So now what?

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked this question.  It’s a good one. And folks seem worried.  School is basically finished (actually, it’s not until this month ends. but that’s a story I’d rather not get into).  And school was my reason/pretext for moving to Amsterdam.  Without school as my gravity, I find myself suspended in an area of uncertainty. Where to go? What to do? Who to be? How to find that wealthy benefactor to support the fulfillment of my remaining dreams?  Yeah, folks are definitely worried.

But from my point of view, this is freedom at its best. The next steps are up to me – and only me.  Of course I need to feed myself, sleep under a roof (most days), and maintain basic levels of hygiene.  But outside of these responsibilities of adulthood, which sometimes can be achieved creatively, I can go almost anywhere.  This is when I finally get to dance outside of that commonly-mentioned box, which my thinking already escaped long ago.  And it’s going to be like one of those James Brown-fancy footwork-shimmy shake-wipe the sweat off my face-type of dances.

I’ve made some decisions about what I want in the coming months, years, and lifetimes.  Some I’ve known for quite some time, such as wanting to create opportunities and broaden the horizons of young Black people.  Others have evolved over time, like my belief in the impact of genealogy research.  And now, here I am, being pushed, guided, and supported right into the opportunities that will allow me to live an adult life I love.  Having suspended the fear of uncertainty, I’m happy to realize that the universe has been working in my favor (even on the days I’m not).

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho has countless quotes that resonate.  In this instance, I think of this: “When someone makes a decision, [s]he is really diving into a strong current that will carry [her] to places [s]he had never dreamed of when [s]he first made the decision.” Yes. Yes, indeed.

So back in November, shortly after I returned to the Netherlands from Suriname, I regretted not being able to stay for the implementation of a youth ancestry research project I had designed.  I wondered how I was going to find and afford a place to stay in Amsterdam after January.  And I received an incredible offer: return to Suriname…on us (well, the plane ticket)…for as long as you’re willing to stay and work on this project.

Awwww yeah. Offer accepted.

From there, life got tougher in Amsterdam, as if the city was pushing me away.  Zora died.  The drains in my apartment started spewing other people’s poo (literally). My bike was stolen.  Money was low (well, that was nothing new – but you get the point).  I needed a break.  I was ready to go.  Not forever.  Just for a few months – say, maybe seven.

So now what?  Well, I have returned to Suriname, of course.  On Friday, the day after my birthday (not necessarily relevant – just important that you know), I began my seven-month stay.  I’ll be working on this local ancestry project.  I’ll be looking for some sustainable income. And I’ll be laying the groundwork for my very own organization that will introduce young Black people to their ancestors and new perspectives of history.  And I’ll be absorbing as much warmth as Suriname is willing to share.

Once I’m finished here in September, I plan to return to Amsterdam.  But while I continue to dance on the path outside of the box, as Coelho pointed out, next I might be carried to places I never dreamed of.  So who knows?  I’m just continuing to take this sometimes intimidating, usually nerve-wracking, always satisfying journey one step at a time.

So no more questions, please.

(just kidding. you can ask me questions. just don’t be surprised if you’re not satisfied with my answer.)

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A secret tentative plan

I tend to be secretive about my most sacred and valued hopes and dreams. I’ll quietly decide to try something days or months (or never) before telling anyone about my intentions.  The less everyone knows about what I’m doing, the less everyone will be disappointed by my inability to accomplish whatever it was that I probably shouldn’t have told them about in the first place.  And trust me: I have not accomplished plenty.

In addition to a fear of expectations, there’s also the jinx factor.  If I fill others in on a plan, the plan is then doomed to failure.  For example, after telling everyone that Savion Glover would one day be my husband – it’s almost 20 years later and well, obviously no Savion. That’s because I jinxed it.  That apartment I deemed perfection, the job I thought would guarantee happiness, or the man I was sure was him – it rarely ends up being what I said I wanted.  If I’m honest, in most cases, it ends up being something better – something I didn’t imagine for myself.  But when I set my sights on something I really, really want (like the Savion thing), I don’t want to tempt fate into finding something better – or worse, more challenging than what I actually want.  So while I try to get between points A and B, if B has any level of significance, I won’t be saying too much about it.

