Somewhere in Between
Posted on July 10, 2014
I hop off the 70 bus and walk two blocks across Georgia Ave towards my apartment that sits on the border of what is now the new D.C.—a city thriving with hipster coffee shops, secret nightclubs and most-eat-at restaurants. The distinct sound of the ice cream truck, laughter from the neighborhood kids, and the “I remember when…” conversations from old men hanging on street corners were all so familiar. I grew up in New York—Brooklyn before it was Brooklyn—making me a product of urban living. Those two blocks I walk from the bus stop to my home, which lies at an intersection between urban and gentrified, are a reminder of strolls down Flatbush Ave, taking trips to the bodega for beef patties and coco bread while dreaming of a life beyond the borough.
My family has the narrative of most immigrants. The Parents came to America with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and hope in their pockets. My mother was an aspiring dancer bearing years worth of intense ballet training under her belt. She landed a spot in one of New York City’s most prestigious performing arts programs, Performing Arts (now known as Fiorello H. LaGuardia Performing Arts High School). Dad was a numbers and theories guy; he decided to get into neurophysics, but plans have a funny way of unraveling themselves. On a detour from pursuing their dreams they discovered drugs, Rastafarianism, and the “hood.” Then, they discovered each other, and that was the beginning of the end.
Disillusionment led me to believe that my parents were to be without flaw. In my immaturity and ignorance I, foolishly, expected too much of them. I suppose most children make the same error of holding their parents to a God-like standard. It’s an instant set-up for disappointment and a humbling fall from grace; one I would take. My mother’s anger, my father’s inconsistency–they were inexcusable and seemingly unforgivable. Pride–that wretched insidious beast–suggested I needed to be better than them. So, I devised a plan for success. My childhood journals are inscribed with autographs I practiced repeatedly because I was going to be somebody important. Problem was I had no clue how I would get to where I wanted to be. The details were murky. Even bigger problem was I didn’t know where I wanted to be. I just knew it was anywhere other than a tiny ass apartment in Brooklyn.
The thing about growing up in depressed communities is that the few people who make it out seldom look back or provide the cheat sheet for getting out the ghetto. Everyone is left to his or her own devices not to mention: poverty is a social injustice with deep implications beyond earning potential. James Baldwin noted in his 1960 essay, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown” that poverty is systematic. Everything surrounding the poor is designed to keep them oppressed. It’s hard to disagree with Baldwin when you drive through any urban area. The presence of more liquor stores than libraries and more check cashing shops than financial institutions speak clearly: Once you’re poor, stay poor. Even if you have the emotional support of loved ones, making it out the ghetto heavily depends on your ability to wing it. So, I winged the hell out of it and slowly found myself moving away from becoming another statistic, moving away from the depravity of hood culture and moving closer towards “success.” I graduated from high school in the top tenth percentile of my class. Check. I went to college. Check. I graduated college. Check. I got a just-to-pay-the-bills-first-real-job. Check. Then, I went on to get my Masters. Checkmate.
I was achieving everything my parents couldn’t and I had overcome remarkable odds. I should have been proud, yet I carried a profound sense of shame because despite my accolades I felt like a fraud, as if I shouldn’t be outside the parameters of the block that birthed me. When I sat in lecture halls among my peers—some of the brightest minds from around the world—a tiny voice would whisper you don’t belong here. And when I left my just-to-pay-the-bills-first-real-job to enter the competitive market place I felt inadequate, like a pond fish trying to navigate the mass waters of an ocean. Who was I kidding?
Of course I didn’t outwardly express these insecurities. Anyone from a rough neighborhood knows not to show signs of weakness. I just kept winging it because at the end of the day I was trying hard to prove that I wasn’t that little brown skin Caribbean girl from the projects in Brooklyn with the messed up childhood. I wanted no association with that part of my identity because the world looked too grim through that lens. The poverty, the dysfunction and the pain were too heavy of crosses to continue to carry as my reality. But, the sum of who we are makes the whole, a greater whole as Aristotle said. Truth is, I am that little brown skin Caribbean girl from Brooklyn with the messed up childhood.
And I’m so much more.
The proximity of my past follows me the two blocks I walk from the bus stop to get to my apartment that sits on the border of what is now the new D.C.—a city thriving with hipster coffee shops, secret nightclubs and must-eat-at restaurants. As I pass the ice cream truck, neighborhood kids, and old men talking smack on the streets corners I realize I’m somewhere in between two worlds. One is the world I come from. It’s gritty, cold and unforgiving towards those who can’t handle its intensity. The other is a world that holds promise, whatever that promise maybe. For me these worlds can’t be mutually exclusive. They must co-exist because somewhere in between my past and what I’m becoming I discovered that everything I was running from made me everything I am.
Now isn’t that something?