September 9, 2022
Speaking Truth to Culture, continued
By Jemi Lassiter
Kathleen "Kat" Guillaume-Delemar used her college career at Howard University to reinvent herself after years of abuse.
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Guillaume-Delemar.
Kat Guillaume-Delemar started her freshmen year at Howard University in the early 90s with the swagger of a proud New Yorker, better yet, the swagger of a proud Brooklynite.
Home was home but Washington, DC — now called the DMV by locals to combine the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia — was something else. She took it as the untarnished opportunity it was to recreate herself; invent the person she wanted to be.
“I grew up with the richness of hearing my native country’s music. I grew up with seeing so many people from the Diaspora. [New York is] just like the Caribbean, boisterous and colorful. You also see a lot of struggle,” explained Guillaume-Delemar. “In the DMV, I saw a different level of richness and culture. It was an oasis of sorts, where you just see a richness of Black people on a college campus, where you’re celebrated for your Being. That was the very first time that I saw and heard Haiti being celebrated in an educated way… In New York, I learned how to survive. In the DMV, I learned how to live. I reinvented myself in the DMV.”
Can you picture it? Howard University in 1993? The parties. The classes. The vibe. The style!
Think Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. Think Lena James in a Different World. (Yes, she started off questionably dressed but who among us didn’t?) Think Aaliyah. Destiny’s Child (the original group). Bandu bras, baggy jeans and box braids. Style was fluid. You could easily be on trend dressed like Saved by the Bell’s Lisa Turtle in body con mini dresses with puffed sleeves, Clueless’ Dionne in short prep school skirts, tight collared sweaters, heels masquerading as Oxford loafers and designer handbags, or like TLC’s Lisa Left-Eye Lopes in loose fitting shirts, too big overalls and Timberlands. (Yes, they had to be Timberland boots. Wallaby’s were tolerated but… I digress.)
The point is Guillaume-Delemar was in the mix of Howard’s scene with a strong New York accent and an even stronger desire to become who she was meant to be. What happened at home could stay home.
She majored in African-American Studies and made a point to join on-campus organizations like the Caribbean Students Association, Haitian Student Association and The Newman Club. She earned straight A’s that year but there was something in her that was just a bit off. Something unwelcome. Something that disturbed her spirit.
Despite the lively campus of Howard and all that she was doing, Guillaume-Delemar had moments where she sat alone in her dorm room and cried. Not soft tears, purging sobs and she could not for the life of her figure out why. After all, she had left. She had gotten out. What were these tears? She had never cried like this. In fact, she rarely cried.
That first purging cry brought a new first for her, she began to have affirming conversations with herself. She spoke words that built her up. She spoke words that reminded her of the present and the opportunity of the future.
“I started to speak to myself,” said Guillaume-Delemar.
“Kat, you’re in a position of choice.”
“You are the choice.”
“You are the person who needs to advocate for yourself in whatever way seems fit.”
As she tells me of her self-affirming conversations, she reminds me that affirmations speak to you and the doubt, the fear, the judgmental inner voice that pushes you back when you should go forward. This is what makes her affirmations conversations.
At 18, she was fighting for herself with her voice again and this time it was Guillaume-Delemar versus herself.
“It was my first year away from the dysfunction that I knew but also away from the love that I knew because my mother LOVED me,” she said.
She affirmed herself as often as she needed to, feeling better, maybe stronger, but certainly feeling more like the person she would become with every affirmation.
“People will say that you’re giving [your abuser] power . [That’s not it.] You’re not tapping into yourself to see how truly strong you are. If you don’t have those conversations with yourself, you won’t know that,”explained Guillaume-Delemar.
In 1993, Kathleen Guillaume-Delemar started life as a freshmen in Washington, D.C. on the campus of Howard University,
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Guillaume-Delemar
"There's So Many Layers to Me."
After returning home for the summer following her freshman year, Guillaume-Delemar went from being a straight A student to making D’s her sophomore year.
