At a young age, belonging meant conforming. To belong meant lying to fit in with wealthy classmates. I only felt like one of the girls, when I finally wore my mom down to buy me a pair of Toms – a pair of shoes that I found uncomfortable to walk in. I remember lying about visiting Disneyland in Florida for my summer vacation. The whistleblower, who practically had a residence at the theme park, called my bluff when I called it Disney Land and not Disney World. I made up tales about evenings hanging out with my neighborhood friends, who didn’t exist, in a treehouse, my father built that also didn’t exist.
Belonging meant I couldn’t wait to ditch my Nigerian accent fast enough after moving to Canada. It meant alienating my little brother, whose accent was still too thick and who lacked the same awareness and skill to camouflage as the rest of us. I didn’t want him calling out my name the way it was meant to be pronounced at recess. Belonging meant a betrayal of oneself. But, true belonging celebrates individuality. It creates a warm and inviting space, drawing out your true self and giving you comfort. You genuinely belong when being authentic is no longer a choice but your freedom.
One of the most meaningful spaces for me is with black women. I am not alone where there are black women. I am not foreign. And because I do not look foreign, I do not feel foreign. I feel welcome in the rooms with women in braids as strong as rope and light as feathers. I breathe easier in the clubs and pubs where the scent of Mielle Organics peppermint oil and the unmistakable smell of a hot comb on a lace front lounges in the restroom air. When there are full-bodied people with round bums moving readily and feverishly to the rhythm of dancehall and old Congolese music, I know I will be an object of desire. There will be men checking for me. When I dance, I will not be “doing too much.” I will not be a token or a racial caricature. I am guaranteed a good time.
I am confident in the boardrooms, symposiums, and hiring panels where there are gap-toothed women with thick locs, both homegrown and those from a pack. I know that I will be respected and heard. On campuses where women walk around with Telfars slung over their shoulders and thin frames on their thick-nose bridges, I know I will not be alone. I will be embraced. My humanity will be acknowledged, and my experience will be understood. I am grateful to know the black women I do. Who can’t help but be in awe of us when we are together, existing authentically? Full of laughter, full of mischief, and full of love. Black women have saved me from living as a shell of myself. Belonging with them has allowed me to resist lukewarmness. They have allowed me to discard the weakly concentrated version of myself.
I have also found great comfort and familiarity in spaces where people express themselves creatively. I smile wide, filled with warmth, watching people recite their poems at open mic nights. The glow from their phones cradled tenderly, illuminating their wild, shy eyes. Laughing casually and recklessly when they stumble over chords or mispronounce words, filled with the thrill of holding the attention of strangers. I never feel more grateful or any closer to being wholly alive than when I stumble on a local band playing at a bar on a night out. moments such as these, among strange friends, give life meaning. They give life beauty. They pour glaze over the intricate and kinetic painting that is a moment. Crystallize it in an everglow. Making life magic. If you’ve ever been in one of these moments, you know how you never want to leave. Loneliness doesn’t exist in these moments. We are connected, all of us, all at once.
Do you ever get that feeling when you meet someone new that they’re broken in the same spot you are? Like you’re both mugs that slipped from a server’s tray, breaking your handles off. You dropped and broke something important, and you require careful handling from now on. Require gentle and attentive care to use, lest you drop again: Fragile when broken.
It was long before I realized I had all kinds of handleless mugs. I assembled them in a cedar cabinet with two glass doors that opened on hinges and made a satisfying click when they closed. I had become a collector of people who were broken in the same way I considered myself to be. It must be that I feel at home with the other handleless mugs. After all, they have the same struggles as I do. They have similar stories and know similar hurts.
I am not required to water down turbulent emotions and the ugly thoughts around them. With them, I am not met with lost yet well-meaning expressions when I share my struggles. I crave their knowing affection. I find myself wanting their recognition as kin. I want them to meet my eyes and see through them. And they often do. I belong in the cedar cabinet with the mugs that feel the phantom ache of their missing handle. I belong with those who are afraid they will never be whole again, wondering if they ever were, and hope to be all the same.
I belong with those who would rather manage stomach aches and navigate discreet flatulence than give up ice cream. I know I’m not alone, and neither are you. You are seen, and you are valid.
I’ve always thought of belonging as a tree. One with many branches, as many as you allow to grow. A tree to seek shelter when the monsoon comes to unearth the ground and sweep the floor of undergrowth. A tree that is strong as oak and durable as cedar to be made into treehouses and cabinets.