Concrete and Filigree


Michelle Joan Wilkinson1

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0218.16

Lost and Found in Migration

Lost Words


Public Road




What gets left behind when we migrate? We lose not only the spaces our bodies once held; we lose also the words to name those spaces. Words like verandah. We make these words a language of their own, local and intimate, used when family is around because they will understand. If we write, we reclaim the lost words and put them on the page like a tally of belongings or to dos.

But memory is a rabbit hole, and once a picture appears in our mind’s eye, once a word resounds in our ears, we begin to conceive again the time, the place, the feeling, the scene. We use the words we can remember to reinvent that moment. We marry imagination with nostalgia. But we also ask questions to those who were there. What do you remember? We write it down. We record them. We balance corroboration, illumination, exaggeration.

We arrange the View-Master in our minds and we rehearse the script in our heads. We search the home videos for clues. We create again a world which we believe we knew, hoping it passes the inspection of pointed fingers and wagging tongues. Hoping its truth is one we can all live with.

We wonder, what will they say of this world on the page?

We ask, who will care for these relics, the lost words, and the forgotten things they describe?

We look inwards. What can we do?

Found Words






Curator n. one who curates. A person in charge of the things in a museum. Derived from the Latin curare, to care and to take care of.

I am a curator. By definition, I am ‘responsible for the things.’ I work at the intersections of memory and preservation, of caring for things that are or need to be remembered. I am not haunted by the past, nor do I feel a need to hoard it. But there is comfort in knowing where I came from.

There is joy in discovering the things that others have left, and pride in holding onto the things that have been left for me.

In my family, concrete and filigree have passed through generations. They are among my inheritances. One connects me to my grandfather, the other to my grandmother.

Beyond being a caretaker of things in a museum, a guardian of things in a collection, I want also to preserve what is passed down within my family, from grandparent to granddaughter, aunt to niece, mother to child. And I imagine, how will my time here be remembered—what things will I leave behind?

Figure 12.1

My grandmother, Miriam Angelina Wilkinson, and me visiting Brooklyn, New York in 1977. Personal collection of Michelle Joan Wilkinson.

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson. Courtesy of Michelle Joan Wilkinson. CC BY 4.0.

Leaving Home, Coming Back


My mother migrated to Brooklyn, New York in 1969. She came with a reference letter from her employer in Guyana, which helped her secure a job in Manhattan’s Garment District within days of her arrival. Several weeks later her older sister landed. As new immigrants, they found refuge in the Caribbean-American enclaves of Brooklyn, sharing a brownstone with other families. Grown women, in their thirties by the time they emigrated, their new lives were full-on adulting.

And then came me. I arrived one December evening in 1971. I had spent the last nine months swirling in embryonic fluid with my little playmate, my twin brother Michael. But days before our birth, something happened. We still don’t know what. But he didn’t make it out into this world. Stillborn. My playmate was gone.

Single and working a good job, my mom had some decisions to make about my future. If I stayed in Brooklyn, who would take care of me and how much would it cost? If I went to live with my grandmother in Guyana, who suggested my mother send me there, what kind of life would l have ‘back home?’ And though she wasn’t married to my father, and though he didn’t seem to know how to claim me, would sending me to Guyana be fair to him—a twenty-something Black American man who would likely never go to Guyana to visit this surprise of a daughter.

In early 1972, I went to live with my grandparents. I lived in a house my mother and her sister only knew as adults, a house they had helped build in their late teens and twenties. That house was where I grew up, where I learned my ABCs, to count, and to read. It is where I learned to express myself—to talk and to talk back. (Yes, they called me fresh.)

Mom would visit, and I would go to the States for holiday, accompanied by my grandmother. I knew I was American. I knew my mother was abroad. But I also knew that home was the house my grandfather built, where Granny and I shared a room, and Grandpappie’s room was next door, and my Indian friends lived down the road. Sometimes I would go into town with Granny, but we’d always come back to the house on Public Road.


In 1977, I started primary school in our local village, a dozen miles from Georgetown. Within weeks, my grandmother died. Everyone came home to take care of things. When those things were settled, I was back on a plane to start my new life in Brooklyn with my mother and aunt. I was five years old. I started elementary school as a first grader in September. I was the girl in the class with the accent. If I was American, I was differently so. But then again, this was Brooklyn in the late 1970s. There were kids whose parents where from Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Panama, Haiti, and like those kids, within weeks I spoke like a Brooklynite, not a girl from the place where her mother was born. I got busy being and becoming this new me.

