U, Black Maybe

Jose VilsonJose13 Comments

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.

Comments 13

  1. Nice post, I’m always interested in other’s personal experience of race. Also good link at the bottom. I’d seen it before and read some good commentary in regards to the Columbia professor of Dominican history who essentially shits on her fellow Latinas in parts (though she claimed to be misquoted). That hair issue is fairly serious with the ladies.

    Apparently it isn’t completely evident from appearance what my background is, so often people cautiously get around to asking the ‘what are you’ question. I always answer ‘New Yorker’ because that is how I identify and the only genuine way to capture everything. I also enjoy the resulting awkwardness as they continue prodding and I finally answer that my parents are Dominican.

  2. race vs. ethnicity. vs. nationality….
    semantic games and linguistic trials and errors..
    living the hyphenated experience in the US…
    The issues within the African diaspora are not exclusive to this/ our community.
    Everyone has issues, but first they at least have to be acknowledged. Denial is not just a river in Africa.

  3. this is an interesting viewpoint and somewhat parallels my own in being rejected and accepted by both sides at different times. at a time when i’m still experiencing lukewarm acceptance from my black side, i’m enjoying a new renaissance of acceptance from my korean side thanks to hines ward. it’ll be a long hard road for mainstream acceptance in a country set on historical/cultural “purity” but it’s a start.

    and don’t get me started on the hair thing. that’s a whole ‘nother post.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this piece & the ? about being Black is so relevant especially when factoring in different elements of life such as your own. Sounds like you have had quite a journey & now starting to comprehend what it means.

    I read that piece about Dominican last month & was amazed about how much I did not know about the division of Dominicans & Haitians until them. The I just so happened to see a play in NYC called Platanos & Cllard Greens that dealt with Dominican/Haitian conflict & being of African descent.

    When it all boils down, we are more alike than we are different throughout the Diaspora. Language, economics, water & land are the only things that separate us.

    Lastly: U, Black Maybe is my standout favorite on the new Common CD. A very fitting reference here!


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  6. Why do people find it necessary to place labels upon others? It was very amusing watching this man explain his assumptions about me. 1/2 white because of the color of my skin and 1/2 black because of my nose. Who needs to go to school or even get a higher degree of education when ladies and gentlemen, our frieds from the northern border can tell you for free your ethnicity/race by the shape of your nose. At least he knew that Colombia and Ecuador where in South America. Canadians rock the geography classes!!!!!

    Latinos have a very disturbing and interesting relationship when it comes to race and color. Historically speaking, the “men” in power created a social hierarchy of color. The order was the following:
    1-the Spaniards were la creme de la creme
    2-the criollos were the ones born to Spaniard parents
    3-the mestizos were the Spaniard and Indian mix
    4-the Indian and black slaves were the last category.
    As a result, color has played a significant role in the way that Latinos treat one another historically and socially. My students from Dominican Republic were shocked and upset when we talked about “our” history because some of them refused to accept that they were not “white.” The way they spoke to one another and used the word “prieto” or “cocolo” which are equivalent to the “n word” would drive me up the wall. We would have serious conversations about this topic and share some of the pain they have endured. It took them a long time to understand that what they were doing was creating a barrier between them which they should not. I wanted them to accept and embrace their culture and individual beauty. Most importantly, I wanted them to stop the pattern of discrimination, hate, and ignorance that has existed far too long. They had a difficult time understanding why I was so emotionally involved in this topic since I am “white.” I am not white, not that there is anything wrong with that.

    I shared with them the following comments that my friends and I have heard: “You need to improve the race by marrying someone white because you don’t want your children to have bad hair.” “You are so lucky that you have good hair.” “You are a light-skinned/white woman shaped like a sister.” “You act so different from other Hispanics. You are so fair skinned for a Hispanic.” “Another white bitch trying to take our men.”

    Your post makes me pose the following question: What does it mean to be Latino in this country?

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  8. My brother, talk about deep! You have dropped science like it was molten hot lava! I am black, 8th generation, few “additives and preservatives (a lil dutch blood, some Native American, blah blah blah), but this is probably one of the most profound pieces I have read of someone with a Latino (half in your case) background. Too many times, I have witnessed Latinos of African descent shun their blackness. Say their name and black in the same sentence, the reaction was like you told them they had AIDS, Leprosy, Liver Cancer and Hepatitis all rolled up in one! I just met with Felipe Luciano, and if I didnt know it, I would think you two are kindred spirits. Keep on doing what you doing. The more people like you, who are of some form of African descent, speak positively of their roots, lessening the demonization, the more as a people we can prosper. Hand-SALUTE!

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