Body/s in Question – first edition

Some places are born into us
When we come into the world
They have already shaped us
Laid foundations in our DNA

This map has always been there

Other places make their way onto us
We may choose these places
But we can’t choose how they stain us
Imprinting themselves
Sinking through our skin
Drop by drop
So that the music.
The accent
The food
Becomes a part of us

Permanently inked and carved
Becoming a part of the cells that make the cells

So even as we replace ourselves, shedding layers of old for new skin
These places remain

These maps float down
To meet the cartography of our DNA
To dance and chuckle together
To map out the particular world

That only we know


Body/s in Question is a multi-pronged research and performance project that charts chart the fault lines of race and identity that live in the multiracial body in the Caribbean and the U.S.A.

It’s in the Porridge

“Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
Of which I’ll share with you…”
-“No Woman No Cry” – Bob Marley


“Porridge is such a subjective thing.”

Subjective, certainly. This article, in “The Salt,” NPR’s Foodways blog suggests porridge is a traditional Scottish food eaten during cold winters. Multiple truths exist. For me, porridge is Jamaican breakfast. It has cousins as Brazilian São João street food (mingu,curau, canjica, and mungunzá) and Haitian late night snack (laboyi). I’m sure it is connected to Akamu, Ogi and Pap in Nigeria. It is grits in North Carolina. Perhaps it is polenta.

It has many names.

It is eaten in the constant year round heat that radiates from the equator.

But I don’t see these words in this article. So I will write them.

We must make the colonies visible.

Those far away islands that are at the heart of the identity, economy, and politics of those metropolitan British isles. Those places that seem to be easily ignored when talking about the roots of British and Scottishness. When talking about “changing the course of history.” When writing about how we came to be.

This article reminds me  that I have a lot to learn about my history, personal and collective. About my ancestors before they came to Jamaica, Cuba and the United States, by will and by force. About Jamaican colonial and plantation society. About my African ancestry. About my Scottish and British ancestry. About Vikings. About the knots, contradictions and tensions that are my family tree. How love and violence, evil and good, power and oppression, wealth-building and poverty-making bumped up against each other to make us.

There is so much I do not know.

Porridge is tied up in slavery, growth, expansion, and capitalism. The British Isles and the Caribbean Sea are intimately related, in economy, identity, and genetics. For those on and descended from the Jamaican side of the relationship, it is impossible to make invisible the Scottish-ness, the Britishness, the Irish-ness of what we are. It’s in the skin, the food, the talk, the names. Sometimes, we choose to celebrate it. To simplify it. We do not have the choice of forgetting.  We also don’t always have the choice of knowing.

When I think about Porridge I think about my Grandma, daughter of Lena Hall, from whom I get my middle name. I know that surnames in my Jamaican family – Hall, Robertson – have Scottish origins. I do not know how we got them, except for in vague terms that describe the violent and coercive ways that power, race, and gender collided in the colonies. I do not know the names that we lost, that we had before we were forced onto boats and crossed oceans.

I ask about my name. I learn that Hall is a name with origins to lands that border England and Scotland, and prior to that Norman Vikings. I ponder connections between my mother and my father’s family. My father’s family – Kibbe –  is also potentially descended from Vikings that landed in England.

It’s in the porridge. It’s hot, and mushy, and mixed up.

Porridge references the class and identity divides amongst those in in both the metropolitan isles and the colonial islands. The type, consistency, and level of sweetness is code for wealth, status, prosperity and struggle – past and present.

I learn about identity constructed in contrast. About blurred lines of slave, free, white, black, ownership and immigration.

I ask about whiteness in Jamaica. I learn about the trade of Irish people as slaves.

I learn that a large number of Scotsmen (literally, male bodied people) voluntarily went to Jamaica, many as a way to increase their lot in life, and via their lives in the colony shed their marginal “Scottish” identity, replacing it with the more powerful “British”. By going “away” and into the contact zone of the colony plantations they built wealth and a new identity. Once color was constructed as the ultimate differential, these ancestors national difference from the British became relatively less important compared to my ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean island from Africa. Scotsmen were then able to re-enter metropolitan society as “British.”

