There was broken glass in my feet that night.
It’s the first time it’s happened since we started the tradition but I pulled it out of my sole and kept walking.
Blood and all.
My friends and I were headed to J’ouvert. We were in the shirts and jeans we’d shredded for effect, pounding the cement, hoping to make it right on time so we didn’t miss a thing.
J’ouvert is a celebration derived from colonizer carnival. When the enslaved weren’t allowed to celebrate they created their own commemoration. It’s street theatre, masquerade, steel pan sounds, and culture. It begins in the wee hours of the morning, in Brooklyn, and ends just before the West Indian Day Parade begins. The streets and masqueraders are covered in mud, oils, powder, and anything that is a metaphor for the toil of our people.
My grandmother, the most superstitious elder in our family, unknowingly filled me with traditions. I cringe when a months-old child’s hair is cut. I still rub overproof rum on my neck when I have a cold, alongside Vicks. I mix cod-liver oil and honey each morning. Some of Mumma’s remedies are tried and true but others are rooted in our history.
I can still smell the Wray & Nephew emanating from my chest on the nights that I didn’t have a cold and her voice, laying next to me, muffled by a pillow, “No duppy in dis’ house.”
During grandpa’s funeral, in Trelawny, Jamaica, the gravediggers refused to lay him to rest until they received rum. The smell always brought to mind their song, “We nah work til’ we get some rum. We nah work...”
Mumma’s personal belief was that it was disrespectful to the dead to wear your shoes on their graves. When we went to visit grandpa, she’d remove them before walking down his row. I did the same every time we came close to the area where Weeksville used to be, on Eastern Parkway. In a few blocks, we’d be greeted by people dressed as ghouls, percussionists, devils, dancers, and more. They were satire and truth, an exemplification of our pain, and a reminder that we had risen from the darkness.
It was ironic that the morning parade took this route. It was once a freed town’s cemetery. Mumma’s mother said they had big plans for Brooklyn long before gentrification started. The cemetery was sold and the remains that didn’t have headstones were thrown into the city dump. The contractors refused to wait, to bury the dead with dignity.
Every time we walked past Buffalo and Rochester Avenue, an animal sacred to indigenous people alongside medieval roots synonymous with slaughter, I took my shoes off. We were still walking on the dead.
Blood and all.
At first, I thought my date was hanging on to my every word. When I looked up from spinning my tale, I realized that he was horrified. The dimly lit cafe buzzed around us, patrons typing away at their screenplays and articles, others coming in for a drink to go, and some talking the night away—like us.
August in Brooklyn was full throttle. We were getting ready to spread our culture along the parkway, smoke grills filling the sky with authenticity, beads, and flags ready to go. Elders were pushing carts back and forth, pressing fruit for ripeness, dipping their hands into saltfish buckets, and watching all of the youth as if they were their own. The youth was still blasting firecrackers, kicking and throwing balls through nets and against courts, and filling the streets with laughter.
These were the parts of Brooklyn summer that were recognizable.
We were in one of those spots that you swear wasn’t there a second ago. They start with scaffolding, strip away all the identity of what was, and add lights, mason jars, and industrial stools. I would’ve never chosen a place like this for a date.
He spoke after a minute of silence, “Uh...that’s a lot to share on the first date.”
“You asked what the West Indian Day Parade was and what it meant to me.”
“I did. I’m from Kansas and we don’t have something like that in my town. I was just kind of curious. I was so grateful to find an apartment in this area, one that’s so close to these cute little spots and I can still get some jerk chicken down the block.”
He laughed. I guess this was the part where I was supposed to laugh too.
He continued, “I’ve been here three months but my new job has me tied up all the time. I never have time to see Brooklyn. You’ve got to show me all the good things. I heard Williamsburg is dope and I really would like to walk the Brooklyn Bridge.”
I wanted to scoff at him but I maintained my composure.
He wanted me to show him my beloved Brooklyn, but he wanted to see all the parts that’d washed away the notion that we were ever here.
It was these moments that reminded me that privilege existed outside of the confines of race. The last reminder was walking down the block with a colleague, that was also from out of town, that pointed at a new condo, erected after eradicating historical brownstones. It defied the aesthetic of the block, an eyesore.
She pointed at it and said, “I need to get into an apartment building like this. All these other buildings just don’t feel like Brooklyn to me.”
The feel of Brooklyn, as interpreted by some 20-somethings that didn’t grow up here, is the viral videos of food trucks, new studio apartment gatherings, and more whitewash. This is what they perceived Brooklyn to be.
I felt like I was living in an alternate reality.
“So...are you going to show me Brooklyn?”
