Technically, the clearing could also be a swamp. It’s less of a metaphor than you think, meaning, the land now called Providence used to be an emerald green, leafy woodland of brush, water, and sky.
Then the English came. They stole my land. They stole my ancestors. And finally, they named this non-island swamp Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
South of my swamp, an (actual) island whitepeople stole named Manhattan, I constantly have to problematize assumptions about place and identity. I’m not trying to get a rise out of anyone or, God forbid, make the wide-eyed, quinoa-loving gentrifiers of Brooklyn think too hard. “Oooooh, I just love Providence,” they say when I tell them where I’m from. “My brother-in-law went to Brown. What is that thing they do downtown—WaterFire? What a charming little city!”
That’s one way to put it. Turns out, “Where are you from?” is one of the most pointed and political questions someone can ask you in New York. It’s usually not the first, because the assumption is that you came here looking for an identity. So it’s very uncool to claim where you’re from, much less insist on the most concise, decolonial, metaphorical, truthful answer to that question: a swamp.
Blank stares. That it’s a caustic reply goes over most people’s heads. The nuances escape them. But they definitely think it’s lame of me to say that, particularly since I’ve been in New York for almost two years. “You’re a New Yorker now,” insist the gentrifiers, but I’m not. Not every tall, poised woman in this city is aspiring to be a model or an actress. There’s not a lot of poetry to why I’m here: I got into grad school, and the work is important to me.
But the belonging? Not so much. People here will go out of their way to pigeonhole you, particularly if your very existence problematizes their sense of history and identity. In other words, not all Indians are from reservations. Some of us come from plantations called Boston, New Haven, Providence: New England slave ports, post-industrial renaissance ghettos. Anyway, as it were, most Natives live in cities, and the city with the largest Native population is New York.
God bless these hapless five boroughs, this stolen Lenni Lenape land on which Indigenous people from all corners of Turtle Island negotiate belonging. Some days, it really sucks. I don’t see myself in the concrete,the steaming masses at Columbus Circle, the smog, the uppity college students sunbathing in Washington Square Park. The promises of this emerald island called Manhattan are evasive. New York, more than anywhere I’ve ever been on Earth, is a nexus of intense digital voyeurism and collective social anxiety, all against the dizzying backdrop of the sleepless white capitalist beast. Money, competition, alcoholism, vanity, Tinder: it’s exhausting, and I don’t see myself in any of it.
But I’m here. I’m brown and unapologetic, caustic, sometimes funny, always technical. This blog is my digital clearing and New York is my metaphor. It goes over most people’s heads. “Did you come here to model?” ask the gentrifiers eagerly. “To act? To be an Instagram star?”
No: I’m from a swamp, and I came here to work.