Almost one year ago, I wrote a Talk of the Quad titled “Dirigo” about the constant movement during my childhood and the freedom I felt when I put roots down in Maine. I’ll say now, it was naive of me to think that after years of movement, I thought I would suddenly and poetically find my home. Naturally, my relationship with Maine has changed since then.
Through no fault or decision of my own, I’ve spent a lot of my life torn between people and places. My mother was born in Sierra Leone and moved to the U.K in her early teens. My father who is half Sierra Leonean and half English grew up in England. When it was just a couple months shy of my seventh birthday, my mother, my brother and I all relocated from the suburbs of London to Long Island, New York.
At my primary school in London, I was just another second-generation child of West Africans. I saw myself in my classes, on the playground and on the streets when my mum walked me home from school. I saw myself on the tube and when I went to play at my cousins’ houses on the weekends. We were everywhere, and I took it for granted.
In America, everything changed. I was not just one of many anymore. I was The Black Girl From England. It made perfect sense to me. It made no sense to anybody else. I never had to explain my blackness in London.
I didn’t even know the name of the country that my mother and father were from until I was in America. It never crossed my mind. I knew who I was. I grew up eating Sierra Leonean food and was surrounded by African art. I heard stories about the relentless, rainy season and picking mangoes off trees. I grew up hearing our languages, Krio and Susu. When I was a baby, my auntie would wrap me in cloth around her back and carry me. I don’t know how, but I still remember the sensation of my cheek pressed against the fabric of her shirt as I dozed off. I have no other memory that feels as safe.
And yet, I’ve never been to Sierra Leone. It’s amazing to feel this intense connection to a place that, beyond culture, I have never seen.
I am constantly navigating anxiety around place. When my brother was 16, this anxiety drove him to move back to the U.K. Since then, I have always defined myself by the splintering of my family across coasts and continents. No matter where I choose to live, I will be apart from the places or the people I love.
I know people who have lived in the same house, state or country their entire lives. I never had that opportunity. In the United States, I feel British—but even when I feel American, I still feel foreign. In the U.K., I’m not always perceived as British due to my American disdain for narrow roads. I end up feeling very American when I realize there are so many things I don’t understand about Britain, like the education system or the political climate.
I’m always yearning for something or somewhere, but once I get there, I yearn for the opposite. I truly don’t know where I belong sometimes. When friends talk about moving—or even just visiting—the West Coast, the idea that I could potentially be tied another place terrifies me. I can’t even choose between New York and London, let alone add another place to love.
The poet Nayyirah Waheed has a poem that simply reads, “where you are is not who you are.” These words have been unbelievably liberating to me in recent years. In my Talk of the Quad last year, I talked about the power of choosing places for yourself. More and more lately, I’ve been considering the power in not choosing. There is something wonderful about being able to feel at home in different places. New York is home for me. So is London. So is Maine, in many ways. And they all blend beautifully together now and in unexpected moments. Sometimes when I’m driving down Pleasant Street, I think about how much mid-coast Maine and Long Island look alike. Sometimes, I hear traffic from my dorm window and I’m transported to a New York City street. Other days, I step out on campus on a particularly brisk day, and I’m given a bittersweet reminder of how the wind feels coming off of the Thames. There is no reason why I can’t consider both countries my own; after all, one is my birthplace, and the other is the country that raised me.
This column is called “At Home in All Lands,” because although I’ll spend my whole life trying to make sense of what place means to me, at least I know that I can make a home anywhere. This column is my way of freeing myself from what feels like a solitary burden and finding out how my fellow members of the Bowdoin community feel about places. I want to learn about the places they were born, the places they’re tied to and the places they’ve grown up hearing about but have yet to see. I want to hear about the places they’ve traveled to and the places they want to visit. I want to know the places they have lived in, and the places, like Bowdoin, that they’ve chosen for themselves.