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  • Published on September 21, 2022
  • Last Updated December 22, 2022
  • In Guest Writers

A debut column by DETOUR’s newest writer, Renée Cheréz, takes readers through the various breadcrumbs of Cheréz’ lived experience, including travel, ancestry and the journey of finding herself.

The question tumbled out with a slight cackle: “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were related to Marcus Garvey?” I was hanging out with the women in my family having dinner at City Island in New York. Through the years, I never considered the name of my Jamaican grandmother before marriage because I’d only ever known her by my grandpa’s name. I was always more enthralled by her first name, Urselina. It seemed beyond the realm of possibility that the Marcus Mosiah Garvey, one of history’s most influential Black activists and leader of the controversial Back-to-Africa Movement in the 1920s, could be my uncle. Or more accurately, my great-great-great-uncle. My aunt’s eyes told me everything. I watched as they shifted slowly in her sister’s direction. Then came murmuring between them about the importance of teaching children about their history. Huh?! What did she mean by “tell her children about their history?” In that moment, my thoughts and tongue went their separate ways. I was dumbfounded. I looked to my right, making eye contact with my sister and searching her eyes for confirmation. Her unfazed demeanor said it all. Whatever came next was a blur. I remember sitting there, blank, dining utensils clinking around me while I bawled.

It was at the dinner table in 2017 that Renée Cheréz found out Marcus Mosiah Garvey, one of history’s most influential Black activists and leader of the controversial Back-to-Africa Movement in the 1920s, was her great-great-great-uncle. Courtesy of Renée Cheréz

That was August of 2016. I now call this my “WTF year,” which, at 27, was shorthand for what I felt like was my life unraveling. At the time, I was caught in what seemed like an endless season of hard times: a break up, family drama, work stress — it was all happening. As a daughter, the tee-tee, the auntie Renée, the sister, the one who is always there, the burden of finding solutions fell on me. That’s how it felt, anyway, and I was clueless about how to fix all the ruptures.

Months later, in early 2017, I found myself boarding a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. Upon my arrival, I started a 67-day backpacking trip across Southeast Asia. I did not know it at the time, but I was finding myself simply by letting go and getting lost, or rather, choosing to get lost. It’s been five years since I made this choice. One that prioritizes backpacking, slow traveling and living in different parts of the world, all of which have brought me to another question: “How did I get here?” This column, my first for DETOUR, is an exploration of that question. How do we as travelers get to our most important life destinations? After that fateful dinner, it took me two years to revisit my Uncle Marcus news. The thought was too big to fathom. I still haven’t quite overcome fears of living up to a person whose name and legacy span time, oceans and continents. As the family tale goes, my great-grandfather was from Saint Ann’s, Jamaica, the same parish Uncle Garvey was from. My grandmother recalls a relative coming to her home to inform her that Garvey was, in fact, her family, but because her had father died when she was just four years old, details of the exact relationship were foggy. And yet, there was a knowing from my grandmother that he was her uncle. The more I learn about Garvey, the more I see his spirit permeating through my mother, grandmother and aunts. There is an undeniable pride in identity — in themselves — with which I’ve watched them move through the world despite challenging circumstances, and that is the gift of Garvey to not only my lineage, but Black people the world over. He makes you want to hold your head high and wear your Black skin like the privilege and highest honor that it is.

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