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“One never reaches home, but where paths that have affinity for each other intersect the whole world looks like home for a time.” – Herman Hesse: Demian
I opened the box yesterday; not intentionally, but out of necessity. The smell. It still sits in that box that I never open. It comes to me like the first time I had walked into the burnt shell of what had been my home, my first apartment, my first attempt at proper adulthood. They had cautioned us to be prepared for the emotional toll, but this, this, there is no preparation for. A slew of black mud had greeted us at the main door, coating the floor inches thick. The once lived-in white walls were now the color of a starless night — where walls remained. The only light emanated from the door we had walked into, and the now-shattered windows that fought to fill the hallway with shy daylight. All noiselessly accompanied by a lone flashlight carried by the appointed guide from the rental company. There were no steps, no floor, just a feeling that you didn’t know where bottom was. Where there had been doors holes now gaped, telling the lives of tenants past. How many of them had walked this same hallway, guided by a stranger back into their home? How many of them had brought loved ones and totes in the hopes of recouping a piece of their past? Plastic totes they said, because boxes would fall apart. It takes water to put a fire out, you know?
My sister and I trod the corpses of lives lived, miscellaneous household items littering the bed of mud underfoot. My heart, which had dropped into my stomach as I’d watched the flames leap into the sky, felt it could drop no farther and retreated into the walls of my chest. It ached as I stared at scorched doors and black soot, finding mattresses atop stoves, entire apartments turned to ashen crisp that refused to speak of matter, solitary shoes, and combs, and clothes washed into the once lit corridor. Silence amidst the lingering drip of water in places unknown. Perhaps it wasn’t water dripping, and I was simply imagining the hoses that had drowned my home to quell its hot matchbox body. It takes water to put a fire out.
The box. It has everything I could salvage; that, and my black jacket with the zippers. The jacket that unbeknownst to me would epitomize my past life, though the scars still lingered. I had bought it on my first trip to New York City; a last hurrah of sorts for my girlfriend and I. We had agreed to part ways, but the trip was planned and we were adults. We spewed the worst of us into the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn; loving and hating each other with equal passion. Returned from New York, we had said our goodbyes in her house, tears on the wood floor. Six days later my apartment would burn down. I lost her, but I kept the jacket, even if it had that smell. All my clothes had been drenched in it as I rifled through the remnants of my closet, but I couldn’t let go of the jacket: black cotton, all pockets and zippers — copper asymmetric zippers. It had been my most prized possession for the past eight days. I was losing everything else — not the jacket, too. 2 ½ years later, I still cannot wash the smell of burnt dreams out of it. It is the smell of a campfire made with damp wood, dripping water on yellow plaster, of plastic on cotton, of ghosts, of dreams, of the past still smoldering; it is the Big Apple.
But the box, it is so much more. It is her and I at her Christmas party, little black and grey dresses falling over in laughter, it is Mario and Luigi disguised as my friends with the rescued Princess to tote. It is my best friend’s college apartment, the four of us in black and white; I am no longer that young or carefree. It is the newborn footprints of my niece plucked off my fridge — more grateful to save those than the passport or social security card, but not more than my bloody immigration papers — that will allow me to see her grow into a beautiful, humorous child.
The box is an amalgam of things I felt were important: folders I have yet to open, receipts I will never read, picture frames covered in ash with smiles that still glow through, buttons, notes, cards, and mementos gathered from drawers as two strangers to my home opened each one, asking me questions about the value of things: “Do you wanna keep this?” “What about this?” I stood staring at my bed.It stood broken in half. The ceiling above it had caved from the weight of the water flooding the two upper floors. The only serious boyfriend I had ever had made me that bed in his father’s shed over one of my first Thanksgivings. He and his father had bought the wood from the lumberyard, sawed, hammered, assembled and clamped, and stained its resistant body into this now broken bed that the ceiling sat atop. I was broken. Put it all in the box.
This wasn’t the first time I had lost “home,” whatever that may mean. But much like heartbreaks, the count doesn’t make them easier. At 17, my family had moved halfway across the world; I had nothing but a suitcase filled with clothes that always seemed ill prepared for the weather. I didn’t understand the culture, or how anything worked. The toilets flushed in the opposite direction, everyone talked fast and moved faster, there were less notes and more coins, too many cable channels and lights that never seemed to go off in that darkest of winters, when I had risen and gone to bed under the cover of blackened skies. I had left behind everything I knew to be the total sensation of home; my friends, the landscapes, the countless things I had gathered over the years that were mine: my memories of place and people, of numbers I could dial, and streets I could name. I had lost everything with the gloomy bravado of a 17 year old, and found myself in a place that eternally confused me. I had never felt so alone amongst so many people. Most days I stood at a juncture that jarred me out of the sense that I knew who I was. That I had thought I understood the world and myself seemed ludicrous. I spent months trying to unravel which layers were real and which were imagined, or created.
