September 4, 2022
Speaking Truth to Culture
By Jemi Lassiter
Kathleen "Kat" Guillaume-Delemar survived physical, sexual and verbal abuse as a child. When she spoke up, she endured cultural backlash from her close knit Haitian-American community.
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Guillaume-Delemar.
I’d love to say that I could remove myself from the series that is Kathleen Guillaume-Delemar’s life but, no.
While setting up for our interview at her family’s home in Maryland, I meet her son, a serviceman with goals of taking over the reigns of air traffic control at one of the nation’s many airports on the eastern seaboard. He’s casual at best about his degree, service record, current studies and work. Meanwhile, his mother is gushing at how her son has started to build his own life and maintained a strong connection with his family.
I hang out with her dog, a black and white shih tzu who loves back rubs and likes leisurely strolls around the house before picking a comfortable spot in the living room to listen in on the evening’s interview.
Larry, Guillaume-Delemar’s husband of 10 years and best friend of 29 years, is no stranger to me but how Kat describes him on this day is brand new. He loves her from a place that cannot be reached or seen, only felt. I think it is a place he created when he fell in love with her so many years ago.
“He’s okay with me getting the shine”, said Guillaume-Delemar. “Larry is a provider and he doesn’t take away my ‘woman-ness’. And that ‘woman-ness’ is the modern day woman that’s not going to wait and ask your permission. I’m a leader in my own right. He is the leader of this family but I also bring a lot to the table.”
He’s comfortable with Guillaume-Delemar standing in the limelight as a fundraiser, community activist and councilwoman.
“He knows who he married,” this week’s feature reiterates.
Affectionately, called Kat by family and friends, 47-year-old Guillaume-Delemar is a petite Haitian-Spanish-American with smooth brown skin, bright doe eyes and a hairstyle for every occasion… not to mention an ensemble for these streets! Coifed and styled to perfection, she is equal parts gentility and warrioress.
“I believe in the power of my voice. I’m not going to tolerate you doing whatever you like towards me, my family, my loved one — my loved one is inclusive of my community, my core,” said Guillaume-Delemar.
Where the balance between those two sides of her — naturally polite, warm and welcoming person versus an outspoken, fierce defender of rights and fighter for communal wellbeing not just her own — was struck when Guillaume-Delemar was a child being sexually abused by a family friend.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one in nine girls under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault by an adult. Of the cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of perpetrators are known by the child they are victimizing.
The Centers for Disease Control categorize child sexual abuse as an “adverse childhood experience” that has the potential to reverberate throughout the victim’s life. Many children wait to report or never report child sexual abuse.
The totality of Guillaume-Delemar’s physical, sexual and verbal abuse would span the better part of a decade.
Healing from it has changed her forever and impacted the way she leads, fights and lives.
"There is no shame in my story."
After years of abuse, Guillaume-Delemar left New York at 18 for a new start on the campus of Howard University.
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Guillaume-Delemar
Guillaume-Delemar grew up in Brooklyn, NY, the daughter of a proud Haitian mother and an absent Spanish father. Her mother engulfed her in New York’s Haitian community, surrounding her with family and friends that maintained close ties to the family's home country. But, Guillaume-Delemar struggled to explain who she was to classmates unfamiliar with a deep brown-skinned girl being able to speak different languages and a last name that sounds like music when correctly pronounced. To say she was Haitian was not an option.
According to Guillaume-Delemar, being Haitian in New York during the 1980s was not the most popular thing to be. Stigmas and stereotypes about spiritual practices, diseases, violent tendencies and even the immigration status of the Haitian community were at an all time high. So, Guillaume-Delemar did what many children do: She explained it away.
She learned French while she lived in Canada. True.
She absolutely believes in God. True.
And, she was not a fighter at the time but those kids knew not to push her. *Insert side eye and a wish-would commentary*
She publicly downplayed her Haitian background while living in New York because of all the negative connotations associated with the country and upheld in her neighborhood. Privately, Guillaume-Delemar relished its richness, its boldness and its interconnected familial environment. Without being related, they were all family.
School aside, Guillaume-Delemar had bigger matters looming over her. For three years, she was being sexually abused at home.
“I grew up being poor, being dark-skinned, being of Haitian descent and being in a single parent household. So, when abuse happens from the age of 6 to 9. When you are touched in ways you’re not supposed to be touched. You are mistaking certain things for what all dads do to or with their daughters,” explained Guillaume-Delemar making a point to pause between every interaction.
“When abuse happens...”
“When you are touched in ways...”
“You are mistaking...”
She is matter-of-fact in tone, paying special attention to every word she shares with me, letting me know that she will clarify if needed but she will not repeat a single word of this part of her story.
This is what happened.
This is her experience.
She is allowing me to see into her life for just a moment and I understand the privilege she has granted me.
At nine, Guillaume-Delemar spoke up about the sexual abuse taking place at home and the person inflicting it upon her. As if by magic, her abuser disappeared.
Where he went, we do not discuss.
What happened to him, we do not discuss.
How he left, we do not discuss.
Because, he has had enough of Guillaume-Delemar’s energy.
Because the Why of him leaving is more important than any of the other questions and Why has already been answered.
When the abuse ended, Guillaume-Delemar received the message that what happened in her house was to stay in her house. She was not to inform the police or anyone else for that matter. According to Guillaume-Delemar, her culture equated calling the police to signing someone’s death certificate because, in Haiti, at that time and before, that is just what would happened whenever someone called the police. The accused would be no more. In the US, not calling the police silenced her and protected her abuser.
Despite the norms and mores of Haitian culture, the fact remained that her abuser disappeared from the family and Guillaume-Delemar felt safe.The nine-year-old had the freedom to be a child again.
It would not last long.
When she was 12, he resurfaced. Instead of sexual abuse, she endured physical and verbal abuse this time.
Making matters worse, the instability of her home life became neighborhood fodder when crack cocaine entered the picture and her abuser became an addict.
“You’re watching your friends and your community looking at the neighborhood crackhead [and he] is the person that is… in your home. You have your mother sacrificing and saving to buy you new things for Christmas, only for it to be gone by New Year’s because it’s been sold for drugs,” said a frustrated Guillaume-Delemar.
She stayed guarded and lived in survival mode for the next six years.
At 18, she broke from cultural norms and called the police. Her community did not support her decision and she faced backlash from family members who believed they had endured worse abuse in Haiti and never called the police.
“It was like, ‘Are we comparing wounds here?’,” said Guillaume-Delemar. “When the police show up and you’re made to feel bad by the elders, not the young ones, it becomes ‘interesting’.”
Our conversation sways between tearful remembrance and gentle retelling, with Guillaume-Delemar demonstrating the relationship dynamics that were altered when she spoke up for herself once more. This time louder.
“At the time, people knew about the physical abuse. But [the abuse that took place] between 6 and 9, that wasn’t made fully public,” explained Guillaume-Delemar.
She is not upset or unforgiving. Here, she is surprisingly understanding of how a lack of knowledge can move an entire community that loves you to feel they must admonish you even if it is only for the sake of their culture; one that addresses problems within its community, metes out justice within its community and provides resolution within its community.
“I’m a New Yorker. I love New York but I knew I had to leave. I needed to leave to reinvent myself,” said Guillaume-Delemar.
And with that knowledge, the future councilwoman and community development fundraiser who would go on to raise millions for others’ causes started her freshmen year at Howard University.
- To be continued -