© 2017, Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy "Memory Seas"
First you think it’s jet lag. At some point you make a joke to yourself about how you have finally internalized their thing about how “all black people look alike.” At the beginning a lot of us just tucked it away along with everything else that didn’t make sense about our lives. And we moved on. As always.
But if you are reading this you know, we can never move on. The reflection has become impossible to ignore. If you are reading this don’t stop. We need you.
You know how it is when you don’t get enough sleep. The whole day becomes dreamlike. I read somewhere that the brain needs dreams whether you let it sleep or not. You might hallucinate walking around in the world. And I definitely had not gotten enough sleep.
I had just gotten home from the whitest Fourth of July cookout ever. They didn’t call it a cookout. They called it a barbecue even though there was no pork. Venison is great. But I should have brought a pack of sausages. New England people do whiteness like they invented it. And then forgot. So I try to forget about it too.
By the time I got back to Jersey (safely, I had declined the wine) it was time to pack for London. My flight was late that same night. I love the way it feels like JFK is staying open just for me. And how much do the immigrants who work there care about the fireworks? I’m famous when I cross the Atlantic. Time stops. And then it moves backwards. Just for me.
I packed my suitcase and left space for all my favorite London goodies that you can’t get in the states. Funny how they never confiscate food that I bring back from England, but let me thief a guinep on the way home from Jamaica and they act like you brought a whole mad cow. Which actually started in England, if I remember correctly.
Anyway. The flight was whatever. I drifted in and out. Neck pillow and all that. And when I got to the airport I was focused enough to make it to the hotel and to send the address to my friends from Study Abroad. I even noticed that my favorite cookie station had opened a kiosk in the airport. Score. Which is to say, I was functioning.
And so when I put my bag down and swore I saw my sister in the room I walked over to the mirror and laughed. And I updated my Facebook status: #twinning
I mean we do wear our hair the same way now.
You are not the first and you will not be the last. We have new old research that shows that Phillis Wheatley had a similar experience when she went to England to publish her books. The ignorant noblemen assumed that she had never seen a mirror. Do they even have mirrors in America. Ha ha. They certainly don’t seem to reflect as much as they should. Good point. But there were plenty of mirrors in Boston. Phillis was activated by her namesake ship’s stop in Hispaniola when she was a child and when she got to England the reflection made her pause. When all this is over and you have a moment, read the poem she wrote (“Ocean”) on her way back across.
The trouble started when I was fully rested. That first night I slept the sleep of the innocent. But every night after that I dreamt the dreams of the chained. By the end of the week my room looked like a West Indian house during a wake. I covered everything with even the slightest reflectivity. I stopped drinking water. I couldn’t look my friends in their sunglassed eyes.
Let me tell you about the first real day, my third day in London, the day I thought I would be ready for the Eye, shopping, a new museum exhibit, and dinner with friends. I woke up wondering what to wear. Which is never really an issue for me. Usually as I pack I already conjure the days of my outfits. Usually my decisions map so clearly onto the future. This was the day I learned that I don’t have control over anything.
What I need you to know is that I am not the type of person who looks for ghosts. If I was, I wouldn’t have to look far. I live in a house older than the United States. With multiple entrances and probably slave quarters. In the Caribbean, my family owns the oldest house on the island (now a restaurant) and multiple people have sworn they’ve heard screams and seen a white woman streaking her hair through the place in the early morning. Many items have mysteriously disappeared. I don’t blame ghosts. I blame people. And I think the people who want to be frightened by ghosts, usually are. You find what you are looking for. Which is not the same as making it up.
It’s not that I don’t think the dead are here. But when I think of my ancestors, or the people I have known who have died, showing up, it’s comforting. I like the feeling that we are still connected. I invite them willingly into my dreams. If there are dead people around me, my own dead people, I welcome them. Why should they have to disappear?
What I want you to know is, I am not afraid of ghosts. If they exist, they exist, just like we do. So the fact that I couldn’t sleep, the unforgivable state of my hair, the scratch marks I made on my skin were not because I am afraid of ghosts. It’s not the dead. Or the fact that they exist. Or the fact that they found me and spoke a particular message. It was not their underwater garbled words or their scaling melanated skin.
It was the urgency of what they wanted.
