When I was seven my mother had a vibrant cobalt blue Saturn VUE that we named Bluebird. Having an SUV was a suburban rite of passage, and Bluebird carried a cosmopolitan arrogance that stood out boastfully amongst the Honda Odysseys and Toyota Corollas in the elementary school carpool line. Our SUV was bold in color and rich in sheen, an automotive jewel that we were proud to possess. On long car rides, I’d settle into the back seat, with the windows rolled down welcoming warm gusts of wind to dance along my legs that stretched across Bluebird’s interiors. It was there I’d find rest and comfort. What my mother sacrificed to obtain this middle-class piece of luxury was unknown to me; I was seven and I was taught to “stay out of grown folks' business.” All I knew was that the shiny blue truck belonged in my driveway, my mother, the driver, and I was honored to be a passenger.
The last memory I have of Bluebird was seeing a trail of its tire marks from the driveway to the street, no big blue SUV in sight. That day, I learned Bluebird no longer belonged to us, if it ever did. It belonged to the bank, which came in the night and seized our only means of transportation without warning, leaving behind only tire tracks to mock our misfortune, reminding us that anything we think we have is never ours to truly own. Later in life, I learned that “grown folks' business” meant having to choose shelter over transportation because we could not afford to have both.
Adulthood beckons me now and I must carefully consider what I am able to afford, what I am willing to sacrifice for my survival, and what it is that I truly desire. I realize I do not want much, just a place that belongs to me as much as I belong in it. One day I will live in a stunning 1930’s red-brick row home, in a city where my fireplace is needed in the winter, and the hardwood floors cool my bare feet in the summers. There will be three floors: one for entertaining, one for resting, and the last for hiding heirlooms. I will have a choice as to which floor I spend my time and which floor-to-ceiling window to gaze out of as I watch the clouds pass. But for now, it is 2 am and I am lying under worn sheets, a metal box spring is jabbing through a mattress that has given up and into my side, the light of my phone screen penetrating any sense of peace the early morning darkness claims. I am fighting sleep to scour the web for the perfect linen sheets, hoping to replace the dingy ones that cradle me. I may live in my father’s home but I am not at home here. And though unsatisfied, I am in pursuit of better.
To be unsatisfied yet grateful is a strange place to dwell. Many of us were taught to believe that as long as we have a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food in our bellies then we lack nothing and dare not complain. But when we deny ourselves the right to abundance and dismiss the desires of our heart, we lose touch with our truth. The truth is, there is a life beyond basic survival that we deserve to experience. But that life will never be handed to us. Abundance always comes at a cost and in the pursuit of a better life, the sacrifice is often your sense of security.
Throughout history, when Black women and men reject handouts from their oppressors, they become targets. Just the utterance of, “this is not enough for me” triggers clenched fists and racing hearts. This act of “rebellion” can easily be met with violence. The safer option, the choice we often make just to make it home alive, is to be silent. I come from a Caribbean and Black-American background and many of my family members have survived the terror of being Black in America by being passive, unthreatening, law-abiding citizens. This survival tactic has been passed down generations and manifests in people-pleasing behavior, the masking of emotions, the difficulty with creating boundaries, and the guilt of wanting more.
When I look around my father’s apartment, where I pay no rent as long as I stay in his good graces, I sing my gratitude in prayers (and I whisper my critiques). I thank God for sheltering me within these four walls, painted in a cheerless blue hue I never chose. I supplicate in humility and drop to my knees on a carpet splattered with unidentified stains I did not make. I light a candle, hoping to mask the stench of cigarettes I did not smoke. I am not ungrateful; I simply want more than what is offered. Not just my own room, or a house where I belong without having to make myself fit in. I want a life that is completely mine and not bound to the decisions of another.
I have come to understand that what we often think of as a desire for abundance is truly a desire for sovereignty. Over time our sense of freedom and self-governance has been stripped through chattel slavery, redlining, and generational trauma, and the search for sovereignty deepens. It was never been the American dream that told us we deserve to live freely and with abundance – for when has America ever dreamed of Black liberation? Rather, it is the persistent ancestral voices, the cries for freedom that we hear in Negro spirituals. They remind us of covenants made centuries ago, promises just now finding fulfillment in our lifetime. It is the sound of determination in “Oh Freedom!”, the faithfulness in low swingin chariots, the cries of sorrowful pilgrims aspiring to make heaven their home. Our ancestors did more than sing and muse for their own freedom. They prayed, they worked, they took risks, and moved in the silence of the night. They organized and bought land for churches that became spiritual homes for those seeking refuge. They wrote poems, articles, and books, and created art that influenced the world. They let the Spirit move them to action and did not ask for permission. There comes a time when we must be honest about dissatisfaction, put movement behind our faith, and grant ourselves permission to fulfill our dreams. I am learning to ask myself: what can I do today to honor the sacrifices made for me in the past and achieve the dreams promised in my future? Sometimes it means buying linen sheets online as an investment for my future bedroom. Other days it's simply saying “no, I deserve better.”
The desires of my predecessors have made way for my own faithfulness. Because I am faithful, I am uncompromising. I want a lot out of this life and I must be the one to get it. The home my mother tried to provide for me was temporary and the home of my father was never meant to be shared, so it is my turn. If the one thing I truly own is my decisions, then I choose a better life. I imagine one day I will tell my mother that her sacrifices were worth it and assure my father that while I am grateful for his generosity, we no longer need to share intimate space. For the moment I will surrender to these heavy eyelids and allow myself to follow the tradition of my foremothers and forefathers. I do not dream in vain; I have a promise to fulfill.
About the Author:
Journee Harris is a Jamaican-American urbanist, researcher, and storyteller, whose work explores the interrelation between personhood and place.