Yvonne Battle-Felton on listening, fear, and home.
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When I was around 4, my mother, sister and I moved from a house my grandmother owned in Philadelphia to a house she owned in Atlantic City, New Jersey. From there, we moved to a townhouse in Somers Point, and from there to a house in Sweetwater. I grew up in New Jersey. Whether the air I breathed was heavy with saltwater from the ocean or thick with the rotten-egg smell of the creek, New Jersey was home. I met some of my closest friends there. Friends who helped shape the woman I am, the person I’ve become. Friends who were there for my first crushes, loves, births, divorces, deaths. Friends with whom I learned how to keep secrets. A part of me will always be in New Jersey – feet slapping barefoot on the boardwalk, toes tickling in the hot sand. But, it isn’t home.
When I was in my early 20s, I moved to Maryland – first to Baltimore City, then further out, and finally to Baltimore County. With its Cherry Blossoms and cul-de-sacs, it’s easy to forget it’s only a few miles down the highway from Baltimore City, where police murdered Freddie Gray. I raised my children in Woodlawn, Maryland. Our neighbours were slow-talking Marylanders with warm hearts and sometimes sharp tongues. They worked hard, bought homes and cars, encouraged their children to work hard too. They had goals, like going on vacations, retiring, having grandchildren. Though I married there, had and raised children there, acquired a bit of the accent and mannerisms, Maryland and the two-story white house with thirteen-stone steps that stands empty now, in disrepair as a testament to my broken marriage, is not home.
Eight years ago, my children and I moved to the UK so that I could pursue a Creative Writing PhD. The move seems to have reignited a cycle of moving: first on campus, then living off campus, moving has become an annual tradition – part of my family tapestry. Whether moving because the lease is up or for a new job, I can’t help feeling like I’m looking for a place to plant my family tree. A place to belong. I am often reminded: the UK is not home.
I used to think home was wherever my children were. But as they get older and begin making plans to move for future careers in big cities, attend universities with high rankings, rent flats with friends and partners, begin families of their own, I realise home is where you go back to. It’s where my children will return when they’ve had broken hearts, lost jobs, lost faith. It’s where they will come as their families multiply and divide. It’s where we will share memories, movements, loss, and joy. I will be to whom or to where they come back. Home is where they will slip in and out like ghosts. If they are fortunate. I’m planning, plotting, crafting, defining home.
See, I’m not just researching square footage, mortgages, tax rates and how many bathrooms. I’m looking up crime statistics. I’m scouring newspapers for what’s there and what isn’t. I’m researching to find out how many Black people have been killed by police. How many cases of police brutality there are; how many unsolved crimes. Please, don’t Black-on-Black crime me. I’m talking about people of any colour, with and without proper training, who are armed with weapons, ammunition, stereotypes and racism, but low on morality. Even though I know the news in the paper is not new news, it scares me.
I know that people have been brutalised and killed by police long before the stories hit my newsfeed, and I know that the stories that make the evening news aren’t the only stories worth worrying about. For years I thought like those around me: there are two sides to every story. Now, I know that is a lie. I’m a Black woman raising three Black children that I pray will live to die of old age. How can I afford not to be scared?
Fear grips me when I read the news, watch a status update, or – heaven help me – read the comment sections following a race-related hate crime. It sours words fresh in my mouth when I think about having conversations with my children about how to talk to police so that they don’t end up dead. It erupts in anger and tears when another Black or Brown man, woman, child is murdered because they are a Black or Brown; man, woman or child; breathing, walking, living, loving, laughing, jogging, shopping, sleeping, existing while being Black or Brown.
Fear is a tangible thing. It can silence. But there’s something else about fear: it can lead to action. Each act of violence and subsequent acquittal inspires action, change, protest. Can you feel it? It sometimes seems to trickle, taking years to move through legislation and minds. But we are witnessing change. We are in a Movement. Around the world oppressed people have shared lived experiences for centuries. We have mourned publicly and privately. Researchers have researched. Journalists have reported. Wonderers have wondered. Each year, it seems like new data and recommendations for meaningful change are made. Each year, these recommendations are often ignored.
Something seems different about this time. More people have passed the researching stage. Now, those voices are added, amplified, uplifted, heard. We seem to be in an age of listening. And listening may usher in the age of action. And action might yield to a world where we are all truly free to live, breathe, laugh, play, jog, sleep, drive, shop, pray, exist, and love without fearing that we will end up dead.
The more I search for home, the more I recognise that I’m looking for a place I can live peacefully, happily, safely, and prayerfully, long enough to die of old age.
Yvonne Battle-Felton, author of Remembered, is an American writer living in the UK. Her writing has been published in literary journals and anthologies. Remembered was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019) and shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize (2020). Winner of a Northern Writers Award in fiction (2017), Yvonne was shortlisted for the Words and Women Competition (2017), the Sunderland University Waterstones SunStory Award in 2018, and awarded a Society of Author’s Foundation Grant for Remembered in 2018. She was commended for children’s writing in the Faber Andlyn BAME (FAB) Prize (2017) and has three titles in Penguin Random House’s Ladybird Tales of Super Heroes (2019) and in the forthcoming Ladybird Tales of Crowns and Thorns (2020). Yvonne has a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a 2019 British Library Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow and Lecturer in Creative Writing and Creative Industries at Sheffield Hallam University.
Photo credit: Ian Robinson.