We will meet in basements, usually without windows. Usually only inhabited by the mirrors that we bring. Bring a candle. Bring a ripe and uncooked plantain. Bring white cloth and coconut water. We will meet at night. Ancestral breakfast time. Hemispheric renewal time. Caribbean People’s time. Do whatever you need to do during the day. Yoga, meditation, cayenne cleanses, spliff circles, white rum. Come as calm as possible. In tall skirts, leggings, or pants.
The first message most of the chosen ones received through the mirrored mermaids was a variation on this:
Bluebellow. Blue below. Blue be low, be blowhole bless blue. Blue be bleed black blare blue be blow blue bleed blood blued brood be black be blue blued brood be blood be black.
Rough translation: “We need you.”
There was the framed hotel mirror painted with one coat of gilded topcoat, so it seemed regal and old like everything in London. There was the mirror she brought from home in her waterproof toiletry bag with the white plastic frame. It betrayed her. There were the tortoiseshell sunglasses that weren’t made from real tortoiseshells that transmitted the belly-deep message anyway. There was the waterproof bag itself at a certain angle. There was the shined dresser top, inch thick plexiglass over deep brown antique wood. There was the water in the toilet. The whole wall over the counter in the bathroom. And it was Europe. So the room was small. The underwater message was everywhere restarting as she averted her attention Bluebellow … It sounded almost sweet, but it started to ring everywhere and so she went outside where it was worse and better because the sound turned off in the presence of the irrelevant, but the faces, the hair, they waited in shop windows, passing buses, rear view mirrors on parked cars, oil slick puddles, gaudy jewelry, her wedding ring if she looked too closely.
That first full day and night, the third after she arrived, it was the best she could do to put her head under the covers and sleep the sleep of the chased. She dreamt of every mermaid from her childhood, her grandmother’s love for dolphins, and Disney’s Ariel.
What we have deciphered so far:
They need us.
They live underwater or in a world of mirrors that looks like underwater.
By “us” we mean the descendants. Afro-descendant people who have crossed back over the Atlantic. Afro-Caribbean people and African American people who have journeyed to Europe.
They think we are ready to do what they need us to do.
It got so bad that I faced a wall, counting things. Counting the things that I used to count on. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to go home. The fact that I might never see my coworkers again wasn’t the problem. It was my dog. My husband. My time alone in the car. My podcasts and shows that were piling up without me. My weekend adventures. My phone, not for its own sake. My friends and how they needed my advice. My grandmother who hadn’t heard from me since I “got here safely.” My days full of what I wanted, what I decided they should be full of. Every time I imagined telling someone everything fell apart. Who would understand?
I don’t know if other hotel guests heard me. I wore myself out shouting. I said every curse word I knew. We were not the ones who jumped ship, I said. Which made no sense. But I wasn’t the one who decided to reach across centuries. You are as bad as any of them. My throat was hoarse. Just because they stole you. Just because they stole us. Just because they stole them … Just because we’re black … it doesn’t mean we are ready. It doesn’t mean we have nothing to lose.
It was gray outside all day and I was sweating through my sheets at night. I had missed all of my meetings and I had only sent cryptic text messages to my teammates about not being well. They would say this wasn’t like me. They would say I was usually so dependable. They would wonder aloud why I flew all the way out here to not be at the meetings in person. They would suggest to each other, not to me, that I could at least phone it in.
I was drowning. That feeling where the things you have to deal with pile up and if you don’t break through at least a few of them they will crowd up to the top like Tetris. I was trying to stick with the drowning metaphor, but you know even in all this I am a snake person. The point was my sheets were wet with salt. I didn’t know where the crying stopped and the sweat started. I was tossing and turning, every dream a storm of mermaids, the stabbing fronts of boats, dolphins turning into sharks, the teeth, the scrape of coral. I would crawl half asleep and nauseous to the toilet, eyes closed tight, but nothing would come out. And then I woke up suddenly, hugging the toilet bowl like a life raft and realized that I knew what to do. The way this started had told me what I should do. In that way, at least I was myself again. I didn’t check the time. I called my sister.
“Hey. You were in my dream. You were underwater. Are you okay? Mom said she couldn’t reach …”
She could hear me crying. She could hear me heaving and the scream of trying to breathe again. Could she hear the echo off the bathroom floor? My body convulsed. I was letting it all out.
