On my second day on the island, I was met with the extravagance of peacocks in my cousin Elisabeth’s kitchen.
In the summer before sixth grade, after ending elementary school, a bittersweet chapter in my life, my father and I traveled to visit family in Martinique, a tiny island in the Caribbean between Dominica and St. Lucia. After flying from JFK to Puerto Rico and getting on a terrifyingly shaky plane, we scrambled out and into the airport, the humidity giving us a warm and steamy embrace. The island was a picturesque landscape of paradise which left a lasting impression on me.
On my second day on the island, I was met with the extravagance of peacocks in my cousin Elisabeth’s kitchen. I immediately learned that my family called her by the nickname Zaboune or Zab, which quickly became how I always addressed her. In total, her family owned two blue peacocks and an albino one, and they occasionally complained of the birds raiding the kitchen pantry, a problem entirely foreign to me. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the majestic peacocks casually walking all over the property; it felt like I was in a surreal dream. Their ultramarine iridescence complemented the fiery orange koi fish in the pond next to the kitchen. It amazed me; looking at the vast expanse of their property, with beautiful lime green grassy hills and coconut and mango trees, life felt extra saturated and rich in Martinique compared to my familiar Brooklyn backdrop.
The black-sand beach on the remote part of the island near the house of my great aunt Chantal was so intriguing for my younger self, with its millions of ghost crabs that popped out of the sand and all over your toes. I felt like an all-powerful being since with each step the crabs would scurry out of the way, yet I tested how well they could avoid being stepped on by changing my speed, and they kept outsmarting me. I remember being amazed by my older cousin’s glittering black diamond engagement ring, which was very aesthetically pleasing with the sand. I found the depth of the black sand beach to be eerily beautiful and far more breathtaking than the tan sandy beaches on the rest of the island. I sometimes dream that I am back on the island on a foggy day, lying in the gothic sand as I watch the waves rise and crash.
I felt welcomed by the gently swaying clusters of magenta bougainvillea flowers with sugary sap surrounding the house where we stayed, belonging to my great uncle André and his wife Marie-Josèphe. Zaboune and I would feast on the flowers while we waited for an afternoon snack, sliding the stem off and sucking the sweet nectar while the busy bees buzzed and mingled with the flowers. At their house, early in the morning, my father and I would watch the 1965 performance of the French artist Christophe’s song “Les Marionnettes,” which I adored. Afterward, I would have chocolate Chocapic, or “Crunch,” cereal for breakfast and some juice as I overlooked the hills in the garden and the vast expanse of the ocean. It was a gorgeous view which delighted my eyes as the sun shimmered in the sky above me.
My great uncle André would frequently take us on boat rides into the abyss of the ocean. As the boat rocked on the glistening blue water, I tried for the first time a drink called ti punch, which Zaboune’s father, Yves, whose skin was a fiery alcoholic red expertly prepared. The simple sweet taste of cane syrup and lime garnish masked the strong rhum, which was delicious and fulfilled my eleven-year-old self’s fantasy of a classy adult. One day, as Zaboune and I were climbing up the hill to her grandparents house after swimming down by the ocean, we were almost lured by a pedophile neighbor. This young man who I had never seen before was peering through the fence and offered us Orangina sour candy if we came over to his house. Since it was our favorite candy, we hesitated, but thankfully declined and ran away. It shocks me to consider the crossroad of this situation, in which we could have been scarred for life had we naively gone over there. But something about the odd twinkle in the man’s eye sent a chill down our spines, and we knew to stay far away.
I have fond memories of playing Mario Kart with my aunt Marika and my uncle Phillipe on their Wii game console. I first quietly watched as my uncle strategically drifted past opponents in the surreal game landscape, occasionally slipping on pesky bananas and collecting the magical floating rainbow mystery cubes with special items. It looked like wizardry to my young self and I instantly knew that I had to play. My other favorite playing activity was running around the coconut tree in the backyard with Elvis, their adorable dalmatian. I was obsessed with Elvis and loved watching his every move, and he was an especially comforting fuzzy presence to have around.
I remember feeling the pang of separation anxiety in my stomach from my father at a sleepover with Zaboune. As we were laughing and giggling in the warm lighting of my cousin Adrien’s blue car-themed room, I felt a sense of doom and panic. The thought of staying any longer felt unsafe and the only comfort that I needed was seeing my father. Upon reflection, I think that if I had not been with my cousin, I would have stayed put to avoid the embarrassment of having to call home, but I somehow did not care, since the panic was too overwhelming.
I was in awe of Zaboune’s home and was the most impressed by my oldest cousin’s, Marion’s, room which was at the top of their house, like a throne for a queen. The shiny and modern look of it was appealing, but what really captivated me was the toilet in Marion’s room, which was the ultimate sign of luxury to my young self; I oddly envied that out of all of the more desirable features of their lifestyle. I distinctly remember comparing my body and wealth to Zaboune. Since we are so close in age, I frequently felt hyper-aware of how I weighed more and was less physically fit compared to her skinny body. Although I loved being around her, I felt a conflicting sense of being less than her and an outcast in her world. I couldn’t help but compare our one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn to her family’s mansion of a home in Martinique. This was a time when I first became aware of my insecurities, since my jealous tears pouring from feelings of inadequacy blinded my eyes. My younger self naively saw what she had as a reflection of what I lacked. My aunt Marika sensed my low self-worth and used her wisdom to explain to me that we both have strengths and weaknesses and that she has felt the same way which made me feel less alone.
