In Case I Die While Black: In Eve's Garden
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Karthik Singh's mom stepped out their shower one dewy, Caribbean morning to find me sucking my thumb in her bedroom. I’d often walk in on the Singhs, unannounced, to recruit my best friend for secret hideout wars. It was Saturday, after all; therefore, the world needed saving. Again. The Singh family had never been irked by my intrusions before. Yet the very nude Mrs. Singh spitting “n*gger” at me, let me know things might have changed.
Karthik and I had been friends for donkey years, as the Trinidadian expression goes (i.e., a lifetime for six-year-olds). Our mutual affinity came from being the youngest siblings, hating weekend chores, and having chronic fat kid sweats. We were such good pals that we'd pooled our elite hodgepodge of fighting toys (including G.I. Joe’s, green army men; a rubber alligator from the Bronx zoo, and Teela from He-Man) into a dented, Six Million Dollar Man lunch box.
This lunch box lay buried beneath the short palm tree in my back yard. It’s lid, which showcased cyber-enhanced Steve Austin racing a stallion in bionically slow swiftness, assured us our eclectic forces were secure and ready to mobilize. Yep. Our epic, peace-keeping, war missions made us feel like BFF gods who’d never fail to save Earth. Or our friendship.
“Get this fleckin’ n*gger boy out meh blasted house, eh!” shrilled Mrs. Singh in a tinny voice, akin to a Hindi songstress’s. I thought she was joking. Mrs. Singh had never even raised her voice in my presence before. Now she was cursing loudly, and at me, on par with the rum shop drunks on Quenca Street– the same drunks who, as my older siblings mused, vented at the bar rather than at home before their wives’ rolling pins.
As Mrs. Singh whirligigged like a buffooning Commedia clown in search of her inconveniently misplaced towel, I was sure she meant to entertain me. So, still suckling my thumb, I laughed. But somewhere between her skin ombre-ing from pale to crimson, and her creatively syntaxed variations of this new “n*gger" word, I slowly gleaned Mrs. Singh was not in fact joking. She’d meant that acrid sounding word to signify me. I decided it was time to cry.
My teenage sister and the neighborhood politician, Natalie, came to collect me eventually. She’d heard Mrs. Singh’s protestations on being visually violated by a six-year-old, from two houses away. Every household in our vicinity– from the stilted rasta shack, precipiced up on the hill, to the squatters in the palm thatched roof huts down by the sea– heard Mrs. Singh. Natalie had nothing to say that Saturday morning. She just put her arm around my shoulder and walked us out of the Singh's home to Karthik’s mom continued, abusive litany.
At the time, I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong to evoke such caustic behavior from an adult. My mother traipsed around our house naked-er than a Rubenesque Eve all the time (incidentally, Mommy’s off-key singing of hymns like a cat losing its ninth life, was more traumatizing to me than her nudity). Mrs. Singh was just a pastier, fluffier, version of what I witnessed at home. I did grow to learn however, that the Arthur household was a bit freer than others…In certain aspects.
As a district nurse, my mother educated patients in rural areas of Trinidad about health, sex and hygiene. More importantly, being negligently devout, Mommy had already shown me in which dresser drawer to find the black and white, illustrated Catholic tutorial on human reproduction if ever I was curious. But man, I was more bashfully intrigued by my transgression with Mrs. Singh.
Before the Singh shower shaming, our neighborhood had been my paradise. We lived in Vistabella, a suburb of San Fernando; the island's second largest port city. Our sloping street dead-ended into an off road path down to the ocean, two blocks away. We had Trinidadians of Asian, East Indian, African, Middle Eastern, indigenous peoples and Dougla (mixed African and East Indian) descent living on our one street. We had people who lived in poverty and people who lived in comfort.
Yet all were neighbors who shared fruits from their gardens (we had a sweet pomerac tree that went up two stories), maccoed (gossiped) while hanging laundry, and competed in the annual street bazaar; a bazaar that got most everyone together once a year like no other holiday. There were crab races, bingo, egg in spoon competitions, and the occasional steel drum band.
We were invited to and attended elaborate Indian weddings. Here there was always delicious food like dahl, pumpkin choka and rice served on fig leaves with roti skins; robust tassa drums and delicate flower necklaces; bright ceremonial face paintings; long car processions to nowhere but festiveness; and foreign incantations by pundits that made my imagination run wild, pondering the validity of storytime magic.
Neighbors gathered for Anglican, Catholic and Pentecostal prayer meetings, fueled by marble cake, milk chocolate Milo, Crix crackers & cheese, Kool-Aid and the fear of God. Christian, Hindu and Muslim holidays, like Divali, Christmas and Eid al Fitr, were celebrated– if not all together, respectfully apart.
Our neighbors’ homes were also unique adventures to explore in my suburban Shangri-la. Outside Mrs. Stone’s abandoned [ghost] house a few doors down, the Singh house was my favorite domestic excursion point. It was like a pirate ship wrecked upon a verdantly unkempt, hillside fruit and vegetable garden. The walls were comprised of found wood. Its uneven floors felt like this buccaneer boat house was listing to the crest of an indolent wave, scanning for booty. Their makeshift fence of holey, corrugated galvanized sheets, ended at an off-hinged wood gate, held closed with a rusted dog chain. Despite hating the smell of oxidized iron on my hands, I’d slip under that chain every time to get Karthik.
