U, Black Maybe

Jose Vilson Jose

Common’s “Finding Forever”What I omitted about my latest Rock the Bells concert situation was when the same Canadian went up to my girl and said, “And you’re 1/2 White and 1/2 Black?”

“Why do you say that?” she replied in her usual inquisitive voice.

“Because of your nose.”

I let out a hearty laugh, because as it turns out, she’s Colombian and Ecuadorian, yet because of her mind state, she never gets offended by people confusing what she might or might not be.

I guess in his mind, though, there’s no doubt as to what I am. Suffice it to say, people immediately peg me as “Black.” That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s unfortunate, though, is how limiting these labels become. What does it mean to be Black in this country? And does it allow for people who don’t necessarily fit right in that slot?

After all, practically all my life, I never quite fit into the “Black experience” in America. As a Dominican-Haitian-American, I didn’t have the big family reunions in the park, the knowledge of Haitian Creole that I would have liked to, or even the pride in my country that these groups are respectively known for. For the most part, I’ve been waltzing through the four cultures (Dominican, Haitian, Black-American, American) just sampling each, and feeling rejection at various points from all. When people ask me for my background, I tell them “Dominican-Haitian, or Black will do” because that’s what the question entails, but sometimes I wish “Planet Earth” sufficed. (I sometimes wonder about that, too.)

So when I go to Santo Domingo, the capital of Dominican Republic, I see a sea of Africans who’ve made their homes there. I’ve seen very few people who were fair-skinned in the barrio I come from. Yet, when I go there, I’m outcast twice: for being Haitian and American. I tried to fit in, but eventually, the truth about my upbringing comes through.

The same dynamic happens when I’m with my Haitian relatives: while I can still hang with them, eat the foods, and read as much history about Haiti as humanly possible, I still feel that disconnect because I can’t communicate with them in Creole, so I can’t understand the jokes, the music, or what that particular thing is called that this person’s asking me to get for her. Even to this day, this has often brought people to question whether I’m even a real Vilson.

I attribute these sentiments to a father who wasn’t consistently there, a mother who loves me but didn’t teach me Dominican history, and a society so disturbed, it can map out what race is supposed to look like and deny the definitions in the same breadth. Not only until recently did I hear my grandaunt and my mother proclaim their African roots. That certainly would have helped the little boy I was to sift through this cultural clutter.

QuisqueyaI’m also critical of the categories those early social scientists and politicians constructed for humans. These divisions exist primarily to divide. How much easier was it for Rafael Trujillo to justify the genocide of and contempt for Haitians when Dominicans could fall under every other name but “Black” even when they looked so alike to them? How easy is it to insulate “desirable” communities in this country if people have to fill in the category they were taught to bubble in on the basis of race? How wonderful is it that people who are “mutts” can be shown disrespect for giving credence to the idea of race (“Race is just a social construct! You fit in just fine!”) AND on the same end, for not being “enough” of one race.

Then, I look at my experiences as a Dominican-Haitian-American, and realize that as many obstacles and tribulations I’ve had, they eventually made me who I am, and I love that person. I love my ability to switch between English and Spanish, to enjoy merengue, hip-hop, salsa, bachata, and rock with no qualms. I’ve been in executive boards of Black and Latino organizations, and held memberships in Haitian and Carribean organizations. I can write about these experiences from my own perspective. I love my brown skin, and how it only costs me a few dollars to get a haircut. (I love my ass, too, but mainly because of the positive reactions I get from women. I can’t help that.)

And I can finally tell the boy wrapped up in the confusion that he’ll find his own path , because it’s the path he’ll have to make for himself …

When we talk about black maybe
We talk about situations
Of people of color and because you are that color
You endure obstacles and opposition
And not all the time from….from other nationalities
Sometimes it comes from your own kind
Or maybe even your own mind
You get judged…you get laughed at…you get looked at wrong
You get sighted for not being strong
The struggle of just being you
The struggle of just being us…black maybe

Common – “U, Black Maybe”


Ed. Note: For a little perspective, my colleague Andy A. sent me this excellent article yesterday about how Dominican women straightening out their hair is a direct reflection of their denial of their African heritage. It’s all part of the Miami Herald’s series of articles about Afro-Latin Americans. What’s funny about this series is that it confirms exactly what I uncovered about my own history: my Dominican ancestors continually deny their African heritage because that’s all they’ve ever known.