For the second year in a row, I attended the Little Haiti Book Festival, and again I left inspired. The festival seems to have gotten bigger and better than the previous year with more activities and more people in attendance.
One of the things I appreciate most about the book festival is that it’s accessible to everyone. The one day event was free and open to the public and ran from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. with musical performances, author readings, movie screenings, and writing workshops.
The festival takes place at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, and knowing that parking can get a little crazy, we arrived around 10:45. We had just enough time to walk around, grab a program, and then head to the children’s art room.
We were in the right place at the right time, because about 20 minutes later, we were able to get great seats to see authors Edwidge Danticat and Tamara B. Rodriguez read their children’s books, My Mommy Medicine and Hair to the Queen.
My Mommy Medicine tells the story of a mom taking care of her sick daughter. Danticat told us the book was based on her own experience of comforting her daughter when she stayed home from school sick. Rodriguez’s book is about a mother who battles cancer. In the story, the children make their mother feel beautiful, even though she has lost all of her hair.
In the Q&A that followed the reading, Rodriguez told us that the book was based on her personal battle with breast cancer. Both authors were kind enough to give away signed copies of their books.
Anytime I get the chance to see Danticat in person, I am in awe. As she read her children’s book, she sang songs like “Frere Jaques” (in English and in French) and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”. She was totally engaging, asking the kids questions, making jokes and sound effects while she read.
This is the same woman who is a best selling author of dozens of books. More recently, she wrote this poignant short story about an immigrant death. It ran in the New Yorker days after last year’s Little Haiti Book Festival, and I remember reading it, being absolutely mesmerized. The story is haunting and original, and it stayed with me for a long time.
I’ve been a fan of Danticat since childhood, and her writing always makes me feel something. Whether she’s talking about the quiet horror of the Tonton Macoute or the seemingly mundane responsibilities of being a mother, her work is always filled with tangible emotion. Seeing her read her children’s book to my children made me admire her that much more as a writer.
Another highlight of the festival was attending a drumming work shop, where kids of all nationalities gathered around and were taught the history of drumming and how it traveled from the Congo to Haiti. At one point my daughter and her friend were pulled into the center of the circle and taught a traditional Haitian dance.
The drumming circle made me think about how cultures and traditions are passed down. I wasn’t raised in a Haitian household, and so I often find myself learning about Haitian culture alongside my children. I want my children to know as much as possible about their heritage, and events like this give them an immersive experience.
The festival is also a reminder of how important it is for Haitians in the Diaspora to gather as a community to make sure the legacy of Haitian art and culture is passed on to the next generation.
In a city that continues to change and faces the threat of gentrification, the festival is a reminder of the contribution of Haitian art and culture, not only in South Florida but around the world.
The festival is in its 9th year, and I’m already excited about next year’s event. If you’re in Miami or the surrounding area, make a point to go. And don’t forget to try the griot and pikliz, two of Haiti’s most loved dishes!
On April 7th, Netflix tweeted out a single cryptic image. In a matter of hours, there were thousands of retweets, with people guessing, correctly, that Netflix was going to drop a Beyonce special.
The actual project dropped on April 17th, and the day after it premiered, I sat down to watch the 2 hour special that went behind the scenes of Beyonce’s 2018 headlining Coachella performance.
Throughout the performance, I got goosebumps. It wasn’t just the set list that gave me a serious case of nostalgia or the (SPOILER ALERT) Destiny’s Child reunion. “Homecoming” was more than just a concert performance. It was an homage to the HBCU (Historically Black College/University) experience. If you’ve never attended an HBCU, you may have watched the special, but you may have missed the signals.
The show started with an a cappella version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The song is the official Negro National Anthem, and was written James Weldon Johnson who, at the time, was a staff member at Florida Memorial University, the HBCU that I attended.
Another nod to the HBCU experience was the inclusion of a marching band, which is integral to any black college experience. (See Drumline or Marching Orders, the Netflix Documentary about the Bethune Cookman Marching Band). I’ve had the pleasure of watching the Grambling State Marching band at the Battle of the Bands at the New Orleans Superdome, and let me tell you, watching a marching band is an experience. The musicians, the dancers, the formations, the baton twirlers all working together – it’s an absolute art form.
Another cornerstone of black colleges are step shows. In black fraternities and sororities, stepping is almost sacred. It’s a rite of passage once you’ve crossed the line and received your Greek letters. At parties, stepping is a show of solidarity, a way of saying this is my tribe and this is our space. Stepping is also very technical and precise. If one person is “out of line”, it shows. Stepping is a show of both strength and humility.
I know this because I’m terrible at it.
During my years at FMU, I pledged a community service sorority on campus. We were not part of the Divine Nine, the nine original black sororities and fraternities on campus, but we were our own little ragtag group of girls who wanted to make a difference through serving the community.
