as a woman i belong to no country — the whole world is my country.
I have known Lesley-Ann Brown for well over twenty years now. Twenty. When I first met her she was unknowingly establishing herself as one of the first true artist pioneers in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. When, because of its obscurity it was a safe haven. When Lesley-Ann first started her blog “Black Girl on Mars” most people had no idea what a blog even was and the only folks who took the platform seriously were her circles. Over a decade later her blog has won awards and been a place of refuge for countless readers. She is a nomad who currently lives in Denmark. Lesley is the person whose editorial advice taught me first how to write for real. “Stop looking over your shoulder,” she said. “Let the reader see you.” And so when she said not long ago, regarding this piece, “I don’t know, I just feel like the space of happiness I write from is at such a low vibration,” I knew that for L I M E it would make the most sense. The warm, dark and quiet places sometimes are what make a whole lot of us who we are. Sometimes the vibration is low. Sometimes hot is cool. Sometimes the vibration is blues because that is also life and love and meditation and excellence as well as happiness, too. When you think of Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane doesn’t light by candle feels better than some kind of flash bulb. Sometimes the artist knows the home in work ain’t where any “they” say it is, but instead wherever it is in our hearts we are able to find it. — L I M E
i always thought the notion of patriotism odd as i never ever really belonged to any country. sure my passport bears the fact that i am born in the united states of america, but as a descendent of people stolen from Africa and Indian indentured servants, what does that mean? growing up in a trinidadian household hammered in that i had roots elsewhere, as did so many of my ocean avenue neighbors in brooklyn, and even when my feet were able to dance on the land of my most recent ancestors i knew, too much for my own good, that home, originally, was elsewhere — not there.
ocean avenue was populated by transplants — whether they were black migrants from the south, panama, guyana, jamaica, puerto rico — everyone in my neighborhood had roots elsewhere. add to that that since i was the only one in my family to be born in brooklyn, i was quickly dubbed “yankee girl” emphasizing that i definitely was not trinidadian.
my friends, however, didn’t accept this interpretation, picking up quickly that my voice seemed to change when i spoke to my parents. my flatbush blackgirl voice would get hijacked by that sing-song accent that is seeped in the distance of foreign lands, that everyone seem to love but few seem to understand.
when i was 11 i was sent to live in trinidad with the hopes, according to my parents, that i would learn to be “less american.” this translated to not being too loud and definitely not popping my bazooka chewing gum.
when i arrived to trinidad and learned that girls didn’t jump double-dutch there and that having the latest nikes was not on my new classmates’ list of priorities, i felt just as alien as i did in new york. and i was expected, within a years’ time to take the common entrance exam, from which i would have to pick 3 schools, schools i knew nothing about. an exam which, i can say even up to this date, is still the most challenging exam i’ve ever had to take in my entire life. with the help of my standard 5 teacher at diamond vale elementary school we came up with st. joseph’s convent; providence girls’ catholic school, woodbrook secondary and diego martin secondary school. i did eventually get into my second choice. not bad at all for a yankee girl.
in some respects, moving to trinidad was a bit of a saving grace for me. i learned quickly that i needn’t be in such a rush to grow up. with teenage pregnancies and classmates who seemed as physically developed as my mother back in brooklyn, this was not such a bad thing. add to that that already at the age of 10 i suspected that if i did not leave brooklyn i would end up in jail. what an odd thing for a little girl to envision. i also got to live in a place that was lead by a black prime minister.
i quickly settled into my trinidadian surroundings, lost my yankee girl accent and learned how to lime — hang out in trinidad. instead of hanging out in front of my building on ocean avenue, i learned to sit on my grandparents’ gallery (porch) and meet friends at our rusting, white gate. i settled into life in diamond vale, a valley in diego martin, wearing uniforms and learning not to respond when older men would suit me (cat call), for this was not what young ladies were expected to do.
i endured the ferocity, and sometimes hatred, of the adults around me who accused me of being ‘force ripe’; the brusque shuns of children’s mothers who thought me “too fas’” without understanding the root of the rejection. i endured rumors constructed by them that told half-truths and painted a picture of a sexuality that i honestly could never have possessed at that age. this shaming that i was subjected to, especially from some of the women in my family, did much to instill a deep-rooted fear of never belonging to the club of womanhood, although it did not do much in curbing my mouth the way they may have hoped. these were reminders that i did not belong. holding grudges that went back to before i was born i was subjected to both my aunts’ dissatisfaction that their mother (my grandmother) was taking care of my mother’s daughter. this dissatisfaction would resonate in their comments about my darkness, unattractiveness, and perceived abandonment of me by my mother. it made me feel less at home. so even in my parents’ country, my heart could not come to rest.
