Labels and Boxes: Ramblings on Self-Sovereign Identity

I remember the day I told her like it was yesterday; I can still taste the anxiety. I can feel my clammy palms as I sat in my car, chainsmoking, Sa-Roc’s “Forever” on repeat, texting my then too busy ‘girlfriend’ who wanted to be there for me but didn’t want me to do it for her, as she was on her way out of the relationship. She was, nonetheless, curious. How do you come out to your sixty-year old hardcore seventh-day adventist Ayitian mother?

You don’t. That’s what my friends and family members told me, at least. Some called me selfish, confused, extra, and a little “too americanized, in not so many words. Others were at least willing to help me plan an elaborate scheme where Manmy would be placed in the most comfortable environment possible, to yield optimal results. My therapist told me, “You cannot control other people’s reactions, nor should you want to. You can only tell the truths you feel you must.” 

How I was going to phrase such truth to my Ayitian mother however didn’t take much agonizing. “I love women.” Simple, accurate, self-explanatory. I didn’t bother with labels. Partly because the Kreyol one at my disposal seemed too crude, a term used for people who never got to name themselves. Primarily, because I like to think I wish to reject labels altogether. 

“I love Women.”

I get a little weird now when people ask me “what I identify as”. Sometimes I want to ask what is there to know besides my name and the next words that come out of my mouth, and the ones before them. My dating app profiles all say “Queer”. I think I chose it because my primary impulse was to ask, “what even is that?” To which I gleefully answered, “Exactly.” 

The months before I came out to Manmy, I wore my friends out with my discussions about it: why I wanted to do it, why I didn’t want to, how I wanted to do it, how I wanted it to happen. In my perfect world, I would never have to even mention it as ‘a thing’. I would show up to the cookout with the woman I love, no eyebrows raised, no elbows poked, no questions asked. 

One of my straight Ayitian friends asked me at the time, “is that really necessary? You don’t live with them, you’re not really lying to them.” I’m not sure they got it when I said I needed to come out of hiding from myself. How could I say I love myself if I felt like in order to be loved by others I had to keep myself hidden? That if I allowed my loved ones to know more about me, I would only receive shame and guilt in return? How could I say I accept myself if I was certain telling the truth about me would kill my mother? That being a good daughter meant to wait until she passed from natural causes before living loudly?

“How could I say I love myself if I felt like in order to be loved by others I had to keep myself hidden?”

How could I interpret the subliminal messages I was sending to myself? About love? About life? 

One of my gay Ayitian friends asked, “don’t you still mess with dudes though? So what’s the point until you know who you’re going to end up with anyway?” 

Many understand the act of coming out as making a statement. It’s you saying, “This is who I am, deal with it.” It may be so for some people. For me, it was about radical honesty. It wasn’t so much about saying something than it was about not having said something and letting things be assumed about me. It was about walking out of expectations placed on me based on who people thought I was or wanted to be or ‘should’ be. It was about shaking free of unspoken limitations I had barricaded myself behind, wrapped in a warped sense of familial duty, drowning in fear. 

Saying ‘Manmy, I’m Queer’ does not encapsulate the personal revolution that preceded such a statement. Writing “I came out” is the palest euphemism for what is required to walk out of the darkness that is self-hatred of such a magnitude that your psyche can only protect you by camouflaging it as virtue. 

Coming out was much less a crowning statement about who I am than a vocal reclaiming of my unequivocal right to decide. I wanted to break out of all the boxes. It was my “You don’t know me. Shit, I don’t know me. But I’ll be damned if I let you think you can tell me.” It wasn’t about picking a consonant now that I was recognizing myself as one of the “alphabet people.” It wasn’t some grand expose about spectrums, biology, politics, history, philosophy. “I love women.” That was the truth choking me, my great black shame, at the center of my freudian need for approval, evidence of the disease rotting my creativity, patient zero. 

Saying it out loud to the one who mattered most, vomiting the anguish up was about finally being able to fully honor and respect myself, no longer internalizing others’ judgments, thoughts, and assumptions about me. My silence would no longer be heard as agreement. My logical rationales would no longer cover, and foster my fears. 

“My silence would no longer be heard as agreement.”

Little did I know, coming out once just meant that I had to keep coming out. Instead of the land of free roaming outside of others’ expectations and determinations for my life, my identity, and my sense of self, I found a factory of rhetorics housing smaller and smaller boxes into which I’m expected to break my big-boned, unruly black body to make it fit.  I can’t. 

Or won’t. 

