Juno, Ludwig, Mayfair, Lo-Fi…I just could’nt seem to make up my mind. I swiped back and forth repeatedly through the various filters trying to decide which would be best for the unveiling of my memoir, “1 Man, 3 Hearts, 9 Lives.” In the year 2015, it was all about social media presentation. I had spent the last three years of my life pouring my heart and soul into the development my book. Night after night, I dreamt of the moment when I would finally be able to share all of my hard work with the world. Therefore, I wanted the reveal to be absolutely perfect. My main objective here was to keep my complexion from appearing too dark in the photo. My thought process in doing so being that God forbid I look “too black,” deterring potential buyers and readers. Now I know you must be thinking that the whole filter selection process is a bit extreme. But tell me this, was I really all that crazy for my thinking when months later a reputable NY book critic still passed on my book because he wasn’t “interested in reading a book about gangs?!
“Sierra, this is the one,” I thought to myself as I finally settled on the perfect filter to compliment my self-loathing.
One would think that growing up in a Haitian/Jamaican household filled with the sounds of Soca music, Calypso, Reggae, Kompa, eating rice & beans, plantains, curry goat, oxtail, sauce pois, and a Haitian nanny who didn’t speak a lick of English ( God Bless you Therese), that I would have grown up feeling so proud and secure in my culture. On the contrary, here I was, thirty-two years old and still unable to fully claim my blackness. A typical Judas, only claiming rights to my ethnicity when socially acceptable, and denying it other times when not. After many years of therapy, and soul searching, I attribute my lack of self acceptance largely to two things. One being all of the childhood trauma that I endured, teaching me that being black was just not something to be proud of. Second being a lack of education about my heritage. This is not to say I was not exposed to my culture, I just did not learn enough about it. Nor did I receive the reassurance I needed to be secure in my colored skin. But don’t get it twisted, we made annual trips to see family in Haiti, France, and Jamaica. Not to mention, I speak fluent Haitian Creole: Sak pasé, m’ap boulé!
I grew up in a small town called Norwood, New Jersey—my family being one of the only black families to live in such a prestigious town. Aside from the one or two other black kids in the area, there really wasn’t anybody else that looked like us. In fact, most people just assumed that we all must be related somehow. My family is also fairly light-skinned, which only added to my confusion as to where I fit in. And again, my parents never really sat us down to break down racism or explain to us that we were culturally different. I think they just kind of figured we knew, but we didn’t. To be honest, I never felt any different either, until slowly over the years things became more and more evident to me. We were not all the same, and as a black boy/man I would have to learn “my place” in society. In other words. Santa Claus is not real people! Going out into a world where you are completely different from everyone around you, only to realize that you’re the only one unaware of your differences, is incredibly terrifying.
I’m not sure if my parents entirely knew how unconnected I may have felt sometimes. They fought hard to give us a wonderful life, and my siblings and I were truly happy. Now although I never felt fear for my life, nor was I ever forced to use a different bathroom, or drink from a separate fountain, the underlying racism which occasionally popped out in my area was very real. Racism does not always present itself as a knee crushing blow to the throat killing an innocent man in broad daylight, it can also be a dirty look that says, “you don’t belong here.” It can be another mother in the park politely asking my mom if she’s our nanny. Better yet, it can be casting me to play the role of a monkey in the school play, despite my many other noticeable talents. There’s levels to this shit!
The first to event to chip away at my ethnic pride took place in the summer of ‘91
Wiping away the window condensation with my fist, I looked out to notice that the grass was still iced over with morning dew, as the bus pulled up to camp. The windows were muggy from the humidity, which kept some of the kids entertained as they drew pictures and silly faces in the fog. It was not even 8AM, which meant it was going to be a scorcher. The bus came to a halt, and we all proceeded to pile out. No sooner than I stood up, I was plopped right back into my seat as the other bigger boys stampeded past me to the front of the bus. Camp was all about physical activity, and with my newly implanted pacemaker, I was always so nervous about not being able to keep up with the other kids. Don’t get me wrong, I could hold my own, but by no means was I anywhere near an all-star athlete.
“Alright, line it up!” yelled the head counselor blowing his whistle. “Group A, B, and C you guys are going to be heading down to the field. Groups D, E, and F you guys head to your lockers and get changed, we’re going to the pool!”
I hated swimming first period of camp. The sun wasn’t even fully out yet, and the water was always freezing that early in the morning. Not to mention, I always felt uncomfortable taking my shirt off, because I didn’t want the other kids seeing my scars. I quickly changed, shoving my bag and the rest of my belongings into a rusted old locker. I threw my towel over my left shoulder, perfectly covering my pacemaker. We then made our way down the hill to the pool area and sat down on a set of bleachers, as we waited for the lifeguard to explain our activity of the day.
