Shifting Selves: Holding Two Flags

Just outside, a cherry tree bloomed in the schoolyard; bright red cherries ripened then burst in the sun, some rotted on weighted limbs before their time. “Janet Jackson?” my friend Antoinette asked as she began to chew on her beef patty and coco bread. A crosshatch of shadows folded and unfolded on her smooth, brown face, creating seemingly permanent creases. We were sitting cross-legged on the veranda of the science block where we often spent our lunch hour. These were some of the sweetest moments of our lives in sixth form: gossiping, studying for A-Levels, or complaining about our new responsibilities as prefects — an expectation that neither of us felt qualified for since it involved policing students in the lower school. At sixteen, we were girls expected to parade with the posture and attitudes of grown women, little headmistresses in training, our features shocked into scowls. We were to admonish the younger girls for things like wearing no slips under their uniforms, not having their white socks folded just above the ankles, or having anything other than the standard black clips in their hair and polished black shoes on their feet. It was this reprimanding expression that my friend gave me, Janet Jackson’s new 1997 album, The Velvet Rope, between us. It rendered me speechless, made me bite my tongue and suck on the salty, metallic taste of my blood.

“Ah weh yuh ah tell me seh, Nicole?” Her hand was suspended, the food halfway to her mouth. The fact that she said this in Patois — a language forbidden by our uptown school — made her disbelief and looming disapproval even more apparent. In her dark eyes I saw the conditions of our friendship burning like the heat that pricked our skin, dwindling with my growing silence as she awaited my response. The surrounding red hibiscuses bent toward us like listening ears as though they knew what was at stake. In that one minute that I debated whether to come out to my friend or not, I knew the risks. I remember the feel of the uniform material that day — a double-breasted gray button-up blouse and burgundy pencil skirt that fell just below the knees — stiff with all the starch from ironing. How proud I was to wear it. Until then, when I felt reproached by it. I was already an outcast at the school, being one of the few dark-skinned girls from a working class family amidst my mostly lighter complexioned upper-middle class peers in the conservative, elite all-girls high school in Kingston. Anything that would further separate me would be social suicide. Worse, to admit what I was was to betray what I had been taught it means to be Jamaican. Of course I could have retracted and explained to Antoinette that my crush on Janet Jackson might have been pure admiration — she was a beautiful woman, more beautiful than any woman we had ever seen who dared to wear a red, curly afro, her skin the same as ours. And when she sang in that sweet, wispy voice it sounded confessional and strangely forbidden. Yet, I could not say anything at all. I swallowed my spit and blood and truth.

Like other young Jamaicans, guilty of skidding outside well-drawn lines, I waited eagerly for any hint of the Holy Spirit to redeem me.

My secret sifted like ash, dulling my days and my spirit. Because in hushed voices I used to hear the stories carried in urgent winds over our heads as children about the funny people; felt the silent tug of my parents when they thought we were near one of them; was told to be vigilant since they liked to touch little children. I began to associate funny with a foul stench that needed to be eradicated — the way they incited people’s faces to twist. So when I heard of the deaths and witnessed the apathy in the form of “Dem batty boy an’ sodomite deserve it,” I joined a church and a Christian dance troupe, hoping to ease my depression. Under the heat of God’s imagined scrutiny I stumbled into an identity that wasn’t my own. Like other young Jamaicans, guilty of skidding outside well-drawn lines, I waited eagerly for any hint of the Holy Spirit to redeem me. I looked for ways to muster hope, the way a prisoner might, reaching for something from the outside to assure me that there was a world beyond the cage. I looked to an imagined future in which I could acknowledge the self I knew intimately.

I looked to America.

In 1999 I boarded a plane to the United States with a one-way ticket. I had acquired US citizenship via my father, who was here before me, so it was relatively simple to settle in my new home. I came out as a lesbian as soon as I enrolled in college at Cornell University. Coming out was like slowly exhaling after holding my breath for an eternity. I still felt the need to be cautious. It was a struggle, given the internalized homophobia I’d acquired as a result of being raised in a country that deemed my feelings unnatural. Though I became more comfortable with this new setting, which was independent of cultural restrictions, I found myself hindered by fear, stuck like a stunned mouse who had just narrowly escaped a trap. It took some time for that fear to thaw and for me to foster relationships with women without guilt attached. For a while, I was oblivious to the other mammoth of a social construct that would push me toward the margins: race. However, what I quickly learned was that there was a performance of blackness on campus that silenced many of the other LGBT students of color. I existed in a schizophrenic realm.

Audre Lorde, in her collection Sister Outsider, describes this experience, stating, “I usually find myself a part of some group defined as other, deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong.” In white circles I could — mostly — be my lesbian self (complete acceptance remained elusive, despite the university’s purported liberal, rainbow-colored umbrella). Meanwhile in black circles, my sexuality was muted. Had to be muted. In American blackness I became aware of a deeper struggle, a history uprooted and made manifest in confederate flags still flown high. Once again, I found myself having to choose.

It wasn’t a coincidence that the books I read during those days had characters that were also trying to reconcile parts of their identities with their current situation or place in society. Toni Morrison’s Sula, Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl Brownstone, Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris, and Rebecca Walker’s Black, White and Jewish — her memoir — were just a few stories in which I saw myself. Though my pre-writer self did not have the right words for what I was going through, I pinpointed similar struggles with identity and gained strength to free myself, knowing that I was not alone. Sula, for example, was extremely unapologetic. As a black woman living in the early twentieth century, she stood firmly in her own contradictions and her refusal to conform to societal expectations of her as a woman, specifically as a black woman. Moreover, I realized later — within the last year — that existing on the margins is what informs my work as a writer, because from those lines I am able to observe and write truthfully. Perhaps I was never meant to belong, but to question, to challenge societal norms.

Perhaps I was never meant to belong, but to question, to challenge societal norms.

But before all this — before I landed in America, before I learned to be cautious in a country that would scrutinize my blackness, before I began marching in Pride parades, and later, holding placards that read “Black women’s lives matter too.” Before all that, I was in an airplane, journeying across the ocean, above clouds, suspended between selves.

Seventeen years after I arrived in the United States, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a human right in every state in the United States. I was elated. But, quietly, a feeling of melancholy crouched in the corners of the cozy Washington cottage where I happened to be at the time when the news broke. Even as an out, married lesbian, this victory is bitter-sweet. I can’t help but look to the LGBT community in the country I left behind — a country I abandoned, blinded by a need to escape — who cannot celebrate this way. Because my marriage to my wife made history when we decided to have our fairytale wedding ceremony in Jamaica, we inadvertently became the face of Jamaican LGBT Pride. Though there was a recent Pride celebration held in Kingston — the first — they still have no rights or protection. So on that momentous day of the Supreme Court’s ruling, messages poured in from gay and lesbian Jamaicans, congratulating us once again on the victory — a victory they watched from afar even as so many hide at home with hope like tiny gems inside their pockets, their bodies crouched in postures of love behind closed doors.

“Celebrate for them!” My African-American wife and friends said as their own battered identities ambled outside margins. “Carry the Jamaican flag along with the rainbow one!”

In American I can live freely as an out, married lesbian, but not as black. In Jamaica, I can be black — conditionally — but not gay (unless, of course, I’m in the right class — a social construct as antiquated and traumatizing as the buggery law, which is still at large, looming like the old, officious stench of colonialism). A proud lesbian and a proud Jamaican. So simple, I think, to hold two flags in two different hands.

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