Routes & Exile
By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remember Zion
For the wicked carry us away to captivity
Require from us a song
But how can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land
My life is now a series of comings and goings, packing and unpacking my world, transporting myself to strange places and calling them home.
All my life I have been fascinated with the idea of exile. Perhaps because my family moved around so much when I was a kid. Or perhaps I knew early on that my family’s roots were fragile. Both of my grandfathers were men whose work compelled them to travel. One, my maternal grandfather, Rev. Gene Freeman (known from here on as Pappau), worked as truck driver for over 30 years, crossing the continental U.S. more times than he can remember. Before my paternal grandfather, Rennick Carlton Morris, Sr., decided to transplant his family to the U.S. permanently he moved back and forth between Jamaica and the States on a regular basis.
This is my legacy.
We have never fled our homes for fear of political upheaval. No major revolutions have displaced us.
And yet we are in exile.
The last time I was in this town, devastated by an economy gasping its last breaths and the cancer-causing toxins that have consumed many of its resident, the last time I was here, I felt my heart break.
Weeds covered the foundation of what was my grandparents’ home. An unexplained fire, a victimless-crime robbed me of one of the few places on earth that I truly believed might last forever.
I sit in the car and let the tears stream down my face until my chest is so tight I can barely breathe.
We can never go back.
This house, its memories, its secrets, are lost to me.
Listened to grown-up conversations that I was too young to enter – fast, smart-mouth little girls need to stay out of grown-folks business.
Watched time, neglect, and sweltering Louisiana summers decay my grandparents’ home.
Watched teenaged cousins get pregnant, one after the other – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…grandchildren bearing great-grandchildren.
Everything changes without my consent and in the midst of weeds and what appears to be the last vestiges of the porch where I danced for my grandfather, I know that we can never go back.
We are exiles in the land where our roots go deepest.
But the soil does not support our survival.
Mammau and Pappau live in Beaumont now.
They do not speak of the stories that they know.
They do not speak of the secrets they carry beneath their tongues
Or the shame that burns hot in their chests, smoldering coals that remind them of where they come from
As a child I hid in the citrus trees of my grandmother’s front yard. We were uprooted island people, replicating the old ways we knew in a place at once distant and familiar. South Bay, Florida was the closest we could come to home. And we convinced ourselves that we had forgotten what home was like so we could continue to do without it. My grandparents would travel to Jamaica each year. When Pop crossed over to the other side in 1987, Kat stopped going. She will not tell us anything about Jamaica anymore. She brings us there only with the smell of beef patties, pudding, mint tea heavy with condensed milk, and curry.
She has a stroke. Body betrays her. Tongue refuses to respond. Her confident voice is replaced with a defiant stutter that reduces her accent, her mothertongue to jibberish. My Kat…she does not tell us stories anymore.
So I am forced to make my own.
I let the porridge burn the insides of my cheeks, tracing its heat as it descends down my throat and into my belly. I do not question Kat when she tells me to eat plenty because ‘porridge will keep you warm.’ How, I want to know, how will porridge keep me warm from the inside out? But I keep my disbelief to myself, as it is my grandmother has all she can do to keep this cheeky, womanish child in hand. So I swallow my porridge piping hot and when Kat hugs me on my way out the door, I wrap my arms around her bony hips and sigh into her belly. I savor her smell, a blend of kitchen, yams, Avon’s Skin-So-Soft, and mothballs. I carry her scent with me into the world, her old island woman smell, all I know.
When I am 9, I have a recurring dream. There is a large hill in our town, and each night I fly high above it, crossing bright blue waters that carry me home – home to the island of my father’s birth. I skit across the water, toes caressing waves, half-flying, half-dancing my way back to where I belong.
For most of my life Jamaica was song and symbol to me. Found in the funky smelling dishes my father fed us – when we were the only kids we knew who ate goat and thought it strange that our none of our neighbors enjoyed ox-tail cooked in lima beans.
Jamaica was Marcus Garvey hanging from my father’s rearview mirror. Barrington Levy and dancehall reggae. 90 percent proof white rum and rastas named Smitty, whose occasional visits to our working-class suburban home would turn my father from an Americanized, blue-collar mechanic chasing the good life into a patois-speaking yard boy. I would practice my patois rolling the accent around my tongue wanting desperately to sound just like my father. Jamaica lay somewhere on the tip of my tongue – I only had to find it.
As an adult, people have a hard time figuring out where I am from.
I have a hard time telling them.
It’s simple enough really.
I was born in California.
Lived in Germany, twice.
Spent most of my childhood in Texas.
Regularly shuffled back and forth between Texas and Louisiana visiting cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
Occasionally in Florida so as not to forget my father’s half of the family.
Lived in South Bay, Florida with my paternal grandmother for slightly less than a year.
Have spent a total of nearly 5 months living in Nicaragua.
Flirt quite a bit with the U.S. Mexico border.
Still, the question “Where are you from?” makes me uncomfortable.
I am one part yard girl to one part Southern girl with a dash of Latin Americanidad thrown in for good measure. I slide in and out of accents some of which I grew up with and others that I have borrowed. But they all feel good to me.
I’m not so sure where home is or where I belong and wonder if there is more joy to be found in the searching than the knowing.
It is hard to explain how estranged I feel from Jamaica. Those moments when I am asked where I am from and I see people’s eyes light up with the response. My family is from the Caribbean. Sometimes I try to pretend I don’t notice the transformation that I make before their eyes from a mundane, run-of-the-mill, touchy-about-race African American into an exotic, interesting West Indian island woman. It makes me angry, can feel the rage seething through my skin, when wealthy white people ask me, Have you ever been to Jamaica?
I tell them, No.
What I don’t say is Well, it was hard to plan that trip to the island when my father was selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door. I don’t say that when we were young we were too break as a family to go together. I do not tell them that my father left the island when he was 11 and didn’t go back until he was 42 years old.
Nor do I speak of the stranglehold the U.S. places the entire world under, squeezing the life out of gasping banana republics until they are compelled to choose between home and survival. I do not speak of how the U.S. forces us out of our homes and once we have left keeps us from returning.
There are some things we do not want to speak of.
For the wicked
Carry us away to capitivity
Require from us a song
But how can we sing King Alpha’s Song
In a strange land?