Skenda Jean-Charles, Brown University
Growing up, I identified as a Haitian-American. In Miami, my hometown, I was surrounded by a plethora of family, and together we rebuilt a piece of Haiti at home. I loved being able to connect with my people and my culture, and my parents instilled that love within me in our home. Home was always filled with the melodic tones of Kreyol, the mouth-watering smell of griot and diri kole a pwa, and our vivacious family members. Miami contains one of the largest Haitian communities in America, so even outside of our home I was reminded of the island and its people.
My parents always reminded me of the sacrifice they made leaving their home in order to build a better life for themselves in America and as the child of immigrants, it was up to me to not squander that opportunity. Education, besides God and family, was the most important thing in my household. I attended private school my entire life, first in a parochial elementary school, then at a college prep school, and now at an Ivy League institution. Because of this, my education was (and continues to be) largely shaped in the presence of wealthy children, most of whom were white. My school experience contrasted heavily with my home experience, and both experiences left little room for me to explore how to define myself as a Black woman in the United States.
While in primary school, my white peers felt comfortable speaking to me about Blackness in a certain way because they coded me as “safe”. Even still, I was regularly subjected to microaggresisions that left me feeling drained and insecure in a space that I consistently occupied. At home, my parents and extended family were hypercritical of “Blacks”, or African Americans, often stating that these communities did not value education and did not respect themselves, citing these reasons as why they suffered so many injustices. I felt uncomfortable with these depictions, but at the time did not have access to the knowledge and language to dispute them. If I could not fit into Whiteness due to my skin, or into a perception of Blackness due to my upbringing, where did I belong? I decided that Haiti would feel most like home, and I yearned to go there and explore.
In the summer of 2010, I was granted that wish. I traveled with my parents to Haiti for a week in order to bury my grandmother. Although we were going under distressing conditions, I was excited to see the country and hoped that my brief stay would help me solidify my identity. However, that hope was short-lived. My upbringing was rooted in Haiti, but it was clearly not of Haiti. My cousins in Haiti jeered at my accent when speaking Kreyol, and teased me for various mannerisms that I did not even realize identified me as American. I felt adrift, as though I was between homes, not fully belonging anywhere.
That is, until I went to Brown University. It is within Brown that I was finally exposed to a community that allowed me to fully understand the multifaceted nature of Blackness. Daily conversations with my friends of various Afro-diasporic identities on topics such as racial discrimination, microaggressions, colorism, and the divides between Black communities, widened my perspective on the Black experience. Through these conversations, I was able to learn about the true history of racial injustice in America, the various ways those injustices are manifested in the present-day, and the privileges I hold as a first-generation Black immigrant. My time at Brown has allowed me to contextualize my lived experience and through this, redefine my identity. It’s helped me to understand that I don’t have to fit into one narrative of Blackness, especially as it is colored through the lens of white supremacy, and be comfortable enough in my own experience to advocate for other forms of Blackness.
Yes, I am Haitian-American, but I am also a Black woman in America, and I am proud to call both places home.