An Elephant Makes Its Home on My Chest
I was 12 when we took flight with two suitcases each. Our life stories squashed into 2×2 inch photos housed in our 28 page booklets, alongside the golden ticket coveted by so many on the island. We were buoyed with promises of abundance then. Before our daydreams were dashed by the reality of our three bodies crammed together on a queen-sized bed, feeling abandoned by the groceries we couldn’t afford and the father who didn’t call. We swapped cooked boxed food for cans of Chef Boyardee, red peas soup for Chinese take-away, and patties for pop Tarts; each meal bringing its own departure from our former selves.
The elephant and the thunderstorms came that year. The year my tongue went on strike after I was called on in class to read pages aloud in front of the Americans who “oohed and awed” each time I hardened my t’s and softened my ‘ers. My country, who revered my attendance at private schools notorious for prying the Patois from our tongues, contorting our lilts into sounds most pleasing to postcolonial ears, had not prepared me for this. This bristling against hypervisible invisibility; these broad stroke assumptions erasing my complexity and my depth.
The elephant made its home on my chest, wrapping its trunk around my throat, with its continuous thunderous loop trumpeting through my brain waves. It kept me company in the daily coercions, pledging allegiance to a flag that looked nothing like mine. My Jamaican hand crossing my Jamaican heart, mumbling American promises that tasted sour on my immigrant lips, in the school that devalued my intelligence and its third world ties. It was in the classroom where I learned on culture day that eating fried fish with the faces and the eyes still showing was “disgusting.”
I learned to piece together thoughts through the bellowing roaring on in the background as I spent hours in the mirror naming all the melanin in myself I was conditioned to despise: my uncooperative curls refusing to be heated into submission; my brown skin that I bit and beat and cursed until it was bruised. The screeching blared in the foreground of my nightmarish recollections of days I spent glorifying Lizzie Mcguire’s version of the American Dream. Its discord heightened the resentment I felt towards my mother for enlisting me in this fall from grace, in the land of daily dissections where I was taught to shrink myself and tip-toe in minefields filled with invasive interrogations and false labelings. I learned to drown myself in textbooks, simultaneously using their words and chapters as life rafts keeping me afloat while being swept away by the tides of young adult socializing.
It would take more than a decade before I viewed myself beyond others’ caricatures of my nationality. In the interim, I grew accustomed to living in alabaster neighborhoods where no one looked like me, driving past billboards where no features resembled mine, befriending the thin-lipped whose parents honeymooned on my beaches. I lost my early twenties to preening my “exotic” feathers and prostrating for affection, following in the foot-steps of others before me: shackling our lives with debt to chase a feeling of belonging in white spaces with white folks and white families; all of us riding our interracial minglings and their self-imagined grandeur like an elevator lowering us into an ivory hell.
The elephant and the thunderstorms were shrillest then. They offered me up as a sacrificial lamb each time I subsumed my cultural depth for proximity to colonized privilege and the emotional abundance I assumed would ensue in its wake. I convinced myself, as I clung proudly to my Kingstonian accent and British spellings, that I was somehow still connected to home. Even as I doused my immigrant daydreams in fond sentiments of my sweet Jamaica, I never once understood the ways my worldview was being inculcated from one colonizer’s supremacy to another’s.
I returned home often, spending my springs, summers and winters reconnecting with family in homes built behind guarded gates designed to keep the peering eyes of poverty out. I felt welcomed by my sweet Jamaica, who taught me to run for the hills and equated social class with our housing’s proximity to the sky. I began to feel sorry for my sweet poor Jamaica, who spends her independent years watching her children leave her in droves for the lands she puts on pedestals: The U.S, the U.K. and Canada. I felt her joy erupt through the wheels kissing the tarmac as she welcomed her diaspora babies home every holiday season. I felt her love in the way she embraced me with open arms. I ran to her knowing she would embosom me after months of daily battles in the land of malls and Mcdonalds. I noticed the elephant and the storms didn’t follow me beyond the airport terminal. Their cacophony was outmatched by the melodies of patties rustling in paper brown bags and machetes whistling in tune with freshly peeled sugar cane.
