Becoming the Brown Girl in the Ring

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

Kingston, Jamaica, 1983

There is a word Jamaicans use for home—“yard.” In Jamaica talk, “yard” refers to one’s living space, but may also refer to the whole island. I remember when we used to sit / in a government yard in Trench Town, the Bob Marley lyrics go. In Marley’s Trench Town, much of life happened outside in communal courtyards, and as such, the yards were enlivened spaces of exchange and community. Designed for low-income families, these government yards typically consisted of one or two squat buildings divided into several one-room or two-room units with a shared standpipe and outside bathroom facilities. Perhaps one would find a lone ackee tree in the yard, for ackee—the bright red and yellow national fruit—is everywhere in Jamaica.

Jamaicans abroad—those who have “gone a foreign,” as is often said—sometimes refer to each other as “yardies.” When last you went yard? someone might ask. When presented with this question, whether you grew up in a house uptown, surrounded by bougainvillea and hibiscus and bird-of-paradise, or in a West Kingston concrete jungle, it’s always implied that true-home is not in New York or Philadelphia or London, but elsewhere.

I grew up with that same underlying sense that true-home was always elsewhere. I was born in the United Kingdom to Jamaican immigrants; our family returned to Jamaica when I was six; and I immigrated to the US after high school. In the UK, my father worked in an asbestos plant, and my mother tried her hand at various ventures, including hairdressing for the black women in Watford, northwest of London. I was very young, but I remember feeling different. When I was five, a girl at school asked if the color of my skin would come off if I took a bath. My parents told stories of Jamaica—a place where life was tough, but often, or so it seemed to me, speckled with marvels and otherworldliness. I remember my father saying that even the flies were bigger in Jamaica. “These little things they call flies in England,” he said, “are not really flies.” In my child’s imagination, I pictured flies as big as small birds. Somewhere between his stories was the unspoken sense that he had left behind something noteworthy and important—and, to my ears, fabulist. He had left behind a place where a part of him had been better, perhaps even capable of marvel.

Later, there was the move back to Jamaica. Our furniture and belongings were packed into crates and we boarded a ship, The Montserrat, from Southampton. It was a cheaper way to travel in those days, and the trip across the Atlantic took three weeks—three weeks of limbo, only flying fish and seasickness. I remember when we saw Jamaica in the distance for the first time. We woke up that morning waiting for a glimpse of Kingston harbor. We waited and waited, all of us out on deck, and finally we saw low hills, cloudy in the distance. I was just a child, but I felt the importance of the moment, the quiet but intense emotion. I knew that those hills, that landscape, meant home. Years later, as I write this, I am reminded of Édouard Glissant’s words, in Le Discours Antillais: “Our landscape is its own monument: its meaning can only be traced on the underside. It is all history.”

This Kingston, at least our part of it, turned out to be as tough as predicted. There was cuss-cuss everywhere, and trash on the streets, mosquitoes, hungry dogs, and all-night sound systems. Then, too, there were tamarind balls and coconut drops, and yes, ackee trees, and pink coral vine, and, sometimes, a doctor bird (a swallow-tail hummingbird that lives only in Jamaica) or a wandering goat free from its yard. I would learn years later that ackee came from West Africa over the Middle Passage. I ate bitter ackee with saltfish, and learned to love it. Another favorite new plant was orange love bush—a stringy vine that everyone seemed to hate. Love bush is destitute and always needs a host. It twines around other plants and lives off of them, making a home there. I was fascinated by its long orange ropes and by the story I had been told: if you want to know if someone loves you, break a piece of love bush and throw it on a tree. If it grows there, you are loved. Whether or not this was true, the Kingston I saw was overgrown with orange threads, full of desire and yearning.

At first, my parents, two sisters, and I lived with my Aunt Kitt at Penwood Road in the Waterhouse neighborhood of Kingston. Auntie’s yard was full of the stray dogs she fed, and when we arrived there were at least four or five of them: Mangy Dog, Spotty, Black Dog, and others. Although we arrived with furniture and my parent’s hard-earned savings, in retrospect, in a certain way we were strays as well. The children at school liked my British accent, but I soon lost it. Most of the change was unconscious and required no effort. I learned a new language to express the new environment: dirty became “dutty” and strong became “tallawah,” and too, there was  “cut-eye” for when I despised a friend, and “go-deh” for cheering her on.This language was alive and felt right; it slipped off my tongue and I owned it. If home is language, then I made the transition with ease. At school, we played games like “There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring.” One girl would enter the ring as the others circled her, singing. I was shy and not used to being in the ring, but it felt good to be that girlexciting but also terrifying. She looks like a sugar in a plum, my friends sang. I now see myself hesitantly twirling and clicking my fingers, and I understand that to be in the ring, in the middle of the dusty yard at Balmagie Primary, with all the children clapping around me, was to be welcomed and to belong—and, in a way, to be home.


