I grew up in a community where I was repeatedly told that my body was not my own. My body belonged to my parents when I was unable to speak for myself. Once I had sense enough to understand, I was taught that my body belonged to another man, God; once married, my husband. I struggled from a young age with reconciling that I’d never fully had ownership of the only home I’d have for the rest of my days. In church my body was policed, If I wore pants, I was told to change into skirts and dresses in the temple. I also learned about chastity and modesty. I was taught that counter to the decoration narrative, body modifications like tattoos and piercings desecrated your body. I learned that my body was not only a weapon and a labyrinth of unspoken truths but also a symbol. If my body caused men to fall into lust, then it was my fault because my body was weaponized against them. My body was a symbolic site of contention, where race met gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and art. My body was vested in expectation – expectations for what I should learn, do, value and aspire to. My body also held silenced stories that I was too afraid to utter aloud. It wasn’t until I read about the stories of people like Fannie Lou Hammer, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Anita Hill, Angela Davis and Alex Elle that I felt the truly validated in the stories I once kept as secrets.
The first time I can remember experiencing separation from my body was during childhood disciplinary practices. Haitian families are pretty notorious for corporal punishments ranging from “mete ou ajenou” or “get on your knees,” ranging all the way to suffering the lashings of a “sentiron” or leather belt. When I committed acts my father deemed egregious, I knew my fate would be up to him and his sentiron. While he inflicted pain on me as part of a regular disciplinary practice, he would always tell me “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” His directives delegitimized my pain and formed my earliest memories of disembodiment. This pattern of discipline socialized me from a young age to believe that distancing my soul from my being could be a positive thing. It also raised many questions for me, the most prominent being: Would my body ever be my own or would it belong to whatever power player who aimed to usurp my bodily autonomy?
Perhaps I was just too young. Not many parents give their children very much bodily autonomy in our culture. I thought that once I found interpersonal love, my body could be for me because then I could decide whom I would share it with. However, love didn’t find me – care and lust masked as love and affection did. At this point, because of discipline at home and pop culture influence I was conditioned to see acts of aggression, unkindness and physical touch as potential proxies of affection from young boys. Romantic pursuit looked like grooming for manipulation and degradation to me. I watched as girl’s older than me commoditized their bodies in exchange for lovelessness and wondered what exactly they were getting from this seemingly inequivalent exchange. As I moved through the completion of middle school, most of my femme peers were convinced that by putting their bodies in proximity to male affection, they were fulfilling their duties as God-fearing women and creating a path to a loving adulthood.
Our community assumption was shattered in 2008 and once again in 2010 when two of my elementary & middle school classmates were murdered by men who took authority over their bodies. In 2008, Sabrina Matthews, my middle school classmate and friend, was murdered by Rashon Venable. In 2010, Yolanne Bailey, her sister and mother were found murdered by her father, who also completed suicide. These were the first two deaths I experienced, both were of black girls from a mostly West Indian immigrant district – girls just like me and both were killed in their own homes at the hand of men, who based off of the unspoken middle school heuristic, were supposed to love these girls in exchange for proximity to their bodies – not murder them in cold blood.
These murders rocked the community. I was 16 years old and there was yet another layer through which I could understand the space my body took in the world. Was my body my own or was it someone else’s? Was my body still valuable, worthy or even divine if it wasn’t constantly placed in “appropriate” proximity to a male power player? Was my body safe at home?
By age 17 my understanding of body, which held so many assumptions, expectations and norms, began to transform. Narratives about sexual and gender identity began to pervade public discourse and challenge gender norms especially in New York where Marriage Equality was signed into law in 2011. As I tried to reconcile my emerging sexual identity with the other pieces of myself that I held sacred, I struggled with balancing body autonomy and love with incorporating messages I was getting from people I trusted who suggested disembodiment, or the separation of soul, spirit and consciousness from the body, as a mechanism for quieting the questions in my mind. I wondered why emerging understandings of my identity meant that I needed to distance myself from the feelings inside of me that make me, me. I wondered what I would gain through disembodiment besides poor coping skills. I wondered how I could trust my intuition whilst simultaneously distancing myself from it.
I moved across the country to go to college. The distance from the familiar gave me space to explore new ideas and create sacred practices that were affirming to my spirit and my healing. One of the first steps I took in accepting my body was to cut off my chemically relaxed hair and started embracing my hair in its naturally occurring texture. I experimented with clothes, piercings and exercise, and paid close attention to how I felt in different spaces. For the first time in my life I followed the instincts in my body and I felt really comforted by the places and people I encountered. In a way, I felt led by my spirit – connected to my inner being. I realized that though important figures in my life suggested hiding behind a facade, distancing my mind from my body and ignoring my intuition, I was still part of the sacred divine and any ideology that didn’t see the value of my mind, body and spirit did not deserve my time.
On the path to self-love, it was important to claim my body as mine and to exercise my autonomy. I needed to claim my wins and love losses. I had to forgive those that transgressed against me and tried to colonize my being. I stopped listening to advice based in disembodiment. I released those who felt entitled to my energy then I rose from their ashes and was reborn.
It was necessary to make space to know myself before I decided to be known. It required silence; spiritual growth cannot happen in the constant hustle and bustle. I’d spent so long in a state of disembodiment, I had to forgive myself for feeling and make space for introspective exploration.I learned to set intentions to allow myself feel my pain and discomfort but also joy. As I learned to care for my spirit, I started translating my body signals into words I could comprehend and communicate. Once I had words, coming up with a plan to address my needs was a no brainer. It took time to trust myself and to see myself as valuable, worthy, non-disposal and my own but it was surely worth it to finally feel at home inside of myself.