Identity. This sole term holds significant power in a variety of contexts. Whether it be one’s Blackness, queerness or heritage, this all-encompassing term affects how we see ourselves and allow others to view us as our lives progress. Some people spend years — sometimes an entire lifetime — trying to find a space for where this innate sense of belonging fits in the trajectory of their life stories. And I, frankly, was one of them.
For me, there were three seemingly intertwined variables that merged to make what I like to call my identity cocktail or rather “conundrum” (depending on how you look at it): my Blackness, my queerness and my Caribbean heritage. These factors have collectively held tremendous force, mentally speaking, in determining how I was perceived by others and, inherently, how I chose to see myself as a result of those interactions.
I was born to Trinidadian parents in Queens, New York while my mother was visiting her brother in August of 1991. My mother, excited at the time to have her first and what would be her only child, was surprised to learn that her unborn and majorly undercooked son was too eager to see the world — three months too eager, to be exact.
I’ve faintly heard the story of my welcome party a thousand times, in contexts that led me to feel both hopeful and slightly overwhelmed. Expecting a November birth, as the doctors outlined to her, my mother, widely considered one of those people who strikes the perfect balance between “get it done” and “think it through,” went into a state that my relatives adoringly call “beast mode.”
“Aunt Cynthia’s water broke!” I often remember my cousin Cory, the family’s routine storyteller, sharing at several family gatherings. The spirited but skilled 5-foot-nothing mechanic would then go on to explain that my mom, with ease and the calmest demeanor, rose from her seat, walked down the staircase and waited at the porch for the ambulance to take her to meet her son for the first time.
Because I weighed far below the recommended weight of a healthy newborn, medical professionals were unsure if I had the strength to pull through.
“You weighed 3 pounds and 2 ounces when you were born,” my mother reminds me anytime I seem to need a pick-me-up. “The doctors all said you weren’t going to make it, but look at you now.”
After spending three months in the ICU under the observation of doctors who, according to my mother, were uncertain if I would ever reach the “normal” recommended weight of 5 pounds, things luckily began to turn around for the better.
“Because I visited you everyday, they allowed me to take you home from the hospital at 4 pounds, 8 ounces in November 1991,” my mom reminded me. “You were thriving!”
While my determined mother’s occasional reminders of my fight to survive, in spite of the odds, were meant to be uplifting — and oftentimes, it was — it mostly came coupled with a heavy weight. It was a pressurized feeling of already expecting greatness from a being that didn’t quite know what this all even meant but delivered with the most loving of intentions. Nonetheless, I was alive, grew stronger, and my mother was eventually given the green light to begin her life as a new mother back in Trinidad — the life she initially hoped and planned for. With an eager spirit, she took me home in December 1991.
Growing up in the West Indies and building a life that became my “normal” turned into what I would consider an integral part of my identity. I was Trinidadian — that’s what I knew and that’s how I self-classified. I felt no fair need to group myself as a part of the Caribbean American community because, despite my sudden birth in the self-proclaimed “land of the free,” I could not authentically identify as a member as that was not my experience at the time.
After spending what would be the first 18 years of my life — essentially, my formative years — as a Trini who only visited the U.S. to spend time with family and partake in summer trips, I made the decision to take a leap of faith and pursue a career in journalism by enrolling in what I deemed my dream school: Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“What could go wrong? Everything!” “I’ll be alone.” “I’ll have to start over.” These were all the leading thoughts of apprehension that cycled through my mind. However, the one that lingered the longest and would eventually become my “inner saboteur,” as RuPaul would confidently say, remained: “They won’t accept me.”
College is often heralded as the time for self-exploration, the official lead-up to the “sink or swim” world that’s been preached to us for years. While I felt that feeling of excitement commonly pegged to the theme of “new beginnings,” my shoulder devil wasn’t hidden far behind, making it known that he was ready to make his move at any given moment.
Anyone who’s experienced new student orientation at an HBCU can attest to its grandeur. There’s arguably nothing like it on the planet. Morehouse’s was particularly eventful, tradition-heavy and, for someone who was vastly unfamiliar with century-in-the-making practices, a little terrifying. Smoke from lit tiki torches, ritualistic chants and adrenaline all filled the air as my prospective “brothers” and I formed a street-length line conjoined by arms, shoulders and nerves. This one-of-a-kind experience, though intimidating to the untrained eye, turned out to be quite rewarding in the long run and led to me fostering bonds with a few men I, to this day, consider to be some of the most instrumental additions to my life.
As the rush from new student orientation faded over the course of the next few days, the reality of being an official college student set in. That mindset of “anything is possible” kept replaying in my mind as I looked over the sea of Black and brown faces on Brown Street.
“This is where I belong. This feels like home,” I remember pondering at the time, thinking of the Renaissance Man vision that was ingrained into our psyches over the course of the past academic week. High on life and the prospects of what the future held, I then decided to take a trip to the campus mailroom to ensure that my locker key worked and everything was good to go (if you know, you know). It was here that I faced my first instance of doubt.
