In her first piece for #itchysilk poet, writer, filmmaker, and vocalist, interdisciplinary artist, Jamika Ajalon discusses displacement and identity. Through her own personal journey from her native Amerika through Europe the issues regarding these contentious subjects are familiar. Perhaps surprising (but then again maybe not) it is in the LGBT & the “AFROBOT” communities where she and others like her face equal degrees of ostracization.
“I’m a fugitive/ that’s how I live, as I go along making up the narrative”
I didn’t leave Amerika to escape racism or follow in the footsteps of spiritual mentors likes James Baldwin. In fact, I began leaving Amerika well before I crossed the Atlantic to live. I felt like a stranger in my birth-land before I found myself a stranger in Europe.
The dominant (Western) narrative works to sequester fluidity of voice and agency-to maintain a power structure which feeds on the subjugation of the “othered”. We are living in an age where we are being fed (into) hyper-realties on a daily. We live under the pervasive snow machine posing as the Amerikan dream (and other international imperialistic forces). Take one step back and it becomes evident that we are slaves to this machine-each and every one of us across the illusion of the great divide. We all are sucked into it whether you be the latest fascist white male shooter terrorist or Beyoncé.
Maybe it was the lie upholding the banner of the Amerikan dream I was escaping over 20 years ago when my journeys as a so-called expat began. However, it did not take long to understand that this lie resonates internationally. It’s the same lie at root, readjusted to fit the form of a nation’s memory of itself. The UK has its nostalgia around the royal family and the British Empire, France with its Liberty Fraternity Equality placards, America with its dream, and so and so on. I was and I am not so much a fugitive from a nation, as I am a fugitive from a notion; a grand narrative which works mostly to break our bones to make its bread. “We live behind the gates of a kingdom that wants to destroy us” (James Baldwin in Conversation with Audre Lorde). “Tried to hold back urge to escape before the Amerikkkan dream consumed me and spat me out again.”** By the time I left Amerika “for good”, identity politics had left me with cotton mouth.
The first time I crossed the Atlantic, was the summer following the L.A. Riots. Rodney King joined Michael Jackson in song “why can’t we all just get along?” Police violence was a known, a given, most widely publicised as a crisis affecting primarily brown skinned Cis men. The rest of us were back-dropped because the REAL and most important issue, of course, was the emasculation of African-American male. Intersectionality wasn’t considered within the AFRO_BOT discourses. Clearly it was the battle between white dick and black dick that took center stage. There were those of us who challenged this. We were rare but around. Many of us were queer WOC (women of colour).
Some of these queer WOC I met for the first time when I de-virginised my passport and jumped the pond. I landed in a squat at Kings Cross, with 20 bucks in my pocket. Soon I found a network of queer WOC including some Americans who joined forces with the queer and feminist community in London, creating a space for political dialogue and performance. It was partially due to this connection that I survived. It also made me realize that there were alternative alliances everywhere. I was excited to continue to discover these souls.
I returned to London a couple of times before moving there to do my masters. After one of these voyages, (still in the early 90s), I landed in JFK, demi-dread punk grunge, with walking stick, flute case, and Amy duffle back pack. I knew that the likely hood I would be stopped at the airport boarders was high, so of course I carried no illegal substances. A tallish white officer whose face would eventually blend and morph to replicate the many pink faced badges that I would “meet” all over the world, ordered a young black man to search my bag three times. The third time they tore the linings of my flute case. Still finding nothing, I was taken back to a room and told to strip naked, you know, the whole squat and cough routine. I was humiliated. I was outraged. Some of my peers at the time states side, looked me up and down and said: “what did you think would happen?” Had I performed my femininity as expected, with straightened hair and ‘normal’ dress, perhaps some of my POC (people of colour) peers then would have had a bit of sympathy. For many of them however, I was just asking for it. There was no such thing as the “Afro-punk” movement at the time, so my aesthetic was considered “white”. There was little if any understanding of gender fluidity.
