Identity, Life

I am an outsider amidst my family’s ghosts

My blood runs with saltwater that I’ve never known. Because here, I am within and without my own culture.

We walk into the sea. Our black bodies moving against a lilac-blue sky, grey rainclouds sitting above the evening tide breaking in the distance, towards a disappearing point behind which the sun is already set. Here is a picture burned into the ancestral memory, as I—a girl whose blood runs with saltwater and yet doesn’t belong—remember it, of an island called Sapelo that my grandmother calls home, and that my father talks about as if it were the whole world. I look out—see a rowboat far offshore and think I hear a baby’s cry. But that must be myself, because I am lost.

The children play in the shallow pools behind a sandbar and watch as we pull the seine net into the water.

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First, a personal history. In the early nineties, in a small apartment in Toronto, I was born—no, let’s go back—in the early sixties, a young married couple moved from Jamaica with their small children to a beautiful saltmine town in rural Canada. They have since been committed to the earth; my mother is their eldest child. Circa, an island off the coast of the state of Georgia, USA, where my paternal grandmother gives birth in the second year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency in the terrible heat of July. Her son becomes my father, in downtown Toronto, in 1994. A plane lands in Savannah in early July on a Monday. It is coming in from John F. Kennedy airport.

And here I am, the child of distance and loss who talks with a soft, generalized English accent standing in the airport with a borrowed suitcase, in Timberland boots and a metallic sea-foam shift dress, waiting to be picked up. Across the back, a patch on my blue denim jacket reads: CUTE GIRLS CLUB. This should set the scene.

All my childhood memories are haunted. Not by the ghost of an absentee father—he did not “leave,” in the way black fathers are famous for leaving but statistically do not—no, the early years were haunted by stranger specters than a missing parent: ancestors’ ghosts, walking in chains through my bedroom, gaunt faces appearing in the blue walls; the ghost of a song, an old Negro spiritual; plat-eyes running wild in a maritime forest at dusk, Spanish moss blowing in the wind coming off the sea; my grandmothers, who were then both still alive, in Jamaica stirring a pot of curried goat, and on Sapelo Island, weaving a basket out of sweetgrass; and the first man to lay hands on me, not because he was my father and was absent, but because someone had told me that he wrestled alligators and this made him alive in my imagination. And, sadly—in a way, for if it had turned out otherwise I would be another I and I am fond of this I—the background to all this wild imagining was the warm grey concrete and brown glass of North London in the summertime and, after the move, Wales’ green valleys.

This is all to say that there was a cultural history that I perceived and craved, and was denied access to in formal education…where I was instead inundated with the minutiae of feudal law in England post-Norman conquest. I grew up with little white girls telling me to come over to their house to scrub the kitchen floors with my hair, I was proud of the way I spoke—so well that I forgot, in 2006-8, that I was not-white.

We were not in contact until later when the Whiteness spat me out in 2009. Click To Tweet

This history—or the way I remembered, imagined and interacted with the black imaginary populating my own private diaspora—became bound in, set against, forced to compete with Whiteness. Interest in the ghost of a grandmother weaving sweetgrass waxed and waned as a strange blue moon. I admit, there were two years or maybe more, when I was a young teenager, that the island off the coast of Georgia crossed my mind infrequently and only in passing. We were not in contact until later when the Whiteness spat me out in 2009 and we learned to commune in spirit, this island and I.

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Back to the airplane, slowing to an idle engine in a parking bay at Savannah Hilton Head airport, to the girl improperly dressed for a humid summer in Georgia, who waits in the shade of the multi-storey arrivals carpark and waves, seeing her brother’s partner, and rolls her suitcase toward the car slowly, because it weighs 49lbs. This is impractical, to carry a heavy suitcase full of sequin dresses and kitten heels halfway down the East Coast to an island in the middle of summer. And it is, also, a portrait of the way I talk to the island where my grandmother lives in the flesh, no longer reduced to a ghost.

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My grandmother welcomes me with joy, as if I had been raised here and now I was come home, at last. We talk slowly to each other or, no, our conversations move slowly because the island talks fast and I have the slow ears of a girl who went to a Church of England boarding school and took, briefly, elocution lessons. E.g. Granddaddy says, “Do you like grits?” *“Pardon?”* “Do you like grits?” *“What?”* “You eats grits?” *“Grits?”* “You eat them?” *“…oh! Yes.”*  In true English-girl form, for a while, I mistook this island fast-talk as being about me, hearing a cry without remorse, for my departure. Only, my grandmother would say that I was a Geechee girl because it was her running in my blood, wherever I fly in from disregarded. And would you slow down for someone you claimed as one of your own?