Channeling the energy of Andy Sachs in “The Devil Wears Prada,” I mentally skipped down to the post office with a mix of Beyoncé’s “Green Light” and Destra’s “I Dare You” playing in my head as my “strut soundtrack” (come on, we all have one). Stoked to check my mail for the first time, I inserted my fingernail-sized key into my assigned keyhole only to learn that it didn’t work. “No worries. Maybe he can help,” I thought to myself while making my way to the man behind the counter.
“Good afternoon, sir. Would you be able to h—,” I began, but before I could finish my sentence, I was met with a seemingly passive-aggressive critique on my delivery — notably my accent.
“Hold on, son. You’ve got to slow down. That accent’s strong, huh?” the man, who seemed old enough to be a peer, interjected with a slight chuckle.
Firmly putting to practice the age old adage “Don’t let them see you sweat,” I played along and obliged by his request before being directed to student services, where I would be equipped with a key replacement. Though my initial minor issue was seemingly resolved, I left the building with a mix of emotions that I hadn’t quite experienced prior to the interaction. Anger, confusion, nerve and shame all fused to cast what felt like an overarching shadow of doubt that, over time, thickened the walls that stood between me and others.
This notion that my accent was a detriment to my progression in life and a roadblock in my assimilation to society gradually became a routine occurrence in my daily routine for years thereafter. From tongue-in-cheek comments dispelled by waiters during dinner outings with friends to interactions with peers and acquaintances during kickbacks, I eventually became numb to it and adopted the belief that masking the essence of my speaking voice would be the best cause of action. I found myself mimicking American inflections and stressing my Rs. Eventually, as I learned to fine-tune the facade, the seemingly routine ignorance lessened.
This experience was, in no way, specific to me. In a 1993 New York Times article titled “When an Accent Becomes an Issue; Immigrants Turn to Speech Classes to Reduce Sting of Bias,” for example, author Raymond Hernandez touches on this internalized struggle that many immigrants and individuals whose formative years were spent surrounded by non-American bodies face. He tells the story of an immigrant who, while assimilating to life in Queens, New York, resorted to paying for lessons to fully eliminate her accent after feeling routinely mortified by the reactions of others when she spoke in professional and social settings.
“I don’t want my accent to hurt my self-esteem anymore,” the woman told the newspaper. “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable every time I say something.”
This remains a feeling that many can relate to, especially those who come from the Caribbean and Latin America where accents and unique verbal expressions and dialects are so concentrated and distinctive.
Due to the lingering level of discomfort I had with my speaking inflections, I eventually began limiting my interactions in certain spaces. While I refused to let this somewhat self-imposed struggle steal my joy, the battle proved to be one-sided. My insecurities often came out victorious, scoring the knockout against me just as things were seemingly looking up.
A shift, however, came during Thanksgiving break of 2012 when my then mentor and English professor directly challenged me after an inadvertent slip-up of voice. While most of my peers and friends headed off to be with their families for the holiday (one I, at the time, did not have much of a connection to), I stayed behind to clock in a few extra hours at my respectable side hustle as a well astute babysitter.
My professor arrived at campus to pick me up to babysit her adorable 7-year-old daughter. As I opened the door to her glossy, black BMW SUV, I appeared to have an uncontrolled vocal “oops” moment: the “dreaded” accent had come out to play full throttle when I greeted her.
The five words my professor asked in response have stuck with me ever since: “Why do you hide it?”
That one moment where I forgot to “adapt” to the American accent led to one of the most transparent conversations I’ve had about this internal battle to date. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I left feeling validated. I knew then that my accent and my identity as a Caribbean American did not need to be cloaked or bandaged to satisfy others’ personal gripes. This take aligned with the advice shared with me by those I had respected most dearly at home: My mother, my uncles, my cousins, my childhood friends, my small college tribe — they had all shared this sentiment. However, this time, the lesson stuck only because, through a moment of truth and vulnerability where my conscious sense of control was not a priority, I was able to receive it all at once.
“You have a talent in both the way you write and speak,” my now late Uncle Kelvin once told me during the often finger-obstructed weekly Skype check-ins with my family. “You know what I’m talking about. Never water it down.”
Six years have passed since the official end of my college days, and I find myself consciously activating these thoughts of self-worth and belonging in both my work environment and social circles. While my colleagues, peers and friends may not share the same or even remotely similar cultural background, I now can confidently say that the cliché is true: our differences enhance the ways in which we relate to one another. Through these interactions, I can now more innately and clearly identify where these feelings of inadequacy stem from and, in turn, reassure myself that my experiences, my heritage and my identity are all valid simply because I, as a premature baby conceived in Trinidad and born in the United States, had fought to exist.
My identities as Black, as queer and as someone of Caribbean descent all intertwine to make me a worthy and complex member of this world that often thrives on the beauty of uncertainty. And, after countless years of searching, I can confidently say that I know and love who I am — all of who I am — unapologetically.
This is dedicated to one of the main facilitators of my growth, my Uncle Kelvin, who passed on June 8, 2020.
Edited with the generous help of Maia McCann, Justin Chan and Christine Wallen.
If you enjoyed this story, you might like to check out this documentary that explores how Trinidad & Tobago is trying to undo its carbon footprint.
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