Pinkies, please welcome Marjorie Florestal as she makes her debut on the Pink mainstage. Join us in holding warm space for her as she tells the story of reconnecting with her culture. Welcome Marjorie, and thank you!
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asks. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose. And yet, I know this not to be true. When I read Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, I couldn’t help but let out one good, hard, soul-splitting belly laugh as I stumbled across this line: “A rose by any other name would wilt fast, smell like bitter almonds . . . God help you if the thorns broke the skin.” Yes, I thought. The name of a rose gives it its very identity. We could call it something else, but then it would be something else. It was only when I recognized this one simple truth that I came to know what I needed to do. I needed to reclaim a long forgotten part of myself. I needed to reclaim my own true name.
When I was a child, everyone in my life called me “Cocotte.” It is a French name, and it was fairly common in the small Haitian town where I was born. Literally translated it means “darling,” and somehow—even when I was too young to know that—I felt cherished every time someone called me. My grandmother might snap “Cocotte, hold still!” as I squirmed and strained and otherwise resisted all attempts to tame my unruly hair. My mother would say “Cocotte, be careful” as I left on some childish adventure with a neighbor or a friend. My teachers, my cousins, the couple down the street, even the strong, stark Caribbean wind seemed to know my name. And it was Cocotte.
By the time I was five years old, my family had immigrated to New York City in search of the usual: peace, prosperity, a new life. My parents had sacrificed much to give us a new home so much was expected of us. I set a course to meet and even exceed their expectations. First college, then law school, then a stint at a prestigious law firm, and then the ultimate dream job at the White House. Along the way, I racked up one achievement after another—scholarships, a Fulbright, a federal clerkship, and a tenured full professorship. There was much to do and no time to look back. Life was so busy I hardly noticed that now no one ever called me Cocotte. It was such a small thing. What’s in a name, after all?
On January 12, the world woke up to news of a devastating earthquake in Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions more irreparably changed. No one seemed to know what to do. I did not know what to do (yes, I gave money but so what? Money was never going to be enough). It had been so long since I was that little girl who went on childish adventures down those now destroyed streets. I felt the unbearable weight of grief and loss . . . and guilt. I had disconnected for so long. I had forgotten who I was, and where I came from, and how I was connected.
Like so many Haitians, I immediately turned to the phones, calling on family and old friends for information and solace. In the midst of the grief and fear, soft tendrils of memory began to emerge—memories of days spent eating mangoes and sugar cane under the giant, sheltering tree in our backyard; memories of rainy nights made more sweet by listening to old Haitian folktales told and sung by my grandmother. Those were Cocotte’s memories. And just like that, I remembered my true name. I remembered how safe and loved, warm and protected I felt every time I heard it. I remembered other things too. While others saw poverty and devastation, corruption, failure, and need, I remembered a Haiti few outsiders ever got to see. I remembered a Haiti where you were only a stranger once; where everyone shared whatever they had, and so we had plenty. I remembered a Haiti in which creativity and expression were emphasized just as much as intelligence and hard work. I remembered a Haiti filled with laughter and connection. And the stories . . . Haiti was full of stories. There were stories to entertain, to teach, to reprimand, and to inspire.
I did not know what else to do, so I began to share those memories. I told stories of Haiti everywhere I went; I told them to my American friends, to my students, at academic conferences, and in church fundraisers. In the process of remembering, I reconnected to a half-forgotten, long buried part of myself. Not just the part of me that is Haitian, but the part that is creative and carefree and connected to those around me. I discovered a small but strong community of Haitians right in my backyard in Northern California. For the first time in years, I had genuine, honest-to-goodness Haitian cuisine (that I didn’t have to prepare myself!) I spoke Creole again. I was even able to help rescuers in Haiti by translating text messages from Creole to English. I made videos of friends telling their tales of Haiti and shared them so that we would never again forget . . . so that I would never again forget. I started talking more, laughing more, writing more, and creating more. Recently, some friends and I have begun a project for Haiti we hope will make a difference.
Now I remember, and now I can reconnect.
So, what’s in a name? Magic.
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