‘East of Flatbush, North of Love’

Danielle Brown at the book reading for "East of Flatbush, North of Love" at the CaribBEING House in Flatbush. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Danielle Brown at the May 14 book reading for “East of Flatbush, North of Love.” (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

“East of Flatbush, North of Love: An Ethnography of Home” is a memoir about life growing up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn – home to one of the largest West Indian communities in New York City.

East of Flatbush, North of LoveAuthor Danielle Brown, a trained ethnomusicologist, particularly uses music – via the inclusion of song lyrics and song recommendations – to teach the reader about life in this vibrant immigrant community where she grew up, as well as life in her parents’ native Trinidad, and West Indian culture in general.

Brown say she uses many of the songs learned during her childhood – from calypso to hip hop – as educational tools to explain how the legacy of colonialism and imperialism continues to impact people of color today.

“I wrote this book not only for myself, but also for young people and adults who, like me, want to see their reflections in the pages that they read, and who are looking to learn a bit more about themselves and their heritage,” Brown said as she read an excerpt from the book’s preface at her May 14 book launch at the CaribBEING House on Flatbush Avenue.

“I also wrote this book for people who know very little about West Indian culture, and as a result my teacher persona has guided much of this writing,” she continued as more people gathered on the grounds of the bustling Flatbush Caton Market.

Brown, a former professor of music history and cultures at Syracuse University, says that a lack of diversity in the felt prompted her to leave academia to self-publish “East of Flatbush, North of Love” and start the multimedia publishing and production company, My People Tell Stories, LLC, based in New Orleans.

“A lot of the frustration came specifically from the fact that my field, ethnomusicology, is all about exploring the ‘non-western cultures,’ however the majority of the people who are researching non-western people are white people form the U.S. and Europe primarily,” Brown said.

“The problem is not the presence of white people in the field writing on other cultures, but rather the lack of representation of people of color writing and telling stories in their own way.”

At the start of the six-chapter book, Brown introduces readers to East Flatbush by describing a conversation she has with a Grenadian Rastaman while waiting for the B44 bus at the corner of New York Avenue and Avenue D.

Brown uses that conversation — during which he asks her where she is from — to describe the many countries including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada and Guyana that West Indians are from.

“If you live here and you are not a first- or second-generation immigrant, you’re an anomaly,” she said as she read another excerpt illustrating just how significant the West Indian community is in East Flatbush.

This introduction to the neighborhood and West Indian culture continues as Brown describes some of the savory foods West Indians eat from oxtail, and rice and peas, to callaloo and curry.

She also introduces the creolized forms of English spoken by many West Indians; the general display of cultural pride evidenced by the presence of national flags – representing just about every country in the region – that hang from the tops of grocery stores to apartment windows throughout the neighborhood; and gives a historical look at how so many people from the region came to call the East Flatbush neighborhood home.

Dr. Danielle Brown reading from her book, "East of Flatbush, North of Love: An Ethnography of Home." (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Danielle Brown reading from her book at the CaribBEING House in Flatbush. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

“East of Flatbush, North of Love” additionally gives readers a sense of what it is like to grow up in a West Indian household, the role religion plays in the cultural heritage of West Indians and provides an overview of the history and culture of Trinidad and Tobago.

Overall, music plays such an important role in this book that it includes a “soundtrack” of sorts. This “soundtrack” includes more than 100 listening recommendations that precede the start of the book’s chapters and are meant help to set the tone of the topic of discussion.

These songs can be “cued up” throughout chapters so that a reader knows exactly when to play a song as Brown provides the context.

One such song is the 1956 hit “Jean and Dinah” by legendary calypsonian Mighty Sparrow. “Jean and Dinah” comments on the issue of prostitution in Trinidad when American troops were based on the island during World War II. The song goes on to explain the social ramifications of those troops’ eventual departure.

Calypso music – which originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the 20th century – is a genre that typically involves social commentary, often mixed with humorous satire on current events.

“As a musician, and because I learned so much about my culture through music… I felt it would be a good way to help other people learn about the culture,” Brown said.

“People have to take it upon themselves and YouTube the songs and listen to it if they are not familiar with it… because there is not a CD attached,” Brown said. “I think if people just go through the songs and listen they will learn a lot and have a more holistic experience,” she continued.

The book ends by highlighting the plight of immigrants in New York City and how gentrification has displaced immigrants and non-immigrants alike in several U.S. cities including New York City.

Brown also examines how gentrification has changed Brooklyn and how that change may be at the expense of the community and culture that has been in place for decades.

“The only way I know how to keep my culture alive is by telling these stories. We have to be able to tell our own stories,” she said.

For more information on author and musician Dr. Danielle Brown please visit www.mypeopletellstories.com/east-of-flatbush

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