Up Here, From There: Jessica Lynne in conversation with DéLana R.A. Dameron and
Jessica Lynne: As I dig deeper into Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and also consider Jacob Lawrence's “One-Way Ticket” currently on view at MoMA, I find myself wading through a host of many emotions at the moment. I've been preoccupied with notions of home and travel and how my understanding of one influences the other. In this contemporary moment, as I reflect on the history of Black bodies in this country but particularly, the American South, I'm trying to decide just what my relationship to that region is.
The brilliant Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah said something that has stayed with me in a recent interview on the podcast Another Round. She rightfully insists that we (read: Black folks) can have authority on our own universes, our own realities. My universe is rooted in a Black experience that springs from the American South. As I face this moment in history - on the occasion of what most historians consider to be the centennial of the Great Migration - I am ready to parse through the wonders of this universe, authoritatively. In the context of Lawrence's paintings and Wilkerson's writings around migration patterns, what does it mean for Black Southern bodies to move across boundaries in 2015? More importantly, who is allowed to theorize and contextualize such an occurrence if not us - two Southern Black women?
Are these things you think about?
DéLana R.A. Dameron: I have found, in my last few years (is it like the "as I get older" passage of time?) that the pull of the South has gotten so much more pronounced, so much stronger. I don't know what it is, really. But you know, I married a Brooklyn man, and so I wonder if this “Southern pull” will be a forever-yearning; if this Southern pull will be the ache I will try to heal through writing and other creative measures for the next couple of years?
My family—that is, my father, mother, and sister—performed our own migration from the South not long after I was born, and my love for Cream of Wheat is evidence that I had crossed over from formula to cereal in the Mid West. My transition to grits—the hot cereal of the South—was so traumatic. And now my New York self eats Oatmeal, and I have a Brooklyn-born first-generation Guyanese husband who eats grits, ha! I am an anomaly when I go Home. Look at that, I said "Home" and I meant, South Carolina—even though I live in Brooklyn, and have lived in New York City for almost 8 years now, I still say Home and mean the South. Not my Bedford Stuyvesant apartment. But the three-room house on Omega Drive.
Anyways, my family left South Carolina for Indiana. We lived there for 3-4 years, and then returned South. The story goes: my father moved us there for work (and here is the story of the Great Migration, no? exactly what Wilkerson & Lawrence were meditating on in their separate works?). However, he drove a company van, and they had a sign on the back of the van, something like: “How’s my driving?” with a number to call, and I think 2015 Indiana informs 1985-88 Indiana so well in terms of understanding the depths to which people in that landscape would go to make a place unlivable for someone else: no one had ever in the history of the company called to report a driver’s driving except now there was a black man at the wheel. Among other things—being the only black family in the whole town, harassment, etc—my family moved back South and, except for me, never crossed the Mason Dixon Line again.
Isn't that funny?
And in New York I find myself defending the South, though I left it. I ran from it. In New York in 2015, I hear a high school junior say, upon considering colleges, that she would “never live in the South" because they just recently had a lynching there, and she couldn't find herself living in a place that has such blatant racism. And I asked, "But shooting point-blank outside of a corner store, or choking someone to death is better?"
This is to say: I think about my Southern self in New York City a lot. And to be able to think of it in the context of following a historical arch—the Great Migration—leaving a barren land for a land of opportunity, and getting here and sometimes wanting nothing more than to touch the red clay soil of Home, but knowing you have changed, that you are changed by the journey as well as the destination. I understand the title of the exhibit also: "One Way Ticket"....but—
It's 2015. It's Gentrification. Reverse white flight? It's comfort and seeking Home. Room to breathe. It's escaping the state-sanctioned violence, no? Just like so many others during that time during the Great War. The jobs and industries of the early 20th century are gone. The opportunities have shifted hands. And now so many are purchasing a second One-Way-Ticket in the opposite direction. I think about that now. The arc of history bending back South. There are articles and a whole new area of scholarship about blacks emigrating from the urban centers their parents or grandparents rushed towards—selling their houses to the highest bidder and packing up the U-Haul. I'm sure my family is waiting for my day to board that train back Home.
JL: I want to spend more time on the idea of the second one-way ticket which for me, at least recently, is informed by the shattering of so many illusions I once held about life out of the South. Even thinking about the so-called dualities - A New York self, a Southern self - overwhelms me at times. There is a heaviness in that phrase " the South" and I wonder why it feels so heavy to hold. I wonder are these the questions our folks asked themselves as they left the region for Chicago, and Detroit, and Harlem.
