We Are Family

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Denisio and Mwende / Guest Photographer / Our Closet

Photos by Malik Bartholomew (Phrozen Photography)

dsc_0880-2Post Soundtrack: We Are Family

The Treme: I selected several sites in Treme and one of the site locations I selected was the underpass of the Claiborne Avenue Bride better known to native New Orleanians as “Under Da Bridge” or “Tha Bridge.” This site is extremely important historically and culturally to Black New Orleanians. Before the construction of the Claiborne Avenue interstate bridge the street Claiborne Avenue was home to the downtown black business district. Claiborne was also the home of a beautiful green lawn with handsome mature oak trees which lined the street for miles. This area became the most significant gathering spot for black Carnival (black activities during Mardi Gras Day) allowing for the culture of the Zulus, Black Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, Second Lines and street jazz to grow and thrive until 1966 when it was decided to place an interstate in the middle of this grand avenue. This action displaced a community, destroyed independent black owned businesses, eliminated green space from the urban landscape, and assaulted the culture & traditions of black New Orleans. After the interstate went up it was noted that the traditions of black carnival and the Treme community were never the same. However, as new generations of New Orleanians were born such as myself who never physically saw or experienced the grand oaks and green lawns of Claiborne Avenue but were still informed of the history of this special site and the importance of the continuation of our traditions. Black New Orleanians today maintained the cultural heritage of this space as it is still a very important gathering spot for black people on Mardi Gras, black marching bands, Black Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, Second Line Parades, festivals and much more. Additionally various artist have painted the various pillars of the bridge with images of our ancestors, the fallen oak trees and the history & culture of black New Orleans.  I could think of no better location to “phreeze” Noirlinians.

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DENISIO TRUITT

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DRESS: Made by me for DOPEciety’s winter capsule collection coming soon!

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FUR STOLE: Repurposed from a not so cute vintage coat

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HAIR: From my mom. That good African Stuff 🙂

Denisio: When people ask me if I have siblings I tell them yes, I have three, and that I also grew up an only child. This confuses a lot of folks but those who grew up with half siblings usually understand. I am my mother’s only child and my father’s second child of four. Our age range is vast:  my older brother is in his mid-40’s, I am 33, my little brother is 13, and my little sister turned 10 this past August. We are culturally different, each identifying with both our Black american southern heritage as well as our mothers – My oldest brother’s people are from the island of Dominica, my mother is Liberian, and my younger siblings speak (somewhat) fluent Vietnamese. We are a tiny melting pot of cultures, all with my father’s perfectly bowed mouth and long spindly fingers. None of us really resemble the other except for a few traits here and there. My older brother has freckles like me, my younger sister has my broad shoulders and turned out feet. My younger brother has my quiet, thoughtful disposition.

This past week I got to spend time with my dad, stepmother, and younger siblings for the first time in 7 years. The reason behind that long stretch of absence could fill up an entirely different post. I’ll keep it short here by saying two things: that my father and I’s relationship has always been difficult for me to navigate as an adult, and that I was in a very dark place being in a dysfunctional marriage. I stayed away and missed a lot of their lives and it is something I deeply regret. I didn’t get to know my older brother until I was an adult, and that is not something I want my little bother and sister going through. So when my father asked me to please come for thanksgiving, I agreed.

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Me and my younger siblings in 2009. Such cuties.

I was nervous the entire week before driving to Houston. It would not only be the first time I’d be reunited with that part of my family in nearly a decade, it would be the first time they’d meet my spouse Michael. I wasn’t sure how my siblings would receive me. As we pulled up to the house, two figures rushed out of the house. My brother, much taller that I expected, lean and very handsome. He was the spitting image of the old photos I’d seen of my dad. And my sister, small and beautiful with a long thick braid trailing down her back and black rimmed glassed framing her angelic face. The were both extremely shy, but visibly excited to see me.

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My not so little siblings today. Beautiful children.

What led was probably the best weekend I’ve had in a while. There was a lot of giggling and laughing, watching silly shows on TV, overeating delicious food, and learning just a little bit more about one another. Their mother is a small woman with a classically beautiful face and a biting sense of humor.  She has a deep reverence for her culture and she intends to pass on to her children. She reminds me so much of my own mother in that way. Two immigrant women with black children born in America who refuse to let them forget who they are or who their ancestors were, on either side. My stepmother mainly speaks to my siblings in Vietnamese, which I love and slightly envy because I wish my mother had done the same with her native tongue.  They eat mostly vietnamese food and love it, though my sister’s favorite food is Mac and Cheese, like me. For thanksgiving, my stepmother made my grandfather’s famous sweet potato pie, a tradition on my father’s side and a recipe she treasures as it was personally given to her by my Pop-pop. I’ve honestly never seen such a balanced household.

