No question vexes me quite like “where you from?”
I grew up at 19474 Sorrento, on the west side of Detroit, Michigan. It was a large colonial house in the middle of the block, central enough to be the 50-yard line in street football, but far enough from the main intersection to be safe. The house belonged to my grandmother, who purchased it after leaving Jamaica for the United States with my mother in 1963.
My mom, brother and I moved into my grandma’s house just after my parents’ divorce, leaving our small bungalow house at 17164 Braille that I barely recall but for a few memories: pouring orange juice in my oatmeal, putting together my first bike, being chased by a dog, and being forced to sit at the table until I finished that god-awful oatmeal.
I saw my father on weekends at 19014 Revere Street, on the east side of the city. When my mom was ready to move back out on her own, we left Grandma’s house for 9-mile and Lahser in Southfield. Then a townhouse complex called Roanoke Place. Then I moved to 8461 Rutland. Then 11645 Stahelin, followed by 722 Wheaton, 1300 Concord Place, 11426 Goddard Court, 755 Dragonfly, 3-27-5 Nerima-Ku, Tokyo, Japan…
I’ve lived in at least 22 places across five countries, from my childhood in Michigan to my twenties in Asia and Eastern Europe, to my current home in New York City. It should be no surprise then that the question of roots vexes me so. Especially when it comes from Black people. The question carries a different weight with us, particularly as compared to two other populations I’ve come to know well: white Americans and foreigners.
I dodge those conversations to avoid having to sift through the complexities of my past. tweet
When a white person asks where I’m from, I perceive at least a part of their motivation to be sizing my background against the person standing in front of them. Are you from the suburbs, or did you come from the city?” There’s usually a question like this that later lends itself to “you speak so well,” and the proverbial pat on the head that is all too familiar to Black people who carry themselves a certain way. Admittedly, I may be overly sensitive. But why else do white people invariably ask the follow up question, “‘Detroit-Detroit?’ You? Not the suburbs? Maybe Rochester Hills? You speak so well.” Or maybe, if I’m being less cynical, someone is asking just to be polite. Whether there is an ulterior motive or not, with white people I feel I know what they want, and I know how I’ll answer.
In my experience with foreigners, the well-traveled want to know if they’ve been to your city, while others simply want to exclaim how they’ve heard of it. Los Angeles? The Lakers! Philadelphia? My cousin went there once! When I lived in Macedonia, the Eastern Europeans I encountered differed in their need to determine whether you’re from a city or if you’re a “seljak” meaning a peasant or villager, a somewhat derogatory Macedonian word conveying someone less cultured or educated. It’s a differentiation similar to “city or suburbs,” but again, I understand the intent, and so I know how I’ll answer.
Coming from my people though? Coming from the block? “Where you from?” is a question akin to asking an astrologist about their zodiac or a person’s blood type in Japan: it means something. It’s the set you claim, the hood you rep, the city you ride for; when it comes to cities, “where you from?” has more cultural significance among Black Americans than any other culture with which I’ve lived.
Black people’s passion for their cities can run deep. While not exclusive to Black Americans, ownership of your home city is particularly an anchor in Black culture. Not just the city either – hometown-loving Black folk also take ownership of the great people from their cities, like the Black celebrity whose origin is known down to the neighborhood by the enthusiastic and apathetic alike. From sports teams to accents, Black authenticity is in some ways determined by how well you know your city’s streets and understand its unique culture. Hometown-loving Black folk know what separates their city from any other city in the world, and those qualities are significant to them. Defining, even. Have you ever used your city as an inherent explanation for your behavior? You’re probably a hometown-loving Black person.
For someone like me, however, authenticity tied to hometown love is problematic. Somewhere between 19474 Sorrento and now, the passion for what should be my city was lost, and so followed the identity meant to come with it. Small talk at a party became a minefield through which I avoided origin story conversations. Step around local politics, because I can’t recall the landscape. Step over high school, because I went to four. I don’t have a deep, dark past – I don’t have a clear past at all.