I smiled at Derrick, or whatever his name was, and nodded, “Sure.”
I checked my phone for the time and insisted that I had to go and see my grandmother. He was taken aback despite my “horror” tales from earlier, “Oh. Will I get to see you sometime this week?”
I smiled as I packed my things into my bag and picked up my trash, “Sure. I’ll call you.”
As I made my way through the evolving Crown Heights block to Utica Avenue, listening to pan sounds coming from someone’s camp, I realized that I only half-lied to him. I lived in Bedstuy and Mumma lived in East Flatbush. I was already halfway there; I might as well stop by.
Mumma’s house was on a block that I thought would never change. When we left Crown Heights, pushing through the buildings that were and weren’t ours, we drove into the heart of Brooklyn—the streets and stores lined with food, beautifully broken English, and everything I craved.
The B46 continued up Utica Avenue and college women with NYU tote bags got off beyond Church Ave.
I was wrong.
Mumma’s house was on a block that just might change.
Mumma’s stoop was filled with flowers, every breed that could be found at the local Korean store, and the backyard was filled with vegetables and herbs. I could hear Mumma’s blender through the kitchen window as I walked up the driveway.
It was an unspoken rule: The front door was for guests.
I wasn’t really a guest. The front door led into her always perfect living room, plastic on the sofas, and figurines galore. The side door was the entrance to the kitchen, filled with smells that I could only find there and back in Jamaica.
I knocked three times when Jaylen put his face to the glass of the door, from the other side.
“Open the door, boi!”
My little cousin laughed, “What did you bring me?”
“A spanking, if you don’t open this door.”
He opened the door smiling his big-tooth smile, “You don’t believe in spanking children. I’ve read your Facebook.”
“Oh yeah?! What do you know about Facebook?” I tickled him and closed the door behind us.
Jaylen was 11. He was the son of my Uncle Dash and Auntie Willie. They had 3 kids and they all lived here with Mumma. Coming to Mumma’s house was always a family reunion.
Jaylen ran back into the living room, bony legs flailing around the corner, to play his video games.
Mumma was in her zone. She wore her colorful robe, the one she’d been wearing all our lives, and she was peeling ginger and making ginger beer all at once.
“Mumma! Who made an order?”
“You don’t have manners, girl. Good evening.”
I hugged her, “Good evening, Mumma.”
She continued to blend and peel, “Brother Marcus asked me to mek some Irish Moss and Ginger Beer for his church function tomorrow.”
“Oh okay, businesswoman! Is he paying you?”
“Gwan and mind your business.”
I laughed. This meant she was making money.
I admired her. At almost 90 years old, but didn’t look a day over 70, she sewed outfits, blended juices, and catered for the Caribbean community. Everyone was always telling me how lucky I was and that I should cherish her.
I sat down on a stool nearby, enamored with what she was doing. I still didn’t know how to make ginger beer.
“Sadie, what are you doing here? Don’t you have work in the morning?”
My grandmother still couldn’t grasp the concept that I was an entrepreneur. I started work when I wanted and ended work when I wanted.
“Yes Mumma, but I had a date tonight.”
The blender stopped suddenly, “Wid who?”
“Does this man av’ a name?”
“It doesn’t matter what his name is because I’m not going to see him again.”
“Good? Mumma, you’re not concerned? I’m 30 and I’m still single.”
“So what. If you want a baby, any man will give you that, but don’t expect love. This family doesn’t get love from men.”
She was right. My father left my mother when I was 10 years old. My grandmother’s husband was an abusive alcoholic that she fled from. My great grandmother’s husband didn’t make it past 26 years old. We were unlucky in love.
“Just because you weren’t all lucky with...”
She cut me off, “Luck! This has nothing to do with luck!”
Mumma grabbed her cane and made her way to the dining room. She was on a mission. She opened the cabinets under the china closet, where she kept all her prized ceramics and glasses and pulled out her favorite photo album. It was sky blue with photos pouring from its edges and it’d seen many countries.
She flipped through and landed on a page with pictures of her childhood home. Three of the photos were of the house, the trees and the boats on Jamaica’s Barbican seaside but the last picture was of her. She was about 41, with long straightened jet black hair, that flew in the wind, a floral 1960’s style dress, and a leather suitcase in her hand.
She was on her way to back to the Brooklyn that her mother left behind.
Mumma’s hair was cut into a short gray afro now, that dress was still in the back of her closet, and all the things she believed then...she still believed now.
She pointed to a tree in the picture, “You see this tree in the yard?”
“This woman, named Ms. Tee, was furious with my mother. They were sharing the same man. My mother didn’t know this, but Ms. Tee did. The whole parish told us that she buried something deep in the roots of that tree. We used to dig there as pickney but couldn’t find anything. That same year my father died. We been bad with love and men since then. We cursed child.”
