Updated: Jan 1
All of a sudden, it was time for me to start writing again. How did I know? Well for starters, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I remembered that’s often why writers write. For many of us, it’s like a release valve for this constant stream of thoughts that come rushing through our minds. As a neurodivergent person, I experience the world a bit differently than others. My brain has been high-speed processing loads of information since I was a toddler. This is compounded by a brain fog brought on by chronic pain and fatigue. I struggled to accept this cornucopia of conditions as a barrier to the clarity I so desperately needed to cling to. My entire career and reputation had been built on my intellectual and analytical abilities. Without those intact, I was nothing. This was very much reminiscent of the Caribbean part of my identity. For many of us that come from some generations of Caribbean families we are set up with high expectations by our entire families, not just our parents. We’re expected to have careers in medical fields, or as lawyers, or doctors etc. As a youngster part of my punishment would be to write book reports which meant I had to read every time I acted up. As the daughter of a fast tongued Harlemite and a stubborn Jamaican, I was doomed to be an outspoken intellectual from the very beginning.
Strategy and rationalization were trauma responses for me as a child….things were so chaotic when I was young I had to find some way to adjust so I did. Imagine what it was like for someone who had an awareness that they had learned how to think their way through problems from an early age through adulthood but suddenly lost their ability to think clearly altogether at times? It’s terrifying!!! It was another blow to the ego of identity I’d built for myself inside the script prescribed for an Afro-Caribbean, differently-abled, Sapio-Demisexual, Black woman. I found it necessary to name every part of my identity because of the many ways that identity is challenged inside of society’s neurotypical norms. I found myself experiencing life so differently from others that their insistence that I’m responding to everything the same way they would feel like a field of microaggressions that cloudy the communication between us. I would be asking a question because I literally want to know the answer while the other person is assuming that my asking of a question is challenging their personhood in some way.
What naming each part of my identity did for me was help me become more comfortable in my own skin, more accepting of myself. I never talked much about being Jamaican before now because I didn’t feel accepted by the culture.
"I don’t speak patois, the most iconic spoken-word ritual in the Caribbean. It’s one that affirms your kinship to the people and tells the rest of the world that you are part of a special tribe, one whose African soul remains most prominent there in those magical waters."
Indeed once we moved into my grandmother’s house on Perry Ave. in the Bronx the waters were in fact magical to me. It was the first time I became aware that there was another culture that was part of my family and I noticed there was something special about the food, the dialect and even the decor.
I remember my grandmother teaching me how to count with her thick Jamaican accent. I would repeat after her “One-two-tree” just as she would say but she would become frustrated with me. I didn’t understand just how important that “th-ree“ was. That she was among the many immigrants who intentionally Americanized their children so they would have a chance at privilege but also exposed us to Jamaican culture. All of her children were born in the U.S. as she was but was sent back to Jamaica to be raised for primary cultural learning. This is what Black immigrants all over the world do to adapt our identities for survival. This is another place where multicultural blackness compartmentalizes itself so it can make space for American Black culture and all its nuances to reign supreme. It’s a non choice really as long as there are no spaces in society for open and honest conversations about deconstructing race. So for many Caribbean American or Afro-Caribbeans; spaces look safer with all similar people around.
We often lack the language, background understanding or even motivation to explain to our American Black friends and loved ones how we differ in that way so much of the time these are conversations we just don’t have. As a person who comes from a complex mixture of both backgrounds, there is such a vast difference in meaning and understanding between the Caribbean and American identities. I can’t say that one culture is better than the other but I can say that we internalize racism differently.
I still view my grandmother as a hero in my eyes. As an adult I understood she was making waves even as a grandmother every time she’d drive her station wagon up to Bear Mountain or Anthony State Park, New York with 7 of her grandchildren in tow in the early 70’s. This wasn’t long after spaces like this desegregated. It took me until I started this journey to understand why she’d be so tense when we were there. But her firmness in her identity would not allow her to “hide” and go to spaces she wasn’t accustomed to. Apparently, she was always bucking the system in some way. All of my aunts and uncles were. I‘d always admired that about them and that’s what I modeled in my life. This I know.
"We are not a monolith."