I learn about spiritual forces that support us. About Brigid, the triple deity of fire, poetry, and inspiration. About Yemanja, the goddess of and mother of the ocean. About the meaning of corn, celebration of harvest, and how to celebrate and honor the earth.

I learn I have a lot more to learn. I learn to have more questions.


Porridge


Porridge is sweet and creamy
So sweet and hot
It fills me up
I am overheating from the inside out
So hot
It is too much

 

I can’t finish it Grandma
I’m full

 

Porridge is cornmeal, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is oats, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green bananas, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is wheatena, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is cream of wheat, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green plantain, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is hominy, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is peanuts, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.

Each ingredients holds so much
Tells stories of trade of people, spices, sugar, rum
Lives and labor stolen, resources pillaged, people pushed to periphery
To create a metro center

Cream of wheat needs to have lumps
The strawberry jam was never in a spiral in my bowl, like in the commercial
My mother was not entertaining that kind of whimsy on weekday mornings

 

How do you eat porridge in the Caribbean?
It is so hot!
I’m overheating from the inside out

 

Sprinkle sugar on top
Stir in milk to cool it down
then
butter
It forms a glossy film on top.
I don’t stir it in
I like how it forms lakes and rivers

 

I can’t finish it,
Grandma
I just can’t

It is the only thing I can’t finish
I am a dumpling child
Round and soft
I love food
I even love porridge
But a whole bowl!?
I can’t take it all in

It’s too much

It contains the story of sugar
Of cheap grains to feed forced laborers
Of food stretched too far

Eat the outside edges first
It cools faster on the edges
You won’t get burned that way


The richness of my porridge – the fresh milk, the butter – is a privilege
My grandma cannot comprehend my inability to finish
Like she cannot understand my identity crisis and anxiety about my light-white skin and how I fit into the world I live in
The Triangle,
of North Carolina,
circa 2003

It is a privilege

“Eat your porridge”
“Enjoy your lightness”
“You are who you are,
why ask questions?”

The sugar is not a privilege
Quick calories
Paid for in blood and burns and bodies
Eat eat
Quick energy
Eat eat
Diabetes
Eat eat
To spend/to invest in expansion
Of capitalist economies
Built on colonial foreign lands and metropolitan factories
Small islands fueling those slightly larger ones across the Atlantic

I do have questions about my ancestors
About their names.
Who came from Africa? From where?
Who came from Scotland? Why?
How did we get our names?
What names did we lose?

Porridge is creole
Is transplant/immigrant/planter/owner/enslaved
porridge is that-thing-we-do-now-that-we-don’t-remember-when-we-didn’t-do-so-perhaps-we’ve-done-it-forever
porridge is pap
is sweetness is the face of bitter

Porridge is grandma visiting
I find her in the kitchen
Stirring a hot pot
for me
my cousins
my sister
my brother

– – –

Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections  and stories about food.

Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 2

Alison and family circa 1992

Alison and family circa 1992. She’s the little blond lady in the sailor outfit with the very serious face.

I mean it had always been a thing, like…

*heavy pause/sigh*

… and I think, I’m sure some stuff happened at Friends School, but I remember more not there, like at horse back riding, when I was, this was still when I was in elementary school, like, my mom picking me up and someone being like, ” Are you adopted?” and me having to explain that, like, no I wasn’t.

And I think I’ve told you this, like, grocery story lanes were alway places where people would be like – and I don’t know – I actually don’t know how often it happened. It feels like it happened a lot, but I don’t know if it just happened some key times. But, people would ask if my mom was our nanny. And she would just say, “No. They are mine.” And then we would like pack up our groceries and go.

Ummmm, and like always like just like just standing next to her at like banks or something. Or like waiting for her to do some errand. And people would be talking to her like,

“Oh what do you need” whatever, and then look at me and be like

*high pitched voice reserved for talking with children* “Oh, what are you here for?” and I’m like “I’m with her.”

So I think it always was an issue.

– Alison, August 2014


“It has always been an issue.” My racial identity that is. Because I don’t “make sense” given how race has been constructed and functions in this world. In the United States. In the South. I am accustomed to the questioning of my identity in public. I consider it normal for someone to look at me, ask who I am or where I am from, and then act in disbelief, sometimes with a shocked and doubtful, “No you’re not!” when I tell them. This type of encounter happens regularly.

