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Leaving Home Reeks of Defeat and Selfishness

New America Media, Commentary, Jamilah King Posted: Apr 04, 2010

I read a story in the New York Daily News the other day about a man who had been wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 18 years in prison. On the day he was released, his wife picked him up and took him home. He must have mentioned something about how small the house seemed after nearly two decades away, or maybe the reporter made a reference to how cluttered the home felt.

Jamilah King Jamilah KingThe wife said: When things keep getting taken away from you, you start keeping too much."
It reminded me of home.

Since around 1982, my mom has called our third story Victorian flat on Central Avenue in the Western Addition home. Today, it would easily fetch $2,500 a month in rent in our increasingly gentrified neighborhood. But even back then, it was a steal. Two bedrooms, high ceilings, hardwood floors, six huge, sunny windows in the living room that give a panoramic view of the intersection below.

The view from those windows is very different than it used to be. Back when my mom moved in, it was an ideal location. The neighborhood was filled with black folks who owned Victorian duplexes, far enough away from the drama of the neighboring Westside projects where she'd grown up, but still close enough to be considered part of the neighborhood. I imagine it as a simple place. Nothing fancy. Some folks went off to college, most didnt. But you knew your neighbor, your parents had likely grown up with one another, and people didnt judge moral character based on your prison rap sheet or your chosen vice.

Now the view is stained by our not-so-friendly neighborhood coffee shop, the meeting place for new neighbors. Some are white, others arent, but the pervasiveness of their racism digs deep into their nonchalant conversations on how to keep local crackheads from breaking the shops windows searching for their next fix.

Over the intervening three decades, our home has been a sort of harbor apart from the real world. It's the one place that's managed to stay constant over the years despite all the changes. But its not your typical black home from Soul Food, filled with laughter and family and food. In fact, its the absence of those things that make it so familiar. Theres an air of melancholy that hangs on the curtains, silence that creeps up the stairs each night.

There are reasons. My mom raised two daughters in that house, buried one, and sent the other off to college. This apartment is the place she came back to each night after over 23 years of being insulted and assaulted as a bus driver. For years, I avoided hanging up posters in my room because I could still see the small holes in the wall from the thumbtacks my sister used for her LL Cool J pin-ups. Stacks of my grandmothers old 45s sit in a box in the kitchen. My uncles photographs decorate the walls.
Its a solitary home, occupied by two solitary women. Maybe its the tale of my mother split in two: two sets of dreams, two daughters, two decades, two fates.

Still, its home. I measured how tall I was (until I had to admit Id never get any taller) over on that wall by my bedroom door. My mother is at her comedic best between the hallways and the foot of her bed. My next door neighbor and I made our first mixed tape using my Playskool radio and blasted it out of that kitchen window over there. Today, we spend each day carefully deciding how to present ourselves to the outside world, how to hide our sadness and bury our pain. At home, theres no need to hide.

For all these reasons, I feel guilty for leaving. My reasons feel stupid and infantile. I left because I fell in love with a girl. I left home with a heavy heart, determined to not become someone who spoke bitterly of family as those people or stayed trapped in a Bay Area oasis of progressive politics. Even if it felt uneasy, I wanted to be around folks like my family, where love was earned and never easy. The thought of creating a new one was anathema to me.

Unfortunately for me, warm, fuzzy tales about single mothers and the black Americas of the past dont usually make room for daughters who may fall in love with one another. Theres no blueprint for it. No step-by-step guide on coming out: Kama Sutra positions on page 18, parental angst on page 27. Ive seen how some queer folks seem to manage it with ease, but not me. Im awkward and quiet and prefer books to most everything else. A perpetual dodger of confrontation, Ill let shit simmer until it finally blows up and Im forced to confront it.

I knew that coming out to my family would be hard, but I always thought of it as one single, solitary event. Dear Mom, Im gay. Whats for dinner? I couldnt comprehend that coming out would require of me a total transformation of character, that at any moment Id have to defend my being. That when it comes down to it, being queer isnt a choice, but living honestly and courageously is.

So I wasnt prepared for my mothers process. Wasnt ready for the grief or the fits of anger and rage, the backhanded comments about the grandchildren shell never have. I didnt have a script of what to say, or how to say it. I didnt realize that it took years for me to confront and love who I was, and it was going to take my mother years to do the same.

When I decided to move out of my mothers house in the summer of 2008, it just felt like I was taking a pause in the conversation: a comma, semicolon, just something to hold me over until I could gather up the reserves to continue. Its been a year and half, and facing the possibility of losing my job in a few months, Im considering moving back in. Ive realized that my script still isnt as refined as Id like it to be.

But even without the recession, I think about moving home every week. Quite frankly, I miss home. I miss my mom. I miss my dogs. I miss my room. I miss our kitchen, and the foghorns I can hear early in the morning. I miss how easy it is for me to get everywhere in the city from my moms house. I hate imagining my mother alone in our home, waging silent wars against the ghosts of our familys past and its demons of the present. I know that all these struggles are connected, on an existential and ideological level.

Id like to write a cute, funny story about the fights weve had and the lessons weve learned. Id like to give these stories perfect narrative arcs, identifiable beginnings, middles and ends. Id like to say that I was the one marching triumphantly away from my mothers backwards wishes, and that my mother has come to learn the error of her ways.

But I know that theres something intrinsically wrong about leaving a home thats under siege. It reeks of defeat, of selfishness.

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