Sunday, May 31, 2020

“Summertime Glory” by Sage Kendahl Howard - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist


S U M M E R T I M E  G L O R Y


Sage Kendahl Howard

During my early Twenties I would rush over the Williamsburg Bridge to LES for parties on Friday and Saturday nights with my sister and our two childhood best friends. We liked to go to spots that played what we thought was good music, aka whatever was in rotation at Hot97 and Power105. During those nights, my friends and I usually entertained each other. We two-stepped, twerked, and rapped lyrics to songs while one played the lead, and the rest of us acted as hype-men. 

Simultaneously, I spent time scanning the room, scoping out the guy I felt was compatible enough to keep up with me once the DJ started mixing Soca and Dancehall. I wasn’t always successful, but when I was, he’d never fail to ask me where I was from. Sometimes it was because of my features, but it mostly had to do with the fact that I could wine my waist and keep up with the rhythm and lyrics. Whichever one it was, I knew it was coming, and my response was always the same.   “I am not from an island; I’m from Brooklyn!”, I’d laugh and say. It was much deeper than that. 

 Growing up strangers always asked where my people came from, and the best answer I could give was Brooklyn. The truth was, Brooklyn was just another place we migrated. My mother’s family says in the south they call her people Geechee. That’s when you can look at a person and see that they are native, white, and black all at once.  My father’s mother told people she was Panamanian, and her people before that were Jamaican, but that’s as far back as she could go. As for my father’s father, well he never talked about it much, but I learned he was from the sharecropping south. Despite that, he was as Brooklyn as it got, and if it wasn’t for stories my father told me, I’d never know about the horrors of his childhood in North Carolina. Over time I realized Brooklyn was the only place each of these pieces of my identity could have ever met, and through my grandfather I learned to take pride in that. 

My love for Brooklyn cultivated itself most during the summer. When I was a little girl, nothing beat a Brooklyn summer. Every year it felt like that Beyoncé and Puffy song named after the enchanting time of year. On my block and in my neighborhood I was safe to express my joy and autonomy without the stipulations of public school and public opinion. This meant I had sixty-six days of freedom, and they all lead up to the one event I anticipated most throughout the year, the West Indian American Day Parade, which took place on Labor Day. There a number of major festivals like Dance Africa and AfroPunk, that take place in Brooklyn during the summer. Each is geared towards celebrating the diaspora, and as children my parents took us to all of them. But, the West Indian American Day Parade was exciting for more personal reasons. My grandfather, who was a community organizer, played a major role in organizing the parade.

 The energy that bubbled down Eastern Parkway on Labor day was incomparable to any other, and each year I had a front row seat. It was also nice to see my grandfather in his element. Some of my peers spent their entire summers with their grandparents, for me this was usually the only time I saw him. His days were consumed by work, and sometimes it felt like he loved Brooklyn more than his family. Seeing him work the parade didn’t provide much time to bond either, sometimes we’d wave at him briefly as he rushed by in the midst of all the excitement.  Over time it became less about supporting him and more about supporting the culture. And while I appreciated each day I had off for summer vacation, I counted down the weeks until the parade, learning all the songs and dances so I could participate in the festivities from the sideline.

In the meantime, there were sixty-five other days of summer and since my mother had to work, she made sure everyone else was spending their summer doing things she deemed productive. She started sending us to camp at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Saint James when I was six, my younger sister Nija was five, and my older sister Denae was nine. We spent those humid summer days in long camp shirts that came to our knees playing double-dutch and tag at the playground on Washington and Greene. 

 The camp director was a woman we called Ms. Jay. One look at her was enough to know she did not play. Ms. Jay was a stallion of a woman, who need not project her voice to tell you about yourself when you were wrong, and she did so with the vocabulary of an old school English teacher. But in most cases, before she had to open her mouth to address someone she caught misbehaving, they melted on sight. She was a disciplinarian and kept a tight ship, but it was only to ensure her campers were safe and having fun. We played in the park until Ms. Jay came inside the playground with bags full of icies, distributing one to each camper and even offering extras to other kids.
 I went to school in the city, but camp was where I met my childhood best-friends who eventually become my party hopping homies. Sharise and I got close after deciding with two of our other friends we would form a girls group called Destiney’s Child the Future. Her younger sister, Toni, just so happened to be the same age as Nija, so naturally, we all got along. Sharise and Toni were from Clinton hill and went to a Catholic school in Park Slope, which meant they always kept us up to date with the neighborhood gossip. 

          At the end of the day, my mother picked us up from camp. Still high off sugar and adrenaline, I skipped down DeKalb avenue from the church to our block. We lived on Carlton then, and I could get a good pace going in between blocks. But, I knew once we crossed over Adelphi and entered Fort Greene, my skipping was bound to be interrupted. It was summertime, and everyone was outside, which meant my mother couldn’t help but stop and talk. There was Brother Hikeka and his Wife Sister Barbara, who were the most harmonious couple I ever met. They owned an African shop that sold art, jewelry, and ornaments. If my mother ran into either of them outside their storefront, we were stuck for at least 30 minutes perusing through every new item and promotion they had for that week. Then there was our half Panamanian-half Trini older cousin, Tesheya, who lived on Adelphi. Tesheya was cool and all. She knew how to speak Spanish, which our grandmother never taught us. Plus, she was old enough to drive, drink and fete, but, as soon as she fixed her lips to ask,  “What y’all ‘bout to do?” 