And in some ways it is understandable. As I said, I don’t “make sense.” More specifically, my body doesn’t make sense. I’ve recently taken to describing myself as a “light-to-white appearing” person. What I mean by that is I have blue eyes, blond hair (which was towhead, white-blond when I was younger) and skin that burns in the sun, turning more red than golden brown. What this outward appearance doesn’t often convey, is that I am a multi-racial woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage. My mother was born in Jamaica to afro-Jamaican and Cuban parents. Like Jamaica, my mother’s background is very mixed, but she is also obviously coded as black. We often refer to my mother’s family as the UN because it probably encompasses more people (my grandfather was one of 12) and more colors than most international diplomatic gatherings. My father is white, grew up in Ohio, and the Kibbe-clan is descended from Mayflower-era Puritans and Old English stock.

So, I understand that there is a bit of incongruence between my physical form and my cultural, racial, ethnic identity. I don’t automatically fault people for being surprised or confused.

But it does get tiring. I deal with this moment of “coming out” as multi-racial in a variety of ways, depending on my mood (shout out to this multi-racial sister who so eloquently talks about this process here). Sometimes I offer the full “Afterschool Special” version of my family history. On less generous days I respond with a simple “yes” when someone asks if my mother is really black, and leave the asker to figure out the rest.

But either way, it is something I have to deal with. And I am not complaining. I am IN LOVE with my history and identity. And I realize that I am lucky to be an “interjection” in our racial scaffolding. That introducing myself can be a doorway to unpacking racial constructs, misconceptions, and attitudes. That my body is in itself a complication of how we understand race and identity. And I also recognize that how I look means that I benefit from white privilege. I don’t pretend to understand the experience of going through this world with darker skin. I know that how I am read racially greatly impacts how I am treated and how I am allowed to navigate through the world. But I also have come to realize that despite the way I appear, my life experience is distinctly non-white. I do not go through the world not having to think about or be aware of race. And I also proudly claim the fullness of my culture and heritage.

But even though I understand where it comes from, this questioning and doubt still takes its toll. Having my identity and history constantly questioned has led to a certain sense of precariousness. Of fraudulence. For my entire life strangers have felt like they have a right to tell me who I am. To question my descriptions of myself. To assert their feelings, understanding, and sometimes bullshit and baggage, onto me and my body. To question where I belong. Because of this, I feel like I always need to be ready to explain myself. I live in “ready mode” with an explanation for who I am in my back pocket. And deeper in that pocket, a fear that perhaps I really am “not” the things I say I am. Because if others don’t see it in me, then perhaps it’s not true.

I heard this precariousness manifested throughout the interview.

A large part of my oral history interview was spent discussing race. I would say it took up a good 70% of the time. Which is fitting because I am usually thinking about it. I think the shaky ground that my racial identity sits upon, translates into how I see myself in other realms – professionally, romantically, geographically, astrologically. My “in-betweeness” feels very salient.

Some of the stories that came up are ones that are well rehearsed and recited – such as the story about my mother being asked if she was the nanny. Listening to myself tell these stories I tell about myself – these mini-monologues – linked together all at one time, I realized how much I work to make sense of myself.

To map myself.

Making sense of myself for myself, I make myself legible.

I translate myself by telling these stories over and over and over again.

At this point in my life I am particularly invested in making sense of myself, partly because I’m currently in community with many amazing black womyn artists. And starting with my mother, black women have always been my role models. I’m trying to figure out how I fit into it all, especially as I continue to grow up and into myself and my womanhood. How do I navigate the simultaneous reality of my blackness and my white privilege? And more specifically, how do me and my art work fit in? Will I always need to “explain myself”?

I am interested in healing this sense of precariousness, this feeling that who I am is always on shaky ground. There is no way to change how people respond to me. And given the history of skin tone and bodies, mine will always pose questions. But what I can do is dive deep into my experience and personal history so that I feel strong standing up and fully taking up my space. So I can trust my voice and speak, sing, and dance my truth. This oral history piece, this blog, the work I’m doing as an artist now – it is all about a deep dive into myself. About diving into the quick sand instead of trying to stand still in it or fight it with clompy steps.