I stared at the picture with Mumma in it. Although it was black and white, I could see the swaying of the vines and trees, the movement of the water, and the hurt in her still eyes.
“Wow. I didn’t know.”
Mumma slammed the photo album shut, “You find yourself. Forget love. Love shows up with skin like soil, wit like wire, smooth talk, and sticky hands. Who wan’ dat?”
I sat in front of Mumma’s waiting on my carpool.
I didn’t want to take the long bus ride back but I also didn’t feel like paying an arm and a leg to get home. A strong gust blew through the front yard, one that indicated rain was coming, and all I could think of was Mumma’s story.
We were not cursed.
We were unlucky in love.
I was going to break that cycle.
Why should only the men in our family get to give and receive love?
The carpool finally arrived. I walked down the steps and noticed the black tinted car was not in front of the right house—typical. I walked half a block, opened the back door, and noticed there were two people already sitting in the back, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
I closed the door and got into the front instead. I sighed due to the lack of leg room and the driver’s insistence that I place his personal book bag at my feet. We headed towards Utica Avenue when a woman in the back started a conversation with whoever was sitting next to her.
“I love that book. It’s phenomenal. I think it’s so sexy when guys read it.”
The guy replied, “Oh really? My friend insisted that I take it and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
I didn’t turn around but I could tell the guy was a brotha. I’d already seen the woman when I opened the door accidentally.
“You’re going to love it! 48 Laws of Power is a masterpiece. Robert Greene...”
He cut her off, “I know what the book is about. I’m just not into books like this. The rehashing of history to fit an agenda sounds like great marketing, not great reading.”
I smirked. I felt the same way about certain books: The Alchemist, 48 Laws of Power, Art of War, The Art of Seduction, etc. I had a name for men that called them their favorite books.
I won’t share it.
“Oh, okay. Well, what do you do?”
“I’m in social work.”
“That’s beautiful. My family had foster kids. I know how difficult they can be.”
Homeboy and I snorted at the exact same time. Homegirl didn’t catch it.
“I’m visiting from California. Brooklyn is my second home because my bestie moved here five years ago. I’m back and forth. I grew up in San Francisco but I live in Los Angeles now. I own and run a dispensary. I like to call myself a spiritualist. I’ll get your spirit right.”
He laughed, “Is that right?”
“Yeah, I also employ some young folks from the community. Support the youth, right?”
His voice was sultry. I wanted to focus on the Hot97 tunes coming through the radio but the words leaving his mouth called for my attention. I kept listening.
“How many of those young folks have fathers, uncles, and cousins, locked up, for doing the exact same thing that you are?”
The woman sighed. She was quiet for the rest of the ride.
A few blocks later, we dropped her off.
When the car drove towards the next destination, I said, “Good one, bro.”
He said, “A brotha just wanted to listen to his podcast in peace.”
“I feel that. I’m sorry. I’ll let you get back to it.”
I still hadn’t looked back at him. I thought it would be rude to turn around and stare. I kept my eyes on the road. I realized that he had a southern accent.
“It’s cool. You from around here?”
Oh no. Here we go with another show-me-Brooklyn guy.
“I am. I grew up here. I live in Bedstuy now. You?”
“I’m from Hampton Roads. All seven cities, really. I was a military kid, moving everywhere until the Navy took my father overseas and he never returned.”
“I know what that’s like.”
“A lot of us do, but we’re gonna be different right?”
I heard his podcast turn back on, through his headphones, and I realized that our conversation was over. The cab was about five minutes from home and I was excited to plop down on my sofa and watch Netflix. We pulled up to Malcolm X and Gates and I got out. I thanked the driver and made a mental note to give him 4 stars—due to his book bag. The gentleman in the back got out of the car too.
He grabbed his things from the car as I closed my door and when he lifted his head I saw that he was brown like soil—fine, as all hell.
He broke my trance, “You live around here, too?”
I stepped on the curb as the cab drove away, “Yeah, a block away. They’re not doing this to-your-door thing with pools anymore.”
“I know, but I like the walk. I love this area. Well, I did before it got crazy with all these changes. I guess since I’ve only been here for 5 years, I’m a gentrifier too huh?”
“They wouldn’t have changed Brooklyn for an influx of you.”
He smiled and his entire face lit the dark corner, “You’re right. It was good meeting you...uh?”
“Nice name. Nice to meet you, Sadie. I’m Dru.”
He extended his hand, in the sweaty Bedstuy summer night, and I grasped it.
Everything inside of me was boiling.
Blood and all.