Beginnings by Renée Watson
“Everything and everyone has a story, a beginning.” –Some Places More Than Others
My story begins in Paterson, New Jersey. I was born on a humid day in July, the fifth child coming to the Watson family, who were all waiting and hoping for a boy. For the first few months of my life, my brother, Roy, who is the oldest, called me R.J., as in, Roy Jr., and tried so hard to make me his mini-me. There’s a photo of him holding one-year-old me—he is watching a basketball game and has me dressed in a too-big Knicks jersey. By the looks on our faces, he is immersed in the game. I am not. The same photo album that holds this memory, also has frozen moments of my dad deejaying at the Reggae club he owned, my siblings bundled in coats, scarves, and gloves sledding down our snow-covered driveway, their very own winter wonderland.
These are second-hand memories told to me by my brother and sisters and from the photo albums that have been curated over the years. I don’t really remember New Jersey or the drive across the George Washington Bridge for daylong excursions to New York City. I don’t remember stopping at the bodega after school to get a Jamaican beef patty. I do not know the joy of splashing in the water coming from the fire hydrant on a hot summer day.
I was two-years-old when my parents divorced. My mother moved us to Oregon, where her family had migrated, and started her life over in Portland. And so, Portland is home. It’s the place that raised me. But I had a lot of questions about where I came from. My mother tells me I was her “why child.” Always asking questions about the who, what, when, where, and why of our family.
Unlike Amara’s family in Some Places More Than Others, stories about my beginning were in abundance. I remember many family gatherings ending with my aunts and uncles reminiscing about what used to be. I loved laughing at the tales my Aunt Mary would share about the shenanigans she got into with my mom and their ten siblings. My siblings shared stories about New Jersey and New York. My father’s mother, Grandma Agatha, told me tales about Jamaica. In every retelling I learned more about myself. I come from a family of educators, musicians, artists, and preachers. I am fascinated that those same talents and interests are a part of me.
In Some Places More Than Others, Amara discovers the many ways she is like her mom and dad. They all love fashion and have their own sense of style. Amara loves reading like her Grandma Grace and is told she has her kindness.
Amara has questions, too. Some of the answers to her questions reveal painful moments of her family’s history, the memories not captured in the photo albums, the family stories that aren’t so easy to tell.
Families are complicated. Love is complicated. No family is perfect and mine has its share of heartbreak and even shame. Amara’s family does, too, and she has to work to forgive, empathize with, and accept her family. She also learns that family can be the people who you choose. Her close friendship with her best friend, Titus, and his parents is a healing balm. Learning about Adam Clayton Powell, Harriet Tubman, and Arturo Schomburg teaches her the great legacy that has been left to her.
Amara’s concept of family extends the more she realizes she is a part of something bigger than her literal, biological family tree. Her roots connect to the ancestors who came before her—change makers, artists, scholars. Strength and resilience have been passed down to Amara from generation to generation.
While Amara visits the Schomburg Center in Harlem, an elder tells her that the freedom fighters she learns about in school had her in mind when they were protesting and advocating for a better world. The thought that even though they didn’t know her name, even though she wasn’t even alive, she was a part of her ancestors’ dreams is a reminder that her life matters, that she is powerful and capable of achieving anything, of overcoming any obstacle she might face.
Her beginning started long before she took her first breath. She was first a thought, a dream. Someone’s great hope.
Renée Watson is the New York Times bestselling, Newbery Honor, and Coretta Scott King Award-winning author of Piecing Me Together, This Side of Home, What Momma Left Me, and Betty Before X, co-written with Ilyasah Shabazz, as well as two acclaimed picture books: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and Harlem’s Little Blackbird, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. She is the founder of I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts, and currently lives in New York City.