I learned the ritual practice of beauty and self care with Marika, which involved taking a steamy shower and slathering on a mango scented hair mask while painting my nails. I felt like a princess when I got permission to paint my stubby fingernails with her dark purple Chanel nail polish. These sweet moments of girlhood were met with the pain of femininity, beginning with my aunt’s one quick rip of the sheet from my delicate flesh as I got waxed for the first time. The pain stung, and I gulped back tears thinking about how we were not even close to being finished, but I felt assured by Marika’s soothing words and excited by the thought of having legs smooth as a dolphin.
I was fascinated by the Creole delicacies that my family introduced me to; especially boudin créole, a red sausage consisting of pig’s blood, which I surprisingly enjoyed although it sounds quite unappetizing. My drink of choice was the infamous grenadine bright red Martinique Royal Soda, which I slowly sipped to savor the intensely sugary taste. After playing as mermaids in the pool with Zaboune, we would often rush to the freezer and seize some delicious bubblegum flavored Floop ice pops which we enjoyed under the heat of the golden sun. I fondly remember whisking stiff peaks and valleys of the sickly sweet batter of the meringues I made with Marika, taking turns as we shared the precious leftover batter dripped all over the whisks while watching her adorable black cat, Mizouzou, in the grassy area in the yard.
I appreciated the funky decor in Marika’s home, which was adorned with pop art pieces, like her eye-catching black bunny lamp and the shining gold grenade sculpture. My French side of the family has the tendency to decorate their homes like perfectly curated museums, bursting with tasteful maximalism giving richness and personality in every corner. I loved the flair of the many unique pieces in her home, which reminded me of my father’s decor, making it all the more comfortable and familiar.
Every day felt like an adventure for me, even if it was mundane for the adults. I loved getting into Marika’s toasty hot car, which baked in the sun, to run errands. My wide eyes carefully watched everything happening outside of the car, taking in every moment, sound and flashes of color until we reached the grocery stores, Carrefour and Picard. What felt like just another errand to Marika was an exciting experience for me since I was able to explore the world around me that was outside of my family. For some reason, I felt a detachment from peers my age, and I tended to be fascinated by and interested in the adult world. I enjoyed listening to their stories and watching them accomplishing unexciting tasks, since it was both a world that I was distant from, yet I knew that I would eventually belong to it. It felt comforting to know that adults also deal with problems, insecurities and uncertainties, yet they also felt foreign and complex to me making them even more intriguing.
Martinique was a paradise as a child, but as I have gotten older, it has become a sign of oppression and French colonialism in my mind. I can’t help but feel the weight of disgraceful French history when looking at the remaining banana plantations and the class divide between the descendants of African slaves and the wealthy white families, or békés, whose ancestors used to be slave owners. It is bizarre to reflect on pleasant experiences from the fog of youth with greater clarity and to see the more grim background behind them. Martinique was originally known by its indigenous inhabitants as Madinina, “the island of flowers,” yet it was disgustingly exploited and colonized by La Compagnie des Iles d’Amérique. My senses have sharpened and I smell the discomfort and lack of association of my distant family with Black Martiniquais islanders as a symptom of segregation and white fragility. I admire the island for its rich beauty, while recognizing how it has been tainted by the destruction of my ancestors, transforming my memories into flashbacks.
I see the dynamic of the island for what it is now, and for what it has always been: an exercise of power and madness rooted in pride and legacy. The rose colored glasses of my youth have slipped from the brim of my nose and shattered on the floor of reality before me. It can feel easier to dissociate by never returning to Martinique, but that does not erase the blood of my family, my ancestors and the filthy legacy of colonialism. By rejecting the history that flows through me and its impact, nothing is changed. It is instead by facing it for what it is, that allows the process of healing and mending the irreversible damage that the forces of colonial greed, entitlement and delusion have done to the beauty of the island, its people and its culture. I revisit what my younger self naively thought of as coincidences for what they really are: intentional choices, such as the way in which white islanders have little connection to Black Martiniquais people unless there are goods or services benefiting them being exchanged. I experienced a vision of paradise and delight because I was deliberately situated in a bubble of ignorance and comfort. A family that I don’t feel connected to chooses to sit high up and far away from the social, economic and political problems that their destructive whiteness has polluted the island with. They prefer to maintain their colonial values of greed, entitlement and extravagance to fit into the material world, in order to save a crumbling “legacy” and to maintain some semblance of power and identity. I see the madness in Zaboune’s father’s eyes, with his crimson alcoholic skin flashing more than ever, like a red warning signal for destruction.