The Form or How Moving to America Reshaped my Identity as a Woman of Rich Cultural and Ethnical Background.

I was 23 the first time I was asked to officially identify my race. I had to fill an employment form and could only pick one option. The situation was anxiety-inducing because despite the fact of not being white, could I call myself black

As long as I can remember, people always asked: “Tu es de quelle origine?*” (what’s your background) or just assumed I was [insert whatever brown ethnicity they are acquainted with here]. Such remarks always came across as micro-agression, even more so because I had no answers.

My mother is French and white, and I found out in my twenties that my father is Nigerian. Until then, it was never openly acknowledged that I was black, especially by my mother’s family: a bit like in the Lacey Schwartz documentary “A White Lie”, I had to discover this part of myself on my own.

I grew up in the ’80s in southern France. At the time race was not something discussed in my family. It is still in 2020 a very touchy subject: France would not acknowledge that although from a biological standpoint we are all “humans” – socially racialized individuals and communities face challenges.  This denial makes it impossible to quantify and even more so hard to address racial inequalities . Although France prides itself on being “colorblind” it is in fact not – but that’s for another post.

So, I looked “different” from other members of my family but essentially, I was just one of them.

At first, it was subtle. It was in elementary school that I was made aware there was something different about me. Subtle at first, it became clear I was not one of the “popular kids”. Furthermore, and since there were no black nor mixed race kids around, I was oftentime mistaken for a North African, which in itself wouldn’t have meant anything if the narratives about immigrants had been positive. I recall one incident when the lunch school attendant had refused to serve me pork chops. I could not understand why. Upset and confused (I LOVED pork chops), I reported the offense to my grandmother. No later than the next morning, she stormed to the school, outraged by what had happened. At the time, it was not explained to me why I was refused the meal, but I realized that the way I was perceived had prevented me from enjoying the same privilege as everybody else: I became ashamed of what I seemed to represent at a deeper level.

From that moment on, life unraveled awkwardly. I was (and still am) an empath and although it was not an everyday issue, the unspoken facts surrounding my appearance overshadowed my existence. I grew up in a middle-class white community with little to no diversity. I would have been the only “exotic bird”, had it not been for this beautiful brown little girl named Sana: she was a first-generation French-born with Tunisian roots: she pretty ‘woke’ compared to me.

She lived in the projects of La Gavotte Peyret, but her parents had tricked the system by pretending they were living in my home town so she and her brother could enter my school district. Sana’s father, Moncef, is probably one of the fieriest personalities I have ever been around. Smart and kind-hearted although also abrasive, never afraid to speak his mind (loudly) and a bit of a revolutionary, he had come to France from Tunisia when he was a child and had been a brilliant student. Unfortunately, the school system had rejected his ambitious attempts to become an accountant because he and his dad were told by his school principal “people like him were in France to manual jobs”. He became a mechanic. He was the one who gave us Malcolm X’s autobiography to read in 7th grade and challenged us with geography questions at dinner. Sana’s mother, Naima, was kind and motherly. She helped me acquire my first admin internship in 9th grade and later got me a job to clean offices during the school break; with that money, I was able to go on vacation to Tunisia with them. Both hard-working and focused individuals, they were determined to give to their children anything that hadn’t been afforded to them growing up, including access to higher education, as well as a taste for culture and travel.

From the time I met them, they had claimed me as their own and even jokingly pretended I was their daughter. I lived a dual life, where I would alternate vacations between my uncles and aunts in the Alps or  Switzerland, and on another hand bus trips with kids from the projects. It was interesting for me to see that despite their seemingly different livelihoods, how similar they were in many aspects; however, despite flawlessly ‘passing’ in both worlds, I never felt as if I completely fitted in.

