The Form or How Moving to America Reshaped my Identity as a Black Woman

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 oftentimes 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: 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 brown kid had it not been for this other little girl named Sana: she was a first-generation French-Tunisian and was pretty wokecompared to me.

She lived in the near-by projects, but her parents were able to get her and her brother into my school district. Sanas father, smart and kind-hearted, although very abrasive, had never been afraid to speak his mind (loudly). He came to France from Tunisia when he was a child and had been a brilliant student but unfortunately faced racism – when he was told that “people like him” had been brought to France to work manual jobs. He was the one who gave us Malcolm Xs autobiography to read in 7th grade and challenged us with geography questions at dinner. Sanas mother was kind and motherly. She helped me acquire my first admin internship in 9th grade and later got me a job cleaning offices during the school breaks; 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 their children anything they couldn’t afford while growing up, including access to higher education, as well as a taste for culture and travel.

From the time I met them, they 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 the other 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 passingin 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.

#Microagressions

Bodega guy said: “Hola Mami! Que tal hoy Dia”
I said: “Est-ce que je peux vous aider?”
You see my Black ain’t Boriqua nor Dominicana
My black is French and Nigeria

That Lady said: “Oh my god, I love your hair”
I grabbed her hand midway
I said: “Don’t touch my hair”

Or I’ll see you in the elevator
My Cab driver said: “You don’t look black
You look pretty like those Dominican girls”

I said: “Dominicans are black –
Nigerians raped by Spaniards, they look like me & Black is beautiful
My aunty said said: “tu as perdu du poids depuis la dernière fois”
I said : “no need to assess my weight if you can’t acknowledge my accomplishments”

My Classmate said: “You are so nice for a pretty girl”
I pivoted and walked away.

Made me wonder
What kind of words
Over the years
I had been using
To say all kind of offensive shit…

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2018

#BackAndForth

#BackAndForth in between
Contentment and anxiety:

The beautiful life I am living
Pursuing my dreams
Yet, the time I have wasted
Trying to make the best of it-
But won’t be able to reclaim
My time.

#BackAndForth in between
being Divorced & being Free
No kids, nor responsibilities
I could hang out all night
but I am lacking energy

#BackAndForth in between
being grown, confident
& womanly shaped
But age and gravity weigh in – my flat belly’s gone

#BackAndForth
Mainly because
Of what I have been taught to internalize
& conditioned
Words used to cut.
I now fight back,
Until I’m numb?

how do I stand my ground – against myself?

This is what keeps me awake at night…

Going #BackAndForth

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#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

#AndImWaiting

As if the slope wasn’t slippery enough
You rubbed your body in Sweet Sandalwood
And sat under the sun

Warm and soft and buttery,
Reflecting Browns and Blues
Radiating sensuality

You burst with light
You move with soul
And your sea salt caramel hue’
Sure set the tone

My blood pressure Rises
My heart beat increases
My pupils dilates
My breath weighs a ton

Give me a taste your own medicine
And soothe my cravings
Beneath my moon

Do not deny
My claim
I’m still covered
By Medicaid

For now

#AndImWaiting

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#Infatuation

Rarely harmful.
Usually short-lived.
Oftentimes memorable.

#Infatuation is a funny thing: it creeps up on you and changes the narrative. It adds context to otherwise innocuous landscapes.

#Infatuation is addictive: it nightly keeps you up and overrides the senses. It sips through your soul and intoxicates your entire being.

#Infatuation is overwhelming: it indelibly stamps your memory. It cares not for details as it’s visionary.

#Infatuation is inspiring: it forces words out of their shell. It smoothes angles and triggers hidden tendencies.

#Infatuation is Truth Seeking: it catalyzes your sense of self. It strips you naked and leaves you exposed in warm waters – and you like it.

Unexpectedly dawns on you
Unequivocally shapes your spirit.

Take a breath
Into
The infinite Possibilities.

Rarely harmful.
Usually short-lived.
Oftentimes memorable.

#Infatuation

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#FullDisclosure

The choices are to either analyze our imperfections or accept that life is ever evolving.

Our reflection is carefully filtered and perception sublimed by our own expectations – our own biases… Fluidity of the mind sounds fundamental to contentment and happiness, as rigidity seems to hinder our ability to embrace changes.

It is not easy everyday, especially when you realize you have one more white hair, maybe a wrinkle; clothes don’t fit the way they used to – some “friends” come while other vanish.

Yesterday i turned 25, again – and the more I accept my world organically evolving, the  happier I get.

#FullDisclosure

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#WouldYouBeMyMango?

