A year and a half ago, I stood in a room designed to hasten death of the spirit. The hospital was located near Greensboro, North Carolina, in a stretch of the South that remains too close to itself for comfort. It is where my grandmother would spend the last three months of her life.
In the room, I watched my mother watch her mother bloat waterlogged into death. We were smaller versions of ourselves then, stacked upon the other like matryoshka dolls of grief. I was told of the cancer 15 years earlier, at age 14. It triggered an era of glacial decline. Pacemakers, replaced knees and hips.
We carve new spaces in our bodies to accommodate dread. These are our bodies now, we tell ourselves. This is their shape. For 15 years we train our eyes upon the next implosion.
The hospital room in Greensboro was spacious, thematically optimistic with a kernel of restraint; sunshine met its tiles regularly, though light never reached her bedside despite my silent pleading. The aural palette of the last thunderstorm she and I shared alternated between thunder, nogoda, and the soft sighs and rhythmic beeping of my grandmother’s monitored collapse. The windows were sealed, so we spoke in whispers and pretended to smell the storm. We filled our lives with this imagining. Then she napped for an hour while I scavenged, frantically, for calm. I wanted more than anything to bring her youth, to bring her beauty. An ounce of warmth. I wanted a way to remind her of how her skin felt before it lost sense of the world, of her mouth against the rain.
When the doctors allowed, my grandmother and I spent hours discussing skies we had loved. Hers in Asmara, mine in my childhood’s cumulus-heavy expanse in Miami. We spoke in Tigrinya, the national language of Eritrea and the tribe from which I come.
My names were many when I was young. She used to call me coconut, acat, and when I frowned and said I hated coconuts, she told me that it was fine, that she would love me even when I hated myself. People would comment on our hair, its shared texture (a note to others: “Wild” is not a texture), but I am thinking now of hands, how mine mirrored hers like a miracle of light, and of all the future moments when I’ll clasp my own together and pretend toward less alone.
My grandmother was born to the Italian lira, grew up under the British pound, revolted against the Ethiopian birr, lived under the American dollar in order to raise me, and died, finally, buried under her country’s first currency, the Eritrean nakfa. She was home to me, my link to a land generations had fought for and to the sand in Florida on which I played. A reminder of how far and against what odds my blood had traveled for the promise of autonomy. And now she was gone.
It’s been 12 years since I lived in Miami, and yet enough of the city is embedded in me that I feel at home wherever I stand in it. It’s in every exhalation. I feel this connection to the land and my past more than any kinship with my remaining family. I am at once grateful for the freedom and devastated by this tangible unmooring of blood. It is only appropriate that things feel adrift.
Erasure is a prickly topic for members of the African diaspora. We want recognition, we who have lost so much to attain it and are severed from those who know this best. I still look for my country every time I see a globe. Did we exist yet? Were we our own? It is a validation I can’t stop myself from seeking having grown up in a state intent on its own destruction.
One can look to Hawaii’s volcanoes to see exactly how land is formed. Florida, then, is where we look to see land’s undoing. In Florida, we are racing New Orleans into the sea. I tell most inquirers South Florida is what happens when people build cities on sponges and call it salvation. I tell them we will learn.
People speak of my home state as though it were uniform in its failings. This is untrue. The distance between Miami and Pensacola is roughly the distance between New York City and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. About 75 percent of South Florida’s residents live along the coast. As others have noted, “Florida’s coastal development restrictions have not stopped development as much as they have made it more expensive.” In Miami, as in much of the country, the environment is treated as a function of economy, where scarcity implies only that a good will cost more to obtain despite its irreplaceability.
In truth, there has never been a time when Florida's economic development fell independent of unsustainable practices and displacement of the other, and not just humans. During the feather wars of the late 19th century, “the long, white plumes of egrets that lived in the Everglades [became] more valuable than gold ... nearly 95 percent of Florida's shore birds [were] killed by plume hunters.” We have pushed out, and dredged, and lynched, and segregated, and ushered in real estate booms, rapid agricultural expansion, and the limitless exploitation of migrant workers. There are those in Florida convinced our history is not worth learning because we’ve stolen so much of it. It’s hard keeping track of the slaughters. However, that history is how we’ve come now to steal the future from the land.
At my angriest, I want Miami to flood, to remember why it should be afraid. According to Reuters, “Florida’s 1,350 miles (2,173 km) of shoreline – the longest in the contiguous 48 states – accounted for a third of new coastal housing built.” The beach houses continue to rise. In Miami, the condo market is exploding even as property insurers flee the scene. Our manatees are dying, and when we aren’t draining our springs we are poisoning them beyond redemption. Saltwater intrusion of our aquifers, South Florida’s primary source of drinking water, is escalating. There isn’t enough water in Lake Okeechobee to divert to the parched Everglades. South Florida is under extreme drought. South Florida is flooding. South Florida is on fire. South Florida wants to secede.
My friends detect my anxiety in the way I talk about the future. When they list places they might like to live someday, I instead rattle off regions where we might extinguish the least troubled. It’s unfair of me. The truth is this mind in this black body fears isolation, has difficulty looking westward, would like to stay in place. Meanwhile, Florida coats my teeth like plaque. I can’t speak without its effects showing on my gums. The state has made trust difficult.
