Excerpt from a longer piece:
When I was in my senior year of highschool I was angry and searching for answers. I was angry that I could not point towards century old family traditions that defined who I was. I was angry that my cultural identity was pieced together from half-stories, books deemed “radical”, and images from pop culture. I was angry that I did not fit into what I was told that the Black experience was supposed to be. I enjoyed school, but loathed conformity. I treasured having friends, but hated what I had “fit” into. I loved my Blackness, but I didn’t even know what it was. I had no community, no place, no space, no area where the big Black boy who loved the feeling of school pride but hated what school itself represented, who loved the meaning and heart of hip-hop, but whose awkwardness made him feel like a perpetrator, who wanted to take communion at church, but was afraid that “faith” would kill curiosity. My Blackness was lost, and needed a home.
The summer after I graduated from school, I was fortunate enough to travel with my grandparents to West Africa. In Ghana, I experienced all the typical moments that many Black Americans experience in their first pilgrimage. I saw Black people on money. I saw Black people on billboards. I saw commercials with ONLY Black people in them – and for every type of product, not just “urban” brands. I saw skyscrapers and stadiums that defied lies I had been told about my ancestors’ home. But it was not the food, the music, or even the people that stood out the most, it was the trees. I remember riding down the street in downtown Accra and looking at the trees that lined the side of the road, the bottom of their trunks painted white.
Everyone was silent, we were all looking at the trees.
My grandmother’s sister said, “Francis, look at that.” “Umm Hmm… those trees…”, she responded. “Well I’ll be. Ain’t that just somethin’”, another aunt chimed in. Everyone’s gaze on the trees remained unbroken.
My grandmother explained that growing up in Stoneville, NC, they used to paint the bottom of tree trunks with white paint. They did it every year and they did it religiously. When I asked her why, she told me she didn’t know, her parent’s didn’t know, and it was just something that they did. A few years later I would be riding down the street outside of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti and saw hundreds of trees – bottoms painted white.
I spent the last week in New Orleans at a convening of practitioners who work for the liberation of boys and men of color. We danced and laughed and prayed and cried and debated and learned and embraced and lifted. We saw one another. We practiced “sawubona”. We created a space where we could speak and be heard, where we could ask and be given, where we could let our guard down and not be afraid. In only three short days, we created a home.
In both Ghana and Haiti, I asked for explanations, why take the time out to paint all of these trees? The more I asked, the more answers I got.
“It’s so that the cars can see the trees at night” “It’s because bugs don’t like it and will leave the trees alone” “It’s for decoration” “Really? I don’t know, we’ve done it since I was little”
Whether whitewashing trees is unique to the Diaspora or not is not important. What is important, however, is that even without understanding why, the tradition had been dutifully upheld and maintained without question. It is physical evidence of tradition left by my ancestors as they were forcefully sprawled throughout the world. As the saying goes, “The biggest difference between a Haitian, a Dominican, and an African American is where the boat stopped.”
For many, home may look like a house, a nation, a group of people, or in my case, a history. As we Black folks exist in a place where our traditional semblance of home is constantly under question and under attack, it’s always important that we find our own home, our own place of safety. Even if that means finding it in the trees.