home is where there is love. where there is a grandmother who wakes up early to make you bake, salt fish, aloe pies, and shepherds pie. home is where your grandmother takes you to a seamstress to get your first communion dress tailored to fit and where there is a pot of pelau awaiting you on the gas stove when you come home from school. home is also where your parents are, and if they are not in that concrete home in diamond vale — then you too are not home.
when i returned to brooklyn as a young teenager my accent was thick and garnered too much interest from my new schoolmates. unlike the girls i left back at providence, mostly all of whom seem comfortably positioned in a life of no boys, and licks (beatings)if you do — some of my new schoolmates in manhattan had already had babies, talked about taking the pill. we all, no matter our point of origin — be it china, puerto rico, haiti or the bronx — had to go through the metal detectors to enter the school building every morning after the last shooting that shattered the usual noise of our school into an eerie silence.
the new apartment with my mother had no real place for me. i slept on a couch with plastic slip covers and her boyfriend was stuck in his head in a time when he witnessed all the young men in his neighborhood go off to vietnam. he was lucky. he was the only son. but the words that were teased out from him through colt 45 revealed a deep wound, something that not even full-time work and a partner could relieve. he was a good man caught in the tangle of trauma. this place, this brick house on e.92nd street that was a two-fair zone where i had to take the bus to hoyt-schermerhorn to catch the train to 14th street could not be home either.
flatbush had also changed in my absence as well, although there were a few touchstones still there: my childhood best friend india and her mother willie mae, for example —whenever i visited i couldn’t help but admit that for the first time that it was painful for me to revisit a part of my life that I had been severed from so traumatically. it didn’t help that a neighbor told me about the day he witnessed all of our things in the garbage, laying out of the street. everything from my father’s hundreds of jazz albums to my impressive collection of stuffed animals mostly from summer sojourns to coney island. and while willie mae still kept the door to her first floor apartment unlocked, it was just one thing among so little that remained the same. the only thing that is consistent in new york is change.
i was 16 when i left home to find a home. like the underground railroad, a ring of teachers protected me and their jobs by ensuring that i had one despite the laws that were broken. i left the school with metal detectors to attend the high school of humanities where i came into contact with students and lives i had not known could exist in new york. these kids looked like the ones on television and had names like them too. they were not open to a caribbean girl from brooklyn who apparently had no home. i did manage to find a crew of punk-rockers who tolerated a brown girl wearing oversized hand-me-downs. i tagged along to washington square park as jennifer, a porcelain white, red-lipped girl in bondage pants told me about her undying love for alvin, a young beautiful brother from harlem who wore combat boots.
when i was 18 and began college, i came into contact with other 18 year-olds and learned from them what a typical 18 year-old life looked like. i met people from suburbs which i, the child of immigrants, had not known existed. they came from long island, westchester, and new jersey and unlike me, had parents who paid their rents and so had no need to work full-time. at about this time one of my aunts moved to new york. she offered me refuge and i was able to leave my illegal abode and experience for a time perhaps something similar to what having a home, and belonging could be.
this was in the early 90s and it was an old brownstone on the corner of st.james place and clinton. on the corner at night stood young brown men who greeted me with kindness no matter what time. i rescued a cat and hired a taxi driven by a man from ethiopia who was convinced that his country was my home. he refused to let me pay and asked me to marry him. i worked at a store that does not exist anymore on astor place and met others like me — young adults from all over the world who found refuge in the space that is known as the village. there was reggie from the bronx who taught me about flatware, and eugene from the virgin islands who looked like michael jordan and studied at nyu and took his position of fatherhood as solemnly as one takes vows.
at this point i rediscovered my father, whom my mother had left while i lived in trinidad. i never considered living with him because he made the original place that should have been my home an experience akin to living in war. with his unpredictable temper and proclivity to reaching out for his leather belt he taught me what many a young child, too often throughout the diaspora, must reckon with as discipline. hughes asks what happens to a dream deferred? “look at my father,” i wanted to answer out loud in class when we studied the text. home was not where my father was.