Here we are, on the occasion of “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North”, the centennial of the Great Migration and the thought most pressing in my mind is: perhaps it is time to go home -to Virginia. A thought like that would have scared my " New York Self " years ago. What good could the South do me? New York is where people went to become somebody. The cliches of it all still make me wince from time to time.
The reality is I didn't have a real language for thinking about The South, until I moved to New York. I am from a small town. A coastal town. A place where the first enslaved Africans were brought upon reaching the shores of this country. A place where the old Revolutionary war battlefields were regular childhood field trips. The former capital of the confederacy. Yet, I did not know how to think through the complexities of that history, American history but also a very Southern history, until I moved to Brooklyn. And in New York, you know, you can't just be Black. You have to be a kind of Black. And I would find myself in these conversations trying to talk about my Blackness and fiercely advocating to friends (but also to myself) that despite this history, Southern Blackness is full and rich and complex.
Yes, we left. We bought those train tickets and bus tickets and left. Left the lynchings and the sharecropping and the joblessness and the violence and the trauma. We left. Now, here I am 100 years later, in the age of non-indictments, still asking a similar question - where do I go to get free? Surprisingly, my first answer is always: maybe, I go Home.
DD: I want to stay here for a minute. To speak to, how you say, "the cliche's of it all," and say: but we still have to respect our younger selves the ones who said to move when the current shifted north, and I don't think it was a cliche, not for everyone, not even for us, at the moment of leaving. Sometimes, I believe, you have to go away from something to see it better, even to love it at all. Just as you said you didn't have a real language for thinking about The South until you moved here. I understand.
There is a painting in the series, panel no. 7. The Negro, who had been part of the soil for many years, was now going into and living a new life in the urban centers.
There is so much movement in the painting, signifying the north, in respect to so much stillness in the South. So NYC did give something to us. It did: this experience. This movement. This contrast. This ability to compare and decide what we love and what we don't. Those who stay in the land where they are born, don't often get this vantage point. And girl, when I moved North, I lived first Jersey City, but reached this moment where it was: if I'm going to be up here then I need to be in Harlem, or else, go back South. If you knew me from 2008-2012, the times I lived in Harlem (and you did!) you knew I was so sick in love with Harlem; nothing else in New York mattered except this truth.
It mattered then that I lived on a numbered street and that when I wrote my address I could write “New York City”. I told people I lived in Harlem whenever I was outside of the city and people asked me where I lived. Not New York City. Not Manhattan. Harlem. One Hundred Forty-Eighth Street. It mattered that it was at the time—where I was—a neighborhood with brown people. It mattered that people spoke to you when you walked down the street. It even mattered that I would learn the names of my neighbors, and I would run into Mr. Brown and we would both be running along St. Nicholas Park and he’d say, “Good morning, Calves. I thought that was you up there running away from me.” It mattered mostly that I was seen in a city that tries so hard not to see.
So, I wanted to see it.
You know, stopped taking trains in Harlem. Mr. Brown told me that day I sat and talked with him for an hour that the only way to really know you live in a place is to know the bus system. I swear I looked him in the eye and accepted his challenge. I came to know Harlem by riding the bus and walking its streets. If I wanted to get to Uptown Juice Bar on 125th street I could take the M101 straight or a combination of M10, M3, BX 15, M 100. If I wanted to get to my friend V’s house who lived over on 127th street, the BX 19 takes you to the M7 which will take you down Lenox Avenue (or Malcolm X Blvd) where you’ll only have to walk one block to Fifth Avenue. My favorite café was just off the M3 line. And I lived exactly thirty-eight blocks north—that is, 35 minute walk—of Central Park.
That was how I survived in New York City at first. I had to draw boundaries around me and believe the rest of New York City didn’t exist.
I was here.
I was in The Promised Land. I was in the land I dreamed about, where Lawrence made his art, where Jazz musicians played into the hours of the night, where too many important authors and poets lived and worked. And I was a part of it, then.
So I believe I know what the Migrants Lawrence references experienced when they moved here for--opportunity. I was given a life I could have not ever lived in the South. I was. I cannot deny it.
It is enough to say that the first door I walked through to get here—the impossible Harlem apartment that manifested itself out of air—closed only months after I walked through it. But it was a door. When the winds shifted and I needed to figure out quickly a new place to live—in New York, you know what change is; feel it before it announces itself at the door—I walked into the broker’s office and told her: Not even Brooklyn or the Bronx (Queens wasn’t even on the list of possibilities). I said: I want to stay in Sugar Hill.
