A chk-chk-chk noise and deep, melodic humming was coming from outside of my bedroom window. I got up to peer through white, lace curtains. A short, muscular Rasta man with free-form dreads and a pair of sharp shears was trimming the bush outside. As he worked, he sung in patois that caused stirring deep with me. It reminded me of the songs my grandma sang while she worked in her own yard.
This yard, though, was not in the suburbs of Maryland. Instead it was in Westmoreland, Jamaica and reminded me of a tropical Secret Garden. It was spacious and luscious, full of avocado, moringa, and breadfruit trees. There were colorful, big-blossomed plants that grew to my chest. The back of the house overlooked Bluefields Bay. At the back of the house there were steps which led to a cliff and small cove where I sometimes took dips in the sea. Every morning, waking from warmth kissing my face, I saw the sun rise over the sea and shine through trees, straight into my room.
Two days before I arrived, the man of the yard, Rex, passed on from brain cancer. Friends and relatives who knew him came from far and wide to come together and help Bridget., his lady of the yard, clean the yard and prepare food for the nine nights ceremony. Nine nights is a Caribbean funeral tradition with African roots that commemorates the dead, usually, for nine days. During these days, people drank, ate and shared good-natured and memories about Rex. From the way people spoke of him, I knew Rex had left a big mark on the lives of many.
“He was a good, good, man,” Bridget once said as we sat on a bench in her spacious backyard, looking toward her house. She's a petite, dark-skinned woman with a crooked-toothed smile that lights up her face. At 54, her skin was smooth, plump, youthful even in grief.
“I feel no regret,” she asserted. “I know I did everything to support him until the end.”
I spent some time getting to know B. She was always wandering around the yard in the mornings, looking at the plants and drinking tea. She had a welcoming energy and would always ask, “Yuh alright?” with a big smile. [sidenote: A few weeks before I was prepared to leave, I had a dream that Bridgette was in. She was wearing white--her favorite color--and had nothing but good things to tell me. A true gem of a woman.]
Two weeks before, I left rural South Carolina after being physically assaulted by a family member. A few days after filing an assault charge, I took the money I had saved up and flew to Jamaica. Months before, I had been preparing a photography project that documented oral histories. I felt a rush of relief as I flew over the Blue Mountain peaks and Caribbean Sea, eager to see what new experiences awaited me. To numb the effects of the traumatic event, I threw myself into collecting oral histories in Bluefields. Some days I felt like I was living in a dream. The trees were too vibrant, the food too good and the fruit too fresh. Everything I knew before then seemed faded and so far away.
Before I went to Jamaica, I read Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston where she retold accounts of studying African-based folk rituals in Haiti and Jamaica. She not only insightfully recounted what she saw and experienced, but made the effort to create bonds and connections with the people she learned from.
To understand any community is to invest time into the people. For me, that meant sitting, "reasoning" over a Red Stripe with an elder. And spending a night at a small rum shack buying the barmaid a drink and playing pool with her. It meant somedays leaving my camera at the yard. I knew shoving it into the faces of strangers wouldn’t work here. To build trust, I had to earn it.
It was a gradual transition coming from a big city like Chicago, where I had lived the last four years. There, you can walk past the same person everyday and not notice their existence. Bluefields is small, leaving no room for anonymity. “Your business follows you everywhere,” Heidi, a friend and collaborator once said. Folks know every car and license plate that drives through the area. People in the area began to recognize me as I walked the main road.
As I walked, they would call out:
“‘Ello sweet’art, I saw ya at Doret’s last night.”
It created a sense of surveillance that I was not used to. There was a duality in how people both knew where you lived but didn’t know you; knew of you but never conversed with you. But, in Bluefields everyone knows everyone. Everyone was either cousins, sisters, or close friends. Tight-knit to the point of near-claustrophobia. I learned to adjust.
I spent some time listening to the stories of spear fishermen, artists, sailors, and farmers who welcomed me into their life. One spear fisherman I’d interviewed, described how it felt to dive into the ocean without a breathing tank. His eyes lit up as he retold me about the time he had to swim from a deadly fish he had been hunting. He smiled as spoke, painting pictures with words, of how the sea is a different world.
Sailors regarded me with polite warmth. After all, I was not the first American with a pen and notebook in hand, eager to ask prying questions about their life. They probably wondered why I was interested in documenting the life of a fisherman instead of working in America. I looked back, searching and curious, knowing we come from different worlds but understanding that our goals in life are very similar.
“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering ‘bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”
My favorite time of day didn’t involve the typical island sunset. It was the hour before it. When the sun still hung high above clouds. The sky would move into transitions, from blue to shades of salmon and lavender. I’d sit watching the horizon. One evening, I remembered something my grandma once told me. “Find something beautiful to look at outside and examine it closely. See the beauty in it, Re.” And when I looked out at the horizon, I found a miracle in the way the clouds rippled and reflected above the sea; in how the sea shimmered. I found joy in the way the sea pushed against rock and earth and how the earth and rock pushed back, unmoving. In that moment, I knew that I could be nothing without nature.
Most days, I walked the main road that went along the Caribbean Sea. Under the sun, the water transformed into swaying crystals. I often sat on the wall that overlooked the sea and gaze into the horizon. Andrew, a good Rasta-Muslim friend of mine would join me. He lived with his uncle in a two-story house made from wood, thatch, and bamboo on Belmont beach. Somewhat social outcasts themselves, they farm and cook. When I met them, they were in the process of building a guesthouse and raising a farm for organic fruits and produce.