i soon moved away from that brick house on st.james place, thankful for the refuge that my aunt was temporarily able to offer. i entered downtown manhattan living with roommates my own age and moved as frequently as one so often does in life in new york. i was young and used to moving. used to adapting. it was okay that there was no home for me to go back to.
throughout all of this there were people who saw me and encouraged me. there were opportunities and also mishaps. there were stakes claimed wisely, others not so much so. but just as i had learned to embrace the hills that i saw from the gallery at my grandparents’ home in trinidad, or the more posh accent learned from my junior high school there; i learned to embrace the various trains necessary to get me around manhattan as spaces of comfort, and also the way that there were sometimes quiet pockets of time in manhattan to be had despite the great volume of people there. just as trinidad had been a kind of home, now it was, finally for a time, new york.
new york can become anyone’s home if you let it. most make it their home before ever even arriving there, some of us are born into it. your grandmother’s home in trinidad prepares you for her home in new york — the way she stuffs unused dinner plates under her bed along with rosaries and holy water. smelling curry becomes poignant because for you, the daughter of trinidadian parents, it signals an imprint that will forever be with you.
i have taught children for many years and there is a difference between children who are wanted and those who are not. it is as if the very fabric of their lives become encoded by the energy of their conception.
like so many others throughout the world, i discovered the beauty of literature and how words can save your soul and offer you solace in even the most solitary of moments. i discovered baldwin in an old, musty smelling box in my uncle john’s house in trinidad. i learned that their were others like me for whom home is elusive — and i felt the power of simply not belonging. i learned something else at my uncle john’s house as well. in his photo albums were pictures of a niece who had married in england. her face was brown like mine and she was surrounded by others who do not look like her. there was a sadness in her eyes but somehow, too, still a sign of triumph. it is only now that i can understand the waltzing of these two emotions together: she is sad because she does not belong. she is triumphant because she got away.
baldwin imprints into the young brown reader that you can get away if you do not belong — especially if you do not belong. because he did so in going to europe. many of us choose that place as our destination despite the ugly truths about it that even he is not shy about divulging. it is true that i am forced to contemplate many things as it is true that there many things i actively do not. that i accepted that my life as a writer would include some sort of self exile in copenhagen was not something i was conscious of at first as i was immersing myself although i knew it was something i had to do.
some people find home in the warmth of their lover’s heart. some of us are absorbed into other families and we settle there, grateful to have a home at all. others are more indignant. stubborn, even. we want to find home ourselves. we have a conviction that this search of home creates a truth. a truth that can only be revealed through experiencing displacement. it is not a choice. alienation is perhaps the most universal feeling of all. others do their darndest to deny it. some of us embrace it. what can be more sincere than feeling alone in the world?
moving to copenhagen, denmark was a desperate attempt at finding home for me. being adventureous and secretly hoping that in this foreign place i would find that place/space/home within that could no longer be forged through my grandmother’s snores on a bed shared in brooklyn.
we are alone even as we belong to community. wherever you go there you are they say. the world inside your head does shape things. what if i were to tell you that i feel just as home in copenhagen as i do trinidad? tobago? manhattan? brooklyn? paris? sweden? spain? what if i told you that i have now actually lived in copenhagen longer than any other place in the world? what if i were to tell you that i feel just as uncomfortable sometimes in any of these places? what if i were to tell you that the only thing i wish really, is to travel to iran, india, nigeria, poland, and a host of other places and when i do, meet people, feet on the ground people, and connect with them and feel home? with the passing of time this has been my experience thus far. the only low points now are when i am still. unmoving. not traveling.
home to me is not one specific place. it is where i find myself. wherever this petite brown female body is located; it is that space that my eyes gift me with seeing, that my body gifts me with being — be it a spacious, luxurious house in the wealthy suburbs of copenhagen or a colorful, small apartment in brooklyn where soon, my mother herself have to leave due to the now seemingly inevitability of the wave of gentrification.
home to me, i realize now, has never been one place now that i am in the midst of finding it. it is that point of connection that is made between me and someone else that warms my heart like the hearth i invite my son to, so that he never forgets that in all of this, home is something i strive to always share with him. where is home? i will build one with my words for my son to live and in the meantime, cherish place in which i presently live.
Lesley-Ann Brown is Brooklyn-born writer currently living in Denmark, and the founder of Bandit Queen Press.