Disclaimer: This is full of lies. It reads like fiction, but more-so it’s one example of the way that I narrativize my life and sometimes that includes lying to myself.
“Our people, you’ll see this, we don’t need the drugs or alcohol. We just need music. We thrive off of feeling”.
I was weeks removed from my trip but the images still did laps around my thoughts with no signs of stopping. It rained at least three times while we were there. The air would get heavy, and my hair kept losing its curl pattern, turning into a scribbled mass that cloned itself many times over on the heads of people passing by. We hurried back to the hotel and they went to the waterfront.
I tried to breathe only through my nose, knowing I might be forced to confront the smell of human waste at any moment. It kept happening that my worry would dissipate as I allowed my attention to get caught up in some ornate architecture or a group of children dancing to their own music. On each occasion that I became fully immersed in the way that my surroundings were both new and old, the scent would force its way into my nose, my mouth and throat. It shot me back into reality, trying to suppress my gag reflex. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out as someone’s dinner would waft by a few seconds later. If only I hadn’t been so afraid, then maybe I could taste it.
Even before we knew to go to the water and watch them praise, I had a feeling they’d welcome a storm. I waddled through the streets with some difficulty, trying to prevent my thighs from chafing any further. A woman sat on her stoop with three young children and sang out to us. The song said something about America, but that was all I could make out. I’d wasted twelve years on French, a language that couldn’t bring me any closer to these people, which is to say it couldn’t bring me any closer to myself. Her face was mine if I didn’t look for too long. We were stopped repeatedly.
They’d touch their skin and then touch ours and say, “we are the same”. They loved us once for our color and again for our ancestors’ forced, ocean voyage. By no choice of our own, we’d ended up where they’ve always wanted to go. I tried to understand why you would want to leave a place like this. A place where people look like you, they embrace you. They dance in the streets.
“America! I have a brother in Miami. He’s a doctor, and you know they don’t pay doctors like they should here. I’m an artist, so it works for me. But he had to get out, and you know that means he can’t come back.”
Every explanation that we received for how this place functions came from an artist. It seemed they had a kind of unique ability to put this experience into words and to know when exactly to stop putting it into words because at a certain point, silence always becomes the best explanation. We met the man who cautioned us against trying to understand inside of a shrine. Another man had covered rooms and buildings, walkways and benches with colored tile. I could only see labor when the sun shined on this place. In my mind, this shrine needed to be unique to this country and culture because I’d never known these circumstances anyplace else. If I had seen this kind of security, it only created a space for thinking and debating, for one person to assert his rightness over another. It hadn’t created a space for beauty.
I’d be lying if I said that in this place, life was beautiful for everyone when children descended from high rising apartments to gently reach at our elbows and ask for any amount of money. I couldn’t understand them completely. Both language and experience failed me.
“What are you doing?” My classmate, Lesley, must have been looking at me for a while because when I turned, a smirk had cemented into her pale cheeks. She seemed certain that I would be embarrassed.
“I’m trying to fall asleep with my eyes open. I think I figured it out. You just have to focus on something in the distance- I’m looking at the map- and then you just fade. But instead of fading out, you fade in!”
French class was halfway between breakfast and lunch, which meant that my energy was always very intense during this hour and fifteen-minute portion of the day. All I could think about was when I would eat next. It’s slightly easier to mute a language when it isn’t entirely familiar, and my thoughts were pre-occupied with food concerns. This is how I first began to consider the portion of the brain that someone told me lies dormant. I never bothered to research their claim. Instead, I preferred the kind of endless possibility that comes along with wholeheartedly believing in this untapped, intellectual reserve. I would think, from time to time, “If I could just focus enough on accessing all of that brain space that isn’t being used, I might fly.” I imagined it once in French class. Having grown tired of trying to sleep with my eyes open, I envisioned myself opening a window, flapping my arms, and gliding down Connecticut Avenue. I saw a lot of Volvo wagons streaming beneath me and very few obstacles ahead. Soon enough, the vision was over.
I wasn’t embarrassed. I was proud, if anything. I couldn’t bring myself to care too much about what was going on at school, and that felt kind of pure. Just before class, I’d seen a girl crying because she didn’t think her English exam went well. She was struggling to no one in particular, piecing words together through gasping tears. She wondered aloud, “How will I tell my mom?” I didn’t know her name, and frankly, I didn’t think it was my place to intervene. I figured if you were crying in a rarely used stairwell, you’d gone there on purpose and probably didn’t want anyone disturbing your solitude.
I was sitting in the senior room later that afternoon, trying to fade into the “hottie wall”, a collage of magazine cut-outs pinned to a bulletin board, at least 100 white men and exactly three black men, when someone mentioned the girl’s tears. Really she mentioned her puffy, red eyes and flushed complexion and weak voice when she went to fifth period. Apparently someone had asked the crying girl what was wrong and she said it was just allergies. After a long, silent pause, another person burst out, “That’s clearly not what it is. Just tell the truth!”
