Suriname, Part the Third: Onoribo

On the way to visit an aunt who lives about an hour and a half outside of Paramaribo, my cousin casually mentioned that we should see Onoribo the plantation where our family is from. Her English is practically perfect, heavily accented to be sure but practically perfect. Still, I figured that “plantation” must mean something else because “the plantation where our family is from” simply did not compute. I was so puzzled that, for a moment, she doubted herself. I turned to look at my mother and asked, “does that mean the same thing in English that it does in Dutch?” She was as confused as I was but then there was the sign:

Plantage Onoribo.

We drove across a road that was bright orange red because of the bauxite in the ground, and then there we were at a the head of what looked like a small compound.

I should stop here and describe my experience with plantations.  I’ve lived in Mississippi and Louisiana, so plantations are not new to me.  I remember taking a friend who grew up in New England to Natchitoches, Louisiana and showing him his first plantation.  He was shocked by the elegance of it. Slavery to him was an ugly thing and he said he was imagining something like Auschwitz.  We didn’t go on one of those awful plantation tours (I would never), but we were allowed to wander around the main house and to see the slave quarters in the back.  The experience had no real effect on me.  I might claim I’m Southern now because Louisiana is where I’ve lived the longest, but I’m not Southern; I might not be paying attention to my roots, but I know they’re not in the American South. Even knowing that my father’s family is from St. Kitts hasn’t solidified any sense of place for me. I have no desire to seek it out.  Knowing I’m the descendants of slaves has been enough (and with a great-grandmother who everyone else thought was white, I have a very clear sense of my roots). Understanding that my family has it own immigrant relationship to the United States has also been enough. When the couple I met outside of London (the Matthews) announced so cheerily that their family once owned my family I wasn’t shocked at the news but at the jolliness of their pronouncement.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a new claim for myself, as if I’ve found some new identity.  I’m too old and cynical for that. But it’s been two weeks, and I’m still gobsmacked to discover this very specific, living proof of my roots.  It’s been weird to be back in Brooklyn, which I’ve come to consider home (because being rootless makes it easier for me to call different places home), but to experience Suriname as a homecoming once removed.

It looks like a compound, and it’s not very big (in what I’ve read on-line thus far it’s always described as a “small plantation”). There is no big house or mansion but small houses spread around.  As we pulled into the grounds, my cousin explained that we’d probably have to stop and say hi because we’re related to everyone who lives there.  Again, I thought I must have misunderstood her (I don’t even know if she said this in English or Dutch). While I was trying to process this she pulled up to a monument, and carved in wood and stone I saw my family’s name—my mother’s maiden name Raatle. photo-60

Last year, the president of Suriname had a monument erected to honor…I don’t know what it’s honoring.  What is our connection to this place?  How far back does it go?  There’s a house there that one of my aunts built, and my mother remembers sending American dollars to set up the electricity. No one lives there now.  According to tourist site about Suriname a (or Surinam as they spell it):

In Surinam there are plantations like Republic, Four Children, Beseba, and Onoribo and many more than that have the possibility for recreation.  After the abolition the slaves who worked on the plantations became owner of these plantations. Until today the descendants of these plantations can claim a piece of land. The land will never be owned by them but at all times remain the property of the foundation that manages the plantation. There is also a policy for non descendants to buy a piece of land ( lot) bud (sic) again the ownership of the land remains in the hands of the foundation. The plantations are not only used for weekend and week recreation, descendants are still living on the plantation so respect their standards and values and keep the plantations clean.”

Growing up Black in a country that wants desperately to diminish the depth and breadth of its slave history, the idea of some sort of reparations, the notion of monuments that attest to what slaves built has pulled me into a project to understand this space.  “Project” is too lofty a word—like language you use for fellowship applications or to convince deans and provosts that your “work” is “serious.” It’s not a “project” but a persistent tug at my imagination.  I know that I’ve been going to bed early with my laptop and scouring the internet for information and pestering my poor mother with questions.  I’m fascinated by the idea of ownership/not ownership and sickened by thought of these places as destinations for tourists at the same time that the idea of sitting in that space is very appealing to me.  I couldn’t tell why and still don’t know.  Was it the quiet and the feeling of being in this gorgeous wooded area isolated in all the best ways? Would I feel like I wanted to be there even if I didn’t know the place was part of my distant, distant past, or would I be repelled by its history?

