The Color Reel

Updated: Jun 24, 2020


| This is the 488th story of Our Life Logs |

My earliest memories are of growing up in Trinidad, where I was born in 1983. I was the only girl in my family and had three older brothers. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked in communications. We lived in a variety of different villages and towns, finally settling in Santa Rosa, a suburb of Arima, where my mother bought a house. We were a lower-middle-class family, so owning a home was a big achievement.

There was one item commonly found in all Trinidadian homes—a television set. In our home, the TV was sometimes my babysitter and, often, I could tell the time based on the programming that was on. While Trinidad did have some of its own programming, like the news, a talent show, and a soap opera, but the majority of the TV we consumed was American movies, shows, and news. This programming had a profound effect on teaching me about people in the US.

The street that I lived on in Trinidad.
The street that I lived on in Trinidad.

When it came to movies, we watched blockbusters, though they came to Trinidad a while after their US. release. Educational shows like Sesame Street taught me a lot while entertaining me. Saturday morning cartoons were a staple. Other shows taught me about the lives of black people in the US. There were, of course, the average families like those represented in the shows Family Matters and Sister, Sister. There were the slightly more spoiled, rich black kids like in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

However, movies often showed black people in violent and gangster-like roles. Many young men in Trinidad idolized American culture and especially the imagery of black Americans. So, they emulated in Trinidad what they saw on TV. Some of that contributed to violence and gang culture in this laid-back isle. Even my own brothers, though they didn’t get involved in gangs, were influenced by this culture, wearing the baggy clothes that were in fashion and enjoying hip hop and other aspects of black American culture portrayed in the media.

Section Break-Mountains

When I was finishing high school, there was only one university in Trinidad—the University of the West Indies. Unfortunately, my secondary school grades weren’t high enough to get me a scholarship there and my family couldn’t afford to pay the tuition otherwise. I took the SATs and applied to several other schools that I heard offered scholarships, even though I had no idea where many of them were located. One of these schools, Morgan State University, offered me a full scholarship. Morgan State was located in Baltimore, Maryland, in the US—a place I knew nothing about beyond its name.

I faced a dilemma. Should I leave Trinidad and go to Morgan State? It would be a great opportunity. But how would I survive? The money I had saved working over the previous two years was only enough to purchase my plane ticket and was not enough to support me during my studies in the US. Should I stay in Trinidad and continue to work in the journalist job I’ve had for the past few years? I had a feeling that wouldn’t be enough for me. I wanted to do more, but I was also afraid.

I decided to attend Morgan State. I still had no idea how I would survive. My scholarship covered my academics, dorm room, and a meal plan, but left no money for anything else. Still, I didn’t want that to stop me. So, in 2005, I bought my ticket and made my way to Baltimore.

Me during my freshman year at Morgan State University.
Me during my freshman year at Morgan State University.
Section Break-Mountains

When I settled into my dorm room, my African-American roommate was not yet living there, so, I left a few of my belongings on her bed. I figured I’d organize and put everything away before she got there. Unfortunately, my roommate got there before I could organize everything. I recall walking into my dorm after my roommate and her mother arrived and seeing two angry black women glaring at me. They were not happy about the items I left on my roommate’s bed, but rather than have a polite conversation about it, they seemed very scornful of me. For me, this simply boosted the stereotypes of black Americans that I had seen on TV in Trinidad.

Luckily, Morgan State, a historically black university, had many Trinidadian students. After my first encounter with black Americans, I kept my close circle of friends limited to Trinidadians and other Caribbean and international students.

I wasn’t the only person to feel this way. There was a lot of division within my peer group between the black international students and black American ones. We all had preconceived notions of each other. Black international students often thought the black American students were disrespectful to teachers and authority, always talking back. They dressed in styles I saw on TV and spent a lot of money on their wardrobes, which came off as shallow. We were used to wearing uniforms to school and expression via our clothing at school wasn’t that important. Besides, many of us used up all of our money just to get to the university—we didn’t have anything left over to buy expensive clothes.

The black American students didn’t know or understand this and judged us for dressing differently. They often thought we were stuck up and overly studious, not taking into account that many of us were here on scholarships and getting a bad grade would mean leaving school, losing our opportunity for higher education, and having to return home to our countries of origin empty-handed.

We all had these opinions of each other, mostly fueled by lack of information, or from misinformation we had seen on TV. Neither of the groups understood each other’s perspective, history, and the context around the reasons we lived the way we did.

Section Break-Mountains

As I made more friends and colleagues, my fears about black Americans diminished. I started to identify with blackness, rather than thinking of black Americans as a group separate from myself. Even though Baltimore’s gun crime and gang culture surrounded me daily, I was beginning to understand African-American history and how the effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and structural racism still affect all of our lives and actions today. I stopped attributing crime to people’s skin color and instead attributed it to the economy. I started to change my views and did a lot of unlearning. By the time I left Baltimore, Trinidadians and black Americans were simply one group—black people, part of the African diaspora—and I was one of them. I still had one more gap to bridge though—white people. I was still wary of them.

This became especially evident after I finished my degree at Morgan State and decided to move to Austin, Texas, for my graduate studies in 2011. Unlike Baltimore, Austin did not have a visible Caribbean community. And black Americans? I rarely saw them. At the University of Texas at Austin, only 4% of students were black. Even the streets seemed to be devoid of black people and I felt alone and out of place.

I remember the first black person I met in Austin. I was walking down the sidewalk at the university and a black girl with a tattoo on her arm similar to the one on my neck passed by me. Right away, I turned around and ran after her.

“Hi! I’m Kelenne! It looks like we have the same tattoo!” I said, at the risk of sounding a bit crazy. But I was in desperate need of a community that felt safe. Luckily, she was receptive and we became friends.

But she was just one person. To survive in this new place, I knew I’d need to meet more people. I was so in need of meeting Black people that I would strike up conversations with homeless Black people I met while taking the bus around Austin. Before, I would have been hesitant to talk to homeless people, but in Austin, they gave me a sense of familiarity and comfort.

“What are you doing here in Austin?” They’d often ask me.

“I’m a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.” I’d tell them and I could see their eyes light up because, even though they didn’t’ know me, they were genuinely proud of me as a black girl getting a college education.