Patrice C. Queen with Susan Celia Greenfield
Issue No. 9 • April 2013
In spring 2011, the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing began “Living Well,” a new Life Skills Program designed to help women who have become homeless as a result of domestic abuse. Patrice Queen was a member of the second “Living Well” class, which met in spring 2012 and consisted of six courageous women. As with all of the Assembly’s Life Skills Programs, the members were expected to write a version of their life stories to share with their peers, mentors, and members of the Assembly. To assist them in this goal, I ran a series of story-telling workshops. From my first workshop, I knew Patrice was a born writer and leader, but she didn’t need me to tell her this. She has known it her whole life. I asked the women to share a positive story about their childhood, often a hard question since so many of the “Living Well” participants grew up with trauma. Though “trauma” seems like a mild world for what Patrice has experienced, she had no trouble recounting an early moment at a political gathering in Jamaica, when she shouted out against injustice and had to be carried away on a relative’s shoulder, screaming all the while. Even as a small child, Patrice was a social activist. Her voice in “Living Well” was quieter but just as powerful. Throughout the program, Patrice spoke beautifully, poetically in words that rung with song. She wore bright African fabrics and laughed a lot. Her humor, compassion and fierce intelligence buoyed all of us. Below, she shares the life story she told at the 2012 “Living Well” graduation with CURA. ~ Susan Celia Greenfield
My story started long before my birth in a country that was caught somewhere between independence and the longing for the British Throne. In my country depending who you speak to slavery was not that bad lest you try to escape. Jamaica was in the throes of entering this new millennium by giving away the land or country piece by piece.
My mother’s mother, Gwendolyn Wiggon, it is said, was an avid participant in political meetings but this she did not get credit for. In other words I had no knowledge of her advocacy. She was a poor mother of six children, abandoned by her Black Chinese husband, conflicted by cultural alliances long forgotten. I have never been told his name.
My other Grandfather, John Laing, was a Trade Unionist and he worked closely with Prime Minister Seaga and was a close confidante of his. He was a tall man that lived as a white man, or people assumed him to be, with money in his pocket. It was hard for women to say “no” when he was offering access to a higher class and the possibility of being one of his not so publicized concubines. Those days these things were palatable to women trying to move as far away as possible from Moco. That would mean that poverty was not darkening their doorstep, Moco being the poorest place in Jamaica. Who was to know that Moca was a tribe from Nigeria brought to Jamaica as slaves?
I want to focus on another disgrace: Grandfather was a child molester and the information was held in secret by all who knew, for after all he provided money, gifts and food for everyone. I learned after the death of my aunt that she was trained to be my grandfather’s confidante and a proficient usurper of her own mother. By twelve she paid all the bills in the house, managed the servants, and it is assumed, she was sexually active from about age five. She died not knowing that what happened to her was wrong and reprehensible. Her mother was committed to an asylum to cover up the sexual abuse and prevent Aunt Joy from being rescued. Another of Grandfather’s wives was killed by a man who discovered she was a rich woman and somehow thought killing her gave him access to her money. I mention this for it is important to show the disposability of women in the late fifties.
So as you can tell, the whole world laid a foundation for my oppression and the excuses that came with it.
I was born August 1960 in Spanish Town, Saint Catherine, Jamaica W.I. to create an opportunity for my mother to marry my father. The second disappointment was they wanted a boy. Still I got the same name they were going to give a male child. I am named after Patrice Lamumba. He was an African leader. As a child, I felt entitled to all that I had. Human Rights or the lack of them was something I understood early. Due to the issue of my name, I understood gender inequality.
During the Vietnam War my father was stationed in Germany. About four years after his deployment my grandmother died. My grandmother was strong. So even though she was poor, she didn’t let anyone run over her.
When my grandmother died, my grandfather was trying to take us away from my mother. So my mother had to put my sister and me in hiding, pretending we were out of the country. She was a stowaway on a ship to America. My caretakers pretended friendship and benevolence when convincing my mother we would be well taken care of for the high fee my mother would pay as scheduled.
These are the very caretakers who raped me. I was seven, isolated and tormented. I was not allowed to eat with anyone and was kept locked in the room alone in the daytime. The other children were not subjected to my torture. When I would be released from the room from time to time, I would walk outside to the back of the building and would be found screaming for a long time. In the room I was silent. I thought these things were happening because I was a descendant of slaves, that is why I was raped at night by unknown people.
During this time I was not allowed to go to school regularly, notwithstanding I was able to pass exams for high school at age nine. Around this time I had lost hope of ever being rescued and would have fantasies of killing the whole family, for there was no reason that I should be treated this way.