The radio at his place was always on, playing Top 40 hits mixed with dancehall and roots reggae. I’d sit with him, roll a spliff under low-light and discuss any and everything under the sun, and moon. On nights when I felt most ignited from ganja and inspired by visions, I urged that the Black revolution was happening right now--in the streets, on college university campuses, in cities and countries, in homes. I saw bitterness tinged with hope reflected in his eyes as he claimed we, black people, still needed growth and unity. I wondered what revolution looked like to him.
Nearing the end of my second month, I’d made friends with fishermen, barmaids, artists, and farmers—the people who seemed most approachable. Others who saw me pass by regarded me with reserved curiosity. The polite smile on some fishermen’s faces, whose bars I frequented, began to fade. I began to feel like a tourist who had overstayed her visa.
“She looks like us, but she’s not one of us,” Evernie, a local barmaid, once said to an older man who, assuming I was Jamaican, had began to speak to me in fast-paced patois.
Once while walking down the main road one evening, a Rasta elder beckoned me over to his shop.
“Yuh got courage, ykno,” he said.
“Walking alone in a community that’s not your own…takes courage.”
Addressing the elder’s comment with a head nod and smile, I said: “I think I have some good friends around here. I’m alright.”
He assessed me for a minute, sizing me up, then nodded. His gray, dreaded beard swung like a heavy pendulum. “Take care of yuhself.”
"A male loner is a hero of sorts, a rebel, an iconoclast, but the same is not true of a female loner. There is no virility in a woman’s autonomy, there is only pity.”
Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
I had many instances like that with other people. Making sure I’m no danger to them, they ask me questions like: “I always see you walking. What do you do? Where’s your family? Where’s your husband? Boyfriend?” Men, usually older, some good-hearted and some lonely, tried to take me under their wing, make me their woman. They wanted to protect me, from whatever danger they knew. To them, it seemed, a wandering woman is a lost one.
What did it mean to be a Black woman traveling alone?
Going to Jamaica wasn’t a “transformational journey” like the white women in films like Eat, Pray, Love or Wild. I wasn’t trying to find myself or break free from the monotonous chains of suburbia. The trip wasn't all good. There were many times when I didn't know which direction I was going. I witnessed a lot of things about Jamaica and the travel industry that angered me.
But, still, I wanted, needed, to feel a connectedness with Black folks within the diaspora. Beyond US soil, I wanted to see the way we thrived; how we swayed our hips as we walked; the way we were curators and creators of our culture. Deep within me, I needed to hear Jamaican patois from Jamaican mouths and eat stewed fish with cassava. I needed to see the Blue and Jim Crow Mountains or discuss politics with a Bahamian expat named Ralph over white rum. Maybe it looked superficial, impulsive and foolish to others but for me, it was necessary.
Shantrelle P. Lewis, a fellow black woman wanderer and scholar, commented on what it was like to do research and work on the Black/African Diaspora:
“Being out in the field is so important. Being in a diaspora has been critical to my work. I don’t talk about diaspora, I do diaspora. ... You have to go to Nigeria. You have to go to Brazil. You have to see what’s happening in the Black communities in Canada, in Amsterdam, in Suriname, in Curaçao to really be able to understand what the diaspora is all about. It’s so nuanced that you can’t even understand it, wrap your brain around it, from a distance.”
To walk this earth, a Black woman, a curious wanderer, is to be okay with walking alone. It means there will be nights when you laugh and stumble home alone from drinking too much overproof rum and others when you feel a oneness from a conversation with another Black traveler. It means to trace beats and riddims back to Africa and twerk to them. It means to be inspired by spirituality expressed in a dance, a song, in country churches in Jamaica and the American South.
To be a woman, Black and wandering, means to feel welcomed amongst other--though not all--Black folks in spite of--or maybe, because of-- your difference. It means to laugh, loud and free, at yourself and with others. It means to witness the similarities that connect Black folks to each other and know you are in the right place. It means that some days you will give in to anger, doubt, despondency and loneliness. Yet, I have come to understand, that to live within a diaspora means that you are never, really, completely alone. There is power and hope in that.
“We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us.”
The night before I left Jamaica, I stayed up to clean. As I washed dishes, I looked out the small window above the sink. My suitcase was lighter but my mind was heavy.
I allowed the sweet air from the sea cool my face. The pale yellow glow of the moon, nearly full, hung high in the sky above dark waters. I felt unbridled joy ripple through my body as I gazed at the sight. Moments before, I was stressing about the court trial that awaited me in South Carolina, the debt I was in, being an unemployed artist, and feeling remorse about leaving just when I began to gain momentum on the project.
But, when I saw the moon gaze cooly back at me, I felt a calmness wash over me like a soothing balm. There were a lot of stressors that almost engulfed me while in Bluefields. Some days I felt my work there was going nowhere and other days I believed it wasn’t going fast enough. Yet, when I looked at the environment, full of beauty, mystery and wonder, all of my worries became static whispers.
I grew in Bluefields. I left something behind in there, too. I have yet to articulate it in words, but when I landed in South Carolina, like my suitcase, I felt lighter.