When I was 10 years old, I moved to Corsica to join my mother and her new boyfriend: things got tricky and I felt extremely isolated. The population of the island is known for being very conservative and as an outsider – let alone a brown one – it was even harder to make new friends. At the house, it wasn’t any better: when I expressed the difficulties I had encountered in
school I was told by my mother that “it was in my head”. I took it as my cue to keep things to myself, and as an early teen developed a strong inclination for independence and solitude. Thankfully, we moved back to the continent when I was 14, and things got a lot better. For starters, I got back in touch with Sana and old classmates, and although I did not feel like I truly belonged, the landscape was not as hostile.

In the early to mid-’90s new genres were slipping through the radio waves: Hip-Hop and New Jack Swing started their ascension in France’s music charts and we even had their own French rappers such as MC Solaar and IAM. I loved the groove and the energy, however, the cultural impact was limited. My English was good, but I was not fluent enough to understand what was said and why it was said. Moreover, there was no access to any type of ‘visuals’ at the time that could have assisted me in grasping the lyrical meaning.

My pivotal moment happened in 1995 when right before entering high school my mother took me on my first trip back to the US. I don’t expect anyone to understand how it feels to see for the first time people who look like they could actually be related to you – your long lost tribe – so prolifically engaging on major media platforms such as TV and magazines. Until then I had never realized how invisible people of color were in the French landscape. I returned to France a changed teenager.

The Lycée Montgrand (high school) was located in downtown Marseille. The foreign languages taught in the school attracted a variety of students from all over and it was the ultimate cultural melting pot. I picked Portuguese and Sana Arabic. For the first time in my life, I was physically surrounded by a rainbow of complexions. Youngsters from everywhere: first-generation Cape Verdeans, Comorians, Ex-Yugoslavians, Tunisians, Greeks, Vietnamese, Malagasy, even Brazilians, just to name a few. The ones we considered ‘white’ were usually second or third generation Italian or Spanish. In my opinion, it was very integrated – for the most part. Never before had I felt a stronger desire to identify as “something”. My English professor explained to the class I had been born in the United States (I think my mother had explained in a note why I had missed the first week of high school) and soon the newsworthy information spread and I became ‘Daphne l’Américaine’, a nickname that stuck for years to come.

But this was not enough – I often had to elaborate on my background. My very limited cognizance of Black-American culture was based on series like The Cosby Show, the Prince of Bel Air, Sister Sister etc… and it seemed that in the United States, being black refers to one’s culture, for instance,  individuals who are of African-American descent are considered black
regardless of their complexion or features, even if one of their parents is not – Barack Obama, Lenny Kravitz, Halle Berry, Tracee Ellis Ross or Alicia Keys to name a few are considered black even though they have a white parent. This was a concept that was unheard of in France where ‘Black’ is only a generic term associated with one’s complexion; people of African descent always identify themselves by their country of origin and the nuances of their specific tribe (Senegalese: Peul or Mandiac etc…); and mixed-race people like myself are called as ‘métisse’. At the time, in order to “legitimize” my blackness (or at least my mixed-race status) my very good friend Sofaya and I decided we would pretend to be each other’s sisters: this is how after 15 years of blurred lines and uncertainty I finally had concrete answers to the ever-annoying “what are you” questions: I was a ‘métisse French American’. Along with this newly discovered identity I was eager to learn everything I had never been exposed to. I felt I had so much to catch up on what I thought it meant to be black. I immersed myself in everything I could put my hands on: music and TV were the easiest and most accessible means to do so – we would stay awake late to watch the latest American RnB and rap videos on cable, exchange cassette tapes and imitate our favorite artists. Later on, in college, I was able to access more Afrocentric literature and cinematography and some translated African American books. Mind you, this was in the 90’s, way before open access internet and on a teenager’s budget.

There was only so much I could understand from a distance and no guidance, and although I was somehow familiar with the black African experience in France, what I knew about the African-American experience was very superficial. At the time I moved to the United States in 2004 and was asked to officially ‘claim’ a race, my understanding was still very limited, and I did not know that although perceived as black, this same blackness would often get challenged due to my – until then unidentified – “light-skin privilege” and “racial ambiguity”.

