Thursday, January 17, 2008

Letter to a Haitian Daughter

Le yo vle touye chien, yo dil fou. 
When they want to kill a dog, they call it crazy.

Se met ko ki veye ko.

It is she who owns her body who must look after her body.

Deye mon, genye mon.

Beyond the mountains, more mountains.

Dearest _______,

The decision to "come out" to my family (and to the world at large) was one of the toughest I've ever had to make. Since I have lived in the United States for most of my life, in many ways, my family members are my only link to Haiti. Collectively, their accents, proverbs, values, rituals, folk-tales, meals and articulated memories have painted vivid pictures of the island landscapes I struggle to conjure up on my own. My family members not only represent who I come from but where I come from.

When I became madivinez, I worried that telling my family the whole truth about my identity would alienate me from them and, by extension, I would lose my connection to my homeland. I feared I might never again taste the homemade durit ak jon-jon (rice with dried mushrooms) or mayis moule ak sos pwa (cornmeal with bean sauce) that I cherished consuming as a child. I worried, too, that I would never hear another sensual kompa song or witness a passionate political discussion in our dramatic language, Haitian Kreyol. 

But eventually—after much soul-searching, writing, praying and reading—I came to the conclusion that (back in 1804) my ancestors did not successfully fight their French slave captors for independence so that I would be a slave to oppression or bigotry in any form—even the bigotry of those I love. I remembered, too, that even if I altered the ingredients, I know how to cook durit ak jon-jon and mayis moule. I can download kompa tracks from the bands Zin and Sweet Mickey on iTunes. And even if it's anglicized and broken, I, too, speak Kreyol.

I wish I could tell you that things were easy-breezy-beautiful with my family; that after I came out to them, we hugged each other firmly and cried warm, relieved tears like the people do on TV. It wasn't that way. It isn't that easy. Some of my relatives physically threatened me. Some disowned me. Some shrugged. Some gave me a hi-five. Some said I was going to hell. Some apologized for their initial mistreatment. Some didn't.

When I came out to my father, in particular, he called me "unnatural" then accused me of being Americanized. He's right, I am American. He's wrong, I'm also natural. And like the brave madivinez and massissis that came before me, I am also Haitian. We have been marginalized but we represent our culture, too.

One of the things I had to give up as a result of coming out was the notion that my elders are flawless, omnipotently wise people. It's hard to experience blatant ignorance and cruelty from the people you grew up taking orders from. It's even harder to realize that their values and traditions are based on their limited personal experiences. We are trained to think of our fore-parents as giants but, ultimately, they are only human and human beings are flawed. Our elders make mistakes. They sometimes say things they don't mean. They sometimes mean things they don't say.

I've learned that it is possible to respect someone without agreeing with them. I've learned it is possible to honor my elders without letting them walk all over me. Tapping into these two (of many) possibilities is what makes me, officially, an adult woman. I guarantee you that, at times, the process of coming out will feel painful. But consider it "a growing pain."

I named my debut spoken word CD Madivinez, so, as you can probably imagine, I am pretty rebellious of spirit. In fact, I consider my instinct to question and challenge authority to be a very Haitian characteristic. So I insist on bringing my partner to family functions. It's not always comfortable for us but it's crucial. Slowly, my blood relatives are accepting that if they want to see me, they are going to have to face my partner, too. After all, at this point, she is just as much my family member as they are!

I refuse to let my sexuality be the proverbial (lavender) elephant in the room. Why should LGBTQ sons and daughters keep our partners away from our family reunions if our straight relatives feel free to show up with their husbands, boyfriends and fiances? We owe it to ourselves and our families to introduce our lovers and to share our love stories. We have to risk our comfort and help our community grow.

I promise you, your honesty is worth the trouble. Fear is never a good enough reason to lie to your loved ones. After you come out to your family, you may experience deep sadness and anger or, at the very least, frustration. Sometimes you might even feel lonely. But you will also feel so much better. Better than I can describe and better than you can imagine. And maybe you will even feel free.

I wish you much courage and magic as you journey.

Solidarity, Lenelle.