In the middle of this experience we were sent word that we had to leave Saint Ann’s and return to Spanish Town before going to America to join my mother. This would have given anyone joy and hope, but for me this news said that I was a person without a country and rights. I began to feel the country of my birth failed me.
I did not tell people here what happened in St. Ann’s. In preparation for America I was brought to the hairdresser to get Shirley Temple curls. It was torture that my hair that made grandmother so proud was not good enough and my hair had to now mimic a white girl and it pained me. From time to time the hot comb would burn my scalp. I understood then I wanted my natural hair and this action against me said that compliance was required and it so offended me.
In Jamaica the tallest buildings were the churches and the airport; in contrast I had no reference to define what I was looking at or experiencing when I arrived in America on British Airways. I entered Brooklyn where there was nothing but churches. When I saw where my mother lived on Atkins near New Lots in East New York, I thought she was living in a convent. I felt it was very important to support my mother and her standing with the priest by making sure I had a cheap white doll since that was the best way to be happy in America. Before this my family understood early not to buy me white dolls as I took the first one apart and stuck her in a drawer during my captivity. I did not understand much socially and I felt it was too much to ask why we were living in a monastery. Living in a time where I understood children should be seen and not heard, there was no place for clarification.
One day there was a knock on the apartment door. My mother was asleep due to the fact she works sixteen hours a day. A man at the door was demanding to enter. At first we ignored him. Then later after his much knocking my mother awoke and came to the door, where she asked me to open it. I reminded her that she had said not to open the door to strangers. He stated he was my father, and I told him it did not matter he was still a stranger. At this point he slapped me with open hand across my face and I responded by immediately slapping him back. I am ten years old and still trying to figure out how we going to get out of this monastery and my mother’s obligation to the convent.
At age fifteen, I was sent to live with my father when I started exhibiting physical symptoms of my past and nightmares. My thoughts were movies of my life constantly replayed in my awake and sleeping. My mother thought I should go live with my father who owned a house on Whitty Lane and Kings Highway near Ave D with my stepmother and three sisters. My stepmother owned a beauty shop with a sign in the window stating “we do not do black hair”.
My father threatened me routinely, saying that if I did not allow him to do whatever he wanted he would rape my three sisters; the youngest is six and the older one is about nine. After he made his intentions clear I would have to spend my mornings rescuing them from my father’s bed where they thought he was playing and I knew they were unsafe.
The routine of my father raping me was curtains wide open, music loud and it would end with me doing a command piano recital where I play “Oh My Papa” in German. During the act of incest, he told me he did it because of my love for God and how much I reminded him of my mother who, like me, would always be found with bible in hand.
A short time after this all started he began to prostitute me to rich friends and people at Aqueduct; my take was $1,500. The first time this happened I left and my attempts at getting help failed. This nonsense lasted for seven years and there was no escaping my father no matter where we lived or how many times I locked a door.
I thought marrying would give me access to safety and opportunity for whatever life had to offer. Unfortunately I had married someone who felt I was not compliant enough. When the abuse started I did not know to run for this was the best opportunity I ever had at a positive title, wife. I had to ignore the many times he tried to run me over with the car at full speed. The times we would be in the car together where he would demand I get out of the car while the car was accelerating and on the highway and in the dark. I was stuck in thinking this might be as good as it gets. My marriage after all ended my prostitution.
Within a few months of leaving him I became homeless and lived in my car so I could save money to get an apartment.
I became a writer to rescue myself from depression that had only deepened at the loss of custody of my two children to my abuser. I had to come to the knowledge that I had been depressed without ceasing from the age of seven to thirty. Writing and public speaking broke the cycle of my silence. I was the first person in Colorado known to use the stage, podium and mike in combination to talk about domestic violence, incest, rape, abuse, injustice, and sometimes gender using poetry and my story.
I believe God held it all together for me. God allowed me games and songs and vision for my many ideas as well as the gift of music to heal. I think God has plans for me and if I can work to avoid the holes in the road and people trying to take my birthright or block my progress through politics, I am good. My interest is not fame or fortune. My interest is in creating a world where women and children are not trafficked and where a safer home can be created for all. I would like my home to house women that share my history and are on their way to wherever they choose, where they can learn empowerment and regain their voice through the arts and public speaking.
I presently live in a family home I own in Brooklyn, right next door to the last house my grandfather John Laing lived in and owned. It is my intention to possess that too one day, where survivors can be housed. I am also in walking distance to where Aqueduct Raceway once stood. It is a place now where gambling is big still. In our five boroughs the average age a young girl is brought into prostitution is twelve.