This morning, I threw on a summer dress and went to see The Butler. I loved it from beginning to end, although a few scenes gave me pause. What surprised me however, was that I cried towards the end of the film, when they show the clip of Obama being elected President. I suddenly had a flashback to the 2008 election party I attended with a bunch of black graduate students. There was so much hope and so much pessimism commingling, like cousins who couldn’t stand each other. When it was announced that Obama was President, we erupted. I went crazy–I ran into the nearest coat closet, called Rachel, and we prayed and laughed together, while everyone else struggled to remember the second verse of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the black national anthem.
I looked at the screen today, thought about how I experienced President Obama’s 2008 election, and felt tears running down my face. “I love America so much,” I whispered. My tears and the fact that I was speaking to myself embarrassed me. I intensely dislike crying, especially in public places. I shrugged it off as a moment of intense sentimentality.
I never really talk about my love for America, despite (and likely because of) the fact that my PhD is in American Studies. It’s so much easier to have a cool and critical distance when thinking about American politics. My life is packed with West Indians who, while happy to be in this country, still eat pepperpot and cookup rice, beef patties and meethai. We still trade stories about people we know “back home”–which, for my parents, means Guyana and Trinidad, but for me, means Brooklyn. We talk about currency and corrupt governments in between prayer meetings and give each other warning stories about witchcraft and thieves. But we’re quick to defend the countries against outsiders, who know nothing.
If I went back to Guyana and Trinidad today, there is no doubt that my family members and friends there would consider me 100% Yankee, as they used to say in the 1990s. “You look different, you smell different, you’re a foreigner,” my mom reminds me. I finally asked if they would send me back down, at 28, by myself.
“No,” my father said. “No one is going back home without me.” That was it. My parents are well aware that I traveled everywhere on my own or with similarly confused people at age 20. Yet the territory of their homelands were off-limits to me at 28. I could only experience their countries through food, sorrel, and the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn.
As I live in this country, and build my life here, I am painfully aware that I know so much more about U.S. history than I do about the history of Guyana and Trinidad. I hear bits and pieces of each history over steaming mugs of tea and my mom’s coconut bread. There’s a two-ness I always feel as an American citizen whose history is rooted elsewhere. Everyone I meet assumes that I’m African American. I’m black, I was born here, and I study African American literature, history and culture. But to be an African American seems like a privilege bestowed upon those whose ancestors were enslaved here. My ancestors were enslaved elsewhere. And I always felt like an outsider amongst African Americans, and somewhat of an outsider amongst West Indians who were born in a particular country, or who maybe kept up with the cuisine, the sayings, the accent. There’s a rootlessness I feel because I grew up as a West Indian and was perceived as an African American.
While living in Brooklyn, my aunt in England sent over a grammar book that was published in Scotland. At P.S./I.S. 308, Ms. Jarvis, who had elegant locs, told us all about Kwanzaa, and I was in a Gospel Choir whose songs would have set the congregants of my traditional, Brethren church running from the building. (The songs were loud. We used instruments. We clapped.) I was taught to cultivate a careful Britishness; to be proud of the independence of my family’s countries; to be happy for the privileges that being in America granted us. I learned to juggle all of these identities. I politely recited verses for one audience, “preached them” for another audience, and rapped Biggie’s verse in Mo Money Mo Problems on the playground.
Watching The Butler, I felt as though I was grandfathered into American history. My family wasn’t in America in the 1950s; yet, so many of the problems of American slavery still echo today. Maybe it’s okay that I’m an American citizen with her feet in three other countries: Trinidad, Guyana, and England. Maybe that mixture makes me American, rather than an impostor amongst Americans. I’m not sure I’ll ever know.