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Afro-Caribbean Family Memoir Personal

A Juneteenth Musing

The northern Great Lakes steel town took a big fat eraser to my Blackness. The adults had no way to acknowledge it because it exposed the cognitive dissonance of my existence in their world, and thus had no way to deal with the bullies, the rednecks and the N-wordage that swarmed around me like black flies at the beginning of camping season. They would say to me, in 1970s Canadian news voices, “Look, you have only good things here. If you had been left with your poor brethren you would suffer urban blight.” They would say, “You are accepted because… you are here.”

So was the caricature Black lawn jockey across the street from the schoolyard sandbox I played in everyday. It was in a front yard next door to my aunt’s house, on the same street as ours, and I don’t remember anything about the people who lived in that house. Or if people actually lived there. Who would do stuff like that. The sandbox was beside the basketball court.

Every time I tried to play basketball I kept seeing that damned lawn jockey. I don’t remember now when exactly it was removed, somewhere in the 1980s perhaps, but anyway I discovered performance sports felt like too much exposure for my body, a body that had no guarantees of its protection.

They who were in those days more bookish would tell me I was biracial. I realized much later that it meant: white… and something else. I would forever be expected to be a model of racial harmony, and spend a lifetime listening to white people ring that front desk bell in my consciousness.

Getting kicked out of the lobby of a Howard Johnson in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1978 was the most surreal moment of my childhood. If not the most traumatic, because my white family claimed me and I got to go back to our room. (In fact, my parents were out of state for the night and one of my older siblings rescued me, as they often did). It was the coldest water I ever felt seize my body, and I grew up jumping in freezing lakes. That was my introduction to the American South. My ancestral homeland.

Being an early transracial adoptee was traumatic in many ways. If you are a white person reading this, I am not recounting or performing this trauma for you. I am not your James Baldwin. This is a Juneteenth musing. As I get older, I start to understand more my own sense of my relationship with my Black biological history in Alabama, the Caribbean and West Africa. My white heritage, settler North America, the United Kingdom and Western Europe, was virtually handed to me on a plate.

I never ever have to celebrate my white history—as the historical narrative underpinning systemic racism it was used to temporarily but effectively obliterate my Blackness—but I am always aware of my economic and cultural privilege through my proximity to whiteness, and shade privilege through my light skin.

Two summers ago I briefly visited the steel town again, for the first time in two decades. I had a few spare, early morning minutes to walk down my old street and see my old house and also the schoolyard where I’d spent nine school years and summer breaks interacting with other children in the community, almost all white.

There was one critical exception: my closest friend was of Indo-Caribbean descent. It didn’t hurt that we lived a few doors away from one another. He had a large family with whom he shared a heritage. I loved hanging out with him and getting up to many things, including a two-man, lo-fi 80s band and much later, a theatre/music partnership.

In front of my old house, the one where all the good, ecstatic, formative and traumatic episodes occurred, at around seven in the morning, a grey dawn, I paused with a calmness I wish I had had more at the ready back then. Our old home was there, and I took in all the little changes to its appearance, feeling the coziness of the street again. A man emerged next door, with an infant.

I never thought about being the feared other upon returning home. Because it was a given, a constant value like n always equals, at any hour of the day, in any setting. A trip to a Mike’s Milk in 1986, home for a visit after a few weeks away for my first year of university, saw me sucker-punched and bloodied, glasses knocked to the ground and damaged over my garish clothing: a five-dollar sixties leather mosaic vest from Courage My Love in Kensington Market. It certainly wasn’t about anything but the clothing… and my uppitiness in wearing it and inevitably challenging the manhood of a frustrated young white man. It wasn’t the worst thing that ever went down there, but it was the one that reminded me once again who I was beyond the protection of white family proximity.

I chatted with the father, as it turned out, of the infant. I knew the history of families who had lived in all the houses on the street, almost. He seemed less interested in clocking my presence right about then. Mine was a very old house built in about 1905; it wasn’t a stretch to add me to its history in a border town.

That morning I discovered that there were townhomes being built over where the sandbox, the basketball court and the view of that racist front yard had been, leaving me without any familiar visual to trigger memories. I was OK with that. You can’t go home again, and sometimes you don’t want to.