I remember the days of ice cream mangoes and sunlight kissing my skin. Where the days would melt into one another and the quiet insanity of nap times with my cousins. I remember the neighborhood dogs that roamed aimlessly, panting heavily with their pink tongues out. I remember the sounds of laughter from the women in my family, hands hidden in hair for hours skillfully crafting and perfecting. It came easy, soundlessly like the comforting touch of your mother’s hand or the wayward landing of a butterfly.
Living in Tobago was as easy as breathing. The island air came in constant waves of tranquil blue and jewel-toned waters. You knew everyone and everyone knew you. There were some drawbacks to that, but mostly a sense of home and familiarity. Like the feeling of floating weightless in the ocean, eyes shut and breath focused.
Miss Daniels would tell you to have a blessed day when you were walking to school, making sure to pass you some cherries from her cherry bush that she picked that day or maybe a 5 finger fruit or two. Aunty Roxxy who wasn’t really your aunty would let you come in her shop and treat you to something small, maybe a Malta to drink or a Bigfoot snack to munch on, but something nonetheless. Mr. Jackson would ask you how your mother was and even let you play with his dog that had two different colored eyes.
I liked the simplicity of island living, it was one of the few things in my life that felt unbroken. An unspoken promise of uninterruption. An unspoken promise of peace.
When I delved into discussions of my blackness and how I perceived myself, I couldn’t help but think of my home; a home that I had left 13 years ago for a life abroad in the United States. Trinidad and Tobago, the tiny sister islands resting off the coast of Venezuela, is where I spent my childhood in feverish days marked by sunshine and carefree ignorance. Only pleasant memories of the light touch of palm trees and the tease of pristine water on the shore of the only place I’ve ever called home came to mind.
The idea of race was something that was foreign to me. There are equal amounts of Black people as there are East Indians, including a few other ethnic groups. The African population were descendants of slaves who were worked to cultivate sugar cane and tobacco (hence the name Tobago), while the Indian population came shortly as indentured servants after slavery was abolished. This understanding to me was nothing more than shared history amongst us all, never a point of contention but more so a stand alone fact.
When I first moved to Maryland, I had never seen so few people that looked like me in one location. I had always been the majority, but now with my three other black peers in my 4th grade class, we were not. I didn’t know that something as minor as the color of your skin could affect how you were not only treated, but further dehumanized and seen as less than. Acclimating to my all white student population was an adjustment to say the least.
I used words that they didn’t, not knowing what a “ponytail holder” was compared to the terminology of “woogie” back home in the islands. I was always vaguely confused and one step out of place with my peers. My first true encounter with racism happened a year later when I was on my way back home for Christmas to see my extended family.
We had a layover in Houston, Texas, and I was coming out of the bathroom when an elderly white woman dropped a belonging of hers. I flagged her down to give her back whatever it was that she dropped, only for her to call me a racial slur and tell me to stay away from her. I was so taken aback, I don’t remember it processing until I washed my hands five to 10 minutes later. I never told my mom about the incident, knowing that she would cause a scene, rightfully so, before we could make it onto our flight.
Ever since then I was more cognizant of the racial tensions that America was built on. Who I was would offend and threaten certain individuals solely because of the pigment of my skin. Not only until I arrived at Howard was I comfortable in being who I was at face value.
When I was making my decision to attend college, Howard University had been my first choice. The students here are so beautiful and creative; innovation thrums throughout their veins and creates a Howard experience that can’t be wholly translated to anyone who doesn’t go here. Howard students are never satisfied with mediocrity and push themselves to be the best at all levels which makes it a very competitive but motivating atmosphere. This sense of community we’ve created has made me a better woman and exposed me to a different world I hadn’t known before. There’s no other institution like Howard and I wouldn’t have been able to find my voice as a young black woman anywhere else. I’ve become more secure in who I am and my blackness because of Howard and the people here who remind me daily of the excellence of young black individuals who are always willing to make a difference.
The existence of both my upbringing in Tobago and Howard University has been some of the most profound moments of my life and I wouldn’t have been able to come to terms with the intersection of race and identity without either.