This experience encouraged me to familiarize myself with and better recognize the racial dynamics that ruled the social American landscape. It took me a while and a lot of interactions with different people, but after living in the US for nearly 15 years I came to conclusions of my own. Mainly that it is complicated and that my specific set of lenses allows me a unique perspective. I identify as a black woman – a woman of color with mixed heritage, a Franco-Nigerian, an Afropean – and consider myself “a Woman of Rich Cultural and Ethnical Background”. I belong with the Black diaspora.

I acknowledge that although race and gender are social constructs, stereotypes associated with these factors have real socio-economic consequences in the real world. Ultimately, my racial identity is just another layer making up the complex and ever-evolving person I believe I am.

#ImHere

I used to be fearless
But somehow, somewhere
Things changed

It took a while to heal
It took a while but still-
#ImHere

Praise the little redheaded girl who pushed me – and I pushed her back: harder, to the floor – all because she was challenging my intellect. I knew how to spell “Oignon”! and even when her daddy grabbed and shook me after class, I kept it together – and to myself.

It took a while to heal
It took a while but still-
#ImHere

Praise the mean girls of all ages who called me name and ugly; They made me believe the only place i belonged was hidden behind soft cover books. They tried to bury me so deep i almost suffocated. If only they knew how much they contributed to my enlightenment – who knows what would have happened had I had known all along I was that precious?

It took a while to heal
It took a while but still-
#ImHere

Praise my mother for never saying “those words” – I may not have had the desire to create magic if not to fill the void she leaves.

It takes a while to heal
It takes a while but still-
#ImHere

Praise the disruptive souls, the fuckboys, the insecure bosses and fake friends for triggering my creativity into its greatness.

It took a while to heal
It took a while but still-
#ImHere

Praise the diaspora for its vibrant rainbows and its soft tongues, for its bold and warm textures, for its woody spicy scents; we’ll keep dancing – barefoot- on your syncopated rhythms so to loosens our spirits – That same spirit, they attempted to kill

It took a while to heal
It took a while but still-
#WeareHere

Praise those strong legs I used to hate: they may not fit your beauty standards but allowed me to yoga on deserted Goa beaches, explore the busy streets of Shanghai, peruse Marseille by night and stroll down Prospect Park; and when at last, I dared to showcase, the sweet sound of my thighs kindled some fervent surprise

It took a while to heal
It took a while but still-
#ImHere

Praise my sister-friends – my ionic bonding tribe – my A team – for believing even though i hesitate, for encouraging even when I am about to vacate, for noticing even when I’m passing into oblivion. Appreciative – such a weak term to qualify my overwhelmingly supportive network

It took a while to heal
It took a while but still-
#ImHere

& I’m Here making magic
& Here overcoming fears
Full circling

#ImHere

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#iSurrender

#iSurrender.
To the Water, The Wind and the Sun.

The Water.

I drown deep and let my fears roll down my face.
I exhale to the surface to catch my breath, inhale and drown time and time, ’til I can be myself again…

#iSurrender.
To the Water, The Wind and the Sun.

The Wind.

Infiltrates every corners of my soul.
Touches every inches of my skin
Blows through my hair; I shiver.
Relieve the pain I was not aware of and was enduring – all along

#iSurrender.
To the Water, The Wind and the Sun.

The Sun.

So far yet so potent. Hot encounters and burning kisses;
You and I. Steam pouring out my pores.
You leave an impression. Every single touch.

#iSurrender.

I surrender to the Elements and now belong to the Universe

I surrendered, so could i longer be denied of my crown?

Wait? Wait! …
I’m just eager baby…

I have surrendered to She and now float in limbo between the seas and the skies until I’m claimed.

