I come from the land of Breukelen. A land far, far away from here. Some of you might know it as Brooklyn. I was born of Haitian immigrants and raised in Brooklyn, NY. I grew up around an array of dialects, inflections and rhythms. It was necessary for survival to decipher sound and I was good at it. Sound and language was an inherent aptitude of mine and not only was I good at understanding it with very little context, but I could code switch with ease. It was no credit of my own. It was the gift Brooklyn gave me. I was adorned with a gift to make people feel at ease with the sound of my voice. As a six-year-old, black kid in the BK, I felt immense power in that. There wasn’t much self-empowerment to be found lying around on the streets of East New York, but I had my voice. I often sat with my parents at the dinner table and listened to the way conversation flowed in and out of Creole, French and English, while Brazil played Mexico in a game of futbol on Telemundo in the background. I lived in a symphony of cultural sounds, but my father was the great noisemaker of the family. I could always find him dancing around while imitating a brass sound instrument while listening to the radio, or misusing an American idiom. Outside the house were voices from Puerto Rico that boomed from their diaphragms like cannon-fire. There were Dominican voices that lingered on diphthongs with a kind of driving determination. Voices from Ireland, Sudan, Italy, Guatemala, India, Jamaica and countless more. I had been around so many different ways of communicating.
Middle school was the first time I had been anywhere that wasn’t mostly people of color. My proclivity for sound and music coupled with exposure to a myriad of cultures made code switching easy for me, so I had a diverse group of friends and with adolescence in my veins I was drawn to friends of the female persuasion. Rita was Italian with wavy, dark hair and honey colored eyes. She was FLY! And I had accomplished the ultimate goal, I got her phone number AND her AOL Instant Messenger screen-name. After a few days of my courting her via coiled phone cord, she began to like me enough to start calling me first.
“Jay! Rita is on the phone,” my father shouted. I strutted down the stairs and approached the phone with a king’s appeal. “Was that your dad?” said my queen. “Yea.” “He’s got a cool accent!” It never occurred to me that my father spoke differently or had an accent. To me, he spoke like my father. Everyone spoke the way he spoke. “No, he doesn’t,” I snapped. “Yea, he does! It’s cool.” “Whatever,” I said with disdain. I was protective of it and protective of my father. So much so that I was turning my back on adolescent love for his good name. My experience with the sound of my father’s speech was quite different, I couldn’t hear his difference because it sounded like home to me. I was, in my naivete, bothered by the idea of my father being other. As far as I knew he was the best man I had ever known. He was not ‘other’, he was it.
I have now come to realize the tremendous gift he gave me by raising me in the cultural smorgasbord that is Brooklyn. He gave me the gift to navigate through all kinds of social circles with little turbulence. The gift to have experience and meet people from what and whom I may have been barred by means of my ‘blackness’ or socio-economic status. In a world that sometimes seems chock full of extremes rather than reason, my hope is to give the gift of Brooklyn to my students. Where, in a sea of homogenous faces, our kids can look difference in the eye with good judgement and esteemed curiosity. Together we strive to do a great work; to understand our neighbors and provide space for them to engage in our community as their truest selves. I am so grateful to be given to opportunity for my desk to become a pit stop for students, teachers and parents. With some elbow grease and hard reflection we can make Scituate a little more like Brooklyn ;-).
As a school we have decided to tackle race on our agenda for conversation. I’ve included a short but helpful article for parents. “6 Ways Parents Can Teach Their Kids About Race and Diversity.”
Jimmy Juste is Inly School’s Director of the Office of Inclusion and advises the school on programmatic, personnel, and community topics on diversity and equity. Before joining Inly, Jimmy taught middle and high school students in the NYC public school system. He also taught poetry at the Waverly School of the Arts in Brooklyn, NY and performing arts at MCC Theater, CenterStage NY, Usher New Look Foundation and Hospital Audiences Inc. Jimmy has worked as a professional background singer for the likes of Amos Lee, Patti Labelle, Josh Groban, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and St. Luke’s Orchestra. A teacher of many talents, Jimmy has a degree in theater and communications from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and is currently working on a degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Massachusetts.