Writer Jalynn Harris’s father takes down a “for sale” sign after the Harris family bought their home in Woodlawn. The blue house with the red door is the home Jalynn lived in the longest. Photo courtesy of Jalynn Harris.

What does home mean to you?

Is it a kitchen? The smell of biscuits rising in the oven. Is it blue walls with orange accents? A bed set up on platforms, crowded with pillows and bedazzled with a soft mattress pad. Or maybe, for you, home is no place, more a person, or a group of people in a country far from the one you’re in.

Above my bed there is a chalkboard. I bought it at Supreme Discounters in Highlandtown on one of those dreadful rainy, winter days when, after staring at my bare walls for too long, I wanted something to look at; to hit nail into plaster; to hang up. I went to Prime Thrift, hoping to repeat a past luck. That time, a two-tier white wicker basket. But, after scouring Prime Thrift, I got that thrift gut spidey sense feeling that I was looking in the wrong place.

So I walked to Supreme Discounters. And immediately, there it was, my chalkboard, sitting on the floor right where I walked in. The owner had taken it down and replaced it with something else that functioned as a sign. How much? “Oh that?” he said. Yeah, is it for sale? “Sure, how about 5 bucks?”

Now, the chalkboard is a staple in my home. The messages are written in white chalk, changing from Portuguese lesson (eu não sou uma menina) to visitor (Welcome, Beans) to reminder (try again!) and, for the past 2 months, it’s read:

Home is…
The place I go back
to over & over
What I keep
Where i am
What I believe about

Is it a kitchen? The smell of biscuits?

When I think of the home, I think of the place I lived in the longest–my second home–a blue house with a red door. The two-story house in Woodlawn, behind Security Square Mall. The house along the road to the masjid, and then, a little further, our church. How on Fridays, traffic from the masjid would be so backed up it settled right at my front door. But then on Sundays, we’d travel the same road, without any traffic, a lonely mile down to Westside Church of Christ.

When I think of home, I think of my first home in Edmondson Village. One long street over from Mount Saint Joseph High School, the Catholic school for boys. The wraparound porch. The inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. The clawfoot tub. The stairs that my short legs felt were slopes on a mountain. The gray living room, with ceilings so high I thought it a friend to the sky.

What does home mean to you?

Home, longing. A bent neck looking up wondering how high can I climb?

Home, doors. A few hinges and a knob turning, escape!

My relationship to home has changed drastically over the years. At 18, when I went to college in North Carolina, I was content to make home in a dorm room– a 228-square-foot fish tank shared with one other person, who, like everyone at the school, was a total stranger.

Unfortunately, when Total Stranger’s boyfriend became the third light fixture of our one-car garage-sized room, I knew that this was not a home, nor could I make it that quiet, special place I craved. So, I took up home in other people. In other dorm rooms, in off-campus houses and apartments. And apart from those structures, I took home in hours-long dinners in the dining halls, on 15-mile group bike trips with friends, and then, when I needed to be alone, I’d take the bus to the public library, or bike into a row of asters planted in the North Carolina Botanical Gardens.

Everything changed when I turned 20. I studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, and I lived, for the first time in my life, in my own apartment. I had one roommate, who was not a total stranger, but notably, the choreographer of the African dance troupe on campus back in North Carolina. And our apartment was huge. And fully furnished. With four wide-mouthed and south facing windows, two large separate bedrooms, a shower with a glass door and a tub, a full kitchen, and living room. It was the most beautiful place I had ever lived in. I fell in love.

But it wasn’t just the aesthetics of Cape Town’s interior–nor its stunning mountainous, oceanic exterior–that made me fall head over heels. It was the people. They had such a deep sense of home. What it meant to be from a place. And, despite the continuous ravaging of colonial occupation, weren’t confused nor bought out of their claim.

I could not relate. I had been bought out. I hated America. Its incessant violence, self-aggrandizing, albeit compulsive, colonial project. I hated its pride and lack of accountability. I mourned my ancestors–stolen from Africa, forced to labor; who were later denied from all claims to land. I too claimed this denial: I did not want to be American. From America. Disenfranchised to nothing–no place, no language, no money–I was African, but with no ties to Africa, and American, with no ties to Freedom–I was No Nothing From Nowhere. A Black seed in a bag of rice.

But, Cape Townians taught me that despite enslavement, kidnapping, physical abuse, emotional capture, Black is and will be in everything & everywhere. Black in Saudi Arabia is still African is still Black is still Saudi Arabian. Black knows all places and all peoples. Black is somebody, from somewhere. And, no matter where Black is born, it must be claimed; because how we got where we are is one of the largest parts of who we are.

What does home mean to you? A blue wall with orange accents?

My ancestors made home in an impossible place. And survived. Despite, despite.
It shaped them. How they talked. What they ate. How they dressed. But they shaped it, too. How English sounds. How greens cook. How light bulbs last long and other inventions, by Black people.

(Note: once you locate home, and I mean, really have a rooted understanding of place, you are to be very careful how you enter and integrate any place–because everywhere you go is someone’s home–another South African lesson).

Home, a space where every object has its own place (now, whether that object’s place is in the middle of the floor or not is up to those who keep the home). A home is put back daily. Is wiped down. Is set up. Is walked through. A home invites. A home clutters. A home changes– and while its shifting interior changes you, its shifting exterior changes how you keep home.

Home is where every part of you has its own place. It puts you back daily. What wipes you down. What you set up. What you walk through. It’s who you invite. What surrounds you. It’s how you change.

Recently, I visited some of my family in Arkansas–my eldest brother migrated circa 2007. My mom showed me a family tree she’s been piecing together.

Patricia Gibson, her mother, born Baltimore, MD 1941; her mother’s mother, Clara Mae Gibson, born 1900 in Talbot County, MD; her mother’s mother’s mother, Helen Brummel, born 1864 in Talbot County, MD; her mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, Ella Raisin, born 1839, Talbot County, MD.

I had no idea I was a 6th generation Marylander! A true Eastern shore babe, transplanted to the city 3 generations back. And now, after all the traveling, the seeing other places and other people, I am happy to be here, in this sweet place that has, for as long as I can remember, called me home.

Jalynn Harris (she/they) is a writer, educator, and book designer from Baltimore. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Feminist Studies, Poem-A-Day, The Hopkins Review, The...