Karen Georgia A. Thompson
In December, I went home. Home to Jamaica. The land of my birth, the birth place of my ancestors, descendants of those who were deposited as cargo off the slave ships that arrived from the African shores. Those ancestors worked the sugar cane plantations of the British producing sugar and rum as well as other items that grew the British economy.
Home is one of those words that haunts me like an unsung lullaby, like a chord of a song stuck in my head that I just can not reach, or remember. Yet, the call to go “HOME” was like a homing signal, a beacon that beckoned me to return to a place that I barely knew, yet one my soul longed for. I could hear in my heart the voices of Ancestors long gone, calling me to this place, calling me to come learn of this land, of these people.
I moved to New York City when I was 14 years old. When I lived in New York, there were few people who asked me where I was from. I suppose in those days, I had a richer Jamaican accent, or perhaps I was around friends and family who knew and never asked “where are you from?” The question of home or HOME was not an issue. Besides, New York City has its fair share of Jamaicans, so there was always a sense of the familiar to what was left behind when our family migrated.
When I moved from New York to North Carolina, people started asking that question: where are you from? I did not sound like a North Carolinian. The inflections in my speech were different. I did not have family in the area, so I hung out with my friends and got to know their families. I would identify “home” as Brooklyn, New York, my parents home which I left to move to the glory of the southern United States. Eleven years in North Carolina did not solidify my status there as a “Carolinian.” I loved living there. My friends were there. Yet somehow, North Carolina was a place where I moved with a husband I later divorced and stayed there because it was familiar. I went home every night, to my son and to life as I knew it in Durham and when time permitted, I would drive home to see my parents and siblings in Brooklyn.
My move back to New York in the late 90s for seminary was a good one. I love New York and I love Brooklyn. I enjoyed living close to my family, but after 4 years in New York City and a seminary degree, I left New York again, this time for Florida. The second time I was leaving New York, I overheard my father in conversation. He said, “My daughter is moving to Florida. This is the second time she is leaving New York. I don’t think she likes it here.” I love New York. He is right, I don’t like living there and I discovered New York is not home. I lived there twice and would not discount a third time but there was no permanence to life there. Home is wherever I live. HOME, was a different story.
Living in the northern part of Florida, in a small town, the question came regularly. My response was different. “My family lives in New York.” To which people would follow up with: “Oh, you are from New York?!” The interpretive work was theirs to do. That was not quite what I said, but that was an adequate response and one they understood. Then came the occasional follow up: “But, you don’t have a New York accent.” Too much to explicate and I had no desire to explain myself then, even as I don’t these days.
After three years in north Florida, I moved south to Miami-Dade County with its beaches, warm weather, and tropical flowers that were all the familiar of my Jamaican self. Unlike New York, there was something about Miami that made my heart sing and made me feel at home. When I arrived in Miami, I knew I was home and I thought for sure I would be there for the rest of my life. Miami was a place that understood me and I understood it. Miami is the gateway to the Caribbean with residents from most of the Caribbean bringing their flavor of their island culture to the city.
It was out of those years in Miami that I started hearing the call to go HOME. It was there in Miami that I started differentiating between home, the place where I lived and HOME, the place where I came from. HOME kept calling me. Every fall, I would have the urge to go HOME. The temperatures would drop, the sunrise would get later in the mornings and the dark of evening would come that much earlier. With the change in the seasons that were not evident in the traditional ways of the north, I would feel a change in my own rhythm as a call to go elsewhere.
I had no desire to go to New York to visit. In those early days, I would dismiss the call and temper the desire to find the place that kept calling me. I lived with a feeling of disconnection, a longing for that which was elusive. A longing for something I could not find. My years in Miami ended and I moved to Lakewood, Ohio on the Lake Erie shore. This was a far distance from winter warmth and December beach visits. The move did not dissipate the call that came in the rhythm of the drums and the call of the Ancestors.
Last fall, after six years in Ohio, the call came again to go HOME. This time I understood what that meant. “Go HOME. Take your family and go HOME.” I was going to Jamaica, and I was going to get to know myself in context of that place and those people. There was a call to reconnect, rediscover and re-frame myself as a Jamaican living in what I call “double Diaspora”. I am a part of the African diaspora, a product of the many bought and sold. I am also a Jamaican immigrant living in the United States of America, with all the tensions and contradictions that affords.
I called my mother and told her. I asked her to go with me. I called my sister and brother too. I booked the four tickets for travel to Montego Bay, Jamaica in December 2015. I flew to New York overnight so we could travel together on the same flight – nonstop from New York’s John F. Kennedy down to the Donald Sangster International airport. This was writing new pages in the family story, a family first of sorts.
