Like many Black Americans, my grandmother Juanita left the South. She joined the millions of foot soldiers who were part of the Great Migration — a period that lasted from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s, when Jim Crow laws made life unbearable. I never knew exactly what led her to one day board a Greyhound bus from South Carolina to New York City. It could have been one or many unforgivable racist encounters; or maybe it was dispatches from the storied big cities that set her heart on fire in search of new dreams.
The seventh of 18 children, she always considered her birth order to be a sign of good luck. She was the first in her family to leave her small community, Georgetown, S.C., in the mid-1950s. She first settled in Harlem and eventually Brooklyn. Running to or running from, Juanita ventured North and never returned. But I recently made the trip back to South Carolina on her behalf.
Juanita was a first-class lady, so I boarded a first-class flight — the only way she would have wanted me to travel — to Myrtle Beach, S.C. In the 1950s, she worked at the Ocean Dunes motel in the coastal resort town, making $18 a week cleaning rooms.
As I walked along Myrtle Beach, I spoke with visitors from around the world: an Eritrean woman from Virginia, a couple from Argentina, a few New Yorkers and Canadians, families from Atlanta, D.C. and North Carolina. It was a completely different scene from when my grandmother worked on the then-segregated beach. In the 1950s, Black people weren’t allowed to enjoy the broad beaches that gave way to impeccable sunrises. Most Black people who wanted to vacation in the area were relegated to the nearby Atlantic Beach.
Down South was a familiar destination for many Black Americans, a requisite summer vacation, a regional motherland. South Carolina is the state where all of my grandparents were born and where all of them are buried — except for Juanita, who passed away in 2018 and is buried alongside my mother up North. Growing up with my grandmother, I always got the sense that her relationship to the South was complicated and returning was never her intention. Once settled in Brooklyn, she “sent for” her sisters to come North. Some accepted the invitation; some declined and remained down South.
As a child born in the late 1970s, my grandmother was in her 40s when I was born — the decade I’m journeying through now. She reminded me of Tina Turner with her voluminous, teased hair, her big personality; she was always moving and shaking. Juanita never left the house without a heel and lined lip. She was confident in any room and, most importantly, in her skin. Faithful, too.
Juanita’s theme song was Odyssey’s disco-infused hit, “Native New Yorker.” Oh, how she would twirl when that song rumbled out the speakers. She took the stage regularly at the Baby Grand jazz club in Brooklyn. She was also known for her sultry rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” which she would often sing at the Apollo Theater.
I never got a Southern vibe from my grandmother, but then again, I didn’t have much reference. Growing up, my block in Brooklyn was heavily diasporic. My Southern Black family lived among families from Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria. In my immediate circles, Black people spoke not only English, but French, Spanish, Wolof, Yoruba and Arabic. Being Black was dynamic and layered. Blackness was not only a Black American experience, but an international enterprise, a global identity.
I remember when Nelson Mandela came to Brooklyn in June 1990 and was received by thousands of supporters on the football field of Boys and Girls High School in Bedford–Stuyvesant. We saw him, and he saw us. It felt like a global embrace.
As soon as I was able to align my own footsteps, I boarded a plane to Senegal. I came of age traveling to countries like South Africa, Morocco, Senegal and Egypt. I was mesmerized with the Black diaspora in Martinique, Paris and Abu Dhabi. I loved seeing us, and that’s where I felt like I belonged — abroad. I would spend most of my adult life engaging the experiences of the African diaspora through photography. South Carolina, though, was the furthest destination from my mind.
While in South Carolina, I decided to travel to Georgetown to seek out some of my grandmother’s remaining living relatives. I wasn’t able to find anyone, so I connected with my grandfather’s family.
We had so many questions and stories to share with one another. It was as if we laid our cards on the table to piece together a family connection lost through migration. I listened to who my grandmother was through their eyes.
In New York City, my grandmother and grandfather fell in love and started a family. When they parted ways, my grandfather soon remarried and returned to South Carolina in the mid-70s. My grandmother remained North with their children, one of them my mother. There were hardships — I witnessed that firsthand. She held a range of jobs from cleaning lady to receptionist to make ends meet. She enrolled in and graduated from Wilfred Academy of Hair and Beauty Culture. I like to think my grandmother had her eyes on the prize, and that, for her, was New York.
On my last day in South Carolina, my uncle offered to drive me to the airport in Myrtle Beach. I elected to take the public bus. I arrived around 7 a.m. at the bus stop near the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. The packed bus was filled with hotel workers from various resorts. I could tell where each one worked because of the logos stitched into their uniforms
As we pulled off and out of Georgetown, the bus would take about an hour to reach Myrtle Beach. As the morning chatter of the passengers filled the air, I thought about how my grandmother took this route to work every day — she and her fellow workers probably carpooled in church vans and re-appropriated school buses. I wondered how she felt passing along Pawleys Island and Litchfield Plantation — the land where her ancestors once farmed rice.
When I returned to my apartment in New York, the first thing I did was take out the Ziploc bag I filled with sand from Myrtle Beach. I poured some in a Mason jar and placed it on my small altar. I plan to sprinkle the rest on my grandmother’s grave, bringing home to her final home.
This trip to South Carolina was about my grandmother, but this trip was about me. It was a reconciliation of my identities as a native New Yorker with Southern roots and a Pan-African woman living in America. This journey was a settling of the spirits. To touch base on the land of my grandmother, the motherland, and to pay respect to her and the journey that she took in the name of love, legacy and self-determination.
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn is a documentary photographer and writer.