In 1993, at age twenty-one, after living away from Guyana for almost fifteen years, I returned to see where I came from, so to speak. My grandfather had died in 1978, just a year after Granny, but some of our relatives still lived in the house I grew up in. When I entered the home, I was amazed at how small it seemed, its handsome contours made miniature as my adult body roamed its spaces. I was the one who had grown. It was no longer the playground it had been when I was a child, where every wall seemed to be a surface for drawing, where every corner seemed to hold trinkets for my amusement, where my grandparents indulged my whims and chatter. They were gone now. But as I began to bask in those memories, the house became big again, swelling with the pride of a place well-remembered.

Upon returning to the States, I couldn’t stop thinking about my trip, my trajectory from South America to North America, what I had lost and what I had exchanged. I began to write. I wrote a poem titled ‘Guyana Quintet,’ taking inspiration from the critically-acclaimed Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, who had published a series of four novels collectively referred to as The Guyana Quartet. Within my five-part prose poem, I titled one section ‘V is for Veranda,’ offering:

In the house of my childhood, like any real house of childhood, there was a veranda. I remember when it was taller than me and when I grew past it. I could see outside then, onto the Public Road. And I could look down into our yard and see the trees—now barren, now blooming. On the veranda, I myself was Barbie before she came to me packaged and blond. I reigned in that dream house . . . I owned that space above the open porch and patio. Ver-an-dah. My autopilot eyes sailing across a sea of green palm leaves with yellow patches. My own dream house, full-sized and first class.

I didn’t see any verandas in Brooklyn. I lost that word. Buried under new vocabulary, veranda muted to balcony. But all along I knew it; that it wasn’t the same. Buildings had balconies, but a house, a house had a veranda.

In the poem, I am speaking to the loss of language as much as to the loss of space, and how these two are related. The language of my childhood gave visibility to spaces that no longer existed in my American life. By returning to Guyana, I was re-learning a lost vocabulary and re-connecting to a poetics of space that had shaped my first ideas of home.

Concrete Legacies: My Grandfather

Figure 12.2

Grandfather Charles Eric Wilkinson (unknown date). Personal collection of Michelle Joan Wilkinson.

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson. Courtesy of Michelle Joan Wilkinson. CC BY 4.0.

Figure 12.3

View of house in East Coast Demerara, Guyana (unknown date). Personal collection of Michelle Joan Wilkinson.

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson. Courtesy of Michelle Joan Wilkinson. CC BY 4.0.

What do families choose to keep, what do they pass on? My grandfather left my mother and my aunt a concrete house, each. Houses in another country. One of those houses is the one I grew up in.

The House that Grandfather Built

Charles Eric Wilkinson designed and built a concrete house in 1954 with the assistance of his family and others. Initially, a two-story wooden house stood on the land. Around 1951, he bought the wooden house with the intention of tearing it down to build a new concrete home for his family on the same land. As a building contractor, he had designed and constructed several concrete buildings for commercial clients, but this was the first concrete structure he purposely built as a residence. Wilkinson employed advanced engineering techniques to build the house. After excavating the site, he fortified the foundation by driving thirty-foot timbers into the ground, then he erected its steel-framed walls with poured concrete. From its timber pile foundation to its second-floor vistas, the home exemplified the most contemporary international ideas for architecture and construction in the mid-twentieth century.

Wilkinson’s decision to construct the house of concrete was not only innovative but calculated. Guyana was experiencing a ‘dark time,’ as the Guyanese poet Martin Carter would deem the period in 1953, when armed British troops landed in its capital Georgetown seeking to disrupt the progress towards gaining independence led by the newly allied political parties of Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese changemakers. The British government feared the left-leaning alliance would threaten Britain’s ability to maintain control of the colony. Blacks and Indians were pitted against each other, with some, like Carter, arrested for dissention. As Carter wrote in ‘This is the Dark Time, My Love,’

It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.

It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery,

The poet cautioned his compatriots about the stealth movements of

. . . the strange invader

watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.2

I marvel at Grandfather Wilkinson’s ability to erect a concrete house in the period that he did. In this climate of a colonial coup d’état, inter-ethnic antagonisms, and local agendas for independence, he seemingly endeavored to construct an indestructible oasis. Neighbors speculated on what he was building. Was it just a nice, respectable home for a family of some means, or a veritable fort that could not easily be shot at and destroyed?