I started the blog when I began to realize how terrible this strategy could be.  As much as I’d like to believe it’s possible to do everything for and by myself, I know it shouldn’t always be that way.  Support and guidance can be wonderful things.  But I’ve recently fallen off the blogging thing – writing altogether, really.  And I’ve caught myself a couple of times thinking I have nothing to write about.  Nothing worth sharing.  So I’m a “black girl”and I’m “gone.” Yeah, now what?

Truth is, a lot is now.  I’ve just been backsliding into my old, secretive, suffer-in-silence ways.  As the comforts of my student life appear to be approaching an end quite quickly, a number of grown-up realities – big girl decisions – have come into play.  Money, career, home…scary-type stuff.  The stuff I was temporarily happy to set aside.  And no offence, or anything, I just didn’t feel like sharing the next steps with you.  What could your knowing offer other than a jinx on an already tenuous situation?

Yet, although I still mostly believe that, I need to get over it.  Particularly because I’m about to be getting “gone” again.  And that is what this blog is supposed to cover, as the title would suggest…

Black girl gone…to Suriname – in (about) two months for (about) two months.  I’m dragging out the fieldwork and writing process for my Master’s thesis to incorporate the research I’ll do over there in the coming semester.  So this means I will remain a student for just a bit longer.  A bit like cheating, perhaps. But you would do it too.

And while I continue with my thesis research, and as I work through the logistics of a temporary move from Europe to South America, I’m working out a business plan.  Because in 2013, I have no intentions of working for the benefit of someone else’s mission. My mission is to introduce young (and all) black people to our histories by paying tribute and learning the stories of our ancestors, beginning with their own ancestors.  And I’m really excited to turn that into a full-time gig.

It will look like a nonprofit organization, based in the U.S., with a branch office in the Netherlands (ahem).   Partnerships between schools and local genealogical societies (read: young and old) will provide young people with African ancestry in the Americas with personalized research into their family histories, enhanced by their own culturally and historically-relevant experiences and research. In the long-run, we’ll provide the young people with travel opportunities.  But at the moment, my priority is just to clarify and prove the concept.

Yeah, and that’s where I draw the sharing line.  And that just left me pretty uncomfortable.  We still have some issues to work through.

So here’s hoping I didn’t just jinx the isht out of myself. And further hoping that I can find sources of support and encouragement among you, in addition to a willingness to hold me accountable!

An anniversary, a milestone, and more to come

The one-year anniversary to mark my arrival in the Netherlands came when I was in Greece.   I sat in a cute little restaurant in Athens, avoiding returning to my temporary dorm-like residence, getting a little tipsy on wine.  At that time I attempted to write the 100th post for black girl gone.  Most of it was about the journey that brought me here – a journey that began far longer than a year ago, as evidenced by this blog alone.  But it was a ho-hum of a post, with the weepy sorrows of years long gone.  I can get plenty of that with a quick scan of old posts.  So fortunately, a dead battery and a failure to save resulted in the loss of what I had written.

Beyond acknowledgement of a challenging path, some really smart decisions, and a newly found trust in my instincts and distrust of expectations, I think my one-year anniversary and 100th post should focus on what’s next.  The year, and whatever else ahead…

1) Genealogy overload

I went almost completely dark on my personal family research well over a year ago.  And last year I picked up the projects of several others in Amsterdam, researching family histories that stem largely from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.  But I’ve even fallen behind with them.

