“But you don’t have an accent.”
There aren’t enough breadfruit and goat roti in Trinidad to amount to the number of times I’ve been told this.
A native of the island, my immediate family and I immigrated to this country when I was just nine, leaving behind the blistering Caribbean sun, melted tar streets that stick below your feet, and an almost distant memory of my father’s death.
“Next time yah come back yah goin’ tuh be soundin’ like ah Yankee,” I can still remember one of my aunts telling me.
There was a feeling of excitement. I welcomed any transformation that would make me more like my older cousins who had already been living abroad for years. They would revisit Trinidad with crisp clothes, hair products I had never heard of, and music that made Patra sound played out.
Everything from the States was better, I believed. In addition to my cool cousins, sliced cheese and the yummy orange juice they served on the plane were proof enough. I thought getting an American accent would make me better, too.
It took years to learn to take pride in the heritage that is at the heart of me. But as a preteen, when my only purpose in life was to blend in, it put a bull’s-eye on my back for classroom bullies and schoolyard mean girls.
When I entered the fourth grade, I was teased relentlessly for my thick accent (along with my acne, being too tall and talking too intelligently). I used to memorize and repeatedly recite the lyrics to rap songs to make it go away. (To this day, I can spit DMX’s “Y’all Gonna Make Me Lose My Mind.”)
It wasn’t until boarding school, when I was completely uprooted from the Caribbean enclave in my Brooklyn, NY neighborhood and willingly whisked away to a waspy New England town that I began to cling tightly on to every bit of my Caribbean identity. I formed a Caribbean cultural club on campus with one of my best friends, hosted school-wide Caribbean dinners, and paraded in carnival costumes at events like International Day. It felt affirming to reclaim that piece of me in the midst of salmon-colored polos and popped collars.
Now, there is something about a Trinidadian accent that makes me feel at home. The warmth. The way it wraps around and nestles me. Its familiarity. The singsongy intonations are a melody, an invitation to return to a comfortable place of rest and authenticity.
But like any haven, you don’t invite just anyone in.
Accents can be private — a sacred language reserved for kin or those wise enough not to question whether you’re a “real” or “true” insert-origin-here.
Accents can subconsciously sneak away and reemerge out of their hiding places. And that’s the beautiful thing about them.
My accent is a broken-in pair of sweats that I can always slip effortlessly in. It’s my second skin, a cloak, and, sometimes, my armor. When I’m around my people or pissed off, she decides to come out and I let her run freely. Wreaking havoc on whoever chose to push my buttons that day or disarming a stranger to whom I want to communicate, “It’s OK, I’m one of you.” It’s unconscious most of times, when she decides to escape. Other times, I am intentional about when she is unleashed.
Whether I’m “winin’ up muh waist” to the sweet sounds of Soca or relishing in a glorious cup of Starbucks coffee, I have an accent; it just might not be around you. And it sure as hell isn’t yours to question or police.