The reeducation of Lesley-Ann Brown

All of we is one : that's what they say in Trinidad. But it took me getting expelled from school in Brooklyn to find out

When I was ten, I travelled to Trinidad alone. When the plane landed, the door swung open and I was hit by a humid blanket of air that kinked my hair even more. The palm trees looked like they were relaxing against the sky, while a deafening explosion of crickets filled the air.

It was the summer of 1982, and I had been kicked out of school in Brooklyn. My parents, compelled by immigrant survival instincts, did the only thing they could – send me to Trinidad to be with my family.

It was probably for the best. Stanley from the block was the first to go to jail. He was only sixteen, and I remember hearing the words ‘Rikers Island’ for the first time. While he was locked up in New York’s most infamous jail, we tried to avoid being sucked into the city’s disrepair, into crime, drugs and pregnancy. Stanley’s girlfriend Nicole failed to dodge the last one, aged only 16.

We roller skated at the Empire Skating Rink and jumped double-dutch with telephone wire on concrete streets. Stanley’s mother, Pat Walker, facilitated this, in her determination to offer us a fate different to her son’s.

Origins and heritage
While Brooklyn exposed me to the realities of American racial politics and how to be proud of my diasporic heritage, Trinidad was the nail I hammered home to secure a stronger sense of my identity. Black leadership? No problem. When I landed in Piarco International Airport, an Afro weighed down my small frame, and a colourful outfit kept me true to my Caribbean roots. But I will never forget the comfort I felt when I saw our Prime Minister. He was brown like me. And this was in the 80s.

Years later, I am standing at the passport office in Copenhagen.

“Balbirsingh,” I repeat and proceed to spell my mother’s maiden name. The clerk can be forgiven for not understanding it. Sikh names aren’t common in the West, and are even less expected when they belong to a woman with no air of Sikh about her.

But in Trinidad, racial mashups are common. Everyone knows that if a name ends with ‘singh’, you are an East Indian. I grew up with jokes like: What do you call an Indian walking on a wall? Balance-singh. An Indian standing between two buildings? Ali. We didn’t find the jokes racist – they gave us an opportunity to talk about the secrets that coursed through our veins. Through humour, we claimed ownership of our complicated culture, heritage and individual lineages.

During secondary school at Providence Girls Catholic School in Belmont, Trinidad, it was not uncommon to meet black girls with Chinese names and Indian girls with Portuguese ones. My own family tree is no different. I see names like DeGannes, Charles, Baboolal, and Nunez from forebears that were Corsican, Punjabi, French Creole, East Indian and Portugese. I close my eyes and re-imagine the journeys they mapped across the globe just to produce me, with my name, Lesley-Ann Brown.

All of we is one is a famous Trinidadian saying, and our biological offspring are oftentimes a testament to that. Although my mother’s family name is Balbirsingh, few of us appear connected to that Punjabi name visually. We are a family stitched together by illicit affairs and courageous love stories that dared to look the establishment in the eye.

Soul of the steel pan
“You know what?” my ex-husband once said to me, “I’ve travelled the world, and I have to say Trinidad is the only place where I felt I came close to racial unity.”

In America I learned to be American, and in Trinidad I would learn to be Trinidadian. I mastered accents and the ability to ‘code switch’, learning languages unconsciously, which came in handy when learning Danish. It wasn’t difficult to learn words such as ‘de’ and ‘dem’, because in Trinidad, we dropped the ‘th’ a long time ago. The cadence of a Trinidadian accent also came in handy when trying to hide my American twang in Danish, minimising how often Danes switched over to English when they heard it.

My ten-year-old self didn’t yet know what she would someday learn, though. Sleeping next to my snoring grandmother in Diamond Vale, I would think how the crickets sounded like the steel pan. By turning empty oil barrels into these instruments, the poor in Trinidad fashioned an entire culture out of what was discarded by the rich. And that sound – that soft crashing dancing sound – is a fuel I am still burning.  M


By Lesley-Ann Brown

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