Beginnings in Bedford-Stuyvesant

Bedford-Stuyvesant, a swatch of color in the heart of Brooklyn. Before it gentrified, when shootings were the regular, when glass littered the sidewalks. My family moves from whitewashed Williamsburg into a brownstone with creaky floors, high ceilings and beautiful big bannisters. This place is beautiful to me. It is home.

The stoop beneath my feet, the brown concrete. Our brownstone, a name identified by color, by construction, classifications I do not yet understand. I reach for my pearlescent tulle tutu. My short fingers caressing the edges, feeling the roughness of a soft color on my skin. I am spinning, spinning. The sky is a cotton candy pink, echoing off the colors of the street, sun setting in that supremely late summer way. My mother is walking down the street, her smile big like it was before, before the pillaging inside that gave way to darkness.

She is watching me while I am spinning, spinning, spotting, like the big ballerinas at Alvin Ailey. The clear blue glass echoes their clean figures, their beautiful motion. The smooth curves of their muscles: spinning, spinning. Their control looks effortless to my naive eyes.

I learn later that I don’t have what it takes, that I was birthed with my hips twisted in, born slightly broken, that my body was not made to be strong, to be in control.

I wear peony pink, they wear dark purple, dark blue. I look away, forget what their bodies tell me about mine. I read books about people who are not me, I write stories about myself but don’t understand what any of it means. Perhaps one day I will have to worry. But for now I am spinning through poorly-positioned pirouettes, catching my eyes in the mirror at the end of every turn: spinning, spinning.

I think this is control. I think this rapid motion can help achieve the velocity of escape, can set me free. One afternoon, I am with my father, twirling up and down our steps, spinning, spinning. I never trip or fall off these sandstone steps, this is my home and it is welcoming. It has to be.

I see our neighbor, the one who used to smile at me. He calls me a name. It is either bitch, or something more heavy. Something that carries the weight of the people around us, and the color of my skin, the color of our house, our hardwood floors. My home. The word is soft in my memory, hazy behind the gauze of my skirt. My father’s yelling across the outdoor air, my mother’s big eyes, the way she tries to hold my small body close and still to hers, keep it warm against the soft breath of an early September breeze, our neighbor’s waving hands and threats. The police, the police. Screaming might be singing; people watch from other stoops as I stand behind my father, spinning, spinning, spinning, spinning.

Later my family moves to Manhattan, the Upper West Side, then to Morningside Heights, places where we do not belong. Spinning, spinning, we fight people who don’t treat us with respect, waitresses of all colors and creeds, people who call me names with hazy voices in front of my parents. We are trying to gain control, to set the record straight, through motion and endless displacement, we are trying to find peace.

Spinning, seventeen, spinning, almost eighteen. My birthday night in a Harlem Bistro. Some cheesy grits, collard greens, honey biscuits. I eat three. A set of strong women sing in the slim space, curling their hips and shaking their voices to the melody. Singing here is singing; we all stare and smile. Dancing to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the way I swoosh my ponytail to the music with the melty cake in my mouth. Swaying, not dancing, not spinning — I can’t look away. I listen closely to their music, the way they keep a stillness inside themselves and move the air around them. They eject change into the air without compromising stability. When I get home I slip into my bed and don’t dance. I think of their movement, their control, and when I sit still at the dining table, I place my fingers around my pen. I let thoughts on to the page, swaying, almost spinning.

Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, despite having a childhood in Brooklyn, finds solitude on the 1 line to 242nd street – Van Cortlandt Park. She is an avid jay walker and donut connoisseur. You can find her reading in the park, or at ananya.kumar-banerjee@yale.edu. 

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