It was a response I was more than used to. My performance of both blackness and gender was continuously under attack. I was neither “black” enough or “feminine” enough. There was no such thing as the now highly commercialized “Afro-punk” movement at the time, so my aesthetic was considered “white”. There was little if any understanding of gender fluidity. Even within certain queer POC (people of color) communities one was expected to adhere to being either “butch” or “femme”. Some of the same regarded me with a stank-eye because of my punk aesthetic. At this time, I found more accepting communities comprised of those who lived alternative life styles in London. There was a more visible community of folks who had dread-locks. The merging of punk and reggae scene still reverberated. That’s not to say it did not exist in Amerika. I just felt freer to express myself in London. I was fully aware that part of the reason for this ‘freedom’ was also because I wasn’t from there.
And being a stranger was second nature. I had grown up feeling like one.
Making a life in London proved harder than expected. Not just on the bread and butter tip. I was still a WOC, queer, and “alternative”. As with any stranger, not all of UK’s citizens were happy to see me there. There is a kind of love/hate relationship Europeans have with Americans. Especially with the ones who stay. For many I was considered an interloper. Some suspected I was only in the UK to be a big fish in a small pond. They felt, understandably, I would be given preference because I was an “exotic African- American”. Why else would I leave Amerika? I could understand this point of view more, the longer I lived there. In Europe, for most POC, no matter where we live, the glass ceiling is pretty low. Many European countries, England included, want to bat off the reality of institutionalized racism citing Amerika as much worse and much more segregated. As far as some of us are concerned, one has to only look at who colonized America. Massacring the indigenous population, while planting their flag, in the name of economic “freedom”. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I hadn’t been there long when I got a great big slap in the face. Rewind to the mug of the border policeman in JFK airport, and plaster his face on another white male badge that kept me in a London cell overnight on suspicion. I wasn’t charged with anything. I was with a male friend. Mixed race. By this time, I had cut off my dreads, sported a short afro, dressed, as usual, fairly androgynous. London bobbies pulled us over, and asked to search my bag. I replied sure, but could I ask why? The red-faced copper got angry and ordered me out of the car. A series of very typical “COPS London style” events lead up to him putting his fist in my chest and spitting in my face. “I will have none of your lil boy games.”
I had experience doing overnighters in Amerikan jail cells mostly for protest related stuff-I knew the lay of the land in Amerika. In London I had no idea what would happen. I was understandably anxious. During this decade, post sus* law riots gave way to the whole Stephen Lawrence murder. It was an insanely tragic case where the police refused to enforce the law and arrest his racist killers. In a country where it was clear that brown-skinned bodies didn’t matter, I feared that I could easily get lost in the system.
My performance of both blackness and gender was continuously under attack. I was neither “black” enough or “feminine” enough.
Fascist hate crimes, (aka terrorist attacks), continued to be the mode through to the end of the millennia in the UK. Let’s take the series of attacks by the neo-Nazi nail bomber as a screaming example. He targeted establishments and areas that were frequented by the LGBT community and POC. His M.O. similar to the plethora of white male shooter terrorist in Amerika.
By leaving the land of the free and the brave, I didn’t escape institutionalized racism, patriarchal violence, homophobia or any of the isms that are integral to consumerist imperialist machine. I would, in the years to follow, find the same (albeit different) in Berlin, Paris and Vienna. What I would also find, however, was the continuance of a resistance that could be considered sub terrain, including both local European “others” and folks like myself that were strangers making a life “abroad” whether by necessity, choice, or both.
The lie is that terrorism starts with foreign evasions from extreme fundamentalist fanatics. The lie is that the lute (struggle) to dismantle racism, sexism, queer-phobia somehow stopped. It suddenly re-emerged in the last 5 years. The truth is that on both sides of the Atlantic, Pacific, all over the globe- we have existed- those of us who refuse to adhere to stagnant codes around identity and lifestyle. We who are agents to the life we want to live despite what the dominant narrative decrees to be truth/reality. The truth is that we never stopped being slaves, regardless of who you are or where you rest your hat.
I am reminded of something I found at a NYC used book shop days before my departure from the land of the free and the brave, that would prelude the European chapters of my life. It was a book by Ntozoke Shange For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide (1997). Inside the jacket cover there was an inscription, evidently for someone else, but still seemed to be expressly written for me-“For those who consider London when New York is enough.”
Featured image by Ulf Andersen
First and second image unknown.
** from forth coming novel “skye papers