No more of that.  Re-opening my own research, while furthering and creating noise around the local genealogy project will be a priority.  My family research has left plenty of unanswered questions.  And the local interest and passion for family history is certainly enough for me to gain more momentum for the project in Amsterdam.   For this reason, you can expect somewhat of a shift in this blog.  Expect more family history and genealogy-related posts.  Accept it, my friends.  This will be a defining aspect of my life.  In the longer-term, I expect it to take me back to the southern states of the U.S., Salt Lake City, Cuba, and southern Africa – at least.  I expect to earn the title of genealogist.  And I can’t wait.

ancestors await...

2) Write a Master’s thesis

By August.  I want to (and I will) finish by August.  Is denial of access to one’s family history a form of social oppression?  It will be some type of a comparative study of black Dutch and black Americans, as descendants of survivors of slavery, and their perceptions of identity, as potentially impacted by a (lack of) knowledge of ancestry.  Or something like that.

study habits

3) Suriname

It’s there.  And I don’t see why I shouldn’t be.  So I’m setting my sights on creating a plan to spend a few months moving a genealogy research project forward in Suriname by the end of this year.  This will require support, funding, and a more concrete idea.  But my instincts are telling me this will be important.  So before I understand it so clearly, I’m going to work on putting a plan into place.

Suriname census

4) More traveling; more writing

I continually taunt myself with the cliché, “life is short!” But hell if it isn’t.

I enjoy traveling.  And I enjoy writing.  I need to do more of both to spend more time enjoying this too-short life.

the look of travel

5) The fellas

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, to dramatic degrees.  All resulting in very little.  Dating/not dating/white boys/no boys/single lady/ cat lady.   I’m putting all of it away.  To be honest, this is less about some level of personal growth, and more about simple boredom with the subject.  Look, folks. I’m human, okay?  Of course I notice that most of my friends are in stable relationships that are leading to marriage and/or babies.  But that doesn’t mean any of this knowledge occupies a significant amount of space in my mind.  It shouldn’t.  And it doesn’t.

This year, whatever happens with the fellas will be fine with me.  Let’s just leave it at that.

"I don't like any of these boys..."

I enjoyed last year very much.  And it looks like, more than ever, I’m in control of the year ahead.   So I think I’ll enjoy this one even more.  I hope you’ll continue to join me!

Let the Master’s Begin

As of this week, I am officially a Master’s student.  After a semester of “prep,” the University of Amsterdam has deemed me qualified to work toward a Master’s in Sociology.  Never mind the fact that the somewhat disorganized University hasn’t provided me with a new id card and my residency permit is currently in limbo (let’s all pray to the spirits that I don’t get kicked out of the country before someone figures out how to process paperwork).

Last semester felt like a valuable warm-up.  Sort of like a Taebo work-out after not lifting more than a glass of wine for the past eight years.  And now I’m getting ready for capoeira (something that I’ve always wanted to do – both in and out of metaphor).  Now I have three classes: one on social theory, another on qualitative research methodology (beginning with ethnography), and finally migration and integration (my concentration).  Anyone have any well-written, academic papers I can buy?  I kid, of course.  I’m almost positive I can handle this.

I’m not as nervous.  My apartment is furnished.  Dutch no longer sounds like complete gibberish (except when I try to speak it).  I’ve met some great new people.  And I know the differences between Weber and Durkheim.  If that doesn’t make me a future master of something, I don’t know what will.

But this is it.  I basically have nine more months before real life picks up again.  So while I’m studying this semester, and preparing to write my thesis next semester, I will be thinking and planning for the future.  A source of income, a place to live, and a way to turn the ideas in my head into something real.  After this, I’m not sure how many do-overs I’ll be granted.  So I need to make this time count.

And if you’re wondering, returning to the States (to live) is nowhere in the plan.

The Apartment’s Potential

My apartment is taking on a special pursuit – conversion from a ‘student’s two-room apartment’ to a ‘grown-up’s one-bedroom apartment.’ I’ve begun to drive myself crazy with all of the ideas for the makeover.