There is not much to write this week because I am still getting to know my younger siblings. We have so much to learn about one another, but I am dedicated to learning more about them. I left notes for both of my siblings before I left letting them know that I love them very much and that I won’t disappear from their life again. And I meant it. One day, when we know each other a little better and the awkward silences become fewer and far between I know there may be questions about where I was all those years. And I will be ready to answer them. Mwende commented on a photo a posted a few days ago. She said I looked like such a big sister. And I feel like one. It feels better than I imagined.

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MWENDE KATWIWA

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DERA: It’s my moms! She’s had it for almost (or longer than?) I’ve been alive. When I think about my childhood, I picture my mom in this outfit. I found it this summer while raiding my grandma’s closet, and since it was in better shape than I am, I ‘borrowed’ it. PANTS: From the Masaai Market. Available soon on the NOIRLINIANS online store coming to you in January 2017… SHOES: More shoes from Soraya 😀 

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I was feeling myself apparently in this photo lol. RING: from Brasil BRACELET: My cousin in Kenya made it for me! Says my middle name Kalondu which is the familial name

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EARRINGS: Made from some tree or fruit or plant, who knows. The point is they look like little gourds and are extremely light for their size.

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CROOKED MOUTH: I tell people that my mouth is crooked but no one believes me (one friend named Randolph did actually. Apparently the only one who actually looks at me when I speak lol)! You can only see it when I’m not smiling and apparently I smile often 😀  I also don’t look straight ahead often. Does that make me shifty? EARRINGS: From the Masaai Market

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Mwende: 

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Me and the sibs a couple of years ago in our usual “African-immigrant-JCPenney-Holiday-Photoshoot-To-Send-To-Cucu (grandma)”

Excerpt from the House on Aubinwood Road

Kubby

Kubby and I don’t look like sisters. At least, not at first anyway. Her skin. Delicate and soft. The rich color of caramel laughs defiantly at my darkened rough skin.

So different
yet

so alike

All of our secrets lie in our eyes.
Look into her eyes and you will see me looking back.
Like a mirror that connects the bridges of our souls.
Our eyes

always shifting. Forever searching.

But for what?

The only rest our eyes ever find is when we find each other.
The twinkle in our eyes rival that of the stars on the clearest of nights.

We laugh and laugh at nothing at all.
Tears flowing out of our eyes.
“You guys, you always leave me out cuz Im your brother,” Dave says,

“Whats so funny?”


But he doesn’t understand.

He can’t.

Kubby and I. Our eyes
dance the same dance

The tango.

And it only takes two to tango.

When I was in high school, I had an English writing assignment based on the book “The House on Mango Street”. I loved this book.  I jumped on the assignment to create my own version of the story because my parents had also recently bought a house after years of bouncing around, and for once, I felt that I actually had a place to claim as “home” as my connection to my Kenyan roots became more distant not just with geography, but with time. I didn’t realize it back then, but part of the reason I loved the book so much was because it was a coming of age novel about a young girl struggling with naming and claiming her positioning and identity between her cultural identity and geographic displacement from her culture, while dealing with the heat of assimilation from the melting pot of the American dream.

Luckily though, I wasn’t going through this growth process alone. I am the last born of 3 Katwiwa siblings (and one Kang’oyo that we claim as our own), and for most of my childhood and youth, I was in close relationship with my family and siblings in a way that served as a buffer against the immigrant struggles I faced outside of the home. Our parents were also “African strict”* so often we spent a lot of time at home together or out together at African functions so we got close in those times.

*I was just talking to the youth I work with about their ThanksTaking break and one mentioned that her strict mom allowed her to go out two weekends in a row when she normally says “You went out last weekend, why you need to go out again?”. With only slight exaggeration, my mom used to be like “didn’t you go out last semester? why do you need to go out again??” 

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When we first got to the US. These bikes were gifts from a Kenyan elder in the community we lived in like..”here! Each of you get your own instead of that one bike all the village kids took turns riding! Now you’re American” lol

My brother and I were best friends growing up. From the time we were toddlers, I was always fascinated by my brother and masculinity in general (check out the post “It’s a Man’s World”) and tried to be like him.Growing up a a Tomboy, I just felt more connected to my brother simply because we were more interested in similar things. I would tag along with his friends when they went skateboarding, ‘BMX’ biking (in quotes cuz it was cute what we thought was edgy back then) and general dirt rolling.