I reveled in her beauty while I swam in her crystal blue waters, feeling uplifted as the salt in my sweat rejoined the salt of my ancestral seas, sensing a reunion with my kin who dove off ships and towards their freedom. I spoke highly of her for months after I begrudgingly returned to my adopted home, planning yearly visits and daydreaming of futures where I raised my own babies on the rock, by the sea. As I escaped my doldrums in these shoreside visions of a home, I was signaling the ways in which I had subconsciously reduced my country to its function as an island paradise. I had become no different from the Americans, associating my land with Black hands serving white guests traipsing around bleached out resorts eerily reminiscent of plantations.
My awakening was rude and swift. It happened one autumn at a house party in Washington D.C. In a sea of Americans, I heard the familiar siren call of Patois. I followed it to a small group, laughing and berating each other with the familiarity of longtime friends. Excitedly, I introduced myself with all the awkwardness of someone who had grown accustomed to being the sole West Indian in social gatherings. They greeted me warily and quickly surmised based on my inability to relate in Patois, that I was not welcomed in their ranks. I left the interaction with a sense of yearning which prompted months of self-interrogation and a search for belonging in online diaspora spaces. My Twitter and Instagram research revealed the disorienting truth that my vision of Jamaica, frozen in time the day I left at 12, wasn’t representative of Jamaica at all.
So here I am, in my late twenties navigating an identity crisis as a delusional member of the diaspora, ridding myself of false ideals based on breezy childhood recollections, aching from residual burns after years of cultural performances shielded me from feeling like I had no home.
I am starting anew with this truth: I do not know what it means to be a Jamaican.
And it feels like nothing could have prepared me for the searing quiet and disquiet of these times, trying to find peace of mind against the rumbling, jumbling, crumpling of familiar thunderstorms and this elephant sitting on my chest, its trunk wrapped around my throat.
I’m immersed in questions of who Jamaica is and attempting answers through an increasingly nuanced awareness.
My Jamaica is rich soils nourished by Black bodies, yielding crops to be exported, undervalued and overpriced in foreign lands. She is banging dutch pot covers in celebration of crossed finish lines and pageant stages; exorbitant school fees delineating social class – the mostly Black from the brown; grass-fed cows and unbound goats coexisting with potholes and fruit stands; lawless taximen, institutionalized misogynoir, and enduring postcolonial anti-Blackness. She builds ports to welcome tourists who revolt at the thought of her citizens stealing jobs in their countries, and reserves her pride for her doctors, lawyers and engineers while relegating her backbone, the farmers, the artisans, the helpers, the higglers and the hotel staff, to several lifetimes of poverty.
She receives her love in barrels and uses remittances to pad her coffers when selling her irie facade to red-faced excursionists isn’t enough to cover the bills. My Jamaica is daylight robbery masked in housing, food and customs prices maintaining and exacerbating the inequality stamping passports for the middle and upper classes who catch flights to satiate their Americanised jetset fantasies.
My Jamaica is Black and gritty; golden and evergreen with promise. She is chaos mingling with
tranquility, rebellion amidst exploited wealth. She is nuanced. She is flawed; and she defines me in ways I’m only now beginning to understand.
Dana Fletcher (she/her) is a Jamaican writer and storyteller inspired by the lyrical, mystical and rhythmic elements of her country’s oral traditions. She pens personal narratives as a restless member of the Jamaican diaspora, documenting her experiences with migration, multi-generational matriarchal healing, and the alchemy of foreign-forged communities in her unending search for a sense of “home.”
Her work has been supported through scholarships from Kweli Journal, Loft Literary, Corporeal Writing, The Porch & StoryStudio Chicago. Her words have been published by gal-dem, Huffington Post UK, The Mighty, & Yahoo. She is currently at work weaving together her first memoir-in-essay collection, Diaspora Daydreams. You can find her on Twitter at @danafletch_