Before I even saw the place, the guy from the rental company told me to make myself comfortable by painting or doing what I wanted with it. They’ll be renovating all of the apartments in the next year or two. So it doesn’t really matter what I do with it.

With my creativity switch turned to “power,” I saw the place as a solid blank slate. A private entrance leads to a long hallway, which will be perfect for the ancestor wall of photos on one side, and the revolution wall of photos on the other. This hallway leads to the less than ideal tiny bathroom. But it’s all mine. And it has a sink, which the guy warned me it might not. A nice coat of paint, some shelves, and a shower curtain that stays up will suit my teeny bathroom nicely. I’ve already become more used to it without all of those things.

The next door is to the tiny bedroom. It will fit an adult-size bed, but not much else. And without one real closet, my brain has been spinning around the dilemma of storage. Where will everything go? The one closet that is full of shelves can function as a dresser if I add appropriately sized baskets. And maybe I can squeeze in a clothes rack somewhere. Not sure. But after some pretty paint in the red/orange family in there, I’m hoping the bedroom’s smallness issues will matter less.

master bedroom

 

Next is the kitchen, which is huge. A table, chairs, and a dance floor would all fit nicely. With one wall of a bright color in the gold/yellow family, along with some art, the kitchen could be one of my favorite rooms. There’s a connection for a washer & dryer (might I be so bold?). And the treadmill that I just couldn’t get rid of could go in one of the corners. Ambitious, maybe. But it’s my biggest space.

the kitchen

The kitchen has a door to my private garden, which, although it requires some love and attention, is so perfectly cute and much larger than I expected. It even has a little space for a fish pond. I picture it with a couple of chairs and an outdoor table, some of those outdoor lights, a little fountain in the pond, and a better defined fence to allow Zora to walk around freely. This is exactly the type of project that I would normally let slide, never actually getting around to doing one thing with it. But the vision is just too lovely for me to allow my laziness to overtake it.

pre-love garden

On the front end of the apartment, my living room faces the street. It’s a nice size, with a mock fireplace holding the gas heater. I see tons of potential for this room. With curtains replacing or covering the vertical blinds, the windows will look much better. A pale green paint, with a darker green over/under the mantle, will warmify the room. My large mirror, artwork, sofa, and an area rug will make it feel like a living space. In another corner, I plan to have one tall and one short bookcase, along with my tall table and 2 stool-type chairs. (This happens to be the corner in which I’m currently sleeping on the student-size single bed.). This corner has a window that looks into the kitchen. I’ll put some white lights around it, hopefully highlighting the complementing colors of the two rooms. It’ll be my own little cafe.

the living space

To prove to you that I’m serious, I’ve already spoken with a painter and negotiated a price with him. On Tuesday morning he and I will buy paint while his partner sets up. I’ve also requested new quotes for shipping my stuff from Brooklyn storage to here. While the painters work and my stuff makes the trip on a boat somehow, I’ll work on purchasing/making the things that will make it complete. I have no idea how long it will all take. But I imagine that within a month or two I will have a transformed place. Just in time for some guests to stay comfortably.

To Be a Fulbright…or Not So Bright

I’m sure you all know about the Fulbright. It’s a U.S. Government program that provides funding to teachers and scholars to teach, study and/or conduct research in all other parts of the world, spreading American joy and wisdom along the way. Putting the spreading of joy and wisdom thing aside, I would love to be a Fulbright scholar. Although the program wouldn’t provide the money for tuition (still looking for a benefactor to help me with that), it would provide enough to cover books, living expenses, and travel. Plus, I’d be in a network of smarty pants Fulbright scholars, who I imagine would become life-long friends and supporters. I’ve already got a table reserved for them at my wedding.

The funding is clearly desirable, which is why I, along with thousands of others, have had my eye on it for quite some time. When I first conceived of the idea to move to Amsterdam to study, my second thought was whether or not I could apply for a Fulbright. Could I be competitive enough? Could I come up with a genuinely interesting and compelling project? Could I even stomach the application process? So last year, with the hopes of starting school in Amsterdam right about now (I originally applied and hoped to start at the University of Amsterdam in the fall of 2010), I submitted an application for a Fulbright fellowship.