My sister on the other hand, the first born, was clearly cut from a different cloth (one that was ironed and folded and placed in the correct drawer all the time). I remember this one family video of my brother and I just spazzing as we were known to do as kids while my sister, who must have been like 10 at the time, is following behind picking up and cleaning after us muttering to herself like a disgruntled house girl. I’m not sure if its because she was the first born or what (well…now that I think of it culturally, as the first born daughter it makes more sense),  but growing up she was clearly tasked with a sense of responsibility that my brother and I just…didn’t have. And we would clown her for it. She was also the eldest and had the most solidified identity when we migrated, so I think she was also probably struggling on a whole different level than my brother and I who took a few years to grasp what the move meant.

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I mean just look at us. Eben when we’re wearing the same thing, we’re soooo different from the patterns to the stance. BUT THOSE KATWIWA SMILES THO!!

As I started to come into my own sense of womanhood and my relationship with my mom and other women in my life started to develop, so did my relationship with my sister. She left for college when I was in middle school, but started to make an effort to reach out to me and call me just to talk, especially when I went through some real growing pains and wasn’t really speaking with my immediate family.

Part of the reason I had trouble connecting with my sister was the reason I was having trouble connecting with my mom, she was too perfect in my eyes because I didn’t really know her. For most of my life I think I saw my sister as an archetype of an older sister instead of as MY older sister, and treated her as such by being an archetype of a younger sister, even when it was outside my personality. But I remember one year she invited me to go visit her at college, and during that trip, the way I saw her fundamentally changed.

I saw her not as my sister, not as my parent’s daughter, not as a byproduct of anyone else’s identity and existence, but as Salome N. Katwiwa, human being.

Once I began to see her not just my older sister who was so disconnected from my life (and stopped blaming her for that as if relationships weren’t two way streets), but as her own human being who was struggling to find herself and stay comfortable there, we started to actually develop a shy relationship. This was at a time that I was really heavily into my own journey of self discovery, and the more I allowed myself the capacity to be human , the more I understood I had to allow everyone else the same understanding, including my sister (and brother for other reasons).

I began to realize that my sister was like the universe’s way of saying I didn’t have to figure this whole womanhood thing out alone. That I already had someone who stumbled along her path to show me it was possible to run down mine.

If there was anyone who showed me that kindness and humanity will get us free its her. If there’s anyone who makes me believe that we can live the lives we want to live if we don’t compromise, its her. If there’s anyone who reminds me that the world is only as small as you allow it to be, its her.

Since then, my sister has looked out for me in ways that I don’t think even she knows. When I left home, I was finishing my senior year of high school and really toying with the idea of not going to college even though it looked like I would have the opportunity to do so if I stayed on track. I remember back then, the moment I even mentioned not going to college to teachers, friends and other family, it was immediately shot down because it was just assumed that I would because of my grades and the family I came from (you know, immigrated to go to college…). I was often reminded (read: African guilt tripped) of my cousins who would kill to be in a similar position as me. But in that time, what I really needed was someone to hear not that I didn’t want to go to college, but that I had other interests that I thought were just as important. On a call with my sister, I remember she so gently reminded me that I didn’t have to push back against everything I’d been taught to prove everything else I knew, that she recognized that I wasn’t who/what people thought I was, and even spoke of the sacrifice that was made to get me here, but not in a way to guilt me, rather to remind me I was still connected to that dream and family, despite my physical absence.

At that time, we weren’t particularly close, but my sister is the sort of sensitive being that just knows when people are in need. She came through again last year when I was in an apparent yearlong rut in a really big way even though she herself was going through major life transitions. She’s about to have a baby now (scratch that, Renee Wanjiru is here now!) and I know now that the ball is rolling into my court to be a support system or at least present in the way that she’s been for me.

I suppose the outfit I have on in this shoot that reminds me of my my childhood and my mom’s motherhood should really have been my sister’s inheritance since she just gave birth to the next generation of our family, but also, she’s short (like…may or may not be a borderline little person) so I don’t think she can rock it with her short self.

Oh well.

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You can’t sit with us.

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Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora 

Follow us on Instagram & Twitter@Noirlinians
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The Author

Noirlinians is an AfroFashion blog exploring the complex relationship between culture, clothing & identity in the diaspora. Featuring Liberian artist and designer Denisio Truitt of DOPEciety and poet and organizer Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, the idea for the blog emerged after a fast friendship developed between the two based on their African heritage and artistic interests.

2 Comments

  1. Clara says

    Hello Katwiwa…This is amazing!
    What you do, how you put it out there,its soo blessed.
    You are beautifull!..and I hope you get to be able to be heard more and listened to more(the blog and websites are underated).. People need to see this.
    The videos on you-tube emit such power,such command, such beauty,such strength.
    The photography is on point and the message has gotten home.At least to me it has:).
    What a blessed soul.
    Keep up the good work.
    May you never tire, find your hearts desire, and find your home.your peace.

    Like

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