I could hear her breathing. Intentionally slowing her breathing so I could hear it. My sister of the sky exhaling. It always made me think of the beach.
“Listen. It’s going to be okay. (inhale. exhale.) What’s going on?”
“There are mermaids in the mirror.”
She was still breathing. Listening. Probably sitting up in bed.
“Sandra … Sand … they looked like us and they want me to … I don’t know what they want me to do.” I felt my breath speeding up again.
“Shh. Shh. (another exhale.) It’s going to be okay. Keep breathing.” Was she thinking of my asthma as a child? I remember what she told me before the SATs. Just take a deep breath. As long as your brain cells have oxygen you can figure out anything. You can remember all this stuff.
“Okay. You saw the mermaids.”
“Have you seen them? In the mirror? Sand, it was like they were telling me—”
“It’s okay. I didn’t see them. But I should have known. In my dreams the past few days we were underwater. And I tried to write about it. And when I went online I found some people blogging about these mermaids in the mirror. They are all in Europe. One person even has mom’s last name. ”
“What?” I started crying again. Just at the relief. We call it sister: the relief of not having to explain.
“So let me see if there are people in London. I saw this site for a meetup group in Liverpool. I think most of them, most of you, most of the chosen people, that’s what they’re calling it, are over there …”
I could hear her typing through the phone. I put my forehead on the towel where it met the tiled wall. I was no longer sweating. I could taste these tears. Sweet from hardly any salt.
From Sandra’s emails:
This is a group for people who have gotten tired of looking in mirrors, but who want to see each other. Above water. Which is to say on land. For now, this is a black only space. We will discuss life, being new to Liverpool and especially the blues.
Screencapped comment, ultimately deleted, reposted somewhere else:
Is this for people who have seen the mermaids? I have seen the mermaids.
Reply to comment:
From the blog “Things I Hate About Americans”:
Et tu Black USA?
As a proud Black brit and a lover of black culture worldwide, I have traditionally kept this blog limited to rants and complaints about white Americans. And fear not, loyal readers. Soon I will get back to the posts you love about American tourists and transplants and the space they take up and how they assume everyone has an accent but them, but this week I will unfortunately have to share my critical wit to lament a tendency I have noticed among black Americans and only black Americans.
And sadly, this material is gained from my dating life. Have you heard the term “ghosting?”
Here is the definition from a recent post on the American blog Bustle:
Ghosting … is the wholly unpleasant phenomenon when someone you are dating decides to simply fade away into the ether rather than have an upfront, honest, adult conversation about why he or she no longer wants to keep seeing you.
Well, dear readers, I am sad to say that yours truly has been repeatedly “ghosted” over the past 6 months and I am noticing a pattern. All of the people who have engaged in this infuriating and downright rude behavior have been Black Americans.
Here is how the pattern has gone.
Step 1. I meet a gorgeous black American, new to town at an exciting black cultural event.
Step 2. I invite this gorgeous black American to other cultural events here in the community (as you know from my links, resources and events page, I know about them all)
Step 3. After pleasant, erotic, and none-of-your-business encounters at public events out at restaurants and a general building of pleasure and trust, I invite this gorgeous black American to my place. Overnight, if you know what I mean.
Step 4. I wake up and the person is gone.
Step 5. I call and the person never returns the call. Same with texts.
Step 6. I don’t see the person again OR in the few cases that I do, they have a pallor and greenishness (I didn’t know black people could get green) that shows that for some reason, all of a sudden, they find me nauseating.
What is wrong with these people? At first I thought it was me. But enough is enough. I don’t like to always be right (trust me I don’t), but for some reason I AM. I can only conclude that it is the Americanness of these black people that causes them to be so egregiously rude!
What is wrong with you Black Americans? As a lover of blackness and all it implies I can only blame the tragedy of your American-ness. Is it your manifest destiny? Your adopted kidnapped lust for wide-open spaces that make you feel claustrophobic after one rollicking night in my flat? (Truly readers, I cannot help that here in Europe we have a more humble idea of how big a room should be. And even so I have supplemented mine with wall to wall mirrors.)