I didn’t think the girl was necessarily trying to be mean. It could be frustrating to know that everyone was struggling and no one wanted to say so. We walked through hallways, decorated with the names of girls who graduated many decades ago and remained only in spirit because they had performed well. They had received “good” grades and gone on to “good” schools. They had contributed to prestige and were rewarded with a kind of immortality.
I felt bad for the girl, but I didn’t want to.
The man in the shrine said, “Don’t try to understand my country. You have to be born here to understand. Just enjoy it”. It wasn’t hard to do. The colors and the architecture were visually arresting, evoking the same feeling you get when you see a picture of your grandparents, taken in their twenties.
I had to keep side stepping puddles that seemed to have no source, sweat was running down the insides of my thighs and I could feel every point of contact between my clothes and my body.
“I didn’t come here to just sit in a hotel room. It’s not even raining yet.” My brother is a self-proclaimed “man of the world”. In preparation for our trip, he’d given himself a part in the middle of his mustache, intending to blend in with the people. I was thoroughly annoyed by how successful he’d been. When our distant relatives approached, they spoke to him first. Then they turned to us and said, “You know he really looks like a Cuban. If he was dressed a little differently, we might think he was from here.” It didn’t help my feelings that he knew Spanish, or rather he had learned Spanish and then Italian but retained enough to get us around. With each linguistic crisis that he conquered for us, I grew increasingly resentful of my French, wondering why I’d wasted so much time. We’d only been sitting for ten minutes before we were back outside, having been thoroughly shamed out of taking a nap.
It felt like the perfect time to take a tour. Three hours of sitting in a car and being talked at. We had no desire to be seen as tourists, especially knowing that these people saw something of themselves in us. As a result, we took a taxi, and not one of the larger convertibles that had been kept up since the 1950’s.
Anton was our driver, he lived next door to our Airbnb and was highly recommended by our hostess. The car’s back windows didn’t open in the 82-degree heat, and we could feel every bump in the road shock through the car and into our bodies. I became one with my surroundings in a way that I hadn’t wanted to. My back ached from the way that this car carried journey through space and time.
As we drove down their embassy row, I couldn’t resist the urge to make comparisons. Nothing about this country was like our home. Still, despite having been instructed not to try to understand, I needed to try. I leaned into my desire to uncover something that I had the words for.
My brother had a running dialogue with Anton throughout the car ride, pausing every few moments to relay a bit of information about what they were discussing. I couldn’t suppress my frustration when he paused from friendly, removed conversation and pointed out the Russian Embassy.
“That’s the same style as the one in D.C. It definitely looks like what you’d imagine. Very big, very dark.”
All I could do was continue to voice a steady stream of my thoughts and hope that one of the ideas would stick. It was the only chance I had at being heard, and I needed the attention.
“We should try and find Assata!” I said this to no one in particular. “I wonder if she lives like a regular person, or if she actually has to try and stay hidden.” No one responded.
I noticed Anton waving to many of the traffic officers. They looked very stately in their black uniforms, a button-up, short-sleeved shirt and work pants with shiny, black boots. The uniform was crowned with a cap that conveyed their authority. Anton seemed to know all of them, he’d honk repeatedly, sometimes scaring me as we crept into the intersection. Some of the officers donned very dark sunglasses and maintained severe expressions just until the point that Anton’s rolled-down window was a few feet away and his smile unlocked something in them. He told my brother that he met them all because he does so much driving. I found this out many hours after we finished the tour as there was no way for me to understand when Anton said it in the car.
My brother is a leader. This is due, in part, to the fact that each day my dad tells him to be a leader. He’s said it so much that they now rely on the acronym, BALT. I didn’t know about any of this until I was two years into college and my dad texted me those four letters by accident.
“Hey dream, have a great day! BALT!”
“Wth does that mean?”
Because we’re so close, it’s never occurred to me to filter myself when talking to my parents. My dad sends me the same text every day, and I was thoroughly surprised to find he’d strayed so far from our normal course that I couldn’t decipher his meaning.
“Sorry that was meant for Hakeem.”
“What does BALT mean?”
“be a leader today.”
I stopped responding. Every day of my life, my dad has told me to have the best day ever. After 19 years, I found out that he’d been telling my brother to be a leader. I couldn’t help but reflect on hours wasted in French class, along with most other classes, and the way that I’d only ever given the amount of effort that felt comfortable to me at that time. It was immediately apparent why my brother could navigate space and conversation in the way that he did, “a man of the world”. He’d been groomed for it. My only understanding of a good day was one spent in my thoughts, so that’s where I thrived.