And just like that, I was sitting on my bed in my studio looking across the room at the boxes and boxes of books. Not even a year before, I was in New Jersey hand-washing my underwear in the bathtub. I had keys to my own, singular place.
You know, Langston—we were on a first name basis—wrote a poem which was my anthem the nearly five years in Harlem:
The Harlem roof-tops
Moon is shining.
Night sky is blue.
Stars are great drops
Of golden dew.
Down the street
A band is playing.
I love you.
Let us roam the night together
--“Harlem Night Song” (1921-1930), Langston Hughes
I had written my own night songs about Harlem. The moon shone brightly every night. Even though I missed mapping out the stars as I did with my fire-red telescope as a kid in South Carolina, I knew they were there. “Great drops/ of golden dew.” And they were beautiful. I was in Harlem. I said it with a lilt in my voice, like saying the name itself was a melody; the way in which you practice saying your lover’s name next to yours: DéLana & Harlem—that old school-yard sing-songy-ness that I sang, skipping rope, on my carport, in South Carolina.
I knew the love Langston wrote of. Nothing else in the world existed. I knew the desire to walk up and down the avenues, hand in hand with the person you want to be with most in that moment, and that moment made more special because of the location: I was a writer. A black writer. I was here. I was living a part of the tradition.
I can’t tell you when everything broke apart.
Only that it did, and that's what you were starting to talk about. You know, I loved Harlem, and it was so important to me to be here when and how I was, and then it kicked me out.
JL: So I will stay here with you and cut my younger self slack.
I still smile when I think about the reactions of my family members when I told them I was going to NYU. School: my ticket north. I remember family friends asking my parents where I got that idea from, the idea to go away to college in New York. My parents would laugh and shrug some response because it really didn't matter from where the idea originated. All of this commotion and fuss and I was the great niece of a woman who had spent her entire adult life in Brooklyn. Right in your hood, Bed-Stuy. I wasn't close to Aunt Mildred ( she died before I moved to the borough) but she did occupy this place of grandeur in my mind. This tall, no-nonsense Black woman from South Boston, Virginia - herself a Great Migrant - who had made the sojourn in the late 1950's. It is Aunt Mildred I think about whenever I look at Lawrence’s panel No. 60 - And the migrants kept coming.
I was going to NYU but really, I was coming to Brooklyn. Flatbush Ave. Fort Greene Park. The 2 train. Coney Island. Authurine's Kitchen (now closed but at one time the best place to get jerk chicken in Crown Heights). The brownstones. After almost 8 years, I am certain that I would not be the woman I am without Brooklyn. I wonder, is this how Aunt Mildred felt? I regret that I was unable to ask her for her migrant story before she passed, before I knew that I would yearn for it, before I started to think of my own journey across state lines.
My first summer in the borough was full of late night block parties, bad spoken word poetry, silly crushes and too many missed bus transfers. I loved every minute of it. Brooklyn is a magical place. This is a truth that I still proclaim. At some point, even my friends who were Brooklyn natives forgot I was not from Brooklyn and would introduce me as a Brooklynite. I would blush at this mistake that was also supposed to be a compliment but after a while, these small mishaps, the " I always forget you're from the South," began to keep me up at night. This next statement might be dramatic but I felt as though I hadn't centered my Black Southerness enough in my early New York years. I pushed it away. Now, I have forced myself ( encouraged is probably an equally good word to use) to re-center some things. To re-center own my Black Southern Womaness in new ways. The more Brooklyn changes, the more I am running back to the intersection of those points.
I stare at Lawrence's panels and I wonder how or even if those many great migrants kept a Southern center as they fled Jim Crow. What did it mean to let that center go? What was the story told when letters were sent Home, correspondences like the ones depicted in Panel no. 33? If the Southern center didn’t manifest itself explicitly in day to day activities did it live in the precious, private exchanges between family and friends still on the other side of the Red Sea? I wonder: Did Aunt Mildred introduce herself as Mildred from Brooklyn or Mildred from Virginia?
DD: You know, as I was remembering Harlem with such fondness, I was thinking: it was because it felt like the South, where I was. Older women adding extra syllables to words, calling young men & women, "Hon-ey," folks knowing each other in the neighborhood--and greeting you when you passed--older folks sitting on the stoop, or, there was this older gentleman, no younger than his 70's who would drag a white plastic chair onto the sidewalk every morning and sit there and watch the day go by---re-inhabiting, or, creating their urban porches. They came, as Lawrence said in Panel 35 “In large numbers”, so I can only imagine their "southern centers" as you call them, manifested in the homes, in the churches, in the gathering communal spaces. And that tradition stayed, and it became a haven for me, and I'm so sure, countless others.