I didn’t think that my experiences here in the UK would lead me to fulfill my mother’s dreams and wishes and leave me only dating continental Africans. Sheesh. If I get any more narrow I may actually end up with someone from our region, god forbid our village. Sometimes I swear my mother is calling these people up and telling them disgusting stories from my childhood to keep me from finding love …
Sandra said most of the things she found were cryptic like this. But then there was the zine. She sent a pdf.
First you think it’s jet lag …
I’m not gonna lie. I was skeptical when I went to the basement session. You can’t even find appropriate natural haircare products in London. How could such a small community organize around this? If my sister’s research was correct … only black people. Only black people who were descendants of the Middle Passage. Only black people who were descendants of the Middle Passage who had touched the Caribbean and had come back across the Atlantic in the other direction were getting the message. That’s a very specific group of people.
But what could I do? What were my other choices? Sometimes the consequences of doing something that seems crazy are less scary than the consequences of not doing anything and just seeming crazy. I’m a black woman. Who was I going to tell? My colleagues? The police? Some well-meaning British therapist? My flight home was three days away. You can’t avoid a mirror forever.
So, I went to the address mentioned on the voicemail at the phone number in the zine. And I found the old record store basement steps. The taped sign was written in permanent marker. “Blues discussion. Below.”
We went around in a circle. What is your name? How did you find this? Why did you come here? What did you see?
Maybe it was the mirror, but I answered backwards.
“I saw the mermaids and I don’t know what they want. But whatever it is, it’s haunting me right now. I came here because I want peace. I just want peace. My sister Sandra sent me the zine over the internet. She had a dream. I thought you could help … My name?
“They reached out to us, but we need to reach out to more people to make anything happen.”
“Do mermaids believe in critical mass?”
“I think I can get the sounds of their voices to play. I tried video recording through the mirror and no images came through digitally, and it sounded like static, but I think I can work with it. I think it’s the sound of them underwater.”
“Do you really think these are the ancestors from the Middle Passage? Do you think they are angry we survived?”
“What if they are reflections of our own anger? Don’t you feel angry about what the police are doing and …”
“I can’t afford to stay here in England indefinitely. But what happens when I cross the Atlantic again?”
At a certain point, I didn’t know who was saying what. I didn’t know what I was saying. I started to feel like we were stalling. There was a mirror on the floor between us covered with a sheet. There was a vague agenda written on a piece of paper taped to the wall. Check-ins. Questions. Concerns. Suggestions.
It became clear to me that even though some people had been meeting longer, nobody knew much more than I did. And even though someone had brought the mirror, someone had connections to this record store, someone had written and posted the zine, no one was really in charge. I admired everyone for trying. Someone knew how to bring people together, someone knew how to acquire a safe space, someone even knew different spiritual safety measures for ancestral communication. And we all knew intuitively that the mirror mermaids needed us, our blackness, our action, urgently. But no one knew what they wanted us to do. And no one knew how to speak to mermaids.
There was something comforting about being with other people who were thinking about this day and night. And there was something infuriating about how this conversation kept going around and around in circles. Did these people want to stay in limbo forever? Some combination of the assurance that I wasn’t alone and the frustration that no one was taking the lead made me stand up.
“Take the sheet off.”
“But we haven’t figured out …”
“Take the sheet off. We aren’t the ones who know. They are the ones that know whatever it is they are doing. We have to ask them more questions …”
“But how can you make them understand …”
“I can’t. Because there’s a sheet on the mirror. I’m taking it off.”
Someone quickly lit even more white candles. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw three or four people tie white cloth around their heads. The weird girl in the corner with locks was still humming. I think she was in a meditative state.
I took the sheet off the mirror and she was there. And she wasn’t alone. The curly-haired one that looked like me, and a whole crew of others that looked like the people in the room would look, if none of us had clothes or hair products.
“I know. I know. You need us.” I answered back.
Both of my hands were on the mirror touching hers. My knees dug into the dusty basement floor. I nodded my head towards my own hands and other people started placing their hands on the mirror.
“We heard you. We are here. Tell us what to do.”
All that night I tried to explain it. Especially to myself. I wouldn’t say we understood or knew how to translate all those words starting with b. Just b. Even the direction of contact stays confused in my mind. We each had a corresponding underwater contact. We thought they were calling us from the mirror. I still think they thought we were calling them. There is nothing to say they were not ourselves. There is nothing to say that.