In so many circles I try to participate, I’m often at a loss at all the terminology I’m expected to retain. Being worthy of the privilege to enter some spaces does require the willingness to learn and use affirming language for all present. My only issue really comes in the disdain and policing that some feel they must exercise on others for them to use the “right” word, the “right” phrase, the “right” vocabulary, especially when defining themselves. 

It’s always amusing to me how many names have been given to black people in America until now. Maybe amusing is the wrong word. From nigger to African-American, we’ve worked our way up to find something acceptable, “right” for ‘most’ people (maybe). Along the way, ‘negro’ and ‘colored’ spent a while being “right” though the latter now has the same effect as nails on a chalkboard for me. The fact that language evolves is not in itself an argument against developing a ‘proper’ vocabulary, but the fact that language can evolve and be refined without having any real societal effect on how people understand and treat black people besides a shift from shouting to mumbling the “wrong” thing is an effective argument for me to rebuke weaponizing labels and to advocate for a different focus. 

What’s in a label? Primarily, a person. There’s a person in there, people. There’s also a history, practices, more words, narratives, art, vibrations, frequencies… A label is never just a label. By forcing an ultra focus on using the proper vocabulary, I can’t help but feel that we neglect to place emphasis on the actual meanings, the actual stories. Our lead-in tone prevents any further conversation, “how could you not KNOW that? What ‘kind of person’ doesn’t know you’re not supposed to say this or you’re supposed to say that?” It’s usually worse when you are part of the community and thus fully expected to know, but it definitely bleeds out in how some of us represent ourselves and are represented outside of the community.

There have been many times I’ve witnessed people fumble around to find the ‘right’ term, and I’ve pressed them about “why exactly can’t you say that?” Their answers have ranged from “I don’t know, you just don’t say it” to some inaccurate rationale that is equally dehumanizing as the actual reason they were “not supposed to” to say “it”. What are we doing here? What purpose does it serve to know all the words if we don’t know what they mean? Does it suffice that we’re not offended by language if no other difference is made?

Whose job is it to educate people? Do those who do the policing also have to educate others? I certainly can’t ask more work out of the oppressed .

I don’t market myself as the social answers guy. I ask questions. Like, why do I take on some labels and reject others? Why can I freely say I’m a black woman from the Caribbean or “The Islands” but I hesitate to call myself Afro-Latinx and loathe the term “West Indies”? Why do I decide when and where they matter? Like calling myself Afro-Latina on a date with a white-passing one to gauge her reaction, or when discussing potential avenues for improvement in the region without the involvement of the metropoles. What other purposes do labels serve besides self-identification and community-building? 

Respecting people by honoring their self-identification in whatever ways they ask you to is a basic interpersonal relationship requirement. You don’t decide to name someone something else after they’ve introduced themselves. You don’t question their name and demand a full explanation before you can agree to call them by it. You just learn. 

Labels can serve as an introduction, a short-hand, an inside convo, a knowing nod, a smirk. They can be a revolution, a question, evidence, reunion. I find connections in some labels. Ayitian. Black. Woman. Freedom in others. Queer. Writer. Witness. And Wonder in all. Vodouyizan. Human. Goddess. 

Labels are not useless. Having some form of language to explain the things you understand about yourself is a crucial first step in self-expression. However, they should be used at your own discretion, for your own edification, not to define or evaluate others’ definitions. Labels accomplish the most when imbibed with their meaning, the humanhood that animates them. They’re not just a bunch of words or acronyms; understanding and using them should not feel like taking a quiz or completing the wokest adlibs. 

“Labels are not useless.”

The people behind these labels and concepts are still working to get their humanity recognized, sometimes to their own selves first. They don’t get to do that and truly define themselves if they have to pick a box to break into in order to sit at lunch. In that same vein, other people who need to recognize and accept their humanity need to fully understand that what is being asked of them is much more than to learn to use the right term. It’s virtually impossible to do that when that’s how the chastising is mainly framed. 

All I know is that I’m ignorant. I’ll more than willingly admit it. I’d rather spend ten minutes explaining some things I understand about myself instead of researching the theory, term, or label that would save me nine. Sometimes I do run into the applicable label, but then I’d rather spend more time pulling at the places where it doesn’t fit, expanding it to meet my needs, and leaving it behind when it no longer serves me. My journey is my destination, and above all, I’m determined to make it my own. I don’t have to do shit but be black and die. You don’t know me. Shiiiit, I don’t know me. But I’ll be DAMNED if I let you tell me. 

How’s your quarantine going? I’m working on a post on that soon. Have you checked out my podcast yet? In our first episode, we spent quite some time discussing communities, a conversation I believe pairs well with this blog. As always, comment, share, and subscribe. Find me on social media if you want to keep discussing this (links at the top).

Thank you for reading, and take care!

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