Too, I find it no surprise that I have found some level of comfort here in Bed-Stuy as well. My landlady is from South Carolina. Several other neighbors on my block make it a point to make themselves known, and I know they are from the South, or their family is (I would generalize and say: I don't know if that is quintessential New York, or if it's these descendants of Migrants, or elder Migrants' Southern Center exposed).
But I hear you on learning, upon coming North, that as soon as I crossed the Mason Dixon Line (though, arguably, NOT in Harlem), I learned that there were different kinds, shall I say, different tiers of Blackness, and everyone tried hard to not associate me with being Black American, that is, someone whose lineage is as a descendant of American slaves. Right before I met you to go to MoMa and see Lawrence's brilliant pieces, and celebrate with all those faces in the crowds, someone who is new to me, and just learning my name, learning to acknowledge the accent ague (é) over my name and say, "Day-Lah-nah", and work a little harder, and acknowledge the French derivatives of both my first and last name asked me, up front:
"Where are your people from?"
And so, I do the deep inhale. And recite by rote: "My father's family is from Virginia, but he grew up in Charleston, SC. My mother's family is from Georgia, but she grew up in Columbia."
I swear to you, here, here in New York City, there is always, what I call, "The Letdown."
"Oh. I mean, like before that? Like, your name..."
And then I say, I'm "Black American. Dameron...was very common in Virgina and even Lousiana for white slave owners."
And I think, building up the answer for that, over the past 8 years, has strengthened my Southern Center. I love that idea. And I think, because of the traces of that Southern Center that permeates and wafts down 145th Street in Harlem, or over here on Madison Street in Bed-Stuy, because some things are never lost, no matter where you are--we found comfort, and we find each other.
What occasion Lawrence's work and MoMa's exhibit has granted us! Strengthening our Southern Centers, and growing more in our sisterhood. We left the South within months of each other in 2007, and found each other a few years later. Who would have thought? Surely this fact comforted all the strangers coming to Detroit, to Chicago, to Harlem & Bed Stuy: you will come here, and you will still find home, even if it's only in the people.
And I think, this One Way Ticket back, if I can mention it one more time here, just might be a direct result of our Southern Centers migrating away from us. Where is the warmth of those suns that helped us grow and plant our roots here for so long? Is that what is tugging at our heart-strings, harkening us back? That we feel the current shifting?
JL: Your acknowledgment of these New York Southern centers reminds me that I live on a block in Brooklyn between the streets Hampton and Virginia Place. That can't be a coincidence. I need to research the history of these street names because really, what are the odds that a daughter of Hampton, Virginia finds herself living on a block between those two streets?
There it is right? Finding home, finding one another.
I don't know if it has been my Southern center migrating away from me as much is it has been a center being revealed to me. In those moments when I am charged with defending my Black Southern sensibilities, what emerges is a resolute pride in what I call the extraordinary ordinariness of Black Southern identity. I have the luxury of living in a different era yes, but I am quite honored to share lineage with those radical men and women who didn't know what would greet them on the other side of the Red Sea but sought freedom nonetheless. I am honored to share lineage with those radical men and women who didn't leave because we know that to wake up day after day and simply live in the midst of jim crow, of white supremacy is nothing short of radicalism. I am holding all of that in my Southern center.
DD: I want to quote you here in this transition, how you say the “extraordinary ordinariness of Black Southern identity” because it’s so good, and because I think it sets up the simplicity of what I think the Migrants were seeking: a place to live, in the way that you said Black Southerners didn’t leave because “[they] know that to wake up day after day and simply live in the midst” and here I will say: violence. Racism. Unemployment. The urban centers others fled to, that we fled to, have changed, and today the cities—Baltimore especially—are in uproar about simple, ordinary things as you say, like: living. Freddie Gray wanted simply to live. Tamir Rice. Yvette Smith. Walter Scott. & so on & so forth. There will always be another name.
This terror pushed the Migrants across boundaries and borders to the North and Midwest, as we know. Lawrence depicted it in Panel 22: “ Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.” So are we destined to run from violence and fear to violence and fear and still from violence and fear? Lawrence answered that question in Panel 49--and still we came: “They also found discrimination in the North although it was much different from that which they had known in the South.” But these days, I feel it’s all the same.
