Negotiating Identity through Fieldwork Experiences in Northern Haiti
How does one navigate herself through the boundaries of identity—whether clearly defined as lines of separation or as fading divisions that encompass acceptance? When and where does finding and redefining oneself begin? How does one cross into vague, challenging margins in order to “belong” to a culture that may accept her as the ‘Other’ for her partiality? How does one venture to a new place and attempt to implant herself in a foreign space in which a different historical memory and societal norms are inscribed? In my case, will I always be considered a blan (a Haitian Creole word for foreigner) in my paternal homeland of Haiti, or will I be able to integrate into a culture that has been distant in my imagination since the death of my Haitian father? During the summer of 2012, these questions emerged as I reflected on my experiences at my ethnographic site.
In Cap-Haïtien, a city in northern Haiti, I surveyed my research curiosities for preliminary dissertation research. Interestingly, I found myself navigating into new territory in an attempt to challenge the boundaries of my identity. I crossed international lines in which borders were not easily erased and were starkly present. During the first few weeks of my stay, “blending in” became a difficult task. My awkwardly accented Haitian Creole gave my blan-ness away, and my clothes and large afro ignited stares and skepticism. This essay shares my field notes as one who struggled with an identity as an African American-Haitian blan in Haiti. After weeks of re-conceptualizing my positioning as an “outsider within,” my duality challenged my understanding of cultural identity and the boundaries of inclusivity or exclusivity, and as a result, I experienced identity crossing, bridging, and acceptance.
Beginnings of Marginality
Twenty years ago, my Haitian father died when I was four years old. After his passing, my African American mother decided it was best for us to move the family from Miami to upstate South Carolina where my maternal roots lie. Death and movement created a separation in which I grew up with no tangible linkage to Haiti. I disconnected with my Haitian family in Miami who served as the direct link to those in northern Haiti. Therefore, I grew up as an African American South Carolinian with a unique last name.
During my undergraduate years, I took to online shopping such as eBay to purchase Haitian flag gear and introductory language aids to help me learn Haitian Creole. This served as my coping strategy to deal with my narrative self; a self that was incomplete and longing for a socio-cultural connection to Haiti. I created a romanticization of my second “home” which was, as Benedict Anderson (1983) articulated, an imagined community. Later in my undergraduate years, I reconnected with my Haitian family via social media, which created a metaphoric bridge in which validated my membership among the Haitian Diaspora—a transnational community that is politically and economically integral to Haiti. Reconnection prompted me to focus my future studies on Haiti. I soon found that Haiti not only became an academic project, but also a deep, personal endeavor.
Identity and Identification
This summer, I was made aware that I was a halfie, a person between cultures, as Lila Abu-Lughod (1991) describes. I am positioned as an individual who grew up and received academic training in the West and as an individual with paternal ties in Haiti, my site for anthropological fieldwork. As a halfie, my positioning bridges the distinction between the self and the Other. As one who is deeply intertwined with my research agenda in my father’s country, I represent myself as I represent the Other within my ethnographic writing. I see myself as an extension of the people I study.
Interestingly, during my fieldwork experience, I quickly found that my position continuously shifted and I operated within spaces of both community and otherness. It was clear that the borders of identity, both as an anthropologist and a progeny of Haiti, had become complex. My anthropologist self accompanied, as Patricia Hill Collins (1998) articulates, my outsider-within position. My identity shifted by those who placed me within and outside a particular social location. At my research site, my paternal ties garnered acceptance that placed me within an adopted space. However, while this space presented me with an opportunity of cultural immersion, I felt that I was not granted full membership which made me feel at arms-length apart. I encountered an interesting power dynamic in which the production of self was created and reproduced by those I study.
Previously, I visited Haiti on three brief occasions, but it was not enough time to really soak in the aspects of Haitian culture that I wanted to explore. Therefore, once I booked my roundtrip flight for 12 weeks in Haiti for the summer, I was filled with inescapable anticipation. On the morning of my flight, I had feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and happiness all at the same time. The two-hour plane ride from Fort-Lauderdale to Cap-Haїtien intensified my anxiety, which resulted in an uncomfortable stomachache. The turbulence that disturbed the small, compact aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean did not comfort me. This foreshadowing displayed my upcoming adventure—one that would come to consist of fluctuating high and low moments. To bring calmness to my nerves, I meditated on my future experience and wished for a productive, safe, and fruitful summer. Through moments of reflection, Haiti finally became within reach.