#iSurrender

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2016

#LifeBitsFallingIntoPlace


Isn’t it interesting how life can change so drastically in the space of a few months? How one year you are planning for future tense with someone and the next year you are just here, starting *fresh* cause there is literally nothing left but old pictures and fading memories.
You wonder what’s next cause you are stuck, in a sense… not physically, but spiritually, which is never a good thing. It’s certainly temporary (at least let’s hope), and you need to make some adjustments.

That’s also when *Friends* start moving differently around you cause your status changed. Some disappear cause they took his side, other are distant cause they don’t see you for who you really are; of course there are those who stick around, but somehow there is always a bit of judgement cause they assess the situation from an outsider standpoint. Seldom people come and hug you and tell you “everything is going to be ok”, when you are the one who leaves.

Matter of fact, I often wonder how different from who I really am people perceive me. Every time I am true to myself things seems like they get out of control. But maybe what I see as chaos are #LifeBitsFallingIntoPlace?

I do trust the process and I know the universe is looking after me; nonetheless, it does not mean I am immune to the pain and sorrow breakups carry.

Then life goes on, so future will mend the bruises and close the open wounds. All in time…

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2015

#FirstBase

Soft and Sweet.

I reminisce the Brightness of the morning.
I reminisce the Taste of drunk kisses.

I reminisce the Thrill of sleepless nights.

I reminisce the Strength of my desire.
I reminisce the Warmth of Your breath.
& your tender caress.

I reminisce the Scent of your face.
Your hands through my hair.
You calling my name.

I reminisce how it feels like.
I reminisce how it feels like.

I reminisce… How good it feels.

For now.

#FirstBase

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2015

#TheMessenger

“The Universe does not make any mistakes; She has been doing this ish* for a while now and it does not matter what you think you really want; I know you really, really want it, and it seems like this is IT – but you are confused; what you want is irrelevant because as the caring and loving entity she is, she will only give you what you need.”

I did say that… and although I sometimes have my doubts, mainly driven by my insecurities, I BELIEVE in it. I BELIEVE in HER.

The summer is not over, yet I have learnt so much about myself. Interacted with people that shifted the way I feel about life – whose essence brought me closer to the woman I have always meant to be.

I experienced sensations I thought I had forgotten and it left me speechless and asking for mo’. The former bitterness finally turned into a palatable treat – perfectly blended Hendricks and Tonic – a black-unsweetened dark- roast hot cup of coffee.

I have precisely been asking the universe to be good to me (among other eccentric requests) and she has been even if the darkest time; however, she was expecting more from me… Being oblivious to her cues, hints and signs, she had no choices but to gently send, as a gift a *blessing*, one of her messengers so to break it down… It was done so perfectly that I can physically and spiritually sense the transition. I am letting go of the resentment and failed attempts; I am letting go of the disappointments of these broken promises; I’m letting it go, so to leave room in my heart to be filled again by that love I have been longing for.

I can’t wait to recognize you.

#TrustTheProcess
#Summer2015.

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2015

#Withdrawal 

You know you made the right move to go #ColdTurkey but now, you are going through #Withdrawal, and that ish* hurt like a MF.

You think you are ok, and ultimately you will be, but at that moment all Hell breaks loose.

You know that some “events” have little to do with you; however, it does not matter. Your confidence is fractured – yet again – your spirit is bruised – yet again. You feel as all could have been avoided if only you had done things differently. Really? Not really.

But you know that you were the best you could have been and done what you believed was right and gave that extra ounce of Love you had.

You can’t believe you fell again, so loudly.
You can’t believe you opened up so brightly.

Again..

But you better believe it, cause that is who You are: #PassionatelyDeliberate #BeautifullyFlawed

You know you made the right move to go #ColdTurkey but presently you are going through real bs called  #Withdrawal, and that ish* hurt like a MF. Like a MF. Like a MF.

KeepBreathingDeeply

#TrustTheProcessAlways

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2015

#BlameItOnMaxwell.