I knew we were in for another 20-minute conversation between her and my mother. Finally, there was Noel. He was my favorite person to run into on our way home because he wasn’t much of a talker. Nija, and I gave him the nickname Mister Pizza Man because he worked at our favorite pizza shop. If his head was out the street-side order window a “Hey, Mr. Pizza Man!” was more than enough. His response was always “Hey girls!”, which did not require us to slow down or stop. Eventually, we reached our stoop, and all the sugar that once pulsed through my body was replaced with sweat and thirst. That was until the ice cream truck made its way to our block. 

The summer after I turned fourteen I got my first job at Packer. I was a counselor in training at their day camp, which meant I was essentially a paid camper. Packer was nothing like Emmanuel. The director was no Ms. Jay, the campers went swimming at Saint Francis instead of to the sprinklers at a playground nearby, and there were structured courses like cooking and science. At Emmanuel, we played hand games and jumped rope on most days. I had nothing against the kids at Packer. They were just much ritzier than the kids I knew. So every day, I rushed back to my block after work, where I met up with Nija, Sharise, and Toni. 

Around this time, we started to take an interest in boys. None of us were bold enough to make a move, so we devised plans to get noticed. We decided to walk around the basketball courts in the playgrounds at 113 and P.S. 20, but when it was time to step foot into the park, we all froze. 
“You walk in first,” one of us always said, 
“No, you!” the rest would retort. 
The boys in the distance never paid us any mind. Over time, Sharise ditched playing shy and opted for the straight forward approach. She started walking up to boys using lines similar to the ones they used on us.
“You look familiar; do I know you from somewhere?”, was one of her favorites. The way it worked was it initially caught them off guard, which led to laughter, followed by a brief introduction and an exchange of numbers. It worked every time. During our late teenage years, as summers began to wind down, Sharise always had a starting line-up of dudes she could replace as seamlessly as the leaves fell from trees.   

 For sixty-five days, we spent our free time strolling through Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, even making our way up to the Brooklyn Museum where we watched kids run through the water fountain out front, and daredevils do tricks on BMX bikes. As the sunset and the street lights flickered on, we made our way back to my stoop, critiquing the young men we did, or didn’t, engage with that day. 

As a labor day neared, my sisters and I spent more time talking about our favorite bands, costumes, and songs from previous years. By the time Labor Day rolled around, the excitement was equal to that of the last day of school. Each year, we trekked up DeKalb to Fulton, walked up Fulton towards Washington, and then up Washington towards Eastern Parkway, where we met our Dad, who indulged in pre-parade partying the entire night before. Many of my friends didn’t attend the festivities because of rumors that it wasn’t safe. I never felt that way, and as I got older, I realized that to someone unaccustomed to witnessing a massive unfiltered celebration of Black heritage, the parade could feel scary. 

The music spilled off Eastern Parkway and flooded the neighboring streets. My grandfather was among community elders who played a role in keeping the parade alive. He spent months fundraising and working with other community leaders and city officials to execute the celebration that took over Flatbush and Crown Heights, and we rushed towards the Brooklyn Museum to see the culmination of his hard work. We fell in line with other festive parade-goers carrying flags, nutcrackers, and dressed in the national colors of islands all over the Caribbean. Reds and Greens and Blacks and Blues, and yellows, for countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua, and Haiti. But the excitement wasn’t reserved for descendants from Caribbean nations; people from Belize, Panama, and Guyana wore their flags and colors too. It was a celebration of our version of the melting pot, the diaspora. 

As a little girl, standing behind the silver barricades spectating, the women and men in feathers and beaded costumes, called masqueraders, were my favorites to watch. Each year their bikini-like costumes got more and more risqué and their make-up more elaborate, but nothing was more captivating than the way they moved down the parkway. Running, jumping, dancing alone or with a partner, gyrating to the music, this was where I learned how to wine. Some bands took their pageantry to the next level with costumes so large they required the person wearing them to pull them on wheels. It took experts to navigate these large props, at the center pushing them, lunging forward, and bouncing to make it appear as though the costume was a larger than life puppet. Others created looks to show respect to the indigenous people of their home-countries or to pay homage to their formerly enslaved ancestors by covering themselves in motor oil like the jab jabs of Grenada. The MocoJumbies on stilts jumping from one foot to the next, and big trucks carrying speaker’s, artists, and masqueraders who threw water, powder, and paint on those partying below. It all looked chaotic, but to me, there was harmony. It was a unifying spectacle that took over the streets and sidewalks from Buffalo Avenue to Grand Army Plaza. Eventually, I understood that regardless of the barricades, I was more than just a spectator, I took pride in knowing that I was also a part. 

The end of the parade was always bittersweet. People retreated from the parkway with somber thoughts of returning to work and school the next day, the end of the parade was the official mark of the end of summer. As we retreated from the parkway, and made our way back to Fort Greene, I remember most times thinking about my grandfather. He was not from the Caribbean, but he devoted himself each year to this event. He didn’t speak to his grandchildren about his upbringing much, but we heard stories from other relatives about what it was like for him. I learned that by the time he was sixteen, an age where my only concern was boys and hanging out with my friends, he was chased out of the south by white men. I told myself that the parade was his way of catching up on some of the joy he missed out on in adolescence. It made sense to me, and made up for the fact that we did not have a relationship with him. 

In the summer of 2018, while planning the parade for that year, my grandfather died. Brooklyn summers and the parade have not felt the same since, but both will forever share a special place in my heart. Somewhere next to my grandfather.

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