Learning to be black in America

August 29, 2012

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During our series on race, we’ve heard many stories from locals who’ve shared their experiences with race relations in the Chicago region. But we also wanted to hear from people who are new to our area and didn’t grow up with the same culture and history. To learn more about what race looks like for someone born in another country, we talked with Kenson Theus, a Haitian immigrant. He shared the story of his struggle to understand what it is to be a black man in the U.S.

My name is Kenson Theus. I am from Haiti. I came to the United States in 2004 on a college scholarship to a small college in Indiana called Goshen College. Growing up in Haiti for the first 22 years of my life and only knowing about the United States through movies and hit songs, obviously I had a lot to learn. A lot of it was a big shock to me.

Coming from Haiti where 95 percent of the population is black, I was never in a group where I stood out for the color of my skin. To be aware of my color was so new to me. I had to learn it a few different ways. I met some African Americans on campus. They tried to warn me on the kind of racism that was happening in the States in general, but also in the area that we were. For instance, there were places in town that if it’s a certain time, maybe you shouldn’t go to these places. Then I started to see these patterns with them, as I started to see the difference when you entered the room, the looks. Also, knowing that I’m the only black around, trying to convince people that I’m not who they think I am, that was the hardest part for me.

All summer, WBEZ and vocalo will be talking about race—out loud, and on the air, in frank conversations and stories, and in lively public events. We’re asking what it would sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race and ethnicity. What if they really talked about how it shapes them, their lives, and attitudes?  What would we hear?
A lot of people don’t know that I’m not from here. I don’t necessarily identify with the history here.

One thing happened to me in Goshen that really changed my whole idea and perspective on race in America. When I was in college I used to do a lot of my work in the computer lab and usually very late at night. One time, I finished writing my paper at about two or three in the morning. So I packed my backpack, threw it on my back and started walking home thinking about how I have to wake up in a few hours. It’s cold and I’m just thinking of getting home. Then, all of a sudden, I hear this car coming behind me full speed. But as it comes closer it started to slow down a little bit. It was a truck right behind me and the window got rolled down and a beer can full of beer got thrown at me with a lot of names… a lot of names. Then the truck just sped up past me. I am standing there with beer all over me, really shocked. I look up front and I can see that the truck is just standing there waiting. So all I did was I just turned around and started running nonstop with everything I had towards campus. I ended up spending the night in the computer lab on a couch that was there.

Coming to Chicago was a big move for me.  In a lot of ways I was very hopeful, knowing that at least I’ll be in a place where there is more of us, where maybe stuff like that doesn’t happen very often. But also, to see that a lot of these same patterns being in the city in a lot of ways on a way bigger scale like how the city is so segregated.

Two years ago, I married my wife who is a white American from Indiana after being together for ten years.  We met in Haiti, but through all this time there’s been a lot of criticism, a lot of struggle for us to be together. I have African-American friends, girls specifically, who told me that I got stolen by this white girl. That kind of mentality…. This is our life that has nothing to do with you, with your color. You are my friend. We are good friends. Why is this line so sensitive? Why is me dating her a problem for you? Or even walking down the streets and the comments [we hear]… we don’t deserve this.

A lot of people don’t know that I’m not from here. I don’t necessarily identify with the history here. Our history is totally different from the history here. This is the pride of Haiti. For us Haitians, even with the situation we are in now, we took our independence. That’s something that is so strong for us. We fight for independence and we took it by force.

In Haiti right now, and Haitians will tell you this and if you go to Haiti, you’ll feel it… we still have open arms for foreigners in Haiti. My wife has been in Haiti—since I’m here—way more times than me. She has a lot more friends than me now.  That’s just to say that we accept everybody.  This is what I see when these kind of situations happen. It’s like, you don’t know me. You don’t know my history, how I’m connected to this and my life.