A woman touched me on the street. It was just after we’d been to the water and the air was heavy with the smell of fresh rain. I was passing behind her when it seemed like she was trying to give directions, or maybe just talking with her hands. Whatever the case, she needed more than words to communicate her thought. When she gestured at whatever she was motioning to, or maybe waved to relay the scope of her subject, her right hand swung down on my shoulder. I’d assumed that like most other people on this trip, we would have no words for one another, but instead she turned and touched me with intention. A gentle hand on my back accompanied words that I didn’t understand. I nodded my head with a knowing expression, briefly looking her in the eyes to say it was okay.
I wondered how much of my experience here was gendered. If people would be less likely to come up to me and engage because I was with my parents and older brother and because I was 21 years old and because I hadn’t been told to be a leader. Maybe they could see I only wanted to have the best day ever, and maybe that made them assume I wouldn’t want to talk about how similar our skin tones are or that they had a brother in Miami and a cousin in Los Angeles and an ex-wife who stays in Harlem.
It was loud. It was so loud that the sound swelled in my body. It wasn’t in my ears so much as it took over my chest and my belly, my fingers and my throat. I could taste the water. It was the exact surge of energy that I always wish will find me when I want to cry but can’t. If those booms could come and knock the tears out of me, I might be more like the people in the crowd.
They worshipped as the waves crashed down and the streets flooded. Some had phones out to record as waves climbed as high as trees. Many others stood at attention, speaking to the water. I couldn’t understand the prayers, but I understood the feeling. It didn’t match my experience, but I thought I may have seen it in a dream, if not while I was sleeping then while I was awake. Or maybe I’d been tuning into something in the distance, in a sleepy purgatory. I could imagine myself feeling something then. I’m certain I was certain I’d known the feeling of the waves before.
“Have you ever tried to learn where your ancestors are from?” Lidwina and I have been friends since our freshman year of high school. She was single-handedly responsible for getting the three black men on the hottie board. I didn’t realize how important that was until some time later.
“No… I think I should though. I’ve been thinking I might grab a buddy, go to Africa, and roam around. Hopefully someone will stop me and say, “Hey! You look like you’re from such and such place.” You wanna go with me?”
I hadn’t actually thought of that. My brother said one of his friends had discounted the accuracy of ancestry tests because they can only point me to a region that has undoubtedly been turned around by a long history of what we should all try to imagine but will never be able to, a portion of history that invokes feelings so unlike what I met at the water. My brother decided on the roaming method for charting our lineage. I don’t know how safe it would be for me, but he was willing to give it a try.
“Sure! Or really I just think you should do whatever you can to try and figure it out. Maybe you could even research broadly. I ask because I’ve heard that it can bring you a lot of peace to learn how your ancestors worshipped and then use their practices. My sister practices Santería and she says it brings her peace”
“That makes sense.”
A way of reclaiming heritage through practice, going through the movements in order to catch an ancestor’s feeling and repair the trauma that had left us so far removed from one another. It really made sense that I might find meaning in feeling and find feeling in movement.
Not much time had passed on the tour before we encountered flooding streets. Anton asked that we trust him and his seemingly untrustworthy car. He slowly, but deliberately, transported us through several feet of sitting water. At the flood’s deepest points, I began to notice my shoes were damp because water was seeping through the slight openings beneath the car doors. Anton kept up conversation with my brother as if nothing had changed. I couldn’t tell if our “man of the world” was ignoring the circumstances because he was genuinely unbothered or because he’d gotten so good at performing. His name is on his high school’s wall more than once.
At a certain point, as my feet grew more wet than damp, I began to focus on something in the distance and hope that if I didn’t panic, the car might make it through the dramatic puddle.
Beyond the flooding, the streets appeared to be deserted. Through Anton’s window, I could only hear relative silence.
As we approached the water, I could see where everyone had gone. Hundreds of people had abandoned their posts for the day to be at the water and worship. Looking out at so many in the crowd, I wondered if we’d crossed paths with any of them before. I recalled that as we waited at the bank to exchange currency, a pregnant woman arrived and went directly to the front of the line. An elderly man did the same not too long after. I tried to envision their faces and place them among the crowd, not only because they were familiar, but also because of what they symbolized: a sense that things might be right.
The skin between my legs had gone raw by the time I was at the water. The effects of having walked for hours in the heat were only made worse by the subsequent sitting in the back of the taxi, squeezed between my mom and the car door.
When the first wave crashed down, it was as if every feeling that had moved me to pain became a source of comfort. My clothes held me as shadows for the water’s force. They told me exactly how the waves had touched me and stayed in place until they approached again. The cool water soothed every portion of my skin, regardless of whether or not it had been irritated to begin with.
The water brought me in and made me whole. I tried to turn back to see the crowd behind me, to see if anyone had followed me in, but the waves forced me to keep my gaze away from the shore. When I started to worry that if I didn’t look back again, I might lose the people behind me forever, they reached out. We were tied to one another underneath another crashing wave. The water took us.