“Listen up campers, here’s the deal! We’re gonna start with some relays so partner up. Once we wrap that up, we’re gonna play some water volleyball! Fastest pair in today’s relay gets a free ice cream cone from me at lunch. Let’s Go!”
I grabbed my friend Colin, and I was the first one in the water when the whistle blew. I gave it my all. I had a pool at home, and I took regular swimming lessons with my Uncle Chico, so this was where I knew I could show my strength. Once I got over the shock of the cold water, I was killing it, and my partner and I ended up placing first. Unable to contain himself, Colin ran up to me for a hug, chest bumping me in the process.
“Owwww!” I yelled as I hunched over clutching my chest.
“I’m so sorry, you okay man? I hurt you?” Colin asked placing his hand on my head.
“Woaaaaaah! Dude, your hair is waterproof! Guys come check this out!” he yelled.
“No, no, no, please don’t,” I stammered, “I’m fine. Really, it’s cool!”
It was too late. Before I knew it, I had several tiny camper hands bouncing on my head as if it were a sponge.
“This is so awesome! It’s like a Brillo pad!”
“Does it ever get wet?”
“Wait how do you cut it?”
“Does it itch? Cuz it feels fuzzy!”
“If you fell on your head would you just bounce back up”
I wanted to crawl in a hole and die, as all the kids played with my hair, erupting with laughter. At this point, I could care less who saw my scar, I just wanted them to stop talking about my hair. I was so embarrassed!
“Hey! Enough! Get back in the water, and let’s play some volleyball,” shouted the lifeguard.
Saved by the bell. After that, I just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling of being strange and different. Even after winning the relay and receiving a free ice cream cone, I was still so deflated. The jokes didn’t stop either; we all know little kids can be ruthless and the nickname “Brillo head,” stuck with me for a while. One of the boys even wailed a ball at my head during volleyball just to test his theory about objects bouncing off of my fluffy fro. Children can’t be blamed for their innocent ignorance, however education starts at home. This instance created an environment that birthed a lot of self-hatred. I started to avoid “anything black,” and even went so far as to change my appearance physically just to try and blend in. I noticed that even my parents spoke differently when around white people, making every effort to conceal their native tongue behind a forced posh American accent. Much of our behavior is taught and learned by what we see exemplified around us. But it wasn’t long before I learned that acting, dressing, and speaking a certain way would not ultimately protect me from racial discrimination. No matter how smart, distinguished, successful, or well spoken I was, as a black man…some people would only see a n*gger first; a harsh reality that I just did not want to believe. But I will no longer make excuses for, curtail, or mute my blackness for the sake of making others feel comfortable ever again! 💙💙💙
Thank you for this new chaptwr….I m enjoying it very very much as always….
Thank you so much!! I really appreciate you taking the time to read 💙
Chris ! Wow ! This is intense , especially in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd.
Growing up in Jamaica , I never faced racial discrimination . Our motto was ‘ Out of many , one people ‘ We were diverse , many skin colors , hair texture, facial features and eye color. Yes there were differences in education and economic privileges
Then I came to this country . Here I was a light skinned Jamaican with hazel eyes , having to identify myself as the ‘ other ‘ There was no category that I could identify with . English , Italian , Portuguese , Black . I never felt different neither was I ever a subject to discrimination
Then I had my three children . I always thought of you all as talented , unique , popular , loved by all . Then there were these hints of discrimination some you shared , and others you silently dealt with .
It is time for our nation to realize that we are and always will be ‘ ONE people !’ Cast away this hateful and evil discrimination and show more love to each other . Well written my son !
Wow Mom! Thanks for sharing a part of your story and struggles as well. These conversations are so important and necessary to have in order to better understand one another. I love you so much!! 🤗💙
Powerful and poignant expression of your struggles growing up and finding your place in your community and in society as a young black man. You are an amazingly talented, good looking, brave guy ! We are all a work in progress right to the end . You’ve opened up my heart and mind in this one chapter to help me to want create an open dialogue with my son to help me know him better.
Thank you so much Liz! Your support means everything, however your willingness to have a more open dialogue with your son as a result of reading touches me on such a deep level. Love and miss you toooo much!! 🥰💙
This is the story of my life. I grew up in Colonia, NJ, and then in Marietta, GA. No one knew what a Dominican was. I was alone in my own skin for most of my life. Moving back to NJ as an adult, I’ve been able embrace my Dominican roots, and I love it. Like you, I wish I knew how great it is to be a black Latina as a child. But now we are in positions in life to, “Teach the truth to the young black youth” (Wu Tang, C.R.E.A.M). I plan to make every child, particularly ones that look like me, love the skin they are in.
Thank you for sharing Loni! It means everything to have people relate. Let’s us know that we are not alone in our struggles. I’m so happy to call you my dear friend! Sending you so much love! 💙