The Verandah Diaries

I’ve long been intrigued by verandahs. They exist in that liminal space between inside and outside, publicity and intimacy, sight and oversight. But a verandah does not happen by chance; someone, in this case, Charles Eric Wilkinson, set out to design his first concrete house with a verandah. I know this, because I have the 1954 blueprint. I also have letters he wrote to my mother and aunt, many of them describing my early years in the house.

Figure 12.4

This ca. 1954 plan for the house shows the allocation of rooms, including a verandah on the second floor. Photo by Walter Larrimore/NMAAHC. Personal collection of Michelle Joan Wilkinson.

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson. Courtesy of Michelle Joan Wilkinson. CC BY 4.0.

. . . I find her amusing every morning I take her to the verandah and she keeps enjoying herself with the different scenes, from cart to car to bus, to man to dog and every imaginable thing . . .

—Grandfather Wilkinson to my aunt, 10 June 1972

For a later concrete home he built, Wilkinson created a verandah with a metal railing. He used perforated walls on the ground floor to help circulate breeze through the spaces of the home. Were these differences seen as improvements upon the design of the first home he’d built, or were these specifications implemented per his clients’ request? I don’t know. But he did write a letter to my mother about how the government was building a new road and this house was in a path they sought to claim in 1972.

In the same letter that my grandfather recounts my escapades on the verandah, he also tells his daughter, my aunt, about his tribulations in getting an appraisal done for the land on which the family home sits. It’s a tale of government run-arounds with the intent to extract money above and beyond what is entitled—not an unusual scenario. After taking up his issues with a higher-ranking official, Wilkinson reveals he was able to get a fair estimation on the amount of taxes to be paid for the land.

Sunday, I am hoping to start putting on some paint on the outside of the house at least trying to brighten for the 10th Independence anniversary . . .

—Grandfather Wilkinson to my mother, 10 April 1976

In his many letters to my mother and aunt, my grandfather would cover a range of subjects, from his work as a member of the Central Housing and Planning Authority, to who next was trying to get papers to go abroad, to politics and current events in Guyana, to (reluctantly asking for) what products and construction tools he needed sent from America, often signing off ‘Cheerio, Dad.’

Filigree Heirlooms: My Grandmother

Figure 12.5

Grandmother Miriam Angelina Wilkinson (unknown date). Personal collection of Michelle Joan Wilkinson.

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson. Courtesy of Michelle Joan Wilkinson. CC BY 4.0.

Granny’s Filigrees

I’ve never shopped for filigree jewelry of my own. My grandmother did. When she died in 1977, she left me several pieces: chains, rings, filigree earrings, and bands. I was five then, and I couldn’t wear them. I still don’t. Granny was a full-grown woman when she died. Turban upright, back straight, shoulders down, arms solid. She wasn’t a petite little thing like me, with my thin fingers and narrow wrist. Granny’s filigrees would slip and slide on my arms, end up in somebody’s lost-and-found. Filigree fanciness decorating someone else’s life. No. I will wear them in my grave.

Mother: What did you say? Morbid. Please tell me you are joking.

Aunt: You better not plan on that. You want people to . . .

Child: I want to be bejeweled like the Egyptian goddesses, bedecked like a Queen Mother in gold and metals, returning them and me to the earth. I want to wear them where they can’t fall off.

Mother and Aunt: [Suck teeth in unison]

The way my mother tells it is this:

Well, when your Granny died we saved most of her jewelry for you. I took a few things, your aunt took a few, and rest we put away for you. I wish you would wear them when you have your special events. I mean, what’s the point in just keeping them packed away. They are meant to be worn. I could understand why you didn’t wear them before, because yes you didn’t want to lose them, but now, you should be wearing them. I hate that you say you want to be buried with it. Really? How morbid. You can’t take it with you, you know. You want people to rob your grave? I don’t get it. Wear it now.

Figure 12.6

Assortment of gold jewelry I inherited when Granny died in 1977. Photo by Walter Larrimore/NMAAHC.

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson. Courtesy of Michelle Joan Wilkinson. CC BY 4.0.

Filigree Jewelry

Necklace, two pairs of ‘chandelier-style’ earrings, pin, and ring. Worn by Miriam Angelina Wilkinson. Designed and made by a local Indian jeweler, ca. 1960.

