Southern boxes

I really dig boxes. The kinds that contain books ordered on Amazon are my conscious favorite. At a close second, and an unconscious favorite: the kinds of neat mental compartments humans who like to try and wrestle control of everything put their lives in. A different box for each portion of my identity. Box one: tall. Box two: Black. Box three: girl. Box four: Floridian. Box five: Southern-adjacent.

Being Southern-adjacent meant being able to visit family who spoke in dialect so reminiscent of the only Caribbean accent I could identify that I once asked my mother if we were Jamaican. It meant visiting my grandmother’s house, where the woods were pregnant with quiet, and the sky was brilliantly lit in its darkness by heavy stars.

But Florida was my favorite box. A refuge of difference, where in October it was normal to still be wearing Old Navy flip flops, dingy with foot sweat. Where summer was a season lasting from late April often through December. Where it would rain on my side of the street while the other side remained dry, all while the sun continued to shine, creating rainbows in the mist.

The irrefutable identity boxes weren’t as interesting, because, barring any unfortunate accidents or skin conditions, I’d always be a tall Black girl. But geographic identity and associations always fascinated me. Despite not being born in Florida, I never thought about what it meant to view Florida through unfamiliar eyes because it was the thing I knew most intimately. It was, in fact, the only thing I knew.

And, listen, Florida was all I knew, but I knew Florida wasn’t all there was. (Shout out to my beloved Californian pop culture of the 90s.) And, growing up in Orlando, I was no stranger to classmates from Vietnam, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. But elementary and middle school weren’t for bragging about how different you might be. Neither was high school. Especially considering we were already in the school’s small, rigorous, and different magnet program.

As we naturally segregated into cliques, all my immediate friends were first-generation Floridian, with no memories of anyplace else. But the other kids I’d see during different classes like Ms. D’s 10th grade history class had memories of subway trains I’d only seen in movies, of winters that required more than a sweater. Naturally, a teacher would want to build a lesson from the difference.

Ms. D was excited that day, her blue eyes bulging behind thin, gold-rimmed glasses, the light catching on her iridescently pastel painted nails. She walked around the room asking a very simple question: “Where are you from?” Classmates went around the room, naming various countries like Colombia, Barbados, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Silently rehearsing my answer, I was so ready to be the cultured, Southern-adjacent Floridian. I, too, had another identity I could claim.

“Well, my parents are from South Carolina and Georgia.” I said.

“No, where are you really from?” Ms. D replied, standing in front of my desk.

Ms. D told me I should research where my family really came from and then moved onto the next student, while I floated into identity limbo. My classmates’ experiences in boroughs and in countries not tangible to me outside of movies and their accents that said words like CAWF-ee instead of cah-FEE made me feel as pedestrian as the tourists at our local outlet mall.

My mom and I used to spend Saturdays giggling at their white ankle socks paired with hiking sandals. The jig was up: being from this perpetually sunny suburb of America clearly didn’t denote culture.

Time to pull back, go deeper. Make a new box. Box six was my delayed, unspoken answer to Ms. D’s query of where my people came from. I was RBF, not Hispanic or Caribbean, just Regular Black Folk.

My geographic existentialism was still likely a better look than my black and white tracksuit that made me look like a lost member of Run DMC. It was 2002 and Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta” came out at the perfect time for me to convince myself I was going to move there, go to a historically Black college, and marry a man who called me shawty and wore loosely-laced Timberland boots.

Before one trip to my grandmother’s house, I can remember feeling grateful that I’d be in the country because I wouldn’t have to hear any language but English. I was grateful for the dichotomy of the Black and White South of my mother’s upbringing; grateful for a box I knew I could belong to.

Thankfully, my life moved on with quiet grace. Sharing every waking thought on Facebook and Twitter didn’t yet exist, and thankfully, I didn’t write any LiveJournal entries about my “regular” Blackness. I instead partook in the simple pleasures of a Central Floridian teenager: practicing bellydance-inspired moves with my Colombian classmate, using said dances during the Reggae set at teen nights, or imitating the hum of overloud mufflers on low-riding Honda Civics.

It’s tempting to say that my geographic existentialism returned to the insecurity from which it came. It’s tempting to assert that I became comforted by the eventual realization that Florida is a delicious tapestry of pastelitos and café con leche and griot and boots with shorts and sweaters when it’s colder than 70 degrees. Of Publix fried chicken and sweet tea and platanos and empanadas. Of sun that refuses to leave the sky until it’s sure we’ve seen enough. Of ocean, canals, lakes, and rivers. Of Little Saigon and Little Haiti and Little Havana and Buenaventura Lakes and manatees and synagogues and mosques and theme parks and mosquitos. God, the mosquitos. And Florida is all of these things: the same tapestry that is America.

And I am still a woman of neat, imaginary boxes. I still have a box reserved for my Floridian identity, but its symbolic cardboard is weakening at the edges. Its walls started to sag when I went to New York City for graduate school. It continues toward the floor every time I read “best cities for young ___" lists, and no Florida cities are ever there.

My love for balmy evenings with humidity so thick I don’t need a sweater clashes with economist-created money calculators comparing what salary you need to live in one city versus another. I find new ways to tape my box’s rounded corners, trying to buy it time, not yet ready to give in to its fold.