“When you are removed from everything you think you are chasing, it allows you to slow down and see what is important,” explains Camille Brown. Camille and her husband Omar’s dream of a simpler life became a reality, when the couple and their four children packed up and moved from New Jersey to Daytona, Florida after Omar lost his job in computer network engineering.
“I always thought, ‘I have to stick with this job,’ and that apprehension went away after I lost it,” says Omar, who—along with Camille—agrees that the hustle and bustle up North took its toll on their family. “If we hadn’t left, it would have been the end of our marriage. We were both working so hard to make things happen and it just wasn’t. When we had big, unfocused dreams, we couldn’t meet them,” says Camille, who is a filmmaker. “I’m glad we got to have a fresh start in Daytona.”
Down South, the Browns found joy in smaller, day-to-day achievements, such as making time for their children and planning a monthly date night. Ironically, it’s when the couple scaled back their hustle that their entrepreneurial spirit took flight.
“When we moved down to Midtown in Daytona, we saw how much of a food desert it was. Eating healthy didn’t seem to be an option for the predominantly Black community,” reveals Omar, who was inspired to change his eating habits and turn to vegetarianism in college after watching some of his family members “battle nutrition-related diseases.” The Browns set out to introduce healthy plant-based foods into the community’s diet.
“My idea of teaching film at a university took a back seat to growing food and cooking. Omar got back to his love of gardening,” says Camille, who homeschools their children. In 2011, they launched Midtown EcoVillage, a non-profit grassroots organization “advocating healthy lifestyles, environmental sustainability and community solidarity through education, advocacy and services committed to fighting for food justice and empower[ing] people in our community to live healthier, more holistic lifestyles.”
Their program kicked off with tasty and healthy green smoothies. “We used our food stamps for the ingredients and just gave them away for free at different events. It felt good to watch adults and kids drink collard green smoothies,” says Camille, who points out that they’ve served green smoothies at over 100 events. As demand grew for their smoothies, Omar came up with the idea of selling them at the farmer’s market, but Camille was apprehensive about making a profit. “I thought, I want to give it out for free, but Omar is much more business savvy than me. I’ve gotten a lot better,” she says.
On November 30 last year, the farmer’s market booth turned into Kale Café, a juice bar vegan café storefront (the only vegan eatery in Daytona), thanks to a generous loan from a teacher at Camille’s former elementary school.
Daytona isn’t only the place where the Brown’s dreams came true; it’s also where they first locked eyes and fell in love back in 1996.
“We meet in a hole-in-the-wall club in Orlando,” Omar recalls. “I distinctly remember her eyes. I thought, ‘Wow! She is very beautiful.’ I had butterflies for sure talking to her.” He was moving out of Daytona at the time, heading back to Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up. “I thought he was tall and handsome. I remember sitting on the curb talking to him and him making me laugh,” says Camille. “I always thought he looked like a Black Jesus.” The attraction was instantaneous but there was one problem. “She was so much younger than me, so I thought, ‘no way this is going to work.’ I was used to dating women my age or older,” admits Omar.
Camille was 17 and about to enter her senior year in high school. Omar was 24. “I didn’t want her parents to think I was trying to manipulate or control their young daughter,” says Omar.
The seven-year age difference could have been a major deal-breaker. But after spending a week together prior to Omar’s move up North, it was hard for them to deny the intense chemistry. “That week was amazing. I felt like I was on top of the world, wondering why I had never felt like that before. I didn’t want it to end,” shares Omar. Camille’s confidence and brutal honesty was a main draw for 42-year-old Omar. “The time went by so quick. We got so close so fast and then he had to leave,” says Camille.
The pair wrote and called each other constantly during their two-year long distance romance. Camille says, “He is easy going, honest, kind and giving. The one thing that has always attracted me the most about Omar is how he is optimistic, positive and dreams big like me.” Thinking back, the 35-year-old says she was somewhat immature when she first started dating Omar. “I had never been in a serious relationship, and besides, I was so focused on school and all the millions of activities I was involved in.”
Once she completed her freshman year at University of Miami in 1998, Camille decided she wanted to experience the remainder of her college years single. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Omar of the breakup. “I was in a hotel in Maryland on a training trip, and she told me over the phone she wanted to date other people. It was like my whole world came crashing. There was no reason to live.” They spent seven years apart.
“I always had the intention of getting back with her. I carried a high school picture of her in my wallet while I dated other people,” says Omar. During their separation, Camille dated other men but would always compare them to Omar. “Nobody could measure up to him. Nobody could love me unconditionally like he did,” says Camille. A self-described chameleon, Camille says she never met anyone who embraced her many diverse personalities. “Omar loved me when I wore my hair in a bun, in ’locs, when I wore tight clothes, or when I wore long skirts. He let me be all these different people as I was trying to find myself.”
And no other man Camille dated longed to raise a family as much as she did. “I’ve wanted children for as long as I can remember, and Omar was on the same page,” says Camille.
In 2002, Omar made a trip to Washington D.C. to visit with an old college friend and decided to give Camille a call. “I got her number from her father who lived two blocks from me in New York. I would always ask him how Camille was doing. He knew I still had feelings for her,” says Omar, who was dating someone in D.C. at the time. Camille and Omar, along with some friends, agreed to meet one evening.
“I wasn’t thinking about getting back together. I just thought, ‘let me see how he is doing,’ ” says Camille. That night was reminiscent of the first time they met. There was lots of dancing, talking and laughing. Soon they were spending hours chatting on the phone. Omar would make a couple of more trips to see Camille before finally breaking things off with his girlfriend. “Camille touched my heart like no one has ever done. The connection was real,” says Omar.
A month after they reunited in 2004, Camille and Omar were thrilled to be expecting their first child, Amali (9). They tied the knot at City Hall in New York while Camille was five months pregnant. “We couldn’t have been happier. Love, to me, was more about what someone does for you on a day-to-day basis and just how much they enrich your life with love,” says Camille, who moved to Brooklyn and later home-birthed her three other children, Fela (7), Tandiwe (4) and little Menelik Kofi (17 months). “I always looked at my grandparents as the blueprint of a solid and sturdy marriage. I saw that with my parents, who were never together,” says Omar.
This May marks a decade that Omar and Camille have been married. “We will renew our vows and have a reception this time,” says Camille. As for the initial proposal, she’d love to re-enact it over too. “She hated it! I got down on my knees and proposed to her in an Italian restaurant. She thought it was corny because everyone around was excited and clapping,” says Omar.
“My thing was, these people shouldn’t be privy to that moment. I wanted it to be more secluded,” says a very private Camille before letting Omar know that he better start planning for his new and improved proposal.
Omar laughs. “Looks like I’ve got some serious work to do.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.