As part of our pledging process, our big sisters planned our “Come Out Show” where we would announce to the world that were now officially members of the sorority. For weeks, we practiced in parking lots, dorms rooms, and classrooms that we found unlocked. We practiced in sweat soaked clothing, our big sisters barking at us to start over each time we made a mistake.
For weeks, I struggled to master the movements. It was like doing math in my head. I would memorize a combination, but just when I got my brain wrapped around one part, we had to learn another combination.
I was hopeless.
As I watched the performance last night, I was brought back to those weeks of rehearsal. Just like the steppers during the performance, we wore combat boots (spray painted maroon) and gray jumpsuits with our line names on the back. (Mine was Snow White). I was terrible up until the night of our Come Out Show, and I don’t remember much of our performance, just that I was happy to be done.
Although the concept of an HBCU may seem outdated, those years at FMU, for me, were some of the hardest, and most character building years of life. I learned more about black history than I had ever known. More than I would have if I had not attended an HBCU. Going to an HBCU means membership to a special club. Those of us who went to FMU can laugh at some of its shortfalls, but for so many of us, it gave us a home, a safe place to affirm our black identities.
I would never take back the experience of attending an HBCU, and Beyonce’s performance reminded me of their place in black culture. For a long time, HBCUs were the only place that black Americans could receive a college education.
The Homecoming special is so important because it presents such a unique part of black culture with no explanation. There’s no urgency to clue the Coachella audience in on the rituals and songs that are a hundred years old. There’s no code switching, no attempt to make you comfortable with the text. Beyonce simply presents it. The performance was for everyone, but if you understood the detail, the intention behind each song choice, each color, each costume, and each movement, the performance was for you.
As the credits rolled, Beyonce gave us an updated version of “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze. Listen, if I had not attended an HBCU, I would not be able to tell you who Frankie Beverly was for a million dollars. But any black American who has attended an HBCU can tell you, that song is part of the soundtrack to every school Homecoming, every cookout, every tailgate. It’s part of black history, and thanks to my HBCU, it’s now part of my history.
When I first stumbled upon Mariama Lockington’s personal essay, “What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew,” I felt an instant connection with her. I remember reading the essay, nodding at all the things that I could relate to as a transracial adoptee. “Yes,” I murmured under my breath, “This is so good.“
Mariama represents black girls whose identities sometimes don’t fit into neat boxes, the girls who sometimes walk the tight rope between two cultures. In sum, she represents black girls like me.
Read on for our conversation about writing, the importance of representation, and Mariama’s definition of home.
You first book, The Lucky Daughter a poetry chapter book, deals with themes like race and family. How much of the poetry draws from your own life experience?
Writing for me has always been about survival, about finding mirrors and windows in which to see myself and the world around me better. My poetry tends to be pretty confessional in nature, but not all of my poems are directly related to something that happened to me. Some of my poems are personal poems and some of them are re-memories and re-imaginings. In general, I like to say that in all of my poems there are emotional truths that ring true to my personal experiences.
You also wrote a MG novel-in-verse, For Black Girls Like Me, which will be out next year. Why did you choose a middle school audience for this particular book?
For Black Girls Like Me in its very early stages was my MFA grad school thesis— a collection of about sixty prose poems about a nameless pre-teen adopted black girl. It was much more abstract and I thought that I had written it for an adult audience, but I was having trouble taking the manuscript to the next level after grad school. When I published my article “What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew” on Buzzfeed in 2016, my now editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, reached out. She asked if I’d ever considered writing a fictional book based on my own experiences as an adoptee, but for a middle grade audience. I was SO excited by this prospect, since my other passion in life is teaching and working with youth. I have a Masters in Education and I have worked with education nonprofits for more than ten years. When I thought about this girl I kept writing poems about, about writing her story more concretely for a younger audience, giving her a name, something just clicked. I was able to dive back into the manuscript and rewrite it for this younger audience with renewed vision and excitement. So in some ways, the book itself chose its audience.
Today, For Black Girls Like Me is my Harriet the Spy meets Awkward Black Girl mash-up. It will be out in July of 2019, and it’s a novel-in-verse about a curious young black girl, Makeda, who lives with her adoptive white family. When her family moves across the country one spring, everything changes for Makeda. At home, Makeda’s sister is too cool to hang out with her anymore and at school, she can’t seem to find one true friend. Through it all, Makeda can’t help wondering: What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me? It’s a story about family, friendship, sisterhood, race and identity.
I can’t wait to read it, and it sounds like it was inspired in part by your childhood. In your Buzzfeed article, “What a Black Woman Wishes Her Adoptive White Parents Knew” you describe growing up in a color blind home, where your parents basically told you that race didn’t matter. You wrote that one of the effects of that was feeling like you had to shield your parents from the racism that you experienced when you are young, and then as an adult you felt you couldn’t have conversations about racism in America. After so many years of not talking about race and racism with your family, at what point did you start verbalizing your observations of racism?