#WouldYouBeMyMango?
Juicy and Sweet,
The one bringing an extra edge
The one I devour in one seating.
 
#WouldYouBeMyMango?
Versatile and Nutritious
The one perfectly pairing with spicy
The one I blend in my smoothies
 
#WouldYouBeMyMango?
Bright and Delicate
The one satisfying my cravings
My one Delight in the morning.
 
I can’t believe
That all this time
Coalescing
In plain sight
You were here – by my side.

#WouldYouBeMyMango?

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#CauseISuspect

I choose to believe that you Love me
Yet circumstances made it seems differently.
I want my Rancor towards you to fade
#CauseISuspect your Toxic attitude
Is only a cry for Attention

I don’t expect you to understand me
I lost that interest long time ago
Neither expect your apologies
#CauseISuspect your pride
Won’t allow you to soothe my soul

I’ve stopped wishing for Compassion
I’ve stopped wanting Recognition
I’ve stopped assuming “I knew it all”
#CauseISuspect the way I feel
Has been heavily tainted

I decided to make Peace
And acknowledge my biases
When it comes to Motherhood
#CauseISuspect my perceptions
Stem from my rootless expertise

I cannot justly assess your Reasons
Nor fully comprehend your Inclinations
But I’ll embrace their Outcomes
#CauseISuspect this Reasoning
Will be my way to recover from these Afflictions

Today I am brave enough
To celebrate your input,
Or lack thereof –
#CauseISuspect my Character
Would be different, if not for You.

#CauseISuspect my Awareness
Would be different, if not for You.

#CauseISuspect
I would not be there, if not for You

& That must count for something.

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#ForResearchPurposes

No.

You can’t love me the way I deserve to be loved
But I’ll drink your magic until I’m back on my feet

I’ll write poems, chant songs and tingle inside
Passionately remembering – in the back of my mind – my furtive encounter with your #AlterEgo

Compounded memories of our tongues intertwined fade while
Your dexterity stays engraved down my spine:
Limpid as the water that flowed down my thighs,
That time.

I’ll forever be grateful for the inspiration you gave me
And the growth your indifference engendered within me

You pushed me through doors
Of unforeseen bliss:
A short-lived elation
Yet, overall mighty

You revamped my dull reality
Into an exhilarating maze
I now am finally finding the grand entrance

Don’t you recall a thing?
Or, should I assume you’re pretending not to?
For no weeks, for me, pass without the simple thought of you

I inconspicuously experiment, still, on our past esoteric frequency –
All #ForResearchPurposes
Of course:
Just to further humanity.

#ForResearchPurposes

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#CognitiveDissonance

I am Black, I am white
& everything in between
I am not asking for permission
I am just being me

And so what if I call myself black
I’m simply stating the fact
That the diaspora lives within me

I am not confused
Tho, you may be:
Your attempt to project
Failed miserably

Against all odds
I am serene
Despite your thoughts
I feel at ease

In your outrage:
I’m unconcerned.
You curse, you pace:
I’m unbothered.

Your Soul is drenched
By my claims
Bewildered
By my assertions

My existence
Impacts your spirit
You hastily jump
to conclusions

You’re tormented
By my Being
You fail to comprehend who “I be” and instead embrace fallacious ironies.

You don’t have to like it
You don’t have to acquiesce
For you’re irrelevant
In my most inner space

Feel uncomfortable? Good – you’re growing!

I am Black, I am white
& everything in between
I am not asking for y’all permission
I am just being me

And so what if I call myself black
I’m simply stating the fact
That the diaspora lives within me

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#SoYouCouldSleepAtNight

Is there a chance you were told lies?
#SoYouCouldSleepAtNight

Is there a possibility your fathers euphemized history?

What is the likelihood alternative facts shaped your narrative, indeed?

That instead of pointing out death, beatings, and rapes,

You were taught to legitimize?

That instead of being shown the naked truth, the wool was pulled over your eyes?

#SoYouCouldSleepAtNight

& the tales you were told as sugarcoated anecdotes:
#SoYouCouldSleepAtNight

& the news you’ve been fed by the media:
#SoYouCouldSleepAtNight

Fueled by

Erroneous statistics
Inconclusive studies
Flawed methodology
Vindictive motives…
Propagated with certainty

So you can have a spur of credibility while perpetuating lies—
And you don’t know any better…

But since correlation does not equate causation
You need rethink your entire vision:
Today? No, like yesterday!

Awaken my friend.

I am not here for you to lose your sleep
I’m here so you can help me regain mine

So we could both sleep at night.