For instance, my cappuccino brown skin to most people implied that I was black. Black in the sense of African-American; blackness that was tinged with the history of slavery, of systemic racialized discrimination, of the Civil Rights era, Jim Crow and de-segregation, the Deep South and flights to the North. Black in the sense of a black culture that was not mine; of greens, and chitlins, corn bread, and okra, of soul and jazz, and sass, and the resilience of a caged bird still singing. All of which I could not claim, and felt myself a fraud in this new society. My blackness, instead, descended from colonial exploits, from chiefs and villages, from a name that I could trace back through the lineage and find myself face to face with a medicine man, and beyond that the original nine daughters and their husbands; our own story of creation. Yet even this blackness was still held suspect by a coworker who will echo dozens of black faces past and future, and tell me, “You are not black enough.” As if blackness is a thing to be acquired and I have somehow missed a step and represent a mere veneer. I am called an “Oreo,” black on the outside, white on the inside. I smile quietly and roundly reclaim my blackness, “I am black.”
I do not need to explain my blackness, nor defend it. I had lived the privilege of a blackness that was reaffirmed in society, and found myself reflected in every echelon of power, and tale of despair. My experiences had been normalized, rather than nominal. I had walked streets and avenues, surrounded by nothing but brown shiny faces and had never experienced the color of my skin as a coat to be put on outside my home. It is because of this that I spend the first two years in America looking for faces like mine in every public space, finding them, counting them, willing them to multiply so that my skin can feel at ease again. It never happens.
Displaced persons understand the need to acclimate to their new territories. For some, the gut instinct to survive comes easy; for others, it must be pried out of them. I turned inward that first year, longing for nothing more than the familiar. Food was a bland procession of overly processed imitations, my interactions limited to my family and the routine mundane outings and excursions into all things American: the giant mall, the Capitol building, the grocery store, the museums, the restaurants whose interiors all vaguely resembled each other, each traversed by parking lots filled with cars, so many cars. Cars being sold, driven, parked, littering lot after lot. The American landscape transformed in the eyes of a young immigrant, into a series of car lots, and flags that faltered on their poles in the static winter air. The giant red, white and blue flags appeared to be a concerted effort not to let me forget where I was. This was all before I understood American excess or ardent patriotism. This is the U.S.A. It is a country that takes exceptional pride in itself. After all, that’s the reason I had come here, for the Promised Land.
I would eventually begrudgingly accept my fate in this land of milk and honey. But at 17, graduated from high school and moving to the Midwest in December, I had lost all chance at making any friends. Meanwhile my immigration paperwork was in limbo, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t go to school; a captive in sanitized plaster walls, too cold and lost to go anywhere. This period would last 15 months, while my whole family buzzed around me with their jobs, their schools, their commitments, and their church groups. I enrolled in a crash course in American culture sitting at the computer night after night in a body that refused to adjust to the time difference. I trolled the depths of the Internet in a subconscious effort to supplant the friends I could not make in person. This was alternated with prolonged couch sitting, where I hungrily devoured every morsel of American television at its lowest and highest points; discovering the dirty joy of Joey Greco and Cheaters, the magical wonders of Slim Fast, TrimSpa and America’s Most Wanted all on the same night. Perhaps I acclimated too well.
Eager to fit in, I had thrown myself to the wolves, living for that moment when I would feel entirely at ease again. I found myself time after time asked to repeat myself, for though I speak English I didn’t sound like them. They didn’t realize that they were the ones who sounded different, who swallowed whole letters in words. I picked up the accent in reruns of American sitcoms. I heard them say the word; it became a mantra in my head until I felt familiar enough to test it on my tongue.
I was tentative at first, but in the end I mastered the accent so well that I surprise strangers who ask me where I’m from. I respond; “Do you mean where I was born or where I live?” “Both,” they usually reply. I ready my script for the recitation. I explain I was born and raised in the City in the Sun, that I have lived here for 4, 5, 8, 10 years… whatever the number is at that point. What follows is rote; I have played this game many times over.
“[insert exclamatory remark] Are you really from _________?”
“Yes.” I anticipate their next question before it leaves their mouth.
“But you speak such good English.”
“Yes, we were colonized by the British. I grew up speaking English.”