“I was like what is going on?!”
It wasn’t just the grades, Guillaume-Delemar was sad and could not shake it off with only her self-affirming conversations. They helped but not like before.
Twenty years before mental health was a common term and socially acceptable topic, Guillaume-Delemar wasn’t sure what was going on with her.
“I went to the Head of the Dorm and said I was feeling very sad and I’d been abused. I don’t know what to do. My abuser’s still at home,” she recalled.
She was directed to on-campus counseling and met with a therapist. It did not go well.
“I was angry at this therapist or psychologist,” confessed Guillaume-Delemar. “She was very empathetic with her questions and then [after I’d told her of the abuse during my childhood] she said, ‘Did you ever think that your mother was abused and is being abused?’”
Guillaume-Delemar rejected the opportunity to see her mother with compassion. Her own pain was too great, too heavy and it had begun to seep into her life outside of New York. What happened at home wasn’t staying at home. It was bleeding into the Kat she reinvented herself to be in DC, at Howard University, proudly Haitian-Spanish-American for the first time in her adult life. She desperately wanted to get herself together first.
“I was like, ‘No! I am the one that’s here.’ It never dawned on me to think about my mother as her own individual Being and what she endured and what she was still enduring. I got mad at the lady and left. I never went back. The lady was right,” admitted Guillaume-Delemar.
She left the session feeling not just impoverished but spiritually poor, an emotional relic from the life her mother once lived.
While a teenager in Haiti, Guillaume-Delemar’s mother earned a college scholarship to study in Spain and became pregnant. After telling Guillaume-Delemar’s father of the coming baby, her mother found herself without a home, pregnant and in a foreign country. She was able to find her bearings and get on her feet with the help of her family but Guillaume-Delemar believes her mother never forgot the feeling of not knowing if she would have a place to sleep or food to eat.
Years later, settled among Brooklyn’s Haitian community and with two children she dated a man that provided a modicum of financial security. He also became her daughter’s abuser.
At age nine when Guillaume-Delemar spoke up about the sexual abuse, her mother faced the possibility of returning to square one. She may have faced it again when Guillaume-Delemar was 18 and called the police about the physical and verbal abuse that rained down on her for six years.
But right now, while Guillaume-Delemar was in college, away from her abuser, away from cultural demands for silence, the possibility of her mother’s abuse was far from her mind and made therapy no longer an option. She returned to self-affirming conversations as her sole comfort and act of self restoration.
"Tell. Go and Tell."
It was during one of her self-affirming conversations at Howard University that she received Divine Direction. She was not crying without cause. She was not feeling off kilter just because. There was a reason. Guillaume-Delemar had work to do.
“I’ll never forget. I believe in God speaking to me and so, when I have those conversations with myself, I’m able to hear God clearly,” she explained. “I remember God said, ‘Tell. Go and tell.’ And, I remember saying to myself, ‘But, it’s not happening anymore. I’m in DC. This person can’t touch me.’
Guillaume-Delemar said even after coming to terms with being out of her abuser’s reach, she still had the sense that God was saying, “You need to tell.” She wrestled with the direction until she reached a point of conviction that placed the children who may have been harmed after her before her own desires to permanently escape.
“Why are you not saying anything? This person is walking around unharmed. Never spent a day in jail for what he’s done to you and [those] after you. So the guilt that comes with that, whether I was younger or older [than the others he abused], if I would have said something publicly back then, maybe they wouldn’t have been exposed to what I was exposed to,” explained a tearful Guillaume-Delemar.
“Abuse is not an isolated thing. How you heal from it is an isolated thing. My way of healing from that was, not only did I hear ‘Tell’ but I heard ‘Here’s how you’re going to tell it’.”
At 21, Guillaume-Delemar returned to New York and sat with her elders one-by-one. The same people who exiled her abuser when she was nine and shamed her for calling the police at 18 were the very people she had been instructed to meet with three years later.