Well there are two answers here.
I always get mad when adoptive white parents of black or brown kids tell me that their child is “too young to be talking or thinking about race.” That’s just false. Young people— toddlers and children— are VERY observant and aware of the ways they are being treated and what they are seeing in this world. They notice patterns and tension, and yes, sometimes they don’t always have the analysis or the language to fully process the moment, but they are able to process their feelings and feel their observations. For example, when I was four or five my parents moved to Boulder, CO— a very white city. One day my mom took me to the grocery store and I saw a black woman in one of the isles. I stopped in my tracks, frozen, and pointed at the black woman in excitement and surprise. “Look mama,” I yelled,” It’s a black woman. She’s like me.” It was a seemly innocent moment, but my mom was horrified that I had acted so surprised to see someone who looked like me. She quickly realized—what she as a white woman had not realized until that moment— that seeing yourself reflected in the majority is a privilege. A privilege I had been denied. I may not have had the language to process all of this, but I knew in that moment that it felt affirming to know that I wasn’t the only one. That there were beautiful black women who existed in the world. Six months after this incident, my parents moved us back to Denver. I wouldn’t say that my parents NEVER noticed race or the ways we were treated differently, but they just had a hard time talking about it with me and my siblings. It’s awkward to treat your children as if color doesn’t matter, but then step into the world and be confronted with the ways it does. I don’t think my parents were ever given the tools to address moments like these with us.
I don’t think I really started talking consciously and openly about race until I was in college. Up until then, it was a lot of me stuffing my feelings and scribbling things in my journals. Of course growing up I KNEW I was black and that my parents were not. As mentioned above, I knew how it felt to be treated differently, or have kids at school call me “the whitest black girl” but I didn’t really know how to analyze and articulate why these moments of difference and tension were happening. In college two things happened, I took an entire class on Toni Morrison’s novels, and I started attending and performing poems at the University of Michigan U-Club Poetry Slams. In both of these spaces, I began to grapple with terms like: colorism, colorblindness, racism, microaggressions, colonization, etc., and I began to understand some of the bigger systems that were at play. It was both an empowering and terrifying period of time, and while I felt comfortable talking about these topics with my peers, bringing back my new found language and knowledge to my family was not comfortable or easy. It still isn’t.
That sounds like many transracial adoptees whose identities start to form when they leave home and attend college. Was there a particular circumstance that motivated you to start talking and writing publicly about your adoption and your identity? How has the conversation around transracial adoption changed, if at all?
I’d say that my time doing spoken word and slam poetry in college really helped me begin to share my adoptee truths more publicly. I saw other young poets of color getting up on stage and being really open and honest about their lives. After spending a lot of years stuffing or hiding my feelings, I admired and wanted to emulate this kind of honesty. In college, I screamed into a lot of microphones about my dad being a Colonizer (he’s originally from England) which is really dramatic and of course not directly true. But at the time it felt good to draw sweeping connections between some of the dark history of this world and my experiences growing up with white parents in mostly white spaces. I had a lot of anger to sort through in my 20s. A lot of valid anger.
I do think the conversation has changed a little bit around transracial adoption, but I think we still have far to go. I do notice that there are more support groups for white parents with adopted kids of color, and I am really grateful for all of the adult adoptees who are now speaking up about their experiences. Visibility helps.
Let’s talk about the idea of “home.” For many adoptees the concept of home and family may change as they grow up. You wrote that you grew up in Denver, moved to New Mexico and as an adult later moved to Michigan. Do you have a place that has felt most like home? If so, why?
Because I’ve moved around so much, I find home in people more than I do places. I don’t have that one childhood home that I go back to every holiday. Instead, I have memories of running around in Turtle Park in Denver with my friend Jesse and my sister. I have memories of driving around East Grand Rapids with my friend Lil Lizzie. I have memories of making forts in the woods in Baltimore with my sister and brother. Today, home is sitting on my porch in Kentucky with my dog, Henry, and my partner. We travel as a pack. Packlife = home.
Along with the complicated idea of home, many adoptees grow up feeling that they don’t know who they really are. Do you feel more “settled” in who are you now? If so, what has contributed to that?
Yes and no. I feel very settled in my career as a writer and educator, I feel settled in my partnership with my wife and the life we’ve chosen to build together, I feel very loved and supported by my friends and chosen family. And every day I am learning to ask for what I need, to stand in my truth, and not over apologize or be accommodating. But I have not searched for my biological family yet, so there is still a part of me that has a lot of questions, fear, and anxiety about who I am and where I come from.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a Young Adult novel— a queer love story between two black girls. It’s in the early stages, but I’m excited about where it’s going. Other than that, continuing to teach, cook good food, and get ready for For Black Girls Like Me to launch July 2019!