#SoYouCouldSleepAtNight

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#SoftSpot

If only in my dreams
The way I felt could be encapsulated into colors or sounds
Savored and digested
It’ll go a little something like this:

You’re my #SoftSpot

You make me want to draw orange curves, on my bare canvas
Sprinkle confettis and sparkles
So to convey the warmth and abundance of my fondness for you

You’re my #SoftSpot.

The simple thought of You
Innervates my inspiration…
My inspiration translates into words worth millions of awakening sultry touches

You’re my #SoftSpot.

Sonorous angles reverberating through
the spaciousness of my so called craze
your full-toned commands whispered in my ears – I chant

You’re my #SoftSpot.

And I sometimes wished you deserved me so I could pick up my phone and hear your sweet self

And I sometimes wished you deserved me so when I see you I would not have to pretend not to care

If only in my dreams…
The way I felt could be encapsulated into soft colors or familiar sounds
Savored and digested
I’d take longer naps and get my beauty sleep.

Without a doubt…

#SoftSpot

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#IAmEnough

#IAmEnough
Even when you don’t see me
Nor acknowledge me

#IAmEnough
Even when I don’t fit in your
Lack of creativity

#IAmEnough
Morning, day and night –
And till the break of dawn

#IAmEnough
Surrendering to the rivers
The lakes and oceans

•••

And I can’t get enough
Of the Love the Universe
Bestowed upon me

That precious Love

No, I can’t get enough…
Of being Enough

Full of myself?
Sure thing, you may think…

But reality calls for
My confidence
Under any circumstance-s

#IAmEnough

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#YoureAVisionary 

Visionary: a person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.

 #YoureAVisionary

Cause of you little girls and boys 
Of all shades and background
Believed
 #YoureAVisionary

Cause you’ve changed the game
Forever
#YoureAVisionay

Cause when I look at myself
I see a beautiful and gifted
Hard working and worthy
Rainbow Woman
#YoureAVisionary

Cause you planted a seed that will grow
And thrive
#YoureAVisionary

Cause with your love and compassion
You inspired millions to love and be compassionate
#YoureAVisionary

Haters gonna hate
Cause they don’t vibrate
In the same frequency
But somehow
One day they will, just because•••
#YoureAVisionary

Thank you president Barack Obama 
For doing the best you could
And instilled in us
The confidence we missed 
& for encouraging the youth who one day
Will follow your steps

#YoureAVisionary

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2017

#InTheBackOfMyMind


I see you

A seed was planted, while ago.
Inclement weather and infertile ground made it hard, but it finally grew within me.

#InTheBackOfMyMind I kept thinking: “What a beautiful tree”: I couldn’t wait to climb and “experience” it.

I was so eager to eat the fruits, that as soon opportunity rose, I tasted one – prematurely.

Its skin was shiny & soft and its fragrance delightful.

But little did I know that green fruits don’t taste that good…

Although, months went by – and my first impression left a bitter taste in my mouth – I still thought about “it” –  #InTheBackOfMyMind

#InTheBackOfMyMind I wondered how me being patient would have made “things” different.

#InTheBackOfMyMind I am still pondering if its texture and palatability would have suited me.

#InTheBackOfMyMind I lost myself and fantasized. Fantasize still, and write about that feeling…

#InTheBackOfMyMind I know I’m not the only one with a sweet tooth and other fruits may suit me better.

I still think of “it”… from time to time…

I really wonder what the message was; what the message is.

#InTheBackOfMyMind all things happens for specific reasons, and fruits “like that” are no coincidence.

Fruits like “yoU” keep me believing.

Keep me believing I still can “Feel” – and will feel that same way again about other fruits… at some points.

A seed was planted, while ago.

A beautiful tree grew within me and his wood helped me build solid doors and windows.

Not sure I will ever taste its fruits ever again, but if I do, this time I’ll wait until they are ripe.

#InTheBackOfMyMind

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2016

#LetYouKnow

I dreamt about you.

How weird does it sound?

I dreamt and you were here, and I should have told you then everything I’m too shy to #LetYouKnow when I’m awake.

#LetYouKnow how I miss “it”

#LetYouKnow it’s not the the same

#LetYouKnow the void you left when “we” decided it was “best to part”.

#LetYouKnow how I felt- and still feel, indeed – watery, cold and empty – from your absence

#LetYouKnow that I’d love you to know that all I write is about you, yet is about me, actually…

#LetYouKnow how liberating and therapeutic it is to openly let it known and, as I’m turning a new leaf: Let It Out, maybe – one last time.

I sense that years from now I’ll fondly read those words – and realize how the Universe conspired into letting me know, what I have known all along.

#LetYouKnow

©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2016