There was a New York Times article this week and the headline was revolutionary in its simplicity: Our Demand is Simple: Stop Killing Us. And we are at this crossroads—and dare I say crossfire—where the urban centers we (and the Migrants in Lawrence’s work) ran towards will not, can not keep us, support us, or sustain us. And the fear runs deep into the ordinariness of everyday life, when the ordinary can elevate to something else--for example, I was riding my bike to work last week and I passed this police precinct. A patrol car was in the middle of the road driving, and then stopped. My biking instincts tell me to look at the lights to see what the driver’s intentions are. There was no blinker (that would mean the driver intentionally intended to inform me of what he was going to do), but as soon as it went into reverse, the lights automatically signaled that the car was coming in my direction. The only other “vehicle” on the road was me on my bike, and this cop car. There was not enough room to swerve without getting hit--I realized the car was trying to back into a parking space it passed four cars ago. If this were a normal car on a normal morning (not during the week of the Freddie Gray announcement of charges), I would have yelled at the driver to signal he should be careful of cyclists or some Yankee-sounding-road-rage I’ve inherited since being up here. But it was a cop car, and I froze in my fear after going over so many of the possibilities of what could happen to me if I did anything other than stop, dismount my bike and walk past them until I was completely out of harm’s way. I still feel how cold my center got when I thought: They could run me over. They could shoot me. They could arrest me. They could kill me if they wanted to. Fear will do that do you.
But the resolve to keep living!
The next day I ride my bike to work again, having survived the chance encounter with cops who could have continued backing straight up into my bike, or gotten out of their car and enforced whatever laws they wanted to upon my extraordinary ordinary (clearly I love your term) black female body. I wanted to live. I wanted to live in the way I choose to, so I got back on my bike. I made it to work OK, and had plans to meet you after work. But during the workday there was a helicopter echoing between the buildings in my Flatiron office. There were the sirens ringing down Fifth Avenue. A quick social media search confirmed: thousands were gathering to protest at Union Square and walk down to Foley Park and I was faced with a decision: stay out later than normal and have to bike through whatever-that-scene-was-going-to-be or go straight home. New York City was for me, a Sundown Town. I knew to be in the safety of my house before the sun set. Or else. So fear caused me to cancel those plans (I think I said I was tired), and I opted for straight home, and if I could describe to you the numbers of cops waiting on Fifth Avenue to you--well, I lost count. And squad cars and padded wagons. Cops lined up for blocks on the other side of Union Square to police the streets, to police and round up (I learned later over 30 people were arrested that evening) protesters--ordinary people like you and me who just wanted to live, and to have their voices heard, and to say en masse that our desire, indeed our right to LIVE, matters.
Certainly Lawrence’s Migrants and their descendants came up here expecting more than this, now, 100 years later? You said it so brilliantly before: WHERE DO WE GO TO GET FREE? Where do we go--to live? Is it Home? For us, is it the South? I’m still not convinced that is the answer, but there is now such a central, such a deep in the core unrest that I think my instinct these days (Even if I can’t fulfill it. Even if it is impossible.) is to go and seek out the place that made me.
I performed my Great Migration to this great otherwhere and I walk (bike?) the streets scared that any small infraction will be my last. I haven’t spent long stretches of time Home to say this with complete certainty, but there is not this same level of unease that I feel when I walk out of my brownstone onto a Bed Stuy block and four cops are posted on the corner. Or when C and I wait for a bus and a patrol car slows to a crawl and looks at my and my husband’s black faces and black locks, and we have to have a neutral face because--what if? And you ask the questions, like will my husband come back to me, alive, when leaves the house at midnight for work on the same block where there are cops posted up at all hours. Will my husband return to me, alive, when he sets out for an early morning run? Will I come back to him, alive, when I kiss him goodbye in the mornings and set off for work & meet a cop car on an empty street with no iPhone witness?
I can’t help but just pause and think of the question the Migrants must have asked before they bought their One-Way Ticket ( Where do we got to get free? Where do we go to live?), and think how the question has changed. Or not. Up North is telling us something, I have to believe, in the way that the South in the early 1900’s was telling the Migrants something. But, we’ve been there, and we’ve been here. And generations have passed and we’ve been loved and we’ve been killed and we’ve been enslaved and we’ve been imprisoned everywhere.
DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of How God Ends Us, a collection of poems selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Dameron’s poetry, non-fiction and fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and she has received fellowships from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Cave Canem Foundation, Soul Mountain Retreat and New York University where she received her Master in Fine Arts in poetry. Dameron has conducted readings, workshops and lectures all across the United States, Central America and Europe. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, she currently resides in Brooklyn, and writes about running the New York City Marathon and writing and education at www.delanaradameron.com.
Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK