Eight years old, I am sitting near the back of the room in the grade-three classroom of my suburban Toronto elementary school. My desk is close to the window, and I am easily distracted by the birds, one particular bird that preens itself on a branch, its feathers shuttering up and down. I am not paying much attention to what the teacher is saying. We’ve been reading a book out loud together and I haven’t been asked to read. I feel off the hook, set free to dream. A few minutes into daydreaming, I feel a change of tone in the teacher’s voice and the class goes quiet. I snap out of my reverie. There’s a question in the air. I look around at my classmates, who are looking at each other in search of an answer.
‘Anyone know what that word means?’ the teacher says.
Oh, I think, I’d better pay attention because there’s a new word and I will need to know it.
‘Does anyone know what Negro means?’
Good question, I think. What does that mean? I continue to look around at my classmates to see if anyone is going to come up with the answer or even a guess. The teacher seems anxious; this word has weight. Kenneth Percy puts up his hand. The teacher invites him to speak.
‘Yeah, Tessa,’ he says, as he points towards me at the back of the room.
Everyone in the class turns to face me. I freeze, my mind goes blank and all that is going on in my body is a low fizz like a misfiring electric circuit.
As I now realise, my teacher tries to rescue me from something she herself sees as a slur, a word that is fine in a book but not in person. ‘Oh, no, not Tessa,’ she says, to comfort me and all who might worry about what is in their midst. The other kids continue to stare at me.
Doing her job as the class’s moral compass, she thinks fast: ‘No, Tessa’s something else.’
The misfiring electric circuit spews shocks through my cheeks, my arms and my legs, which begin to shake.
‘What are you, Tessa?’
What am I?
I have no idea what she’s asking. I feel as if I’ve failed a major test. I should have been paying attention, I should know how to answer this.
‘You know, people are certain things,’ she says, still trying to help, but wounding me deeper and deeper with every second she allows the class’s eyes to remain on me. ‘Things like, say, Mexican …’
She waits, but I have nothing. ‘Brazilian … Filipino …’ she carries on, offering possibilities she sees in my face, but in that moment
I hear only words that describe all the things that everyone else in the room isn’t.
She waits, the circuit hums and it becomes so unbearable that I fold my arms on the desk and put my head onto them. I go away, deep inside myself. I don’t remember where I go or for how long, but when I look up again everyone in the class has gone to recess and the teacher is wiping the board. She doesn’t try to speak to me as I get up from my desk and leave the room, heavier now, saddled with something corrosive.
There, with my head in my arms, I learned that I could disappear; I could become invisible. I wondered why the teacher had not asked anyone else in the class the question, why my best friend didn’t have to answer it. I kept these questions and my invisibility to myself.
I understood, without being able to articulate it, that language had the power to change me completely with the utterance of one word. I had known what black was — our extended family and friends were an array of shades — and I had known where I was from, but that wasn’t what I had been asked. Negro was a word like species, a scientific word that clever people knew, but I didn’t.
I began to pay attention to the power of words. In being asked what I was and realising I did not know, I set off to find out. I believe it was the moment I became a writer.
Images visit me now as the sun sinks below the north London rooftops in Kilburn, where I sit at my desk, thinking about shame. They come in flashes like newsreels from the past.
There is my Chinese grandmother, running from rape. She is running also because she comes from a family of people who have running away in their DNA. Born to Chinese parents who had arrived in British Guiana from Hong Kong towards the end of the nineteenth century, my grandmother’s family had escaped the Sino-Japanese War, after a different uncle, a dentist, had been strapped to his own dentist’s chair and shot in the head by a Japanese soldier.
When I imagine my grandmother as a young woman, she is running.
My mother gave me the story of her mother’s rape when I was a teenager. ‘Granny ran away from the countryside,’ she said, and nearly whispered the rest. I assumed it was her way of warning me about the perils of being a woman, as she had warned me about so many perils as a child. But it was the running and not the rape that stayed with me. I wanted to run towards something that was mine, like most teenagers do, and I wanted to understand what to do with all the words in constant motion in my mind. My mother often let slip nuggets of family history that were at times uncomfortable, at other times mysterious and poetic, and at still other times so distant and unreachable that they could only become myth. She had no way of knowing that she was feeding a writer, and I had no way of knowing what truths she was avoiding or concocting.
Like most families, mine is steeped in the anecdotes of grandparents and parents who recount their histories through the lens of desire, aspiration, loss and shame. We Caribbean families rely heavily on oral histories because we come from ruptured roots, transplantation and whispered heritages related to slavery and colonialism. There are no solid family trees on traceable lineages for substantial strands of my ancestry, so there’s no knowing for sure where, when or why my ancestors fled or were forcibly taken, or how they arrived in what officially became British Guiana in 1831.
Of course there are the grandparents I knew, and many uncles and aunts, both blood-related and not, but I can only imagine those who went before them. I know from stories that my ancestry includes Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese forebears. And there are rumours of hidden bloodlines — that possible French Jew.
My Indian ancestor’s journey from the subcontinent might be one of those documented in the log books of governors and plantation overseers as they procured indentured labour for the colony. There was a scarcity of women. Slavery had been abolished; she was precious goods, arriving on a boat that carried 244 Indians, 233 of whom were men, six of them children, and only four other women. I imagine she resisted it, but necessity won out, and she was forced to bed the overseer to secure the chance of early freedom from her indenture contract.
Other stories bear the weight of secrets, like smuggled Portuguese lace, and they must never be openly mentioned. But some are playful and dance with the tropical light.
My indigenous great-great grandmother was described to me by my mother as a ‘buck’ (‘My daddy’s family had buck in dem,’ she would say), a word that obscures the proper names of peoples — Arawak, Warrau, Arecuna, Akawaio, Patamona, Wapishana. Buck in the way my mother said it meant a wild thing, a man with a spear, a woman free to roam the jungle. I imagine this woman content, alone in her corial. When I paddle a canoe on a lake in Ontario — bounded only by the earth, sky and water, while wildlife plays and hunts in the shadows along the shore — I am like her.
The Scottish McWatt of my surname and the English Eyre of my mother’s side are my links to Europe. I had once imagined that I was secretly related to the Jane of my favourite book. But names themselves are unreliable. McWatt or Eyre might have been names my ancestors took to anglicise or legitimise themselves in a former slave colony. Whispers and shadows: a longing to belong to the mainstream of a new place after the rupture from their places of origin.
It’s my African ancestor — my great-great grandmother — on whom I focus my imagination. She is the gap in my family’s storytelling that I need to fill, though I can’t trace her precise roots in Africa. Hers is the story that has been buried deepest, most painfully ignored. Hers is the story that bears such deep shame that it has been erased. But the body is a site of memory. If race is made by erecting borders, my body is a crossing, a hybrid many times over. My black and white and brown and yellow and red body is stateless, is chaos. Her body is stolen territory.
I am the result of the movement of bodies on ships: as captains; as cargo; as indentured servants; as people full of hope for a chance of survival. I also come from people nearly annihilated by those who arrived. Guyana, formerly British Guiana, a territory won by the British from Dutch and French treaties of war in the early 1800s, is the only English-speaking country in mainland South America. It is culturally Caribbean but geographically continental. Its pulsing river arteries connect mountains, savannah, rain forests and coastal plains. It is a land of jaguars, tapirs, giant anteaters, otters, monkeys and capybara, and it has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. It is a land fought over for its natural resources, and its colonial history is a story that relies on ships from Europe, Africa, India, and China, along with the dug-out corials of the indigenous people. The paddles, the sails, the winches, the shackles.
My ancestry centres on one crop: sugar. My history pulses with moments of miscegenation, a hybridity that eludes any box I am asked to tick on census papers or job applications.
I am a song of sugar.