I galloped up the flight of stairs with the agility of an Olympic high-jumper in business casual clothing. My mind raced as I replayed the events from the day before while imagining what newness a Wednesday morning at an international academic conference would bring. Maybe more ‘excusay-mwahs’ in thick English accents from people looking for the Frantz Fanon Conference Room…or maybe more professors running to the front desk in a state of panic because the video projector in the conference room isn’t working…or maybe a random tourist mistaking me with hotel personnel and needing a beach towel, I thought. My sandals click clacked with the consistency of a metronome in the background of laughter, papers ruffling, doors slamming and inaudible chit chat. I adjusted my skirt as I landed on the last step. A sweat bead rolled from the tip of my widow’s peak to the middle of my nose as I approached the open door of a medium-sized hotel room.
“RÉNATA!,” a high-pitched voice shouted from inside of the room in a tone that I couldn’t distinguish between excitement, disdain or anxiety. I walked into the room. It was Sonia sitting at a table with office materials sprawled about. The tall woman in her early forties with skin like black coffee and eyes the reddish-brownish of autumn leaves, was smiling. Sonia was one of the conference organizers. In the past couple of days, I had seen her fetch water, load trucks, sell meal tickets in English and set up video projectors. She was polyvalent–a real jack of all trades. And If she was smiling this early in the morning, I knew that things had to be going well.
“Je suis contente de te voir!” (“I’m happy to see you!”), she tittered.
“Je suis contente d’être là” (“I’m happy to be here.”) I beamed, feeling happy to know that someone was happy to see me. I looked around the room for a place to lay my bag down.
Two beds covered with white, goose-feather comforters adorned the room along with a lightly varnished walk-in wooden closet, a large window whose scenic view was being obstructed by large tree leaves, a cozy bathroom reminiscent of a room in a log cabin, and a long, desk at the entrance. The room had been transformed from a calm, sunlit getaway to a makeshift administrative office for the conference.
I lay my bag next to a wrinkled beige plastic bag near the pillow on one of the beds.
“Ça se passe bien aujourd’hui?” (“Things are going well today?”) I asked while searching for my name tag amongst a pile of excel spreadsheets, sharpies and artificial flowers on the table. As Sonia was responding, I realized I’d left my name tag in my friend’s car. I sorted through the badges and picked a name: Saïna. That’s a pretty name, I thought to myself. I’ll be Saïna today. I grabbed the name tag and clipped it to my black floral shirt. “Ah, t’as oublié ton badge aujourd’hui? Tu seras Saïna pour la journée?” (“You forgot your name tag today? You’ll be Saïna for the day, huh?”) Sonia giggled. ”Je ressemble à une Saïna, non?” (“I look like a Saïna, don’t I?”) I said walking up to the mirror, tucking my dress shirt in and running my fingers through my thick, springy hair.
I burst out in laughter, thinking about the other volunteers whose names had been either misspelled or completely massacred. Trécy had become Trevy. Yann had become Jocelyn. Was the person who typed our name tags blind? I joked.
“Oui, certainement” (“Yes, certainly”) Sonia replied.
“Merci, à toute à l’heure,” I said, leaving the room. I staircase-galloped to the lower level and turned the corner. In front of me, I was not sure if I was at a fruit market or some sort of press conference in Great Britain. If conference participants weren’t swarming around the reception desk like fruit flies, they were hounding my fellow volunteers like British journalists. “Excuse me, where is room…” “Bonjour, I’m looking for room…” “Excusay-mwah, how do I get to…” I snickered. My volunteer shift was starting at 11am. It was 8:30am, so I had time to attend a seminar before starting. I navigated through the intellectual fruit flies, grabbing a program off the reception desk. I skimmed the program, flipping the pages toward the list of panels for the day. After twenty seconds of intense skimming that I’d learned from years of procrastinating to study for exams, my eyes narrowed in on two words that got me as excited as a six year old in front of an ice cream truck: Howard University.
Howard University at a conference in Guadeloupe?
Howard University was like the Harvard of historically Black colleges and universities. It was where I would have gone if I didn’t get a very generous financial aid package from Brown. Howard was the alma mater of people like Thurgood Marshall, Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, Toni Morrison and Taraji Henson. It was known as The Mecca and, well, The Mecca had made its way at a conference ten minutes away from where I lived.
I’ve got to go there, I grinned.