Gold ‘Slave Band’

The ‘Slave Band’ was a popular style of jewelry in the 1950s and 1960s. Mother recalls that Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of ‘Cleopatra’ spawned a craze for jewelry where people wanted the type of arm and wrist bands worn in the film.

Gold Bangles: History and Heritage

Much-coveted, long-cherished, ceremonially acquired, or proudly purchased, gold bangles enjoy an almost ritual status among Guyanese of all ages. But why? In the Guianas, gold has been the subject of lore historically associated with the mythic city of El Dorado that captivated the European explorers’ pursuits. The arrival of Africans in the 1600s forged new legacies for gold in Guyana. The style of my grandmother’s gold bangles is a remnant from ‘manillas’—the brass and copper, horseshoe-shaped bracelets worn in West Africa. Manillas were originally worn to display wealth and later adopted as a form of currency, especially for purchasing enslaved Africans. Over time and across cultures, bangles acquired different meanings. Guyanese who wear bangles today may not be aware that similar bracelets had associations with slavery, but they may relate these valued items to one’s social status or displays of material assets. More than an attractive accessory, gold bangles are symbolic links to a diasporic heritage. They honor Afro-Guyanese traditions of adornment and employ Indo-Guyanese practices of jewelry making, both of which have kept the style alive.

First Proof is Gold

Silver is for when you are older and taking the IRT by yourself.

First proof is gold circling baby wrists—clinging to the fat

and bone as tight as baby’s fingers closing to a fist.

Gold like my grandmother’s tooth.

Dull like the grays of her hair.

Shiny like her black wig.

A browning gold, like the Guyana waters rising against the sea wall.

Rising against the height of Persaud’s Jewelry Palace,

just next to Sanji’s Candy Shoppe,

where Granny buys us sweeties.

Sweeties that rot teeth early

and later turn them to gold.

Figure 12.7

‘Michelle’ name plate gold chain, ca. 1983. Photo by Walter Larrimore/NMAAHC.

© Michelle Joan Wilkinson. Courtesy of Michelle Joan Wilkinson. CC BY 4.0.

Of Things Remembered

When I was younger and we would go to the mall in Brooklyn, my aunt always wanted to stop at ‘Things Remembered,’ a variety store where you could buy cards, stationery, photo frames, and get things engraved. It was such a strange place to me, especially in a shopping mall bustling with a movie theater, Orange Julius, Joyce Leslie, and an arcade. But what did I know, I was maybe ten.

At that age, I had a small but potent catalog of things remembered from Guyana: an afternoon flying kites with Grandpappie in the nearby pasture; singing along as ‘Sandrowta,’ my favorite chutney tune, churned on the record player; the smell of Limacol and Ben Gay accompanied by the billowing of lace curtains in Granny’s room. Looking back now, I can better appreciate our visits to a store that helped people preserve their memories.

Today, my keepsakes include handwritten letters from grandparents, fading photographs, a blueprint for a house, and reels of jaunty Super 8 film my mother shot of my last day living in Guyana. But none of these items were left for me—they are what I took, or what I asked to have. Unlike concrete, unlike filigree, which purposefully passed between generations in my family, these other inheritances are those which I sought out and saved.

Being a guardian is an honor and a responsibility.

What does it mean to inherit?

For me, it is being a link in that chain with my name on it, reuniting things (almost) lost with things remembered.

This way of knowing and communing with one’s past is part truth, part history, part regeneration. As African American poet Kevin Young has written, ‘it is this reason I found myself a poet and a collector and now a curator: to save what we didn’t even know needed saving.’3 This is what I have found, as well. I’ve been a poet honing the moments of my own life, a collector amassing my family’s stories, and now a curator caring for the heirlooms and archives that I share with you.


1. ‘Concrete and Filigree’ includes excerpts from material published in ARC magazine and the International Review of African American Art. See Michelle Joan Wilkinson, ‘“Guyana Quintet” and “Gold Bangles,”’ ARC Magazine: Contemporary Visual Art and Culture, 3 (2011), 20–21. See Michelle Joan Wilkinson, ‘Not Grandpa’s Porch, Or Is It?: Musings on the New Museum on the Mall,’ International Review of African American Art, 25/2 (2015), 52–61.

2. Martin Carter, ‘This is the Dark Time, My Love,’ in Poems of Resistance from British Guiana (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954), p. 14.

3. Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012), p. 14.