By Amber-Leigh Blake
The hurricane was coming. They talked about it on the news; you could smell it in the air. Even the animals behaved differently.
I tried to follow along as my mother talked about it over the speaker of our Toyoda Siena, relaying this to her Mama. We were driving down US 1, searching for a gas station. I slouched down and put my feet up against the front seat. Hurricane fever had taken over; the lines wrapped around the whole block.
“Yuh tink a joke ting dis!” came the voice through the speaker. “Maybe who waan craass it can craass it. Wen di watah waan craass it craaas iyah. Yuh ago try craas it my yute?”
“You know the taxi drivers don’t care about weather, Mama,” my mother said. “They’re going to cross the floodwaters regardless.”
Their conversation rolled over me, like the waxing and waning Florida coastline beyond the passenger window. My mother’s voice was like the incoming tide, familiar, engulfing me with a sense of understanding. She spoke with the richness of heritage, chanting her original anthem. But when her Mama spoke, the waves would fall back unexpectedly, leaving me cold
and confused. Her Jamaican accent was thick, and she spoke in her native dialect: Patois.
I can’t speak patois. I can’t read it – not properly; I can work out what it means, sort of, but the disconnect is there. My friends would always code-switch in middle school, the dialect leaking out as they spoke. I watched and listened, and I tried to emulate them, but my storm drains seemed blocked. I couldn’t get it out. My voice was a white girl that happened to wear Black. That’s what people told me. “Oreo,” was their personal favorite.
A car horn tore me out of my thoughts, and I looked over the front seat to see Popeye blocking the road. Popeye, the local homeless man, who crossed the street in his wheelchair. His blazing red skin was hard to miss, and he was shaking his cigarette at the angry drivers.
“Mama, Popeye is at it again. Almost as crazy as some people in Kingston,” my mother said, trying to drive around him. My mother’s Mama laughed, and I knew they were thinking of my first trip to Jamaica.
It was earlier in the year. When we had landed in Jamaica, it felt eerily familiar. They grew the same fruit trees and vegetables, cooked the same meals. They hung up their clothesline the same, allowed their chickens to roam like mine did after I begged my parents to buy some for my birthday.
The more familiar this world became, the more different I felt.
My mother’s songs turned into symphonies, and I realised that the melodies and motifs that I could never add were here the whole time. Her world missed her, giving her a standing ovation on her return. I was left behind the curtain.
The disconnect was there. I could feel the shift in lifestyle. My parents had tried to provide us with the same feeling, but they couldn’t come close. The music playing in the streets, everyone knowing the song. I was just a tourist visiting houses — houses that could have belonged to me in another
timeline. My mother would try to get me to talk to friendly strangers, people who could have been neighbors. People I could have known all my life.
In the front seat, my mother started laughing with Mama, and I realised it was about me -- trying to buy drinks at the Dancehalls. I had ordered a Magnum, a nasty drink. Apparently it was “for men”.
“Wah mak yuh buy dat tan pon it long man drink?” Mama laughed through the stereo, apparently drawing me in.
But my mother answered for me. “She didn’t know it was to make men’s privates grow!”
They giggled, gossiping more about that trip. Their conversation rained around me.
I yearned to feel more connected. Sitting in the back seat, I tapped at my phone screen and found a Jamaican TikToker. I studied what people laugh at, the local memes and humour. I learned that if there’s a cow on the road with a chain around its neck, you’ve got to throw a few coins and run.
The folklore had me hooked. I found an article about a man who was friends with a local “duppy”, or ghost; he claimed he would get the duppy to help him with annoying neighbors. I giggled as I scrolled — until I reached the quotes. I couldn’t read them.
“Mama, I gotta go! I found a station!”
Her Mama mumbled something and hung up. No point in trying to translate that. As she got out the car, I held out my phone to her. “Hey Mummy, can you read this?”
She took my phone and squinted at the text. She mushed up her face questioningly. “The man said that people would call him to hear duppy speak, since they’re ‘best friends’.”
And then I asked her, “Do you text in patois?”
She looked at me funny again. She said, “Yes”. And there, in that one word, I found it.
And it hurt.
She had never texted that way with me; that was never part of my upbringing.
She filled up the tank and we looked for a parking spot by the sea. We sat on the beach, and she poured her knowledge into me. We went over how to write certain phrases and their meaning. And slowly, the gap seemed to close. The connection was beginning to reach. Where it was reaching to, I couldn’t tell.
But I was beginning to feel full.
The disconnect was still there and might always be. But I finally felt a part of something, and that was enough for me. At that moment, it was enough.
From Amber-Leigh Blake, "This creative nonfiction prose is about my discovery of the disconnection I felt towards my Jamaican Heritage, and how I was able to close the gap. It shows the growing pains of my upbringing, a Black girl with a "white" voice, learning there was another voice I thought I could never reach."