Friday, September 14, 2012

Black Like Josiah

While we were on furlough, we met this woman in upstate NY.  She was talking with Nick about how in the 60's she'd adopted a black kid.  (She's a white woman.)  Obviously, that was controversial for the time, but she talked about it from an interesting perspective.  See, in upstate NY around that time (or really even now ;), there really weren't many black people.  So, she has this son.   She might look at him and just see her son.    (As a trans-racial family, I get that.  After a while, it's like we forget sometimes that we have different colored skin.)   But other people look at him and see a black kid.

Meanwhile, this kid is growing up and everyone around him is white.  White people are all he sees.  So he starts almost thinking of himself as a white person. She said now that he is grown, he has a real hard time figuring out where he fits in the world.  He's black, but he was raised in a white family with all white schoolmates and peers.  It presented a unique set of challenges.

Interestingly, Nick and I could very much relate to her, but the opposite way.  Josiah was not even two when we moved to Haiti.  He's 5 now.  It's not that he doesn't know he's white-- he does.  But he has 5 black brothers and 5 black sisters.  He goes to a church that's filled with a black congregation.  He went to Haitian school for a year and a half here and he was the only white kid there.  Josiah identifies more as Haitian than American.
He prefers speaking Kreyol to English.  He calls his friends and brothers, "Neg p'am" and answers to "ti neg."  He gets his hair cut in the same style as his brothers at a Haitian barbershop.  He even sneaks Vaseline to rub on his head like his brothers do.  I have tried to explain to him that his hair doesn't need it, but he still does it almost every day.  Not in like a white teenage boy trying to fit in with black teenage boys way, but in a way where he really doesn't understand that different races do things differently at times.

Thinking about the idea of being seen differently than you feel made me think of the book, "Black Like Me."    It was written by John Howard Griffin, a white man who did a social experiment in 1959.  Under the supervision of a doctor, through the use of medications and UV rays, Griffin substantially darkened his skin, shaved his head, etc so as to appear to others as a black man and traveled throughout the South to see what racial discrimination actually was like. Interesting book... (I actually want to see better pictures of what he looked like as a black man, because I am not sure I'd be fooled, BUT I DIGRESS.)

But as I was reading the book earlier today, I realized how much his social experiment has in common with just simply crossing cultures, whether or not you change your outward appearance.  As you embrace a new culture and things inside of you that you held true start to fade, it's a whole new kind of loneliness as you question who you are.  To not even recognize yourself.  I love this quote from the book.  This is what Griffin wrote about the first time he looked at himself in the mirror after the transition to brown skin was complete, "The completeness of this transformation appalled me.  It was unlike anything I had imagined.  I became two men, the observing one and the one who panicked, who felt Negroid even into the depths of his entrails. I felt the beginnings of great loneliness, not because I was a Negro, but because the man I had been, the self I knew was hidden in the flesh of another...  I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being.  This is what devastated me.  The Griffin that was had become invisible."

How bizarre it must be to see yourself totally different than other people see you!  And yet, I feel this all the time.  I can't even imagine how much someone like Josiah will deal with this as he has lived here for the majority of his life-- including pretty formative years.

Guess it's just one of the many things that make our weirdo family even weirder.