Born in Haiti and raised in the United States, Management Analyst Joel Pean was subject to racial discrimination as a child but has never let those experiences define him.
Cross burnings, bullets shot at his home and street fights marred Pean’s childhood. He always knew there were those that didn’t like him because of his skin color. Racism was never discussed by his parents, and the only lesson he was taught was to not be out at certain neighborhoods at night. Most lessons he learned on his own on the streets.
His parents’ separation led his father to move him and his three siblings from Haiti to Brooklyn in the 1970s. As a child, he didn’t let those that used the N-word bother him. “There was so much chaos in my house that it really didn’t bother me…All I want was to go to school and eat my Sloppy Joes.”
When his father remarried, they moved to Long Island, where they were the first black family in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, that didn’t go very well. The cross burning in his yard and people shooting at his family’s house was enough to send them packing. Pean said that this time, the N-word had a different effect on him. There was a sting to the word “because there was so much passion behind it,” said Pean.
Pean confided to his older brother George that something didn’t seem right. A couple of days later, as he was leaving his house to deliver newspapers, he was accosted by a group of white boys. George, who fortuitously woke up late for work that morning, came to Pean’s rescue and fought by his side. Out of nowhere, a car drove up and the driver told then to get in the car if they wanted to survive. The driver was a white male.
“How can this culture hate me, but the same culture save me?” said Pean. It took Pean some time to process the experience but eventually, he deduced that “It’s not about the color, there’s just plain (bleep) people out there. I had the hate from the black side, too. Hate is from inside someone.” He wishes he could go back in time and thank the man that saved him and his brother.
The Pean family then moved to Boston’s African American community. “You had to go really far to South Boston where we heard, if you’re black, don’t go there at night,” said Pean. Because he lived away from the non-black communities, “we just dealt with the problems that existed within the black community.”
Pean discovered that racial differences are also within the black cultures. “Black America told me I was different because of the words that came out of my mouth and the way I was dressed as a Haitian.” He thinks that it was a good thing people told him he was different. “By being different…I didn’t have any group obligation to hang out with people,” Pean said. He does not like the peer pressure that comes with fitting in with groups.
Pean says he’s had a troubled past, but it wasn’t from racism. The lack of a stable home and a father he couldn’t get along with made him very depressed. He contemplated suicide and his brother rescued him from a rooftop once. “I’m recovered because now I have people that rely on me.” This gave him a reason to live, to abolish the dark thoughts. He encourages people with suicidal inclinations to reach out to others because they are not alone.
Pean served in the Army from 1984-2006 which allowed him to travel and meet many different people. He was a combat engineer, but the highlight of his career was a tour as a drill sergeant. Pean met his wife Elke while stationed in Germany, and they have been married for 32 years.
Marrying a German lady was an issue to others but not for Pean. He says he looks at people through their hearts, not their color. As a bonus of his marriage, Pean developed a great relationship with his father-in-law. “They accepted me and he was the father I was always looking for,” said Pean.
Pean earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, was a teacher for several years and then went back to school to earn a Master of Science in Applied Industrial Math. His passion is in teaching, and hopes to return to it one day. Pean started his career at Fort Hunter Liggett as an intern and now is part of the Plans, Analysis, and Integration Office. He enjoys learning about the big picture of the garrison mission.
Pean was the guest speaker of the Fort Hunter Liggett’s Caribbean Heritage Month Observance in June. He shared some highlights of his life and recognized three people that are very important to him. In addition to his brother, his mother has “always protected me, she did everything she could.” The third person that played a significant role in his life is his high school English teacher. She saw potential in him and helped him get into University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Massachusetts through the Upward Bound program. One of Pean’s goals is to find that teacher and ask her “How did you know?” and to thank her.