In England, my parents had been partygoers; they loved music and company and good times. There were indentations on the linoleum floor from all the stiletto heels that had danced there. But not long after our arrival in Jamaica, they forsook these ways and turned to church. Not just any church, but the fire and brimstone, speaking in tongues, rebuke-you-in-Jesus’s-name kind of church. So that just when I thought we had arrived at the place we’d so longed for, the new song became, Fly away home to glory. My mother stopped wearing red lipstick and my father became an evangelist, preaching on country street corners. Once again, true-home became elsewhere. Jesus would come like a thief in the night for his beloved and take us there. This worried me. What if I was not beloved? What if I was not good enough? I was too old to suck my thumb, I was told, but I sucked it and thought through the meaning of hell fire, and other worries of the household. No one understood why up until ten years old I still sucked my thumb. I did not have the words for it, but sucking my thumb had become a meditation that made me feel safe and rooted.

My parents had no intention of becoming like the parasitic orange love bush. We moved from Penwood Road across town to Seaward Drive, with the huge almond tree in front, where my brother was soon to be born, and where I would decide to stop sucking my thumb; and finally, to Lounsbury Avenue where the yard was bountiful with mangoes and breadfruit, my teenage angst and my parents’ holy ghost prayer. In school, I learned that the breadfruit in our yard had been brought to Jamaica from Tahiti by British Royal Navy Captain Bligh in 1793. The trees flourished and proved to be a cheap way of feeding slaves. Our Bombay mango by the fence had been introduced by seeds carried by East Indian immigrants, forgotten ancestors. In addition to being a preacher, my father was a farmer, so our life was spent between country and town. In the country, we ate cane and ripe guava—an Arawak word, the language of the Taino, the first people on the island. At school, the teachers were trained to tell us that the Taino all died after the arrival of the Spanish.

I was fully rooted in Jamaican identity when I arrived, at eighteen, in Miami en route to Newark, New Jersey. I had a three-week visa to visit my sister. I also had a jar of peeled Bombay mangoes from the tree in our yard, and ten US dollars wrapped in a piece of toilet paper. A Jamaican teenager with a three-week visa and very little money was apparently cause for suspicion. In Miami, I was stopped for questioning and brought to a separate office in the airport. The officer emptied my purse and looked through all of my belongings. He unwrapped my ten dollars from the toilet paper. He also opened the letter my mother had written to my sister, which, unbeknown to me, urged her to keep me in the US and not send me back. She thought I would do better there. But staying past my visa would make me an “illegal alien.” The officer read the letter. Then he held up the little book of daily devotions my mother had also given to me. He said, “I have one of these too, but unlike you, I live by it.”


In the end, because I had a three-week visa, he let me go—after I had listened to his threats. They confiscated the Bombay mangoes, and I left his office just in time to get my stand-by seat on the connecting flight to Newark. The three weeks came and went in a blur of interstate highways, fast food restaurant chains, billboards, strip malls, and junk mail falling from the slot in my sister’s front door; the weather changed from warm to chilly and I wondered what else might fall. And so began my journey as an undocumented resident, always looking over my shoulder. Always waiting to be deported. Always in fear, always in limbo. Never at home. Home was elsewhere—but where? Was it still under the mango tree at Lounsbury Avenue? Is home still home, even if your parents advise that you not return?

I have not written much about this experience, in part, because though my sister was kind and did what she could, it was painful. Being an undocumented immigrant is a life of secrecy, and even after you do become documented, something of that habit of secrecy remains. The life of the undocumented is a life in limbo, like crossing the Atlantic on The Montserrat that first time—all surreal flying fish and churning seasickness—and perhaps, too, reminiscent of other crossings deep in the veins, the dark hulls of ships making the Middle Passage. The blood churns with crisscross journeys, the remembrance of last shores, doors-of-no-return. Home, in the end, is constantly invented and reinvented by necessity. It becomes a strategy for survival.

I became a US citizen in January 2000—an outcome of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 “amnesty” legislation. The ceremony took place at the Immigration & Naturalization Service office in Charlotte, North Carolina. Outside, it was snowing something furious, uncommon in North Carolina. The moment reminded me of Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s essay, “History of the Voice,” and his mention of Caribbean children—products of colonial education—writing of snow falling on the cane fields. There, with the snow coming down in North Carolina, I raised my right hand and repeated the pledge. I felt a bubble—the size of a ripe guava—in my throat.

Still now, if you ask me where I’m “from,” I will reply, “Jamaica.” Depending on the context of your question, I might also add that I was born in the UK. You might need to know that I am a US citizen. You might also need to know that I am a triple citizen. And if you ask me to name the place that most informs my sense of self, again, I will reply, “Jamaica.” I have a black ackee seed at the bottom of my purse. There is a certain teeth-kissing and belly laughter; a particular kind of pride and respect that, for me, can only mean Jamaica. As soon as I disembark in Kingston and get hit by the warm, humid air, I feel Jamaica’s bass and chaos dance in every cell of my body. I feel once again like the girl in the ring.

And home is also America. It has taken me a long time to be able to say this, and perhaps I am still working at it—working to move past the image of the airport officer and all that he represents. If I claim America, I reason, then I can heal all the wounded parts of myself. I can be whole. America is where I met my husband, near the edge of the Grand Canyon; America is where our daughter was born; where I have been mentored by great teachers; where I have taught great students. America is where my husband and I have raised our daughter—another brown girl in the ring. Home, with all its complexity, is a choice. That is, wherever I go, I have learned to carry home with me.

Adapted from an essay that appeared in Home: An Imagined Landscape, published by Solis Press. Marcia Douglas’s novel The Marvellous Equations of the Dread will be published July 31 by New Directions.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in