In Miami, Didion writes "Desegregation had not just come hard and late to South Florida but it had also coincided, as it had not in other parts of the South, with another disruption of the status quo, the major Cuban influx, which meant that jobs and services which might have helped awaken an inchoate black community went instead to Cubans, who tended to be over trained but willing."
Growing up, I saw Haitians and Cubans drowning at sea well before my people were independent enough to drown escaping their own country. Now refugees drown and die every day. Of course, they aren’t supposed to die, but they aren’t expected to live very long on their own either. That they died trying not to die is by and large none of the world’s business until the bodies begin to pile on the wrong shore. But the dead, to date, have no control of the waves.
I was seven when the first President Bush “ordered Coast Guard vessels to return all Haitians intercepted at sea to Haiti without allowing them to apply for asylum.” Those who made it were given the option of indefinite detention or deportation to death.
The lack of recognized history in a city largely populated by recent immigrants meant a flattening of American racial stereotypes while still establishing a racial hierarchy. The Krome Service Processing Center in Miami was a missile base that became an immigrant detention center. In the mid 1980s, over 100,000 Cuban refugees were re-settled around the country; Haitians were detained at Krome as “economic refugees.” Despite Jean-Claude Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship, Haiti was not considered “a totalitarian state, but merely an authoritarian state.”
Eritrea, my own country, is also considered an authoritarian state.
Up until recently, Eritreans made up one of the two largest groups of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Many have asked, why now? Before the Arab Spring, Italy ratified a “friendship treaty” with Libya’s former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. In exchange for $200 million over 25 years, Qaddafi would monitor Libya’s shores and keep the tide of African refugees at bay, preventing them from becoming Europe’s problem. A year later Qaddafi would ask the European Union for €5 billion a year. “Europe, in the future,” Qaddafi said, “might not be Europe any more but might turn black because of all the illegal immigrants.” The Arab Spring would start four months later, with Qaddafi’s death occurring less than a year after that. As the routes to Europe opened, regional instability made it unsafe for refugees to linger in Egypt and Libya. Their options were crossing the Mediterranean or crossing the Sinai toward Israel. Within three years, Israel had spent $400 million to build a 245-mile fence along its border with Egypt. Finally, all eyes turned to the sea.
To put it simply, African refugees are running out of ways to be less than human. They are clinging to sea rocks with no place to go. When, in Miami, I read about MaiAini, an Eritrean refugee camp in Ethiopia pushing 80,000, I wonder how many who hear of it will know mai aini means “water of the eyes” or “tears” in Tigrinya. The salt is everywhere I turn. I wish to share with friends the metrics of hopelessness, the grams and ounces of life under rations, but even those are insufficient at underscoring the despair.
It is clear to me that the history of Eritrea and Eritreans in the 21st century has stopped being one of how to win, but of how we might lose the least by the end of the century’s first quarter. Here in America, I am the only person with whom each member of my immediate family interacts. Two out of the three live on separate continents. Sometimes I’ll like a new song because it is the type my sister would play and I need a thread to hold on to. Some streets I’ll walk, as my father taught me, because they show more of the sky. But most days I’ll hold the weightless braid of my family in my palm and wonder when it will find the wind. I am trying to keep my own two halves from fracturing; I never learned to excavate the dread.
It all feels like too much.
When politicians campaign on platforms of keeping Africans out of their country. When the anti-blackness in the surrounding MENA region goes largely unreported. When the refugee camps in the country you gained independence from are overflowing with your people. When the journey to South Africa, a popular refuge for African migrants, is met with xenophobic attacks. When crossing the Red Sea into Yemen means entering a war zone; when Yemenis are crossing the Red Sea into the Horn you fled. When human traffickers are harvesting your organs in the Sinai. When the open ports of Libya have no despot to keep you on your side of the grave. When drowning is the best option. When the world asks wouldn't it be convenient to stay in place? To see your doom as your salvation? Now that they have all tried their hand at exploiting your land, your people, your geography—and since autonomy can only be granted by those who have control over the physical world. After all this, how, how, how. How can we keep you there?
I am thinking of the future and thinking of salt. The rising seas and the eventual severing of the Horn of Africa from the mainland. In the hospital room, I see my grandmother as a released weather balloon, the thing in sight that is already gone. When she leaves us, I watch as death, held like a prism, confronts my family. I still worry about the ways in which the darkness has scattered our light.
What I am trying to say to you is this: My other half is doomed. Sometimes, so is this half. There are moments in New York when I am thinking of home, which means I am thinking of a vanishing. The highest point in Miami is 42 feet above sea level. If I live to be 100 it will likely be submerged. New York City is the place I feel least grounded, the place where I almost don’t exist. The anonymity of its streets blankets me in comfort. It is freedom from myself. Or at least one half. Which half, I am no longer sure.
Lead Photo: An artistic set-up in Trieste, Italy, in memory of all the dead and missing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: Enki Photo/Shutterstock)