What they hear though, is not my “good,” proper Queen’s English, but rather my Americanized accent. The one I worked so hard to attain, deliberately ostracizing myself from my family, my dialect, and my narrative. It is the same accent that makes my sister put me on the phone three years later when the banker insistently barks at her, “I can’t understand you!” though all three of us are speaking the same language. I feel shame. When I call my father, who had opted out of our grand social experiment in favor of his farm in the country, and he politely asks me to “speak normally.” He says he does not understand me. In encounters with other Africans, they will tell me “You don’t sound African,” “You don’t sound ______.” I am again failing at being an accurate representative of an entire subgroup with every action, and every word I speak. The same accent that ultimately makes me an indecipherable part of this country leaves me a foreigner amongst my own. I had sensed myself becoming “other” then. Yet, I do not need to explain my Africanness, nor defend it.
Later, I will lose yet another version of home, and any belief that I could return to it. This loss will be more discreet than the rest, gently resting upon me in the torrid morning hours, after years of sulking and forming in the back of my head. It will blanket me gently, bringing with it a disturbing comfort. I will lose a home and gain one with a seamless overlap.
It starts with a simple sentence: “I’m going on a date.” My sister asks with whom. I tell her, “A girl.” She will reveal to me years later that she had assumed I was teasing her, but as any good sister does, she permits me my indiscretions. Three months into my relationship, I will tell my other sister about my girlfriend. She will keep waiting for this “phase” to pass; she still sits, waiting as if on a bus whose route has long since changed. She will repeatedly ask if I am “over” men, missing the whole point: it’s not about men. My mother, when I finally come out to her, at 25 years old, eight years into America and three girlfriends later will say to me, “Just don’t have children like normal people.” My friends, the best of them, will take me to the 36th floor, overlooking the city, where bottles of champagne will flow back and forth amongst us, celebrating my coming out.
Fuck normal; who wants to be normal? I choose this abnormal, absurd world filled with unashamed characters that have multiplied in me the gift of love, of eyes wide open, of a curious soul and an accepting mind. Who have given unto each other something the world can’t: a sense that this is the norm, that what we are doing isn’t exceptional, or strange, but merely the way things have always been. That’s what home feels like. There is no consciousness of your otherness, you simply are. It is a place that does not seek to define you by the things you are “not,” but rather by an affirmation of your presence and being.
“She had felt — for her own mental health — that the gap that separated us from the rest of the world was too wide for her to keep trying to bridge. She understood how delicate she was.” – Alice Walker: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
After thirsting for reflections of myself over the years, lapping wholeheartedly at any opportunity to find myself, by which I mean others like me, I had unrepentantly found them. The ones who didn’t color in the lines, or bother with checking the boxes, but simply were. With that, all the fleeting and persistent ideas of rebuilding the life I had left at 17 had to be cast away; they were incompatible with this new sense of belonging. See, home isn’t for people like me — it is not for lesbians, or queers. I cannot return to a country that criminalizes and attempts to further oppress my personhood. One that publicly accepts psychological assaults on my being, while leaving no legal safeties or recourse for its state sanctioned actions. Yet, many more still flee to its vitriolic arms in search of something better. This is the reality for people like me who call this place home.
A friend of mine, upon his return to South Africa, speaking to the homophobic culture still evident in the only African state whose constitution guarantees equal rights to gays and lesbians, had said to me, “I cannot go back to the closet,” (and he never did). Neither can I. But I am not as brave as he. I cannot consider the possibility of physical violence that harkens back to the dark stages of GLBTI visibility and rights. Nor the reality of a family who may banish me with the backing of society, or even worse refuse to permit me my sexuality by muting my declarations of selfhood. It is a culture of obligations that often tells me my life is not mine to live, but must be lived in consortium with and approval from the larger being. The patriarchy I had skirmished with in my childhood matured into a multi-headed heterosexist, tribalist, sexist, corruptive, and sometimes violent system.
A classmate, in what he had erroneously assumed to be black solidarity, had said to me “Be careful, homosexuality is not African; don’t let those white people fool you.” What was I to say to that? He was attempting to chisel away the markers of my identity with one fluid sweep. This argument is not novel though; for many on the continent and in the diaspora, all things Western are either evil or good, loathed or to be aspired to. I had chosen wrongly when it came to my sexual preference. Lacking the critical lens and toolkit to examine the whitewashing of African history and consequentially the modern perception of the history of so-called “African sexuality,” the classmate believed in a natural order of being — rules that bind us by nature because we are African. As if Africans are singularly heterosexual. I gently suggested to him that perhaps the very “white people” he warned me of are the same ones who marched across the continent, robbing and burying its people in the name of civilization, and imposed their Judeo-Christian views as the blood and dust settled. Careful to leave no part of African life untouched, they had been generous enough to provide appropriate norms of sexuality and expression. How then could I ascribe to their views? Much like I rejected colonialism, and the narrative of a white savior, I rejected their views on sexuality.
