Sunday, July 24, 2011

Made in New York

It's been stick to the pavement, fry an egg on your dashboard, Afreeecahh hot in New York City for the past week. Last night I ventured out of my self-imposed hibernation in the air conditioned indoors to visit a close friend and fellow mixed dreamer, educator and activist, Rita. Walking down Amsterdam Ave toward Broadway last night, merengue blasting from open parked cars, folks perched on their respective stoops and street corners, humid air smelling vaguely of something rank, fried and sweet all at the same time, fire hydrants raining down the streets and kids, men, women--young and old jumping into the spray, I got that feeling I always get when I'm back home, feet slapping quickly against the pavement, moving, always moving... That feeling that I am part of the mass of bodies in movement, the steaming concrete (which itself seems to breathe), the hard lines and rough edges above and below me, the gritty air and the unrelenting syncopated rhythm of the city. Among the many things Rita and I talked about during my visit was exactly why New York made us feel this way. Why NY feels more like "home" than any other place?
If there were a map of NYC and we were all dots on it, all the dots would be moving and buzzing around. We're a city of transience. I just don't think that happens everywhere else. -Rita Kaman

For the mixed and multicultural, finding place and belonging can be a struggle- no big there. Though I mostly grew up in the suburbs of Staten Island (the forgotten borough of NYC), I remember being surrounded by Latino, African, South Asian and Caribbean folk in Jamaica, Queens and even later in Staten Island growing up in predominantly white spaces, but where white identity was tied to great pride in being Italian, Irish, Russian, Armenian etc. I went away to college, have traveled extensively both at home and abroad and it's more than just the fact that I grew up here. In New York, my identity and all that I am seems to make sense. The "uniqueness" of my own life but a thread in the fabric, part of the millions of interwoven identities and narratives of migration, change, process and formation that make the city a home for the transient, a place for the liminal, those existing here and there and yet all the while staking claim and setting roots deep in the here. 

In diverse places like SoCal, I often feel uneasy with just how vast and yet disconnected all the parts of the city are (I call the NYC subway the Great Equalizer). I guess on a more personal note I'm uneasy with how Caribbean identities, black identities don't often fit into conceptions of latinidad, or how latinidad doesn't quite fit into understandings of blackness out west. And it makes sense Cali, has had a different history. That simple understanding of the mixed nature of latinidad and blackness is something that I see reflected in my own family, but also all around me in NY with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Bajans, Guyanese etc. Even within the African American history of New York you see that intersection in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem and Washington Heights, decades of living, loving, struggling and yes even conflict between African American, Caribbean and Latino folk have left a distinct mark on race relations in the city. The city is segregated and divided along racial and class lines like all cities and the gentrification of historically black neighborhoods has already changed the face of communities across the city.
So let's not get it twisted. This is not just an I Love NY and there's no place on earth like it ramble. The specters of violence, racism, post 9-11 trauma, Islamophobia, xenophobia, police brutality, racialized and sexualized violence, gentrification, poverty, hunger, homelessness and straight-up down and dirty NY crime as old as the city itself continue to loom large.  And no, this is no multicultural utopia or mixed-race mecca. But it is my home. 

My love of NY and reflecting on how my life here has provided challenges but also valuable opportunities to navigate and understand my own identity and that of those around me, I got to thinking about how region and geography play such a critical role in identity formation. A great deal of scholarship and discussions around mixed issues has historically had a West Coast leaning. And indeed, the multiracial movement and much of the major organizations, events, scholars and activists are based in California. This leaning can tend to privilege a specific set of experiences, identities and even socioeconomic issues. But my time working at Oberlin-- OHIO, of all places, where I saw more mixed people, couples and families in two years than I had in 22 years of living in New York or living in Europe (a veritable Petri dish of multiculturalism and immigration in the 21st century) challenged me to think about the different forms mixed identity and multiculturalism writ large take on nationally and transnationally. In addition, being a part of the Other Tongues Anthology and reading the experiences of women from both Canada and the U.S. also prompted me to ask how does the conversation around these issues change? What do things look like from the distinct places in which we stand?  What makes home? What creates a sense of place and belonging?

 It still amazes me that when I am away from New York, the angles of me cry out for the subways, the impolite service industry and the streets teeming with cultural insanities.-Staceyann Chin from "No One Cared If I Kissed Girls" in Other Side of Paradise