My grandmother welcomes me with joy, as if I had been raised here. Click To Tweet

At first, I resented this inclusion into the familial dialect—and we are all family on Sapelo, nearly—forcing me as it did to talk slowly and gracelessly, fighting with weak syntax and an English-girl voice that can’t pronounce Geechee words right. I felt comfortable with the women asking, “Doesn’t it rain in England?” only to listen to me talk in soft Received Pronunciation, referred to as the Queen’s English by old cabbies in London’s East End, mockingly. Talking entered into the negative curriculum vitae of a girl who always knew herself to be black but once forgot that she was not-white. Drive, eat a crab, pull a fishing net—all talents found in the repertoire of Sapelo Jane that a girl who had once forgotten the ghost of her own living grandmother might have trouble with. How I felt, and feel now, was as when Salman Rushdie wrote of loss and home and the imaginary motherlands we carry with us, how “we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

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A strange feeling of disbelonging rises when I walk barefoot on Sapelo Island, eat shrimp and grits and sit up under the tree in my grandmother’s yard and watch the children play. It is the emotional and spiritual recognition of a geographical location as a place where maybe you are Home, in another life—where your mother boards a flight bound for Brunswick, GA, in 1998, instead of London, UK. And it is not so much that I feel unwelcome—I feel welcomed with open arms, my father hyphenating all the places that I would call home, maybe, in those other lives: “English-Welsh-Jamaican-Canadian-Geechee girl.” You will understand me if you are a child like the girl I was, a baby for the diasporas’ diaspora—divorced from a motherland receding into abstraction after centuries of enslavement, and separated again by the circumstances which drive a person, with wife and young children in tow, to emigrate far north to a country where the winters are dead cold and the summers are dead hot. Then estranged again by love.

The rest walked on in chains, to meet the ghost. Click To Tweet

In Julie Dash’s 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust,” set on the neighboring St. Simon’s Island at the turn of the twentieth century, a story that my grandmother knows well is recounted. It is the story of Ibo Landing. Embellished, my grandmother will say, to fit the popular imagination. One can only assume it makes for better storytelling for the tourists if, upon arriving on the island shores in chains and seeing a ghost of what will come if they walk on, all the Ibo people turn and walk back into the sea and drown. As if they were going to walk back to Africa. It is the kind of story that aestheticizes the suffering of enslaved Africans, preferring fantasy to the facts, which are that only a few, no more than a couple dozen, tried escape and fewer died. The rest walked on in chains, to meet the ghost.

This story makes me feel more of an outsider than any cousin making fun of the slow and clumsy way I reel in a crab basket, encompassing a kind of suffering that I always knew about in the semantic sense yet did not, I felt, see evidence of in Britain. In Dash’s film, the old matriarch has blue hands from her days as a slave making indigo dye. Her hands would not have been permanently stained in reality, only maybe her eyes would always see her blue hands because some things we are unable to wash away.

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Sometimes, I imagine myself with blue hands and it becomes a metaphor for being within and without—because I am imagining, actively creating a narrative in an aesthetic tradition that does not marry well an appreciation of one’s own culture. We can be guilty of Other-ing ourselves, making metaphors of what is ours to reclaim in the real, like this.

Her hands would not have been permanently stained in reality. Click To Tweet

I know more stories, like the story of the historic Black island community driven to dissolution by socioeconomic forces with no interest in the preservation of a people whose labour built an economy and whose subjugation was the foundation for the social hierarchy.

I am the sorry outsider, apologetic with polite indignation, asking “what can be done? What do you need?” and I am the granddaughter who will have bad dreams about the soil that keeps my ancestors becoming saturated with salt from the high rising tide…that does not touch the holiday homes of WASP-y retirees, because their homes are built on stilts, as per the new zoning regulations, and their properties can afford the drainage maintenance that the state will not pitch in for.

I know the stories in my grandmother’s memoir “God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man,” which begins: “Let me tell you how it was.” Other stories, the oral histories that I love to hear my father and my grandmother tell, the anecdotes, the herbal recipes—The old people, my grandmother will say, would drink the tea of Life Everlasting, believing it will give you long life. She will name some of the old ones that I met as a new baby, who lived into remarkable old age before they passed.

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We return to the scene at the beach where we are pulling in the seine net, slowly, and I can see the fish jumping as we bring them out. What’s caught in the net? a shark! and then there’s hollering until somebody lets it loose by accident and it swims away against the tide and disappears. I think about “this girl’s” disbelonging being the reason why I can hear an imaginary baby’s cry out to sea. We belong to the Georgia lowcountry and nowhere else, in another life. And there is Bilali Muhammad, long dead ancestor except for when we remember him and then he comes alive for us. The remembering is imagining; I imagine the boy who would not give up his religion and prayed east, married and bore 12 sons and 7 daughters. A flower we named for the latter, the Seven Sisters’ Rose. Other herbs, like Life Everlasting. Bilali became overseer of the slaves on Sapelo, himself a slave. Did he drink Life Everlasting and live long, did he come to the beach to hear babies cry at night, did he dream of another life where he called his native Sierra Leone home still?

In this moment, in wet sand at eveningtide with the day’s humidity breaking to a cool sea wind, I can imagine being alive when Bilali took his prayer mat to the sunrise. I stop walking because someone tells me to, the net is in. There are a few crabs and some silver fish with black eyes rolling in fear. We come and gather to look, and I won’t say that I see a baby ghost or anything like that but imagine—I watch the fish in the net and seeing a lasting image of myself in a bedroom in London, lit by morning because the window faces east, drinking a tea believed to give long life and thinking of a kidnapped boy sold into slavery who would not give up his religion, the Ibo in iron and saltwater, blue hands and my grandmother’s stewed okra. I will marry my disbelonging; I come from brown concrete and sweetgrass.

To accept this feels like I am sitting on the floor between the two stools with the knowledge that I will make a nice home for myself here.

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