The first application (obviously) was not successful. To be fair, I had become distracted over the summer by a herniated disk in the lower part of my spine, which caused excrutiating pain and a numb right leg and foot for two months. That, among some other distractions, derailed my plan to spend two months working on my application. And although it would have been best to submit an application through my undergrad, incorporating their feedback and support, the campus deadline came and went while I was in the hospital having part of my spine removed (maybe one day I’ll share the story of the leaking spinal fluid and rush to the emergency room, which followed my surgery – but right now it would only distract you, as it did me at the time). Fortunately for me, I also had the option to apply as an “at-large” student. Sounds kind of menacing. But I was into it.

I became aware of the second deadline maybe two weeks before the date. And I mulled over whether or not it would be worthwhile to pursue at that point. So in my typical style, I left myself about 8 hours to complete my application, gather transcripts, request my recommendations (I had been in touch with professors about applying to school – so I hoped they would have something ready for me that could be copied and pasted), oh yeah and come up with an interesting project out of the ideas that had been stirring in my head for the past six months. Surprisingly, I was able to get everything in by the deadline. But, although I’m not certain, I’m pretty sure I submitted portions of it in crayon.

Now I have another chance. Having been accepted into the UvA Master’s program for 2011, I feel like I’ve been granted a pardon for my distracted ways of 2009. And this is my chance to make a real effort to make this opportunity my own. So I’m doing it right this time.

I’m almost finished with the project proposal. Well, if a jumble of paragraphs covering every thought I’ve ever had counts as almost finished. Regardless, I plan to wrap that up before this weekend ends. At that point, I will send it over to my professor friends for another round of (dreaded) recommendation requests. So I’m still on track for the campus deadline. Plus I’ve already reached out to my future academic advisor at UvA. He sent a delightful response which was very encouraging, indicating his excitement about my proposed research focus. He also referred me to a local Dutch organization, Ninsee, which could also potentially relate to my work. So in an extra bold and productive mood, I sent an email to Ninsee. You know, just trying to make some early friends. No response from them so far (it’s been less than a week). But that’s okay. Maybe they’re just playing hard to get friends. I still feel unusually inspired by this proposed study and the space that appears to be available for me to pursue it in Amsterdam. Something about all of it just feels so right. No matter where things end up with the Fulbright. And if you’re wondering what this research focus will be, please be patient with me as I continue to work through my fears of the jinx. I’ll let you know if and when it matters.

So yeah. The Fulbright. I’m really doing this. For real this time. Hopefully it’s good news. But if it’s not, at least I have practice dealing with the rejection.

Visiting the Past

As most of you know, Amsterdam isn’t the only journey I’ve been seeking recently. I have been working hard for the past few months on researching my family history. It’s become a borderline obsession, really. It only took one minor discovery on an 1880 census record (a woman whom I recently figured out wasn’t even my actual ancestor) to trigger hours and hours spent online, and more recently in the NY Public library to put together puzzle pieces of stories that go back almost 200 years.

The first couple of months felt easy. Everywhere I looked I found treasures of information. In combination with long phone calls, memories, and investigative skills of my mother, it seemed like we could go as far back as we cared to. Maiden names, siblings, parents, spouses (and surprise multiple spouses), birth dates, death dates, burial locations – so much information was there waiting for us. And then it was a matter of documenting addresses and understanding migration patterns on both my mother’s and father’s side, which strangely overlap in some cases. All more time consuming than challenging.