I memorized the panel information:
Salle: St. John Perse
The Political Economy of Poverty, Dual Citizenship and Social Exclusion
“A Cultural Development Alternative” – Howard University
I readjusted my skirt and prepared myself to head out when I overheard a light voice. “Hi, I’m looking for room St. John Perse”. I looked up to see a young fashionista directing her question to the other volunteers. St. John Perse, I said to myself. That’s where you’re going for the panel, my memory reminded me. “I’m headed there right now,” I interjected. “I can show you where it is.” The fashionista nodded eagerly and walked toward me. She was young–mid-twenties–and slim. She wore a beige Banana Republic-esque dress with a thin chocolate and cream belt. Burnt sienna bangles adorned her wrists. Her head was shaved into a fade save for a small mass in the front that had been curled perfectly. She looked like some sort of model for a runway-inspired version of Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
We sauntered pass the reception desk and headed toward Salle St. John Perse.
We walked pass the sunlit, wood-paneled hallway leading to the Salako Beach, a beautiful, yet artificial beach that had been made for hotel visitors. At the entrance of the hallway were a large swimming pool and a bar with decor reminiscent of upscale Manhattan. In front of us was the hotel lobby, whose decor encapsulated warmth and sophistication. The colors were dark–coffee browns and metallic grays–but the vibe was energetic.
“I’m presenting my research this morning,” the young woman struck up conversation. “I”m already late.” Her words were simply filling silence, for she was walking at the pace of a snail. She either doesn’t care about her presentation or her feet are hurting, I thought to myself while instinctively looking down at her shoes. She was wearing haute couture espadrilles covered with a green and beige African print–a creation you would have seen on the cover of Vogue. Yep, her feet are hurting, I thought to myself as I blurted out “I LOVE your shoes.” I felt a bit ashamed of the dilapidated sandals I had been running around in for the past month.
“Thanks,” she said in accent with traces of Southern and Jamaican twang.
“Are you the graduate student from Howard?” I asked, putting two and two together.
“Yes,” she responded proudly.
“When I saw Howard University, I said I’ve got to check out this panel,” I said with the frenzied voice of a teenager at a pop concert.
She smiled. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“I’m from Chicago. Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m from Jamaica, but I’ve lived in the US for the past twelve years.”
“Oh wow,” I said with great interest.
“So what are you researching?” she asked me with great curiosity.
“I’m getting my masters. I’m studying political science.”
“ME TOO!” she said excitedly, still walking slowly in her espadrilles. “I’m going to present a new project I’ve been working on for my doctorate.”
“Are you nervous,” I asked, imagining that presenting one’s work at a conference like this might be a source of anxiety for a young graduate student.
“I am,” she said calmly. “I hope they don’t assassinate me,” she laughed.
“Just stand your ground,” I said, instinctively wanting to comfort the young woman while having no real expertise on the subject of presenting papers at a graduate conference. “They’ll appreciate that, I think,” I said.
We continued walking.
After ten minutes of being lost and asking for directions, we arrived at a room called St. John Perse. We entered the room. There was a small audience of graduate student-looking people.
“Sorry I’m late,” the young fashionista said, sauntering over to the table to set up the powerpoint presentation on her laptop.
“Since they’ve already set up, you can go second,” bellowed out a tall, mocha-colored young man who looked like he’d stepped straight out of a campus viewbook for some Ivy League university .
The fashionista sat down and two middle-aged women began presenting their research on capacity-building and institutional development in Trinidad. After thirty minutes of a rather interesting presentation, the fashionista stood up and headed to the table. She opened her laptop to a powerpoint presentation and, within three minutes, was talking about her research to develop policies in Jamaica that are geared toward the economic and social development of urban youth.
I was impressed.
After the fashionista presented, the tall, mocha-colored Ivy League stereotype began a presentation on a comparative analysis he had begun between the Latin Kings and the Pentecostal Church in the Dominican Republic. He compared both social institutions, saying that they both were organized by a fixed set of rules and positions that gave young Dominicans a sense of belonging.
When his presentation was done, the panelists opened the floor for questions. My hand shot up. “We often hear about gang members who go to prison and end up finding God. How do you explain the transition of young Dominicans from a life in gangs to a life in the Church?”
I felt intellectual–even if I wasn’t sure if my question made sense.
The Ivy League stereotype gave a convoluted response without a real answer. I smiled, simply basking in the moment of discussing research with graduate students.
I sat for a little while listening to the question and answer session. I looked at my phone and saw that it was almost 11am. My volunteer shift was about to begin. I crept out of the room and headed back toward the reception desk.
I walked slowly, smiling. I liked how the day was starting out.