On May 12, the aircraft landed in Cap-Haїtien International Airport a little after 9 am. With shaky hands, I descended the air stairs onto the cement. The landscape of mountains and tropical blue skies warmed my heart with familiarity. I was greeted by my cousin, Ghemy, who is employed as an airport staff member. Dressed in a crisp white, buttoned-up shirt and ironed navy blue pants, he welcomed me with hugs and kisses, and stated, “Byenvenidezyèmpeyi ou” (Welcome to your second country). When I exited the airport, I found my older half-brother waiting for me with his old Ford truck. He greeted me and said, “Welcome home.”
During my time in Haiti, I volunteered for a non-profit organization. In exchange for my service, they provided me with a teacher to help me improve my Haitian Creole. After weeks of tutoring, my teacher inquired about how I identified myself, “Do you think you are Haitian?” I explained that it has been hard to claim myself as “Haitian” because of what that implies and means. For me, I thought being a part of Haitian culture required a certain obligatory criterion which is learned, mastered, and practiced. While understanding as an anthropologist that culture is not static, but fluid and consistently changing, reality hit me when I still could not imagine myself ever fitting in because I was not “authentic” enough. For me, such criteria include learning the intricacies of Haitian Creole and acquiring generational knowledge that I could not obtain by living in the States. I also reflected that during my time in Haiti, I was called blan several times, which did not happen during my previous trips to Haiti. This term inscribed my social location. I thought, “How can I be Haitian, when people characterize me as if I am not.” Before I could continue my thoughts, my instructor interrupted me and said with conviction, “Ou se Ayisyen” (You are Haitian).
After eight weeks in Haiti, I felt closer to the country, and I learned more about myself within a new cultural setting. Unfortunately, my comfort level was interrupted when I experienced an awkward situation where I resided. On this particular day, my sister-in-law went to the market and my brother was at work in his office. I stayed home from volunteering because I was experiencing the usual traveler’s symptoms. When I walked downstairs to use the bathroom, I could hear Nadia, my family’s housekeeper, and a family neighbor having a friendly conversation. In the midst of their conversation, they called me blan several times and giggled as I approached the bathroom door. Unable to use the restroom from feeling humiliated, I went back upstairs and wondered why she would reduce me to that term when she is familiar with my name.
While I understand this term is used to characterize a foreigner, I also contest it because of its association with a racialized and oppressive history. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti under the 1801 constitution ratified Haiti’s 1805 Constitution that stated aucun blanc (no whiteman) could step foot in Haiti, be called a master, or own property. He was stripped of his “entitlements” in this free black republic. As historian and Vodou priest Max Beauvoir writes, “Dessalines wanted nothing to do with the whiteman.” Instead, Dessalines wanted to reaffirm blackness. While I understand that the word blan has transformed and assumed new meaning, I feel uncomfortable with its etymological association to people who once oppressed my ancestors during colonialism and imperialism.
Crossing into Understanding
After reflecting on this incident, I shared my feelings of disappointment to my brother. He told me not fret since I am no etranje (stranger) in our home. He reassured me that I should not be in conflict with those who identified me as blan because “This is the language of Haiti.” In considering these words of advice, the unexpected encounters of identity negotiation represented intimate, symbolic expressions for me. I interpret these experiences as opportunities of reflection, not as challenges to my desire for continuing my academic and personal endeavors in Haiti. My family, research, and desire to contribute to Haiti wherever my skills and energy can be applied are my driving force of returning to home.
Therefore, this essay serves as a reflection of intimacy and vulnerability. I continue to negotiate my collective self, which is a personal project constantly in crisis because of feeling inadequate and unauthentic. Escaping these identity challenges may be far in the distance; however, I crossed a bridge of understanding that assures me that crisis is typical and, sometimes, necessary. I have accepted my identity as one who is an African American because of my South Carolinian maternal roots and as one who is a Haitian-blan since my social location prohibits me from fitting either completely within or outside a particular socio-cultural blurred border. Since I am still “coming” into my own, I have accepted that I might forever be blan in Haiti. I cannot escape this contested reality because of where I fit within the dominant discourse of identity and identification in my paternal homeland. While my selfhood is subjected to molding by a socio-cultural rhetoric present in her geographic borders, Haiti welcomes me as I pay homage through my continued research endeavors and public service.
Crystal Andrea Felima is an anthropology doctoral student at the University of Florida. She is an alumna of the University of South Carolina and Cornell University. Her primary research interests are disasters, human vulnerability, NGOs, and Haiti. She can be reached at email@example.com.