement with being black.
Being in a white family helped me hide from this new reality of not wanting to be associated with Haiti, which in turn meant not wanting to be black. As much as I wanted to be the same as my adoptive family, I was different, and it wasn’t until my teens that this reality started to resonate. It was extremely painful. There were times when I wished I were white out of pure convenience – to stop what I perceived as inquisitive stares in the grocery store from strangers who were making up some story in their minds about what was going on. I also wanted to be white so that my daily inner battle would cease. I believed it was easier and much cooler to be white and would guarantee acceptance and inclusion with my peers if I were just like them.
I think one of the hardest things for me growing up in a transracial home was the conversations about who looks like whom. That point of hereditary connection was something that I wanted so badly. I thought that if I denied being black and truly believed that I was white, there would be some glimmer of hope and that I would get those same words from my family: “Oh my goodness, doesn’t Annie look like so and so?” Those words of affirmation never came, and my inner battle to be white and discover what that truly meant became a deep desire of mine that would never be realized.
When people would comment on how ‘white’ I was, I would get this gush of pride; the same pride I got when I first talked about Haiti with my Poppa. I would flash the palm of my hand at people and point at it as if I had “made it”, as if the white of my hand defined me and helped me to truly identify as a white person. I was so uncomfortable with who I was that I chose to have the palm of my hand represent who I thought I was, rather than being confident enough to represent me as me.
It’s funny how one of the smallest parts of my body, my palm, gave me the approval to deny the rest of me.
Everything changed in January of 2010. A huge earthquake completely ripped Haiti apart and did the same to my heart. At that moment, I felt a connection to Haiti that I had never felt before, and I started to care for family members I had never met and really desired to open my heart up to Haiti. The sense of pride came back, the same pride I felt when I was a little girl about the place of my birth. Haiti soon became a place in my heart of resilience and strength; therefore, being black started to represent this notion of resilience and strength.
I think for me, being in a mixed race family made me want the impossible, which made me chase after something that was not attainable. In those moments of pain and inward confusion, what I needed was more conversation about my journey. The connection between being black had always revolved around Haiti for me because it was my connection to being black. As an adult, I spent time in Haiti to find out what it truly meant to me. This time allowed me to lean into the courage, respect and the hope of the Haitian people. When I found these incredible qualities in Haiti, I began to see myself in a whole new light.
When I answer the question about my humble beginnings now, I answer by saying, “I was adopted from Haiti, and my parents are white, but there’s so much more to the story.”