Once I understood more firmly the history behind why I don’t speak patois, and that it meant some of the elders in my family didn’t value it. I understood there was work for me to do around the settling of my identity for myself. How could I have expected this combination of my family to understand the spiritual meaning behind their actions for us? They owned black bodies on six sugar cane plantations. I felt inexplicably accountable for their actions because how could I not be? How could I be an activist for the people meanwhile this was the background I’d come from? I saw myself in it. I saw my privileged perspective, I saw my arrogance. I examined my discomfort with living in the same kind of hood I came from and now understood there’s been a class-based identity war going on inside me for decades and I wasn’t even aware of it. So as these different parts of me awakened, I struggled to find the words to connect to the parts of my body and the emotions they also awakened. The emotions were especially foreign to me because in nearly half of a century I’d never named them. I’d never spoken words that corresponded with those feelings, I’d only felt them and stuffed them away until I’d heard the words of queer Black women like Sonya Renee Taylor and Adrienne Maree Brown speaking of radical self-love and pleasure activism respectively.
So many themes right? Culture, identity, naming, and having the awareness, ability, and agency to name yourself are all powerful things. All these things are also crucial parts of the spiritual practice that was indigenous to me as an Afro-Caribbean person. Those practices kept us connected to the parts of our culture that made us build resilience through cultural rituals rather than practicing scarcity. Our belief systems made us one with ourselves and nature rather than forcing us apart from ourselves and apart from every natural coping method we know.
"Examining my Caribbean heritage alone is a reflection of the deep-rooted examples of how communities have historically been based on class, culture and experience, not race."
Living through the worst of economic times reminds people that our pain and suffering is all the same. This is what it means in part to be human. Having an awareness of all these different parts of myself made me more aware of my compassion for other people. I could see it much more clearly once I allowed myself to access the deeper truths that anger and resentment allowed me to deny for so many years. DNA testing led me to discover the truths behind the stories I’d heard growing up but had never given much thought to. I’d always heard that my great grandmother was Irish but never met her because she transitioned before I was born. I was able to discover so much more about her on Ancestry.com and even see her face for the first time. I learned that she was Scottish, not Irish and that her family had been in Jamaica for 7 generations owning enslaved Africans. I also know that she married the son of a freed African named Stephen McLean.
Those were all historical facts I would read and know. What I could see and feel was my grandmother’s face inside of hers. More than anything, that was what challenged my own identity the most. I saw my grandmother’s face on this white woman I’d never known...this woman that was her mother….also known as “Mama Sis”. I saw her face and imagined her voice sounded much like my grandmother’s voice. I understood she also was my grandmother’s mother and she was also me. As I understood these things about both my grandmother and great-grandmother, I understood their choices better and how those choices affected me. I made peace with them in the great ancestral space this journey had taken me into. For the first time, I truly loved them as they existed.
The truth is that I cannot choose my ancestors. None of us can. The truth is that is if any of us look deep down into our bloodlines we’d be surprised at what we’d find. Undoubtedly we’d learn to accept that race really is a construct created to oppress darker people and that culture is what should be respected. It’s truly the only thing that makes us different. I knew this from my studies of the African Diaspora and Sociology but that knowledge conflicted with how society moved because there were very few spaces to express this and have it be received. We may know these things academically but in the practice of everyday life that’s something different. Now that conversations about race, equity, inclusion, and diversity are happening on major platforms it seems like a good time to engage in another part of the work that should be acknowledged and that’s identity. I offer this one truth as I explore my own truths on my own personal healing journey. It stands to reason that, IF, for me; accepting the whiteness of my great grandmother, the personality traits of hers I have….this energy of both Sarah Anna and Mable Jane that I carry clears a path to inner peace then it stands to reason that accepting the fullness of identity can help you too.
They are my ancestors and there are parts of them that are empowering to me and are neither good nor bad. The negativity is in how I perceived their energy because of who they were. Accepting my identity, meant I had to decolonize myself, my thinking, accept all the cultural identities that are part of me, and celebrate each one. Just as we accept the limited decisions that BIPOC have to make because of racism, women also face another layer of limited decisions because of patriarchy. These decisions affect how we show up in the world and how we are received in the world. There was no way I would perceive that unlocking my identity would unlock a sense of freedom and spirituality I had never known before. I had no idea that inside of myself would I find this bibliography of an entire history. This is the topic of my second book. It’s called “Walking With My Ancestors” and it’s my story of self-discovery through my DNA journey to identifying my Black and White Caribbean enslaved and slave-owning ancestors. I’d like to document this journey also because I think it’s time we expand our definition of blackness and tell more Afro-Caribbean stories. Please indicate by responding to the poll if you would be interested in lending financial support to the filming of my first documentary and I’ll launch a Patreon if I get enough support for it.
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(c) 2020 Tai Davis