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You Alone are Dancing

Written by Anon for Ann Arbor Observer on no date provided

Brenda Flanagan arrived in the United States from Trinidad twenty-three years ago. Eighteen years old, she was wearing a borrowed dress and carrying ten American dollars and two bottles of rum. The rum was a gift for the only person she knew in America, a woman she had met two weeks before in Trinidad.

A village girl who left school at fourteen to help support her family, Flanagan came here to get an education. Marriage and family interrupted her plan, and by the time she enrolled at the U-M in 1975, she was a twenty-five-year-old single mother. Sometimes working two jobs while carrying up to twenty hours a semester, she completed her undergraduate studies in less than three years, then went on for a master’s and a doctorate. As a student, she won prestigious Hopwood Awards in three different categories - short story, novel, and drama.

Today, Dr. Brenda Flanagan teaches journalism and creative writing at EMU. A tall, handsome woman who speaks rapidly and precisely, her speech tinged with a musical West Indian accent, she has a novel being published in England. And she aspires someday to run for prime minister of Trinidad.

Flanagan never refers to her childhood as one of poverty, but it was clearly a struggle for subsistence. She was the twelfth of fourteen children. Her father was a barman, but he was alcoholic and eventually lost his trade. Her mother was a laundress. By the time Flanagan was thirteen, her mother had to support the family alone. It seemed as if her mother never slept. 'I remember often talking to my mother about two or three in the morning, while she was doing ironing with a coal-pot iron. Sometimes the public works crew would be doing a construction project in our area, and my mother would cook food and we would sell it to the men in the crew.' 

Flanagan’s interests extended far beyond the shores of Trinidad. She says that the sea gave her a feeling of connection to a bigger world, a world she wanted to be part of. 'My girlfriends had aspirations to grow up to be seamstresses. I didn’t fault them for it, but I had almost a hunger to be something more.' She would go to the 'pan yard', where the steel-band players would practice. 'The musicians talked about going to New York, Europe,' she recalls. 'They had dreams like mine.' Her own earliest dream was to be a writer. She started writing poetry when she was ten, sending her finished work to the newspapers. But Trinidad’s education was modeled on the English system, and few children went on to public high school. Flanagan’s family paid for her to attend a small private school for about a year. Her own calypso singing paid for another term.

Trinidad is the birthplace of calypso, originally an all-male musical form. Flanagan says she was the third woman in Trinidad to sing calypso professionally, and the youngest. 'I was thirteen, but I was big for my age and I looked older. I would take my books with me to the club and study in the back,' she says.

In early 1964 she had to leave school and found a factory job. Soon after, the school Flanagan had attended closed, and her former principal went to work for the Nation, the newspaper of the People’s National Movement Party. He told her he would teach her to be a reporter. 'I went to work as a reporter when I was fifteen. The Nation was the paper of the political party in power, so we had a lot of access to the government. Sometimes I traveled with the prime minister. I met several famous people: Kenneth Kaunda, Haile Selassie, Princess Margaret.' Flanagan says being a reporter laid the foundation for many of her views. 'There are just certain attitudes that develop with journalism. I’m not overawed by anyone.'

Flanagan saved every penny she could from her salary as a reporter - $25 every two weeks - to go to the U.S. and get an education. She managed to save the fare, but there was one additional requirement: an American sponsor. An opportunity soon presented itself: 'I met a woman, a black social worker from New York, who came to see the Agriculture Youth Camps. I was a friend of the Cabinet minister in charge of the camps, he asked me if I wanted to show her camps, so I took her.' After the tour, the American said to Flanagan, 'If you ever come to the States, look me up.' Almost as soon as her guest left, Flanagan made up her mind. She wrote and told the woman she was coming.

Her father gave her $10, the only money she took. A friend gave her a blue suitcase, and her sister gave her a bottle of pepper sauce and lent her a dress. Flanagan arrived in New York on a hot June day in 1967. She was elated. 'I thought Christopher Columbus must have felt this way. I felt like bending down and kissing the ground.'

Although her 'sponsor' was gracious enough to let Flanagan stay with her for few days, it was clear it would be a short term arrangement. Flanagan went out the next day to an employment agency in Harlem. 'I was very thin then and the ‘black look’ was just coming into vogue. They asked me if I wanted to be a model. I was shocked. I thought of being a model a like a prostitute. I said no, I wanted a job as a live-in domestic servant.' The agency found Flanagan a post as a servant in Mount Vernon, New York. Her employer was a patron of the YMCA in Harlem, and it was part of Flanagan’s regular duties to accompany her employer’s children there, On one visit she met a young man who was a student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They fell in love, married, and in 1969 moved to Tuskegee. Her husband graduated in 1970 as an electrical engineer and accepted a job with the Defense Department at the Red River Army Arsenal in Texarkana, Arkansas.

'I had never perceived myself in terms of skin color,' Flanagan recalls. Moving to Arkansas was her introduction to racial discrimination. When Flanagan and her husband made a trip to Texarkana to find a place to live she remembers, 'We found a nice apartment in a good neighborhood, in a complex that we didn’t know was all white.' They asked if they could leave a deposit but were told it wouldn’t be necessary. Upon returning with their children and a fully loaded U-haul, they were told there were no longer any vacancies. At first they accepted it, but white friends at the military base checked and found out there were vacancies.

Flanagan was deeply disturbed. 'I just couldn’t understand it. Here my husband was working for the Department of Defense, designing weapons to help defend these people, and this was how they were treating us. We didn’t want to be victims.'

This is a review of You Alone are Dancing

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