I am the dreams of my people: my Ethiopian, Syrian and Arawak ancestors, my inner-city neighbors, my late grandparents. I am the fruit of their labor.
The experiences I had in Jamaica are vivid.
I remember when uncle Stephen would climb the roof of the house to adjust the satellite dish so that I could watch the cartoon show Tom and Jerry, and how uncle Stephen couldn’t afford to go school. I remember when Grandma would make fried chicken and white rice after church for Sunday dinner, and how Grandma told me to call her “Mama,” because that is what Jamaican kids usually call their Grandma. I remember when I climbed the mango tree to gaze at the stars, and how the mosquitos drank my “sweet blood,” and forced me to go inside. These early events were an introduction to struggles that would punctate my life. Struggles with education, assimilation, and dreams.
I remember my immense disappointment when I first came to America. As we drove from JFK airport, I asked my mom, “Wha mek the streets no made of gold?” In my her equally thick accent, my mom replied: “Whoever tell you that, did a lie. There is no gold here, Jr.” My mom was right. I had left the farm-country poverty of Clarendon, Jamaica, for the inner-city poverty of Queens, New York. We drove through Cambria Heights, Jamaica (NY), and stopped in Hollis. When I reflect, I now see my first car ride was through the run-down, disenfranchised, and poverty-stricken neighborhoods that became part of my childhood.
I remember my excitement when I saw our one-bedroom apartment. We had a working sink, a shower with hot water, and I had my own bed! I remember my mom’s face. Her smile mirrored mine, but her eyes… Mom’s eyes were reserved and humbled. 14 years later, I know what she saw. A little island boy who never had nothing, but is excited to eat cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; excited to have a bed that is 2 feet away from the apartment’s doorway; and excited to sleep in the hallway among the roaches and rats who roam at night. She wanted more for me.
On the island, one has to pay a fee to attend primary school. In New York, there is no fee for public school, so that is where I went. I remember the hours of instruction I missed, because my classes had over 30 kids, and the overwhelmed teacher had lost control of the class to unwieldy students. These were the same students that would call me “fat orange cat” or “African accent.” These were the same students that, on the playground, I fought. These were the same kids that would drop out and join The Bloods. There was a lot of gang activity in Hollis. But I couldn’t join a gang, mostly because I couldn’t go outside. When I asked why, Mom would answer: “Why? Because a me pay the bills! A me run this house [apartment]. Go sit down, and read a book.” Therefore, most of my evenings were indoors immersed in the confines of a book, only to be punctuated by the streets’ occasional gun fire.
I remember always waking up at 5 am to take the Q3, F-Train, and 7-Train, to get to Aviation High School for 0-Period. Aviation High School is 10 miles away from where I lived. My district zone high school had a metal detector, because students would bring knives and guns to class.
I remember when I got stabbed. As I stood at the Q83 bus stop, a raspy voice quickly said, “run your pockets.” These were words that were said in school as a joke to one’s friend, but this was not a friend. I looked up. He was black and tall with dreads. He took a step back and had his right hand behind his back. This was not a joke; this was real life. When I said “no,” he lounged at my neck. I pivoted his hand away and countered with a right hook. He doubled back. In the moment this happened, a circle of bus riders formed to watch the fight. My attacker saw the gathering and retreated into the crowd’s obscurity. It was only after the adrenaline subsided, while seated on the bus, that I noticed the warm sensation of blood flow down my arm. I wrapped my arm up when I got home. I went to school the next day.
I remember when I was promoted to foreman in hydraulics class, and the stories grandpa could now share with me about his experience as a sugar cane foreman. He told me about how he worked his way up from sugar cane field-cutter to foreman, and could finally afford a house. As we sat in his apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, he said to me, “Jr, whatever you do, be the best at it.” Grandpa Roy passed away of cancer when I was a freshman in college.
I see the cold looks I receive as I navigate campus. People who look at me in fear, others who see me as a token black guy. I see your pupil scan me from the corner of your eye as I enter the fraternity party. I see you walk across the street when I leave the library late at night. I see you follow behind me when I enter the store. I see you see my black skin, so I know you see my black strength.
I remember the lectures where I sat as one of the few colored men, almost as if the lecture were a vanilla cone and we were the few and far between chocolate sprinkles. There were times in lecture when I either knew the answer or had a question, but didn’t raise my hand because of the threat of affirming stereotypes about my race. When I knew the answer, I didn’t want to raise my hand and potentially get it wrong. If my answer was wrong, the whole lecture hall would know that I wasn’t as smart as university admissions thought and that I was, in fact, a stupid black kid. When I had a question, I couldn’t raise my hand, because if the question had an obvious answer, my peers would not only judge me, they would judge my people. As if my, at times, slow moments, are a representation of colored people. These were false mental models, and I now no longer subscribe to them.
