My Top 5 Books of 2021: This Is Where We Find Ourselves

I picked Njaimeh Njie’s book up on a busy day. There were lists on lists of things I was supposed to be doing but inside the swirl of masks and hand sanitizer and syllabus items I had a focus. I needed to get to Silver Eye and get this book. I drove through East Liberty up Penn Avenue. I drove past the place where I received prenatal care 19 and 18 years ago. I glanced across the street at what used to be a store called Babyland. Remembering that there was a time in my life when that store watched my belly grow, watched me trade cars, watched me fold strollers, watched me carry sick toddlers on my hips. Watched me carry healthy ones on my back. Watched me grow. Babyland was gone.

I moved on past the light noticing more and more landscape I no longer knew. Instead of trying to recall what had been there before I waited for a landmark. Something familiar that remains. For me it is a mural of a bride painted on the side of a building still standing. I found the bride looking up a set of stairs and thought about this book.

Many things have changed since I moved to Pittsburgh in 1999. I grew up in Newark, NJ so this was a very different life. The Waterfront was a new thing then. The real shopping was on Penn Avenue between CVS and PNC. My favorite store was Jamil’s Global Village. And I bought incense from a van parked near a Chinese restaurant. I liked East Liberty because it was the place that felt most like home to me. Until I saw a truck there with a confederate flag sticker in the window. I think that was when I began to worry that I would not have a home here. And then a miracle happened.

My mom decided to move to Pittsburgh to help me make my way. I was a young mom working night turn at a post hospitalization care facility for people who had no where else to go. If she had not come here, I am not sure I would have made it to the new millennium in tact. She got an apartment on Hays Street. It wasn’t far from mine on Stanton Avenue. She started out here as she had so many times before in and around Newark. My mom knew more about Giant Eagle, the local gym, the nearest houses of worship, and where to go line dancing in her first month here than I do right now after 22 years. Soon after she arrived she invited me to a community event where she assured me the “baby” (who was at least 3) and I would have fun.

That event was one of many I attended with her. West African drumming and dance, books by Black women, colorful clothes, storytelling corners, and food glorious food were often staples. They were usually delightful. But sometimes. No many times…I still felt like an outsider. I didn’t know what it was that made me feel that and to be truthful I still don’t think I know exactly. Maybe it was my accent, lack of a recognized last name, lack of sorority membership, or lack of some intangible thing that might have marked me cool for the scenes here. But there were always two staples of these events that made me feel like my awkwardness was surmountable. Two smiles. One of them was that of a woman named Sarah Jameela Martin and the other was that of a man named Saihou Njie. And this is why I was driving to Silver Eye for this book. I thought perhaps I would recognize a smile in Njaimeh Njie’s book and feel home in a way that made me miss my late mother a little less. I thought perhaps I’d find my early 2000s self in the book. I thought I would know where I was again.

Her photographs and poet lines are a testament to places and people that existed in the enclave of Pittsburgh that is now usually referred to as the East End. And beyond that enclave. Every building swaddled in overgrowth spoke to me of how much we have stood against. Every nook, phone booth, and tip of well known establishment called me to bear witness and say that I had seen it there too. A near empty parking lot with bright light poles in straight lines brings me the smell of shopping carts I used even if I didn’t buy much. There is a still moment in front of the O in Oakland with more grey than rain drops in a storm. Njie captured this in a way that sounded exactly like a bus splashing a newcomer on Forbes Avenue. Surprise mixed with determination and an eye on the tower just beyond. I am captivated as much by her photographs as I am by the family archives. Something of Teenie Harris in my memory beckons me to read about these people. To wonder what their one shot school photos were saying. To look at their faces and know they had dreams. Dreams to remember. Dreams of home.

Home is indeed more than Newark. It is more than East Liberty or Oakland. It is more than the fact that I somehow find myself living in Turtle Creek. And yet I find myself not here at all. Home is knowing the long losses and having the will to document them. Home is remembering the shortcuts, the NPR station regardless of whether a university sponsored it or some other entity did. Home is spaces filled and unfilled. Home is spaces that grow between us and our willingness to keep attempting bridges for ourselves. In a city full of bridges to spare. Some that lead nowhere. Home is a thing we make with cozy areas where we can truly be alone with our work. Home is both fallow land and full bookshelves. Home is both. Two smiles. Those smiles no one had to give you. Like the Thomas kids playing in an alley, home is the smiles that came to be free and brought you there with them. Home is going to get a book by someone’s daughter because you refuse to allow all the spaces they have put between us to make us disconnected. Home is where we find ourselves. This, that, there and anywhere. We hold to the earth and find one another.

I love this book because it tells the truth in Black and white and so much more. I love this book because it takes up space. In the past and the present. Njie declares us here. She pulls us closer with these pages and reminds us of our many beautiful places. When I walked out of Silver Eye that day I didn’t feel the need to find the bride. I drove across the East knowing I would curl up in a comfortable space much like that in Njie’s last image where I would look over her documentary of a book and find myself there. Find myself home. May we find more and more of that. May we take up more space. May we smile.

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