From the last issue of the zine:
Death moved upon the face of the deep. Death moved upon the face of the deep in the shape of a ship. We were far from the land we knew and the world became a mirror. The surface became an oracle. The split became intolerable.
The history books say that some enslaved people jumped because they couldn’t take it, some took their children with them. Some were pregnant and refused birth onboard. We transformed the instincts of sharks. But we knew the great white killer instinct was old by then. We knew it by many names.
The history books say that some of us jumped, but now we know it was total. All of us jumped, if not in body than in spirit. All of us stayed, if not in bone than in memory. Middle Passage is the name for how we split from ourselves. The surface of the earth a mirror. Or 71% of it. Which is more than 3/5ths.
Do you understand? The horrors of that journey baptized us in our twoness, our depth. Never again would we only breathe air. Never again would they only breathe water. Too heavy. Too light. You can see it in the dances.
And we weren’t looking. Usually we weren’t looking at the depth of the ocean like a mirror. We weren’t searching for an underwater twin to reconnect to. We had survived so much separation we didn’t imagine wholeness, we didn’t even dream of reuniting with the part of us that drowned. Until we did.
Sandra’s updated description of the final writing assignment for her course How I Got Ovah: Transatlantic Blackness from the Middle Passage to the Present:
For your final grade you will need to present and support a theory of the current moment in Transatlantic Blackness. As historians, you will need to engage both primary accounts and secondary interpretations of the Middle Passage and create (through analysis of primary internet documentation) your own historical interpretation of what some are calling the Reconnection. What are the similarities and differences between the time of the Middle Passage and the current historical moment? Draw on the literary and cultural references to crossing, immersion and mobility on the syllabus. Reflect on ….
Sandra thinks I walk on water. She saw me born, she thinks I can do no wrong. It’s easier for her to believe that about me than for me to believe it about myself. In truth, she probably thinks all of you can walk on water too. She puts more faith in people than I think is safe or reasonable. She would have to believe in the good of people to spend her life the way she does. Everything she does is a bet on the people. And it’s not like she doesn’t see the odds. It’s like for her, everyone is love until they prove themselves liars. And even after that, she holds onto hope. On the other hand, I know that people are weak and wrecked with rare exceptions. Very rare exceptions. I mean look how we treat each other.
I am saying this because I don’t want you to think this was normal for me. If I looked on the news and I saw what happened I wouldn’t think it was someone like me out there. I would think maybe it was an idealist like my sister, but definitely not a realist like me. I want you to know that, because you are probably a realist. And you may still be ready.
I half woke up from half sleeping. Serena hadn’t slept in days. When she didn’t sleep it was like there was a TV on somewhere in my brain, mostly on loop and static. It started when we were kids and we stopped sharing a room. I just wanted to be sure to know to wake up if she had nightmares. I never figured out how to turn it off. Last time I talked to her she said she was probably losing her job right now. (“They just have to figure out how to make sure it doesn’t seem like discrimination.”) I said, “Listen, you’re right. HR at your company probably doesn’t have a category for “intense-all-consuming ancestral experience” but the most important thing is that you have to sleep. You’ll know what to do if you get some rest. Get a room by the beach. Brighton is only a one-hour train ride away.”
I got seven text messages in a row on my way in for my 9 a.m. class all of them saying something about the news. So when I got to the room I streamed CNN off my laptop through the projector.
It was beautiful.
As the students came in they saw the back of my head. Not my open mouth.
The helicopters had abandoned traffic and were showing video from the shoreline. Liverpool, Brighton, Plymouth, the news went back and forth between helicopter feeds. And then an update, Lisbon, Gibraltar, I didn’t hear a word they said. In Brighton the helicopter got close enough that I could see her, the familiar shape of hair, even her jawline pronounced from above. Her shoulders. She seemed completely relaxed, slightly ahead of the other brown bodies, holding hands, gently pulling them as they walked into the water. My sister.
I shook my head. Started repacking my computer bag. I scrolled up on my phone. How had I missed the first text from Serena. 7 a.m. my time?
“Meet me in the middle.”