For some Long Islanders, their home not only reflects who they are, but also where they come from.
They bring their culture and heritage into their personal living spaces, creating a home that is both here and there, reaffirming connections to personal geographies and family history, yet blending seamlessly into their contemporary American lives.
The Odames of Elmont are one of those families.
Brooklyn-born Xeny Odame’s family came to the United States by way of Panamá and Jamaica. She is an educator at Brooklyn College Academy. Her husband, Kwame Kumi Odame, NICE bus operator, is from Ghana. They met on Xeny’s first trip to Africa in the 1990s and — after a few long-distance years — married and started their family in New York.
Their daughter, Dedenaa (which means firstborn princess), a sophomore at Howard University in Washington D.C., and son, Nanaito (little chief), a 10th grader at Elmont Memorial High School, grew up immersed in Pan-African culture thanks to their collection of African, Caribbean, and Central and South American art, crafts, textiles and instruments that intertwine with modern American furniture.
It is perhaps best symbolized by the many carved Sankofa in their living room. The word Sankofa means to retrieve.
“The Sankofa is a bird looking backward while holding an egg in its beak,” says Xeny as she explains the significance of the different pieces from Ghana, Cameroon and Egypt. “It is a very popular symbol that tells us that you must know your past and your roots to be able to move forward.”
For Black people in the United States, it is often difficult to be able to trace family history more than a couple of generations, so it resonates deeply.
For African-born Kwame, their family home helps him stay rooted.
“It brings the tradition,” he says.
“When I come home, I feel like I am still part of Africa, but in America. It reminds me about home and makes here home, too.”
— Kwame Kumi Odame
For him, the drums are a powerful connection that extends to their son. Nanaito brings out his favorite piece in the house, a djembe drum, carved from a single piece of wood by Kwame’s friend, with an antelope drum skin and rimmed with an African cloth design.
“It’s just something I grew up with,” says Nanaito, as he beats out a percussive pattern. “I like playing it a lot, especially when my mom has events.”
In addition to the crafted pieces that they have bought, cushions and wall hangings were made by Xeny herself as are the dolls she dresses and styles to represent fabulous Pan-African women, mixing and matching trendy fashion with African inspired jewelry, hairstyles and cloth. The collection on display honors her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., but she is commissioned to create dolls for individual clients and events.
The family clearly draws inspiration from these reminders of Pan-African heritage.
“The reason we exist is because of the sacrifice and presence of those who came before,” says Xeny. “And I acknowledge that in every step I take in this home.”
Like the Odames, the Shah family of Searingtown celebrate their Indian heritage through their home décor. From the outside, the home is an American Colonial, but on the inside, from the welcoming ladies — brass statuettes on either side of the interior doors — to the gilt ceiling, to the silk drapes with beads dripping like rain drops, to the spectacular framed and gold-threaded tapestry of Lord Mahavira — a supreme leader of Jainism, the Shahs' religion — it all hearkens back thousands of years and thousands of miles.
“We don’t want to forget our culture,” says Rajesh Shah, 66, who with his wife Sunita, 62, moved here in 1997. They raised three children here and built a successful import and distribution business for jewelry, handicrafts and clothing from Northern India. The nature of their business allowed them to furnish and decorate their home the way they wanted.
For example, the silk drapes. “When we first came here the house had blinds; I said ‘no,’” Sunita recalls. “We took all the measurements and we had them made in India so they had the right Indian look.”
Other parts were done closer to home. The elaborate golden ceiling was created by artisans on site, using special wallpaper and paint techniques. The vivid mosaic tile on the walls of the mahogany-lined second living room is actually trompe l'oeil, painted over six months and incorporating gold leaf. And in happy harmony are more modest woven bamboo chairs.
“When I was small, we didn’t have the luxury like this,” says Rajesh, waving his hand around the lavish room. He points to the bamboo chairs. “This was the luxury we had then.”
Not everything in the home is Indian. The modular sofa in the main living room is distinctly American, influenced by their now-grown children. Before the sofa, the Shahs sat on the lush rug, supported by silk wrapped takiya — bolsters — which are now hidden behind the couch, waiting for another family party. The home exemplifies their dual cultures, and their success. “Next wedding, I will remove the sofa,” Rajesh promises. “You eat and relax, And it looks royal.”