Opal Palmer Adisa

Wherever There Is Sea I Belong

Sitting on a rock at the sea’s edge, I become internally quiet, my breath slows and lengthens, and for a moment I close my eyes, allowing the rays to bathe my face. Breathing deeply, I look out and listen, leaning into the sea, I listen for the voices at the ocean floor, moaning, chattering and sending me messages. They, my ancestors, have come to terms with their fate under the blue waters, their new home. This too was a part of the plan, so they assure me.

              hear us in the ripple 
              of the waves
              in the current of the tides
              our journey is in the underworld
              where new life is always beginning

Sometimes, depending on the location, I sit under a tamarind tree, or stand on the pier facing the open Atlantic or I squat in the sand, using a stick to trace designs, mesmerized by the voices that neither the sound of the nor the loud appetite of the sea-gulls can block. I am a child of the sea, I rode to the Americas on Yemoja’s back, learned to ingest salt like the fish and use its sodium chloride to preserve my history. I am here and have been since before the Middle Passage which is the chronicle I am given in their history, and I will be here for eternity. No one can dispel or annihilate me.

              unshod my soles remember
              every pebble every soil every
              wisp of grass and the stories
              too tied to these shores that 
              generations have lived
              where belonging is the bridge
              and expanse of every path and road 

Before I was schooled about how Africans came to the Caribbean and the Americas, I could not imagine anywhere else that might be home. And even now that I have been to 14 African countries, have had my DNA tested which traces my roots to Cameroon, even though I have lived in the USA for more years  than I have lived in the Caribbean, these islands will always be home. I know the borders are arbitrarily drawn by the conquerors who lay claim to land based on their success in battle. Land is female and borders are male, and the world and divide of the world that we now inhabit was decided and determined in conquest and often did not consider the original inhabitants, nor the integrity of rivers, mountains nor the local ecology. For this reason, I am opposed to borders and believe people should be allowed freedom of movement.

              in the forest all trees belong
              growing at their own pace
              sometimes plating leaves
              co-joining roots linking branches
              in the spirit of discovery and togetherness
              all belong to the endless belonging

I was teaching at a small liberal arts college in California and doing workshops on diversity with the almost all-white faculty, the majority of whom insisted they were not racist and that their courses were inclusive. There were only a handful of Black and Latino students, but two came to me, a Black woman and a Latino man, asking me to intervene in one of the painting classes where the professor kept insisting that skin colour was pink to puce. When the Black female student raised her hand it was ignored, and when she blurted out “My skin is neither pink nor puce and neither is my mama or papa or a whole community where I come from” silence fell over the classroom, and the professor ignored her for the remainder of the three-hour studio class. 

The Latino student had similar issues over representation in another class. As the faculty diversity coordinator, I reached out to both faculty and said that stating “skin color is pink” in an all-white class with a lone Black female student was not inclusive and omitted a sizable portion of the population of the city where the college was located. I explained that this was what I meant when I spoke about the lack of diversity. 

A few days later I went to my car in the faculty parking lot and affixed to my windshield wiper was a piece of paper with these words written in bold black ink: “Go Back Where You Came From!” I was stunned. Because I was running late to pick up my children, I placed the note in my bag and reported it the next day. A  week later, in the faculty newsletter, I printed the note and wrote a poem in response, the gist of which was: ”I am right where I came from but technically only the indigenous people have claim to this land because no matter how many generations you have been here, like  me, your people came here on boats, voluntarily seeking better. My people were kidnapped and forced to be here to profit your ancestors, so I have sweated the right to be here.”

That was not the first time I was told to go back where I came from. It happened in New York many years before when I was an undergraduate student and babysat a rich boy in upper Manhattan three days a week after classes. Once, an elderly woman in the building where I worked, while riding the elevator, looked sternly at me from the opposite side and crossly said, “What are you doing here! Why don’t you people go back to where you came from?” Her hatred was so palpable. I stood where I was, speechless. I was only 17 then and I truly wondered why white people were so hateful. There is still a part of me that doesn’t understand such a stance–this idea that they belong, but we don’t. Curious, the blindness of white supremacy. As a fairly recent immigrant to the US, I found the racism and ignorance puzzling and vexing. Relating the incident to my mother when I arrived, her attitude was: “Don’t tek on them people. Tell them you belong as much as they do, and besides our bauxite and sugar are increasing their wealth.” In the 1970s, Jamaica was the third largest exporter of bauxite to the US.

Belonging is neither assigned nor granted, nor is it a privilege bestowed. Belonging is understood as a right. I belong because I am human, because my ancestors have contributed because, because… really, I don’t need a reason. Perhaps it was my mother’s staunch, arrogant attitude that buoyed me up so even in those instances, when white Americans tried to make me feel as if I did not belong, my response was always almost indignation and back in their face attitude. I have infused my children with this same attitude, except I have extended it to the world, always saying to them, “You are a citizen of the world, and wherever you want to travel and live you have a right, and you belong.” 

When I moved to New York, I discovered Langston Hughes while completing my final year of high school. His poem, “I, Too” has always resonated with me, as it so eloquently articulates the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. 

              I, too, sing America.
              I am the darker brother.
              They send me to eat in the kitchen
              When company comes,
              But I laugh,
              And eat well,
              And grow strong.

Though Langston Hughes wrote that poem more than 50 years ago, it is still relevant and dialogues with the Black Lives Matter Movement. As Black people, we always have to declare that we struggled and contributed and helped to shape the culture of all the Americas, so therefore we belong. Sometimes, however, the racism and constant need to protect yourself and your children makes you not want to belong, makes you want to find a safe place to flee. 

Yes, white brothers and sisters, “I too, sing America.” And when the white racist raises his ugly head, I just walk away and keep moving, the sea in my ear, my ancestors singing the water, I’m never far, I’m always here, the sea is the largest body so you can’t help but belong. 

Opal Palmer Adisa is a Ja-American writer who currently resides in Jamaica but has lived and taught in the Oakland Bay Area for over 25 years.  She has published 20 collections of poetry, short stories, two novels and three children’s books. She is a cultural activist and gender specialist at The UWI, Mona, Institute for Gender and Development Studies.