But after a few months of taking advantage of the low hanging fruit, it’s become time to start climbing the trees. I am still uncovering new information, just not as frequently. For instance, the woman I mentioned above from the 1880 census – I had been told my 2nd great grandmother on my father’s side was Anna. She was always Anna. So when I found her, along with a woman by my great grandmother’s name listed as her daughter, it was a no brainer. But last week, after further research, and finding the death certificates of two of her children (including my great grandmother, Mamie), I not only learned that her maiden name was Scott, but her first name was Emma. Emma Scott…not Anna. Along with that, I found her husband, a man whose identity has eluded me this entire time: John A. Perry. So my original sources have not been exhausted yet. But it’s about time for me to take the next step to uncover more details, more names, and hopefully more years.

The next step in this research project involves getting on a plane, meeting my mother in Atlanta, and essentially taking a trip back in time to learn more about our family. At the end of this month, we’ll rent a car and drive to two small cities in Georgia: Dawson and Albany. Much of my mother’s family originates there. In Dawson I’m hopeful that we may be able to break through the intimidating barrier to research known as slavery. If we can get our hands on some property records for the man we suspect enslaved my third and second great grandmothers, Julia and Lora, we may be able to find out where Julia came from and the names of her parents. Just the thought of that makes me anxious to get there.

Lora’s son, my great grandfather, George (after whom my late uncle was named) later moved to Albany with his siblings after his mother died. George is the one with the white father and somewhat curious family circumstances that I described in an earlier post. When he was about 18, he was living down the street from my great grandmother, Essie – she was about 13. We believe they met during this time, although they weren’t married for another 10 years or so (after he returned from WWI). In Albany we plan to go to their old addresses and imagine what it must have been like for them to live there in 1910. Based on the Google maps streetview, we have a pretty good chance of seeing the original houses. There are a number of other items to uncover in Albany. But I have a feeling 1910 might be the coolest year.

From Albany we’ll head down to Jacksonville, Florida, where there’s just tons of history, for both my mother and father. Here’s a good one: my grandfather (mom’s father) never talked much about his family. So much of what we’re learning about them is brand new information. His grandmother’s married name was Laura Brooks. Unfortunately we don’t know Laura’s parents, and haven’t known her maiden name. We only have her married to my 2nd great grandfather as an adult. The curious thing is the earliest I’ve been able to find her in the census, in 1880 when she’s married with kids, several of her children have different last names – Mitchell, not Brooks. They’re listed as “stepchildren” in relation to Laura’s husband. Did she just have a lot of children before she was married, and gave them her maiden name? These children were relatively old, indicating she had them when in her late teens. But then, five years later, she’s still living with my 2nd great grandfather and they have several children, including my grandfather’s mother. (It only gets more confusing. So if you’re lost, just skip to the next paragraph.) The older, half-siblings are no longer there. But they just might be adult neighbors living with their own families. Instead, there’s a whole new set of children with yet another last name – Kyler. These Kyler children are similar in age to the Brooks children. They’re listed as stepchildren to Laura’s husband, just like the Mitchells five years earlier. Who is the father of the Kyler children? And while we’re at it, who’s the father of the Mitchell children? And where were the Kyler children five years earlier when the youngest of them was born six years earlier. Were they living with their father? And how is Laura still functioning after having all of these children (we’re up to 12)? Well, long story less long, we discovered her in 1870, 5 years before she met my 2nd great grandfather. She’s living with the oldest set of kids, but they’re very young. There’s no husband/father. But her last name is Mitchell. She’s living with two single men – one has kids; the other is alone and named…Harrington Kyler. The oldest Kyler child was born 4 years later. Something fishy is going on there. And I’d like to get to the bottom of it. Hopefully we’ll get another clue while in Jacksonville.

And, with just as much importance, my mother grew up in Jacksonville. So while we’re there in the depths of history, I’m expecting we’ll also take this as an opportunity to remember the not so distant past, allowing her to revisit her childhood.  I’m looking forward to learning more about my ancestors on this trip.  I’m looking forward to learning more about my mother.  And I’m looking forward to learning more about myself.  All equally.

This might be a first: I’m more excited about this vacation than any other I have taken in the past.  And I’m not even leaving the country!