But his viewpoint has been one of the pervasive great myths of post-colonial Africa: that homosexuality was imported to Africa, rather than obscured and undermined by the zealous missionaries and settlers as yet more evidence of the Africans’ need for salvation. Heterosexism was yet another imperialist tool of oppression, manifesting itself in anti-gay laws and practices that find their origin in colonial Africa, yet still remain coded in constitutions, and widely accepted. The appeal to the argument that homosexuality is Western is also intended to maintain the notion of the untainted African in pre-colonial Africa, while ignoring the actuality that the exploration of sexuality has never been limited by geographical constraints. Aside from the direct evidence provided by the existence of my truly phenomenally internationally queer friends, the preponderance of queer, LGBTI, and otherwise non-heterosexually conforming peoples across the globe is undeniable, and historically well documented, becoming even more conspicuous in this age of waxing visibility. Africa is no exception.
I feel myself worn by the battle of coexisting in two worlds without truly existing in either. I find that I cannot return home as I know it, nor stay silent, so I strain to have my voice heard, to find a space for it amongst all the other voices. Perhaps I have something unconventional to say, or perhaps I am just dust settling into formations with the faint resemblance of something familiar. Yet I long to speak us into existence, though my country and my continent aims to bury us with violence and shame. I cannot however deny the pure luck that I have encountered that has allowed me to be myself in this place, and because of it. Much like I have always felt about Nairobi, I now feel about this city, such that I cannot tell you about this place without telling you about myself. Or more importantly, I cannot tell you who I am without first telling you about this place that has incorporated into its beating heart my own. The place that has found a way to infiltrate my every thought, my every word. My eyes are defined by its scope, my experiences limited by what it will and will not permit me. This city, this country, that cannot escape my memories, that is populated by them, littered with remnants of myself, and my social experiments. It keeps my secrets, surprising me with its brashness from time to time, with gentle reminders that it knows me. It knows me well. This is my home. Too. This too, is my home.
That my fortunes have brought me to this space where time and reason interject to give me standing is ever present, something I’m always aware of. I am a child of monumental movements and coincidence. Were it not for the Civil Rights era, for Stonewall, for my mother’s strong will to give us more chances at a successful life, for my home state’s acceptance of my right to live and love, for Edith Windsor’s and Thea Spyer’s love whose path would ultimately alter history and cause ripples in a love of my own I would not have the security of a safe place to call my own and to make a home of. But I find that it is still not enough. There is more to be done — movements left unfinished, battles to be fought, stories to be told.
This is my immigrant story and the unintentional search for a place to call home in a world where borders are quickly blurring, though laws aim to keep them finite. It is the tale of an unwitting love affair with a future I could never have imagined. I am one of those who came here on the wings of our parents’ dreams only to find ourselves more in love with this place than our parents could ever have wished or imagined. Those of us who have found our dreams multiplied beyond bounds, who have exhausted the options to make a permanence of the temporary given to us. It’s not that we don’t miss the familiar faces and places with a fondness that can only be felt and never imagined, but that we have found something few have the chance to experience. What we lack is control over that experience. As an immigrant, I have found myself powerless many times over.
Many of us global queers, us third-culture queers, us undocu-queers, have found refuge in welcoming places in the West, but even more will not. In the past years and months we’ve witnessed a previously unimaginable increase in and recognition of pro-LGBTQIA rights, yet still found ourselves left out geographically and culturally. The Dream Act opened the door for some of us on the state-side, the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA allowed a few more a space at the table, but for many more there is no recourse they can seek to ensure their continued livelihood, or realize their dream of a life lived fully and openly. So, what of them? The ones who cannot go home because they have found their homes in American faces and places, and whom have grown to love this country because of what it is, because it represents an opportunity to be themselves, uninhibitedly so, what of them? Those who yearn for the certainty of a life fully lived in this place, that is ours to define, giving us the gift of home. A home in which our dreams can bud and grow, free of vilified hostility and hate. A home in which we can assume normalcy, rather than fear.
The flicker of a promise that was lit when the Obama administration promised to tackle immigration and produce “comprehensive immigration reform” has left many of us waiting, hopeful, yet growing less hopeful as the months tick by. In the last weeks there was yet another moment of bated breath in which we felt a resurgence of hope. We were glued to our phones, emails, and social media, with whispers that President Obama would be making BIG changes to immigration, but found our appetites unsatisfied at the dinner table. That is not to discredit the president, or take away from the strides he has made towards addressing “a broken immigration system”, but it is not enough. It is not enough for the millions who yearn to sink their roots into this place, and add our stories to the fabric that is America. We are here, we are present, and we come in peace seeking meaningful change, but mostly recognition. When we speak of immigration, immigrant rights and who has a right to be and live in this country, you are speaking of me. I am the immigrant story. My friends are the immigrant story. This country is an immigrant story. It’s time for real change.