Onoribo is by a creek.  I counted maybe four or five houses.  There’s a graveyard I didn’t go visit because it’s not a thing that’s done in that space. I wanted to know if we had people buried there, but even before my mother told me not to, I didn’t feel like I should walk across someone’s lawn to visit it.   There are massive old trees there I wanted to get close to, but my mother worried about snakes in the grass, and since we saw a dead poisonous one in the road, I listened to her pleas to stay close to the road.

I can describe a lot of things, but I don’t know how to describe walking around there.  It was very quiet. There were chickens in a pen, and a little playground, and a road that is under construction.  It’s tucked away from everything, so I suspect very soon Europeans will be biking out there to swing in hammocks.  Apparently, that’s already happening.  I’ve read on line that there’s talking of making it a recreational space, and the thought makes me sick to my stomach.  That’s not hyperbole.  When I read about plans to make it commercial, I had a physical reaction.  I’m not sure what to make of of my attachment to a place I never knew existed and only visited for 15 minutes. I know there’s theory to describe what I felt, but theory had no place there, in that moment.

I’ve just started researching* its history and it seems to have been around as far back as the eighteenth century.  There were skirmishes over it at some point.  I’m reading how slavery in Suriname was different than it was in the United States. Plantations like Onoribo were isolated, so slaves could easily escape, and they often did.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had an aunt to visit and then some missionaries my parents have been supporting since I was a teenager (I stood on their front porch and watched a small herd of cows amble down the dirt road in front of their house). My aunt lives about five minutes from Onoribo. That fascinates me almost as much as discovering this place with documented proof of my roots.

*Again, “research” is too strong a word. I’m just poking around a lot.


Suriname, Part the First: Roots

I don’t really think of myself as having “roots” and I don’t know that I’ve missed them. In theory, I know I have roots. Everyone does, don’t they? But I didn’t grow up thinking about them. It’s part of what comes with being a third-culture kid. You move around as much as I did (Tinker AFB, Amsterdam, Cheyenne, Guam, Minot, Abilene, Okinowa, Biloxi, Angeles City, Bossier City, Natchitoches, Amherst, Montclair, Brooklyn*) with a mother from a tiny country most people have never heard of and a father “from New York” and the overall feeling is more about being regularly uprooted or, rather, transplanted on a regular basis than having roots.

It’s not been an unpleasant life at all. I was an extrovert as a kid, so while leaving was never easy, new places meant fresh beginnings and opportunities to reimagine how I might move through the world. When I started high school in the Philippines, there was no one to remind me of some embarrassing thing I did in the sixth grade in Mississippi. And when I left the Philippines, I could invent an entire narrative about it for my college friends in Shreveport. Moving was so much a part of my life that after four and a half years of college, even though I had no plan, I thought I was supposed to leave Louisiana, to uproot myself, and move someplace else (Evanston/Chicago) because my average tour in any state or country was 18 to 24 months.

The other term for third-culture kids is global nomads, and I would say that this feels like a better fit for me but only because it describes my opposition to a nomadic life. Right now, my greatest desire is to stay in one place and read and then write about what I’m reading. I don’t even like to travel to Manhattan. I’m not kidding. I teach in New Jersey and the sense of relief I feel when I drive back to Brooklyn is not simply about putting space between me and the messiness of academic departments, and it’s not even about the growing need I have to write more and more. I think it’s that I feel rooted in Brooklyn. I’m not from here (I’m not from anywhere), but it’s home, and I feel myself rooting in here, in this borough with nomads that move in and out of my life.

When my mother announced last year that we should take a trip to Suriname, my ambivalence ran so deep that I forgot to tell people I speak with all the time that I was going away at all. In fact, until a few hours ago I didn’t even realize I was going to spend time in Trinidad (just a few hours) along the way. I’ve mocked myself as friends looked oddly at my flat announcement that I was leaving frigid Brooklyn for warm Paramaribo, but I’ve also admitted that, for the last few years, I’ve lost interest in traveling. I find it exhausting, and I feel like I’ve traveled enough for a lifetime. I meet these people who are excited about some trip, and I listen to them and ask questions and I’m very happy for them, but in my head I’m thinking “Good Lord, that sounds exhausting.”

