Growing Up West Indian

I was raised in a conservative Haitian American family. I spent a majority of my childhood on Long Island. Long Island is pretty isolated not only geographically but also culturally. So I grew up in a black and white world. There were a handful of Hispanics and even fewer Asians but for the most part it was black and white.

I was a bit of a geek and hung out with the theater kids. Theater kids are creative and expressive. They express themselves through their hair, their clothing, their speech and their body language. Me being as creative as I am, I’ve always been attracted to self-expression.

One of my classmates had a rainbow of hair colors ranging from blues to greens to pinks. She was what you would consider Goth. I always admired her boldness. I thought it would be great to dye my hair pink. I went through a pink obsession phase in high school. I wore the color every single day; a pink top with a pink belt and pink ballet flats.

One day I asked my mom if I could dye my hair pink, cotton candy pink. She calmly looked up at me and said no you can’t do that. Why not, I responded. And she replied, because you just can’t! I proceeded to tell my mom about my friend at school whose mother allowed her to dye her hair bright colors.

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“Is she white?” my mother asked. I nodded. My mother told me I couldn’t dye my hair because it would mean different things for me. I was so upset I didn’t even ask her to explain further.

That night when I was getting ready to say my prayers with my mother she elaborated on our earlier discussion.

“I can’t allow you to dye your hair a certain color or behave a certain why because people would think you’re ghetto. Life would be harder for you if you’re perceived that way.”

It was at that moment that I realized that in order to be respected in society as a black person I had to work that much harder, do that much more to be perceived as polite. Polite people get jobs. Polite people get opportunities. Polite people are treated well. Life would eventually teach me, that even if I was a polite person that because of the color of my skin being polite wouldn’t be enough.


 

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My Hair, My Identity

I grew up in a sheltered one-parent home on Long Island. My mother was a first generation American who struggled with the desire to preserve her culture while also attempting to raise two strong-willed, young women. How does one teach her daughters to be proud Haitian-Americans in an American world when Haitians are naturally conservative and American ideals run the way of left thinking?

June 2012, I cut my hair. I didn’t just get a regular trim or bob cut, I completely took my hair off and started rocking nappy coils on my head. Up until this point, my head was always adorned in either Moesha-style, butt-grazing single braids or super shiny Japanese looking, shoulder length wigs and way back when I even rocked a jerry curl. You remember the jerry curl, right? That wet curly look made famous by Lionel Richie. I had done so much to my hair that when I look back at pictures now I can’t even believe I was brave enough to leave my house. I was the very definition of a train wreck.

Fast forward to the the summer of 2012, I had made the life changing decision of drastically altering how I would physically present myself to the world. This decision hadn’t come easily as if by the snap of two fingers. No, this was all thanks to the internet or should I say Al Gore, who invented the internet? The internet opened the door for me to experience the world of natural beauty as fashioned by black women. I discovered with a few clicks of my mouse that there were options for my hair other than miserably failing to mask the texture I had been blessed with. I spent hours scrolling through images of beautiful black women sporting beautiful nappy, kinky, curly, coily looks. And whenever I came across a picture of a black girl smiling proudly up at the camera with her chocolate coated crown of spirally kinks, I thought why not me? Why couldn’t I do the same? The thickness, the shape and the length, natural hair screamed health and encouraged me to take leap a faith. “Come on, do it brown girl!” said the queen with the beautiful sun kissed curls poking out freely from every angle on her head.

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For as long as I can remember, I had felt ashamed of the texture of my hair. Every six weeks I headed to the Dominican salon to get my kitchen and edges straightened out so that the wig I wore looked natural. Yes that was me on a Saturday with $65 in hand waiting eagerly by the hair dryers for my name to be called for my scalp to be scratched, scraped and burned all for the sake of a straight ‘do. And this was tradition, a rite of passage for young Black American women. Was I really giving this up?

I’ll never forget the first time I went back to the Dominican salon after my big chop with my hair all nappy and short the stylist took one look at my head then closed her eyes in exasperation. She tried to coax me into getting a relaxer but I straightened my back and held on tightly to the armrests of my chair in defiance and replied: “No. This is how I’m wearing my hair now.” Elevated by my groundbreaking decision to choose the new alternative Black lifestyle showed in my attitude, walk and speech. I had refused to conform once and this somehow led to me refusing to conform in other areas too.

As a Haitian-American girl I was raised to believe that my having been born into an immigrant family gave me an irrefutable sense of culture not shared by those with a similar complexion. The girl on the uptown bound 1 train may be just the same color as I am but because she was American she was somehow different from me. She had no culture, no history and therefore no sense of self which was why she wasn’t like me. Because of this strict ideology I grew up trying to distance myself from Black American culture. I refused to “talk ghetto”, I refused to admit I liked fried chicken and most importantly of all I didn’t dress “Black” even if I really liked a particular dress. Dressing “Black” entailed tight clothing, loud jewelry and colorful hair. My mother never prescribed to the belief that a woman had to be flashy to get attention. But she didn’t have to, my mother always commanded attention because of her regality, beauty and poise.

Looking back I can’t believe I ever felt that way about the parts of Black American culture that make us beautiful. Now I adorn my hair with flashy colors and bold styles without hesitation. I dress as I please even if it may come off “ghetto” because it’s a look I have come to admire. Yes, I have come to admire the very style I felt obligated to isolate from myself. I guess everything does eventually come full circle.