Once upon a time, we created music, and since then, nothing has ever been the same. There is a great deal of info we can deduct about each other, according to our musical tastes. Music fertilizes ideas, behaviors, shapes our minds, and inspires us. It’s incontestably one of the most powerful tools humans have at their disposition. The Beat is innate, as it mimics life, the heart.

I think I was always moved, more than the average folk, by people and *things’ energy. I have to admit that it is a blessing, and sometimes a curse to reach this degree of hypersensitivity, or should I say anxiety, that simultaneously engages part of your brain, while paralyzing the other: it feels unstable and a bit exhilarating, like a first kiss.

I can confidently say that music had an immense influence on my life. Although I grew up listening different genres, I’d admit that along with Bossa/Samba, Black American music like RnB and Jazz hold a very special place in my soul. D’Angelo dropped Brown Sugar on my first year of high school: little did I know that, from then on I would never be able to ever think straight again. I have search for solace in the words of Erykah and Jill, and approached life, especially my romantic relationships as if they somehow had to fit a specific soundtrack. Now picture what type of hormones sprinkled cocktail Molotov you have to deal with when that type of fiction collides with reality.

I will forever #BlameItOnMaxwell for those times when, laying on the floor, I waited for the cops to come knocking, and thanks Janet for me not caring about who is around. It took me years to realize that, at times, the music set expectations which prevented me from experiencing my version of life to its fullest, as I desperately wanted to fill the gap left in between. Other time, Music colorfully highlighted days that might have been otherwise bland and lifeless; at least for me.

Looking back and being wiser, I am grateful that I was – and still am – privilege enough to be exposed to such a rich musical life. It makes me a better artist and definitely human being, as now I am writing my own soundtrack and share it. Who knows maybe someone is listening…

#BlameItOnMaxwell.

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2015

I can’t get no satisfaction…

20140707-210116-75676595.jpg Although I do not miss my twenties, I religiously celebrate my 25th birthday’s annivers20140707-204126-74486773.jpgary every year; I jokingly do so as a reminder of an awesome time of my life when I didn’t care much about anything. I used to love the club! I think I was 16 the first time I had been in one, in my hometown. I wore a tight satin black pants and wear my hair in two braided buns like the girl in the “shimmy shimmy ya” video. The bouncer asked for our IDs, but we told him he saw it the previous week and we didn’t bring it again… Perplexed he let us in, and here we were: the “Saint James” — the rest is history… From Marseille to Paris to New York, I scandalously painted the towns with my respective crews. 20140707-204126-74486388.jpg From what I can remember it was epic. I think… cause in fact, there are some blurry parts. Like a lot… and no Instagram nor Facebook to document the shenanigans (thanks God!) . The sole, more or less accurate, recollections come from different sources – not to be necessarily trusted. 20140707-204126-74486578.jpgI wish I had kept a diary, tho. It might not have been very truthful, but at least I would have had a better timeline of events and I would be able to better deny my friends embarrassing claims! One told me recently that I had a selective memory, which I replied: I just have no memory mon cher… Nowadays, I rarely have that much fun when I go out. 20140707-204127-74487475.jpgI guess the novelty wore off, the crews dissipated, the events are not as 🔥hot🔥, the music became to loud, and I don’t even know that new Chris Brown song… Or I just have greater expectations, higher standards and i can’t get no satisfaction (Mick Jagger’s voice). Overall, club ain’t my cup of tea… Unless… it’s a house party. I have to say, I grew fond of the great conversations, debates, seeing people’s real face, comfortably-chic dress codes, networking opportunities, and of course music that do not depend on annoying horrible DJs! I guess I entered this next stage where having fun involve different things…. Nonetheless, the club will still keep a place in my heart. ❤

 

Disclaimer: my ideas and opinions are subjected to change as I go through this beautiful thing we call life. You can help me shape my ideas by commenting and sharing your own perspective, as long as it is done in a respectful manner. I am looking forward to hearing from you!

 

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2014