Current Views

overty, domestic violence, drug-infested environs, homelessness, sexual harassment, racial and class exploitation, AIDS, immigration problems ... Cheryl Gittens has seen or experienced more trauma in her thirty-four years than most people encounter in a lifetime. Yet here she is, a vibrant Frances Perkins scholar in

While planning a research trip to Senegal, she realized her visa had expired, so she had to return to Barbados for a new one. This time, however, the U.S. authorities denied her request, and it took several lawyers, friends, MHC's then-dean of international affairs Mary Jacob, and a sympathetic member of the Barbados government to resolve the immigration difficulties. But even more serious trouble loomed:

control of her life and planning for the future." You don't have to accept what's been imposed on you," she says. "I've overcome trouble by turning it around."

A newspaper reporter in Gittens's native Barbados aptly dubbed her "sister survivor," a quality she's needed most of her life. Her father was either absent or violently abusive; her mother struggled to rear her two children on almost no money. Her brother Hendy was forced to live on the streets from age 12; Cheryl and her mom were beaten and turned out of the house for helping him. "I remember wandering the streets with only what was on our backs, after midnight, looking for a place to sleep," she recalls. By age 15, Cheryl, once a diligent student, had quit school and given up her dreams of college to help her mom survive. "I went into survival mode for about fifteen years, just doing what I had to do," she says. In 1987 a job babysitting took her

  Sister Survivor


Cheryl Gittens

Transcending a traumatic past, Frances Perkins Scholar Cheryl Gittens is now an award-winning playwright. She lives by Georgia O'Keeffe's conviction: "Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest."

  Gittens learned that her brother, Hendy, had AIDS. She returned to the U.S. and tried to focus on schoolwork and even produced her play Mary's Back for Twentieth Century Tea and She's Pissed. In January 1997, she went to Senegal to research the Caribbean slave trade. In the slave houses on Gore, "standing in the Door of No Return, I knew I needed to face my responsibilities," she says. So Gittens took a semester's leave and returned once more to Barbados to ease her brother's final days. "We had six weeks to connect after being separated for twenty years," she says, but the experience reminded her of the importance of enjoying life and dealing effectively with negative feelings. She also wrote a play, Shaduhs uh Voodoo, based on Hendy's short, troubled life and her own experiences. It won a James Baldwin Playwriting Prize in the 1997 Five College competition. She was also named to USA Today's 1997 All-USA College Academic Third Team.
off "the island that had become a prison," but her employer in Canada overworked and otherwise abused her. ("Slavery exists still," she says.) So she escaped to New York City and spent seven years as an illegal immigrant scraping a living by cooking, babysitting, housekeeping, and working as an artist's model in exchange for taking art classes. Art helped focus her energies, but Gittens remembers the time as "fighting to keep my spirit alive."

She wanted a college degree, but for that, she needed legal immigration status. So in 1993 Gittens returned to Barbados, got a visa, and started classes at California University of Pennsylvania in 1994. While fighting what she describes as sexual harassment there, she heard from an MHC alumna about the FP program. She got a scholarship and arrived at MHC in September 1995. "I thought I'd finally made it," Gittens says, but she still had a rocky road ahead.

  Although still grieving for Hendy, Gittens is back at MHC and working toward her degree in a self-designed major, Caribbean women's studies as expressed through the performing arts. She presented a dramatic reading of Shaduhs uh Voodoo last fall and plans to stage a full-scale production of it this spring as her honors thesis. What's helped her survive and thrive? Her Buddhist faith and a deep well of perseverance. "I refuse to be a victim. I do what I have to do to get where I want to go without stepping on anyone else's feet," she says. After graduation, she'll postpone graduate school, returning to Barbados to help rear her brother's twin daughters (now in an orphanage since both parents died). "I don't want to stop studying forever, but the important thing is to get my life together and create an atmosphere for those kids that I dreamed of as a child." Gittens tells her harrowing story to give others hope. "Don't ever give up," she says. "The moment you think you can't go on is the moment you can break through."

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Photo credits:
Fred LeBlanc
Jim Gipe
Laurence Kesterson
Michael Zide

William Mercer

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