Sometimes it feels like I’ve always been surrounded by whiteness.
My mother’s parents integrated our Massachusetts suburb in the late 1940s, and her mother, my grandmother, grew up in 1910s Portsmouth, New Hampshire — a member of a Black community in what has been consistently one of the whitest states in the nation. My grandmother had a phrase for this existence: “The only raisin in the pound cake,” a culinary reference that only reinforces her status as a Black New Englander.
When I was younger, blackness was not a separate nation from these places. It was clearly defined in our living rooms and backyards, during the Black History Month celebrations, and Black student group meetings and Kwanzaa parties, and the NAACP meetings my grandparents held in their home — a whole calendar of activities centered on ensuring that Black communities had space to take root and thrive. Our home was a country that I understood whiteness could maybe visit, maybe break bread in, but never destroy.
It’s a shock, whenever you leave the U.S., to realize how much other people understand that history matters.
That changed for me in high school. I was the only Black girl in my grade and one of two Black students in the class. It was there that I began to feel how you move through whiteness. All the observations you must silence. You learn to acknowledge and honor blackness and resistance in other ways: the famous “nod” when you see another Black person on the street; the very careful posture you adopt when you walk into banks and businesses; the hug you give freely to the new Black person who moves into town, and the carefulness you keep around your body with your white neighbors.
It’s a pose I’ve kept even in Brooklyn, where I now reside. It unbends slightly but is always ready to snap back into place if I happen to spend the night out in some sections of Williamsburg, or as soon as the car I’m traveling in crosses the Connecticut state line.
Last summer, I traveled to Anguilla. It was the first time I’d ever gone to a predominantly black country, and my first time traveling to the Caribbean. The arrival was almost unbearably romantic. The trip requires a boat ride from St. Kitts, across an expanse of water impossibly blue, framed by the islands rising around us.
Anguilla is, as everyone there will tell you, famously a site of resistance. Most everyone I spoke to mentioned this. My first night there, the organizers of the Anguilla Literary Festival, which I was there to attend, told us of the enslaved inhabitants’ resistance; of the Anguillan people famously beating out an occupying force from St. Kitts half a century ago; of the island’s very geography being inhospitable for the crops that drove Caribbean plantation economies. This is a point of pride. People relish the fact that Anguilla has always been less developed than other Caribbean islands, that the descendants of slaves live there and own their own land, that they did not sell off their beaches to luxury hotels or developers like other islands. This means that the woman cleaning your hotel room often owns her own beachfront house a few miles away.
Anguilla is, as everyone there will tell you, famously a site of resistance.
One night, I sat with one of the festival organizers — a Black American — who told me how he first came to Anguilla. It was in the 1970s, and he had been a revolutionary, involved in organizing and movements in New York City, at one point going into exile in Europe. After exile, after imprisonment, he, like many other Black American revolutionaries, had found in Anguilla refuge from surveillance and political persecution. One morning, as I sat by the beach reading, I looked up to see him swimming in a playful race against young men in their twenties, a few children, and some tourists. It was a practice race so it did not matter who won and at the end, everyone tumbled out of the water, out of breath, but laughing. In Anguilla, he had found freedom.
It’s a shock, whenever you leave the U.S., to realize how much other people understand that history matters, to witness how that understanding manifests itself in their conversation, in how they talk of their lives and the world. They move differently, walk differently through the world. In the U.S., people often talk of history as some sort of prison. That to know and remember it, especially the history of oppression, means you are locked in ancient grudges, that you cannot move forward. It’s like that James Baldwin quote about how he pities white people because they are trapped in a history they do not understand, do not even have words for.
But there’s a liberation in having those words, in having a story for yourself, in being able to say, “This is why my life is the way it is. This is how I ended up here.”
In Anguilla, I woke up every morning and walked down the road to a small stretch of beach near my hotel. As I walked, I noticed how the road filled with passing butterflies and how tiny lizards darted all around, a welcome substitution for the rats of New York City sidewalks. When I got to the beach, I was usually the only person there. I realized, after the first morning, with a start, that it was the first time I’d ever experienced having a stretch of beach all to myself. I sat on the white sand and watched baby sharks sidewind through the water, towards the shore. I looked out over the water in front of me and thought I saw, out there, another country, breaking through the mist.
Read more stories from Traveling While Black: On Being Black in First Class by Jamilah Lemieux, Letting My Guard Down as a Solo Black Traveler by Randy Winston, Traveling While Black in Florence by Mateo Askaripour, and Traveling While Black in Colombia by Nneka M. Okona