This was not my first visit to Jamaica. I had been to Jamaica on vacations. I sat on the beaches of Montego Bay, went to meetings in Kingston and Ocho Rios. I was not going to visit as a tourist. on this occasion. I was going home. I was determined that I was going to find my way home to visit the living and the dead, to reconnect with the Ancestors and connect with family I did not know.
Landing in Montego Bay was a joy. I had never been on vacations with my family. I vacationed with my brother, with my sister and with my mother individually. Family vacations were not a part of our childhood years. My older brother and father did not join us. My hope was that we could visit with my mother’s family in Higgin Town, St. Ann. I knew where my Grandfather was buried and I planned on paying a visit to his grave.
Though our visit was unannounced, the family was happy to see us. The very trees and stones waved and welcomed us to that ancestral home, where my mother was born. Higgin Town was as I remembered, but so much better. My sister had never been. My brother visited once as a child. My sister had not been back to Jamaica since 1979, my brother visited once. My mother had not been back to Jamaica since two year’s before my Grandfather’s death in 1987. There was a beauty that received us in the smiles of relatives and the voices of the Ancestors in the trees.
I found my grandmother’s marked grave in the cemetery in the yard of the Golden Spring Methodist Church. My grandfather was laid to rest beside her. There were other family members there too – uncles who were vague memories, but whose names were familiar. I remembered their visits to our home in Kingston to see my mother. I remember my grandfather coming to visit too. They would always bring produce when they came from the “country” smelling of the earth and hard labor. As a child, it was a smell I did not understand. As an adult, it is a smell I appreciate when it comes my way.
My first taste of fresh cow’s milk came from milk brought to our home by my grandfather. It tasted nothing like the milk that came from the boxes my mother brought home. Now, I am thankful for his sacrifice in bringing it. I now know it was better than the stuff in the box. I also realize the love and sacrifice that was made on his behalf to travel from St. Ann into Kingston to bring us what he did, food grown and picked with his own back breaking labor. That is a love that is family love.
My aunts and cousins were very happy to see us. My mother had not seen her sisters in years. They embraced each. My older aunt who is now blind at 90, held on to my Mother’s arm as she welcomed her and told stories of the last time she saw my mother. She also recalled bringing my older brother to her home from Kingston when he was a child, and feeling guilty about the belly ache he got from eating too much of the goodness of the land. She held on to her arm as she recalled stories of long ago, as if they were yesterday. Seeing these three strong women in the same room was a sight to behold. Their beauty, sadness, tireless labor and love was palpable.
I was working on the family tree, so we spent time talking with relatives about the family, learning and sharing family stories on the porches and on walks from house to house. Walking up and down the hills was more exercise than we had seen in a while but there was a strange, positive energy and connectedness to this place that was as strange as it was familiar.
Eating fresh fruit and food from the land was a treat. One of our cousins cooked for us. He fed us with an abundance that came from what he grew. He would leave and return with the ingredients for the soup he was making us for lunch that day. We could taste the love as we did the freshness of the green bananas he picked and the pumpkins he brought in. Life in rural Jamaica may not be easy but I gained an appreciation for life on that hill, a life that included fresh air, hard labor, family ties and ancestral connections.
The Ancestors continue to call. For me, this is a call to go HOME more regularly and to own my connection to those from whom I came. I am a Jamaican, born and bred. I live in the United States and I have U.S. citizenship and passport, even as I do a Jamaican passport. My U.S. citizenship does not negate the connection to my people, over 90% of whom still reside on island. My commitment: go HOME more regularly to replenish my spirit and connect to heritage and family love.
Being Jamaican is far more than curried chicken and jerk pork, reggae music and owning a Patois New Testament. Food is very much a part of our heritage, but there is more to who we are. We are as spicy as the peppers that we love and as vibrant as the blue of the sky and the warm of the sun that shines brightly all year. We are more than Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey, Jimmy Cliff and a host of others who have contributed to the Black experience globally.
Being Jamaican is embraced in every breath I take no matter where I may be. We are a diaspora people. I am a part of that diaspora. My Black African heritage ties me to Black communities globally, even as I own a heritage that is distinct to our island HOME. We live in many foreign lands connected by common ancestry and a knowing that we belong everywhere, but there is no place like HOME. Jamaicans are Black, White, Syrian, Chinese, Lebanese, Indian and more. Being Jamaican connects us regardless of our ethnicity and race.