This part 2 of the “Remembering Together” oral history series. Read Part 1: On Being Interviewed here

Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 1

On Being Interviewed

There is something special about being interviewed.

Hearing myself tell my life story is eerily familiar and refreshingly strange.

There is a comfort in the stories – in knowing the endings and the feelings intimately.
There is a newness in hearing my voice outside of myself.
Outside of my body — coming into me instead of coming out of me.
There is a discomfort in sitting in my past reality and letting it wash over me. Particularly the things I took care to fold, pack up, and walk away from.

I am trying to be generous with myself.
There is a tendency to cheapen things in the past, especially from my youth. I want to pass it off with a preceding, “Well, I was 13…” or “It was one of those teenage things…” or simply a “whatever.” As if any of these qualifiers mean I don’t have to account for “it.”
Deal with “it”. Acknowledge that at the time those emotions, experiences, people, fears were my full reality. I couldn’t dismiss them because they were all I had.

If I was listening to someone else, I would listen to their speech patterns and appreciate them without judgement as a part of the way that person expresses themselves. When listening to myself I am full of critique — why didn’t I finish that sentence, I mumbled here, etc. I am a performer after all, I want to be heard a certain way. But this is how I sound. I realized my mother is right, I do mumble. I don’t finish my sentences, numping from one thought to the next and daring my listener to follow.

Also, I say “you” when I’m really talking about myself. I give myself speeches, directing everything at “you” as if I am outside of myself.

I’m listening for poetry.

For monologues. For things to put in the choreo-poem I am writing. I’m listening to the oral history for parts to be used in the piece I’m creating.

I’m listening for poetry.

I was surprised at how “white” my voice sounds. I know that is a very problematic statement. And I’m not even sure what it means. But I couldn’t keep it from popping into my head. So even when people can’t see my blonde hair and light skin, hearing my voice probably cues them to think I am white, right? I have spent a lot of time thinking about how my body is seen racially, but not nearly as much time thinking about how I am heard and how that is coded.

Listening to this makes me want to do oral history with my mom.
Will my kids or grandkids listen to this?
I wish I could hear my ancestors re-tell their lives.


Part of me wants this essay to be a spitting out of who I am. A quick and dirty introduction to the “essential facts you need to know about Alison.”

Born in McAllen, Texas. Mother from Jamaica, raised in Jamaica, Queens, NYC. Father from outside Cleveland Ohio. Mother brown. Father white. Youngest of three. One older brother and one older sister. Raised in Carrboro, NC. Attended Montessori schools, Quaker school and a two-year stint in public middle school. Finished high school early to travel to Haiti. Went to Duke University for college (also went to UNC). Studied anthropology and public policy. Graduated 2012. Interned at the White House. Worked at the Kennedy Center. Was a barista and a waitress in DC. Move to San Francisco and NYC for an arts consulting fellowship. Landed in NYC. Working to be her full creative self as a freelance artists, arts administrator and teaching artist.

But in listening to my interview, I realize that a lot of the “juice” lies beyond the facts. And between the facts. And in the space created by the things I chose to tell, how I told them, and what I didn’t tell.

There is so much I chose not to say. And in hearing the absence of those parts, I realize that it is easy for everydayness to get lost in the retelling of memory. I remembered big events and ideas and I turn them into narratives and explanations. And then I dogear them in my mind, highlight them as “worthy” of retelling. In my oral history I heard these ideas and feeling analyzed and overlayed with broad strokes.

But those tiny details, the little dots — like how my mom yelled up the steps to me every morning. Or that brief period she made Pillsbury Flaky biscuits every morning. And the SlimFast shakes for snack phase. And the chinese dumping phase. (There were a lot food phases). Which seat was “mine” in our 1996 Honda Odyssey. Sitting and watching all of my sisters soccer practices. The couch in our living room. The fights over who would walk the dog.

These are the little everyday details that fill in those big lines. What really makes the tapestry and terrain of life.

I’m interested in this everdayness. Perhaps because it is often what we find so NOT interesting about our lives. Until we learn about someone else’s everydayness and how different it is from our own. This oral history is part of taking a deep dive into myself, and I realize this “deep dive” requires validating these everyday details just as much as the big picture. Acknowledging them as key shapers of my life and myself.

Read “Dig Deep Stand Firm: Part 2” here