“[I started] off by saying ‘What I’m going to tell you is the truth. If you believe me, that’s good. If you don’t, that’s fine but it’s my truth and I need to let you know.’ I went to every single relative that I could to tell them what happened to me,” said Guillaume-Delemar.
She retold her experiences of abuse one-by-one, as instructed and almost immediately the rumor mill in her close knit Haitian community began to spin.
With each meeting, there were questions and she would answer.
With each meeting there were reactions and she would endure them. There were some elders who received what Guillaume-Delemar had to say, others who questioned it and still some who pointed the finger at her saying, “What kind of loose girl could she have been to have seduced [this man]?”
With each meeting there was the opportunity to misunderstand or skew perspectives.
“The crazy thing was, this was Kat versus her abuser. But, the way it was depicted [in my community] was this was Kat versus her mother when I never mentioned my mother. I’m addressing [my abuser’s actions],” explained Guillaume-Delemar.
“It took a lot of crying and energy and I’m like, ‘God, why are you having me do this?’ But, I realized the strength that I had because I was no longer carrying [this burden],” said Guillaume-Delemar.
Amid her one-on-one sessions with her community elders, Guillaume-Delemar prepared to go back to Howard University to complete her degree. The money she used for college came from a community sous sous, a collective way of saving money among a small community of trusted people. But, her college career would be interrupted when her former abuser stole the money that would be used for her college tuition.
“I missed a year of school after that. In the Afro-Caribbean culture, you have sous sous. The way I got through college was through sous sous. My mother got her payouts in August and we did it with family, people that we knew. My mother would get her payouts. We’d make the full payment to Howard and I would go for [another year of school]. My mother got her sous sous money. When it was time for me to go to school, the envelope is missing and so is [my abuser]. Gone. Smoked up. My mother’s crying. I’m losing it,” recalled Guillaume-Delemar.
With the next year’s sous sous, money she earned on her own during the year and a scholarship from the Tom Joyner Morning Show, Guillaume-Delemar returned to Howard University. She went back to school with a Survivor, instead of Survival, Mindset. This new version of her made conscious decisions to live each day instead of hoping to reach the next day.
During school breaks, she protected her mental and physical spaces at all times. Although she made a point to visit her mother often, she never to stayed in her mother’s home. She opted to sleepover at her cousins or aunts homes.
“There’s a power of being knocked down and getting back up. I feel like there are parts of my life where God knocked me down in order for me to come back even stronger than how I was,” said Guillaume-Delemar. “My being is sacred.”
In addition to being a community development fundraiser, Guillaume-Delemar is a city councilwoman. She is pictured here at her swearing in ceremony with daughter and husband.
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Guillaume-Delemar
"I'm Proud of Where I am Now."
With her mind clear and the burden of carrying the secrets of childhood abuse lifted but never forgotten, Guillaume-Delemar funnels her energy into two spaces: Family and uplifting her community. In them, she finds purpose and a powerful way to continue using her voice.
She has reconciled with her community; gained understanding of the how and why behind her abuser’s continued presence within it; and set boundaries so clear and strong that Guillaume-Delemar is more than a Survivor of childhood abuse, she is a Defender of abused and overlooked people.
"I know firsthand what it means to be invisible, what it means to not be seen,” said Guillaume-Delemar.
Her natural charm and ease for meeting people has played well throughout her 20+ years in philanthropy as a community development fundraiser for nonprofit and community organizations. In the last two years alone, Guillaume-Delemar’s work has allowed her to help an estimated 300 communities in 48 states and connect 1,400 grassroots leaders to needed resources.
Today, she serves as council woman in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Known as a person who will always speak up for what is right, she entered politics in Maryland.
“I had no intention of joining the political realm, but God placed me here,” said Guillaume-Delemar. “Being in the political realm has forced me to somewhat alter how I choose to make an impact on society. I operate from a communal perspective. There’s a level of seeing myself in every person… [and] I’m very proud of where I am now.”