When forced, I settle for inaccurate answers that are satisfactory enough to move beyond the topic quickly. I feign strong ties to a city. I lie. tweet
I dodge those conversations to avoid having to sift through the complexities of my past. No one wants to explain their childhood as an army brat, or splitting time between divorced parents on opposite ends of the country, or being raised in traveling church spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. When forced, I settle for inaccurate answers that are satisfactory enough to move beyond the topic quickly. I feign strong ties to a city. I lie.
Or stretch the truth, rather. Sports – in all its wonder and lunacy – is a culturally acceptable way we can hold claim to a hometown that allows us to participate in this most blatant expression of community without question. I’ve been an active sports fan all my life, and no matter where I move, my marriage to the Lions, Pistons, Tigers, and Red Wings will always suggest my city allegiance, my insinuation of a true home. I don’t even watch two of those sports, yet claiming them is of utmost importance. I have to rep all Detroit teams. I must be loyal to a fault. The Detroit Lions haven’t won a championship since before the Super Bowl era in 1956 and are the first franchise in NFL history with an 0-16 record, but I’ll rep them to the death. I overcompensate in this way to reconcile not knowing what restaurant to recommend to your friend who’s travelling to Detroit, or for needing Google Maps myself when I (rarely) go back to visit. I make amends by being a homer in an illogical fandom.
Often, when we construct social facades, they fare poorly, leaving us pegged as disingenuous or feeling stuck in social quicksand. I mentally bookmark these moments, replaying them in my mind as I analyze my reactions. Recently, in an Uber with three new friends, the driver asked the dreaded question. Without thinking, I responded “New York.” After a long pause, one of my friends – a ride-or-die Chicago native who knew I was raised in Detroit – commented “oh, you said … hm, interesting.”
It’s one of the emptiest, yet most loaded responses in the English language. You graduated from college? Interesting. You liked Mad Men? Interesting. You put ketchup on that? Interesting. So though the conversation moved on not a split second later, my mind didn’t.
I’m sure her response was genuine and without malicious intent. Yet for me – no-city-pride-having me – it invoked the litany of thoughts and explanations familiar to those who grew up nomadic. I thought the driver meant – well New York is where I live, right? Did he mean where I grew up? Should I have claimed Detroit? What if he knows Detroit really well and asks a question I can’t answer? I haven’t lived in Detroit in over a decade, that has to be past the statute of limitations. Wait, am I ashamed? Who taught me to hate myself? Ugh, this is why I hate small talk! Where do I belong?
Black people’s passion for their cities can run deep. While not exclusive to Black Americans, ownership of your home city is particularly an anchor in Black culture. tweet
It’s strange, for many of us– this time between moving away from home, our proudest display of adulthood, and when we begin succumbing to the invariable pressure to “settle down”. To do so is essentially to find the stability that many of us have not felt since childhood; until then, we wade through the world without a sense of home. We know we may not feel that same sense of belonging again until we’re experiencing it vicariously through our own children as they play football in the middle of the block, central enough to be the 50-yard line but far enough from the intersection to avoid concern. This is a privileged experience many of us have only twice in our lives – when we’re young and when we’re old – and one that some of us never really have at all.
My detachment from a city – from belonging, from claim – is probably much of what drives my mild obsession with wanting to own property and anchor my ship to the sand. The idea of owning something to bond me to a city, to a neighborhood, to a community, is to want a pride I’ve seen so many other Black people flaunt that I’ve never had.
I live in New York where affordable home ownership is laughable, and in such a transient city there’s a frequent question asked of we who are transplants: How long are you going to stay? Until you’re finished with school, until you’ve proven you can make it, until you leave your mark on Broadway – there’s always the assumption of an expiration date. And while I love my life here, none of New York’s flaws affect my answer to that question as much as my inability to forfeit my life as a nomad and settle down.
When the destination is less obvious, the choice to claim a city as home still means something for Black identity. Part of my identity will forever lay in the city I was raised when the choice wasn’t mine; and still, part of me will be found in the city in which I live when the choice is mine to make. Those sides will continue to leave me vexed to where I’m from until I decide what I am most proud to claim as the representation of who I am.And maybe the age will come when the place I’m from and the place I’m proud to live in can one day become the same. It means something, after all.