These are things I have learned about myself, and these are things that I teach to my colored peers through mentorship. Mentorship has always been something important to me. P.S. 147, Project HYPE (Helping Young People Evolve) taught me about discipline and the importance of higher education. Our educational trips to St. John’s University immersed me in tertiary education. Had it not been for that early exposure, my life could have taken a different route. On campus, I am a member of LINK, SWAG, and MOCC. These organizations specialize in social, academic, and professional mentorship respectively. In a location where colored folk are few and far between, mentorship is imperative and is a personal core value.
I remember the ostracism I received from my own communities, as if I had broken an unspoken rule, when I had a white girlfriend. "How is your white girlfriend?" was the usual question. "If you cared how she is, you would know her name," was my usual reply. In an environment where racial tension can be high, I do my best to walk the progressive path. And sometimes progress comes with backlash. When I dated my Irish girlfriend, it was strange to feel unwelcomed by my own people. Even though race has a gritty history, it is something I don’t want to influence my personal relationships. When it comes to relationships, you cannot let religion, color, or race, make you pass judgment. I follow the teachings of Bob Marley, and I strongly believe in, “One love.”
I remember when I had to be an older brother and a father figure. To raise a sibling when you are a child yourself is odd. I am a great big brother and my sister's best friend, but I lacked insight as a father figure. There were times when I would say, "Gabby, go study." Then, 30 minutes later, I would ask, "Gabby, do you want to play Star Wars with me?" I love my sister, and I want her to achieve academic success, but I also want to spend time with her. It is a challenge to navigate those two roles since their habits conflict at times.
I remember my imposter syndrome when I returned from university to Queens. I remember wondering if people I walked past would notice that I had become softer. I had spent 10 months at a university where I could walk and not worry about getting mugged, shot, or stabbed, but in Queens, those were common events. Was my face angry enough? Was my fashion still fly? Did I sag my pants low enough? These were questions that I had to consider before I could walk around my neighborhood. It was only after deep reflection that I accepted that I was no longer as "hard" as I had been before. But I hadn't lost everything that the dangerous environment of Queens had taught me. Just as I had learned to be proud of my Jamaican heritage, my poverty had taught me to out-hustle anything I put my mind to. My poverty is not something I should be ashamed of, it is something I should draw strength from. I now thank my poverty because it taught me something they don't teach students in class. It taught me grit.
The fraternity student who spilled his Keystone on me, the Blood member who fought me, the hoodlum who stabbed me. It is easy to reflect and see the reality of the ill-treatment I have received over the years, but that is not a reality I want to live in. I would much rather reflect on the joy my mom had when I was accepted to Cornell, the excitement my sister Gabby and I shared at Disney World, or the unconditional love my family has for me. These thoughts are what I choose to focus on, because, at the end of the day, all we have is love. The late Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
For a while I have been against the disclosure of my mom’s and my struggle. I have read, watched, and listened to others describe their struggle with a single mom, and for a while, it was cliché to me. “I went through that, you went through that, we all go through that,” was the premise of my old mental model. That mental model was false. Not everyone goes through what we went through.
This next paragraph celebrates my black, Jamaican, single mom. If you are still of my old mental model, feel free to skip this paragraph. With only a visa and $20 to her name, she raised my sister and me in a one-bedroom apartment. I have many peers who have both parents: a mom and a father. I also have peers whose families have financial wealth, rather than an income. My family had no wealth. Abandoned by my father, my mom assumed the duty to support herself, me, and my infant sister, all in a country she was not familiar with. The odd home care and cooking jobs that she took to keep us fed; the threats she received from my father to deport her, because she didn’t have a green card; the pain she went through when her dad, mom, and grandma passed away within 2 years of each other. These things hurt us, but they also made us stronger. The words of the great Jay-Z, “I’m not God, but I work God damn hard,” represent my mom’s struggle. She is the strongest person I know.
To be strong, I have changed my mental models so that I can reflect… so that I can love… and so that I can grow. I am the hard work of my past generations. Their trials and tribulations have prepared me for this journey. But I am not alone. I have support. I have my island, city, and family who cheers me on. And I have God. He watches over me.
Garfield e. Maitland jr.