I’ve been saying for the last few weeks that I’m stressed about this trip because January has traditionally been a good writing month for me, that I’m going up for promotion and have a file to get together, that I hate packing. But the truth of it is I’m tired and the more I write the less I want to move around other people. Pleasure for me right now means days of quiet with a book or three and a legal pad scratching out notes.

But this trip has me thinking about roots. I was last in Suriname when I was 11 or 12. I learned to drive that trip. I sold watermelons with my uncle to people riding by his house. I drank coconut milk through a straw right from the coconut, immediately after my uncle commandeered it out of a tree. I went to French Guyana with my uncle for the day, and I visited with my oma who spoke virtually no English (my first language was Dutch, but I lost it decades ago). Is that what it means to have roots? To have memories from childhood? I don’t feel Surinamese or Dutch. In fact, I remember an unfortunate chapter in my life when I kept insisting to my mother, loudly, “I am an AMERICAN.” I’m a military brat, and more than anything else I’ve been I’ve always been AMERICAN. I don’t really know what that means. I do know I’ve never even bothered to apply for dual citizenship, though I know that’s something I should care about.

Once, a very nice, elegant southern gentleman (the kind with a single letter in front of his second and third names) said to me, “Tell us, Tricia, who are your people?” I replied, “that’s kind of you to ask, but I don’t really have people.” I do, of course, more than I can count (my mother has six siblings all with kids and grandchildren, and my father has three with kids who also have kids), but we traveled so much I only knew them from infrequent visits and letters (I remember one year that one of my birthday gifts was a long-distance call from the Philippines to New York so I could speak to my grandmother).

But each time I’m with my cousins, my Dutch and/or American ones, I discover some common thing, and now I wonder was that a root?

My mother said casually last night that I would be seeing my Uncle Arthur, and for the first time it seemed worth packing up and trekking to the airport at ass o’clock in the morning (3:30 am, to be exact). I blurted “Oom Artur!” with a perfect Dutch accent. I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, but when my dad was sent to Vietnam, a month after I was born, my Uncle Arthur took care of my mom and me. I don’t remember much, but my mother said that, among other things, he used to hold me on one knee and his daughter on the other (apparently I fought the poor girl over him, insisting he was my father). I don’t remember what we ever did together (he is not the uncle who taught me to drive), but I do remember how I always felt around him (happy and at home), and I wonder if that’s a root.

For my first solo trip abroad, I went to London. It wasn’t such a great trip, though I was happy to spend the day in Canterbury and glad I got to visit Marx’s grave. I had plenty of surreal moments, including an encounter with a white couple from Oklahoma who, upon discovering that we had a similar last name (they spell it with an “s”), said cheerily, “Oh, that’s because our ancestors owned your ancestors!” They said this with an astonishing amount of joy. I know I’m supposed to think of that as a root. I’m black; someone once owned someone in my family.

Later that trip, I was kind of lost near some square or another. It was kind of foggy and/or misty, and a tall, dark man (obsidian came to my mind immediately) appeared and announced, “I am Nubian.” He sounded exactly the way you would think an obsidian man would sound, especially if he appeared out of nowhere. He said, “where are you from?” and I was suddenly so tired of having to give my usual, convoluted answer (it begins, “well, my dad was in the military, and my mother is from Suriname…”) that I simply said I was from Louisiana. He said again, “I am Nubian. Where are you from?” And then I knew what he meant and was relieved to have an answer I thought would satisfy him. “St. Kitts.” He nodded, and then he disappeared.* My lack of curiosity about this fact about St. Kitt, a fact that I only know because my godfather did our family tree years ago, has never bothered me. When you’re not from anywhere at all who has time to think about where you are from, to care about things like roots?

But I’m going to Suriname, where my mother has her roots. I have family there, and I have memories, and I’m just beginning to think that I might have roots there too—if I can figure out what the hell that means and how much I actually care about them.

*these are the places I’ve lived and not the places I’ve visited; I wouldn’t know where to begin with that list.

**I’m not just saying that to be clever; one minute he was there and then he wasn’t.