Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I am Not an Orphan

"Ohhhh you're an orphan" my ex-boyfriend's father said as he looked upon me with pitied eyes. He proceeded to twist his face into something between a smile and a frown. I noticed how he stuck his foot in his mouth with such aplomb. It was 2012 and the first time I heard someone call me an orphan.

Fast forward to 2015 and I still cringe every single time someone refers to me with that simple, yet onerous term.

It usually goes like this: an acquaintance wants to know about my upbringing, what my parents do and where they live now. I tell her that my parents are deceased. She says "sorry for your loss" and quickly attempts to change the subject. However, there is always someone who possesses this cavalier attitude that allows her to sidestep all social niceties and just say something ridiculous such as "What's it like to be an orphan"? I often think this individual expects me to launch into my own rendition of "It's a Hard Knock Life."

I say nothing. I want to tell her that my grief waxes and wanes, but whenever someone uses this term I feel pained anew. I want to mention that in grade school I saw the movie Annie, read Great Expectations and other melancholy tales of children who lost their parents at a young age. I'm acutely aware that my life is widely different from my peers (especially during holidays and life's milestones), but one thing I am certain of is that I am not an orphan.

Linguists have my back on this one; they define orphans as children whose parents are dead or have permanently abandoned them. While adults can also be referred to as orphans, the terming is typically reserved for children whose parents have died while they are too young to take care of themselves.

Mom died when I was 24 and dad when I was 27. Since I wasn't a child when I lost my parents, it feels disingenuous to think of myself as an orphan. When my parents were alive they were invested in my academic and career pursuits, were attentive to my needs and concerned about my continual growth and development. They offered me a sense of identity, core values and a curiosity about the world that led to lifelong learning. My parents certainly didn't leave behind a helpless orphan. At the time of my dad's passing in 2012 (mom passed away 2.5 years earlier), I was an impassioned twenty-seven year old college graduate pursuing a masters degree with ambitious plans to shake up the status quo in communities of color.

So don't ask me what it's like to be an orphan because, frankly, I have no idea. But you need not change the subject entirely. I'm yearning for you to punctuate that awkward silence with genuine interest and questions about where I came from and who my parents were.

Ask me how a Russian Jewish American woman and a Nigerian Muslim man met and married. Ask me what I admired most about mom and dad. Ask me about my dad's mountainous salads or the 20 some-odd vitamins he tried to make me take daily... Or mom's classic response to any of my male suitors-- "what are your intentions with my daughter" she would say to anyone who even dared to look my way... Ask me what it means to walk lively, "shew" your food or to be an Abiola. Ask me where I see their reflections in myself the most. Ask me to share my memories because these things bring me joy and that is how I honor their legacy. I am their daughter. I am not an orphan. 

--Helene Abiola

Monday, August 3, 2015

Taylor Swift, Gentrification Ambassador to NYC

If you live anywhere in NYC's five boroughs, you've likely seen Taylor Swift ads plastered on the subways, bus stops and newsstands: a matronly Swift overlooks the Hudson, her image overlaid with the words "Welcome to New York it's been waiting for you."

But don't get it twisted--Taylor Swift isn't speaking to you or I. Selected as Global Welcome Ambassador to NYC even though she's lived here mere months, Ms. Swift essentially spearheads the welcoming committee for uber wealthy folks who can afford to drop a cool $20 mil on a penthouse apartment.

Juxtaposed with the rampant gentrification of so many NYC communities, it's not difficult to understand why her selection is particularly abhorrent to a native New Yorker like myself. Take a stroll around Harlem, Washington Heights, Sunset Park, Bed Stuy or Crown Heights. These neighborhoods-- once bastions of affordability for the working class and people of color--are on the cusp of being swallowed up en masse by transplanted NYers and this ad campaign is their cue to stomp on the gas pedal.  

As the economic elite continually devour large swathes of NYC real estate in order to create their own mansions in the sky, fewer and fewer rental properties remain on the market. In fact, less than 5 percent of rental apartments in NYC are vacant. As a result, many upper-middle income people (mostly Whites) are now setting their sights on neighborhoods they previously deemed undesirable. Profit-driven landlords respond to the new demand and influx of wealth by increasing rental prices.  

This wouldn't matter quite as much if most people indigenous to the communities in question were homeowners. Unfortunately, this country's track record of systemic housing discrimination precluded many people of color from purchasing homes. Thus, those longtime inhabitants of gentrifying neighborhoods who rent and happen to be low income simply cannot afford the higher prices that these areas now command. People of color suffer from displacement at alarming rates. 

As people of color get pushed further and further out of our communities I wonder where we will all go? And what will happen to NYC? Diversity has always been NYC's cultural cachet. If the city continues down its current path unabated, it could become a bland, homogeneous place without the vibrancy or gravitas to call itself a world class city. If that happens even Taylor Swift won't be singing "Welcome to New York."

Thoughts? Reflections? Musings? I'd love to hear from you! Leave your comments below. 

-Helene Abiola