The Singh’s backyard shower was a roof-less shack with a bucket of cold water. They used a latrine up an eroding, muddy path amongst banana trees (and in my adventurous mind, poisonous coral snakes and centipedes). Inside, the dimly lit interior was decored with swatches of Mr. Singh’s seine nets and other sea faring, fisherman mechanics. Their house smelled of far away incense, familiar curries and had framed pictures of Hindu gods. I revered their Mother Lakshmi painting in particular, as she limed (hung out) on a floating lotus flower and had four, elegantly autonomous hands– I wanted four fleckin’ hands…
In contrast, our house was a drab, concrete cube. Its two story, West Indian modern frame stood atop solid columns, had large quadratic louver windows, and terrazzo floors that got pleasingly slippery with after-shower talcum powder. The most exciting thing about our two, heated, in-door bath areas was when rolling blackouts required us to wash up by kerosene lamp light.
The Arthur house smelled of votive candles, homemade aloe wine, and stewed chicken on Sundays. Our religious statues didn’t feature people with multiple hands or cool animal faces. Our god was a white feller in simple evening gowns (or a bloody diaper- depending on the day), who always pointed his sad cheekbones skyward. The only non-humanoid deity I ever saw in our photos was a dove hovering over people, emanating suspiciously yellow rays that I assumed, radiated from the it’s holy cloaca.
Other than my father's backyard chicken coop and the fruit bats that came out our ceiling to dance the Batusi at dusk, the best amenity of the Arthur home was our front gallery vista. From that vantage, you could see down and out across the bay, all the way to the Pointe-a-Pierre oil refinery fire stacks. Some days, tankers or jet boats would sail to and fro. Sometimes you’d see a myriad of dead fish from an oil spill. Other times, you could just glimpse a lone silhouette of Mr. Singh laconically casting a net from his boat. Our view held ample and compensatory maritime mystery that trumped Karthik’s entire pirate ship house; I’d sit on our porch rocking chair for hours and stare and stare.
When Mrs. Singh introduced me to that new word of hers, my paradise soured. The neighborhood colors and smells dimmed a bit from there on out. I was in absolute disorientation. This woman, my best friend’s mom, had often beamed down at me previously. My child's mind associated Mrs. Singh's smile with the sparkling one Mother Lakshmi had in her photo. But now Mrs. Singh was sneering down at me, spraying ichor into my six-year-old heart. My own mother’s arms being far away, I felt more exposed and unprotected than the unclothed woman before whom I stood.
I had been taught that hell was for evil people. Not me. I said the rosary, hard. But clearly, by Mrs. Singh’s violent hand gesticulations towards me (which reminded me of a Shango Baptist priest catching an exorcism vapse), she was confronting an evil spirit that needed to be cast back down into a fire realm. I therefore deserved damnation for whatever I was doing to cause her such pain.
That pain extended to my friendship with Karthik. It hadn't mattered to us, prior to the incident, our homes’ market values or what our parents did. Our only mission had been to play. Mrs. Singh’s nude meltdown opened me up to real life prematurely, like an off season bloom. Karthik and I then became self aware of who we were in the world. It was as if we’d come out of our own garden of innocence, having tasted some rotting fruit of social mores. Now I saw Karthik in his fallible, mortal form for the first time: he was an Indian boy. And I’m sure, vice versa for him.
Subsequently, we didn’t save the world with our toy armies anymore. They lay dormant in the untilled soil under the short palm for months. Eventually their toy bodies were excavated from the rusted-through, lunch kit coffin; Steve Austin’s decomposed face had quit caring about the foot race with a now absent horse. Our plastic soldiers were unceremoniously discharged home in the custody of their respective boy generals, never to band together for global liberation again. Karthik and I still played together. But it was with the other boys at marbles or “gun shooting” with guava branches. I rarely went back to his place now. It seemed a dark, unwelcoming Spanish prison galleon, slanting down a dying wave to Hindi dirges.
My mother and Mrs. Singh started a silent grudge war which lasted for years, because of me. I followed their lead and rarely spoke to Karthik’s mom. Even as Mrs. Singh began acting almost apologetically towards me, I kept my distance. Even when Mr. Singh died of an unexpected illness, leaving woeful cries singing out from the Singh house in his passing wake. Even when Karthik's remaining family moved to Canada; Mrs. Singh’s berating would always be a shower stain on my soul…
I’d hear "n*gger" more often as I grew up in Trinidad. Occasionally, an Indian person would shout it at my mother during some escalated traffic matter. Or us kids would inny, minny, miny, mo it semi-innocently, during games. Still, it was just another bad word I didn't say. It didn't become a debilitating signifier of institutionalized hate until we immigrated to America, years later. Not until I went from being a Trinidadian, to an instant man at age thirteen in Harlem, New York. Then I heard the word in American movies and in person, by whites and blacks, being used dissimilarly.
To the date of this writing, I was called "n*gger" thrice in 2019. Twice by non-black people of color who used it like Mrs. Singh. But by this time, my relationship to the word, and my assessment of the people using it, had evolved. I wasn’t the cause of anyone’s ignorance, nor would I ever again remain silent under their abuse. And I never have found it in my heart to exact upon anyone else–child or adult– that level of offense, due to my own early encounters.
When I reflect on why I never chose to hate (Indian descent people, in this particular instance) after experiencing this childhood trauma, my mind lands on two reasons: my mother’s Christian faith and Mr. Singh. Growing up in a Catholic orphanage and being raised by the strictest nuns Ireland could export, my mother had faith to resurrect Jesus, solo. Indirectly, her constant devotion to God made me keep moving forward, forgivingly. Ironically, my mother the pray-er, and my mother, the grudge-bearing parent of an abused six-year-old son, were two different people. I learned grace from my devout mother who prayed novenas for the sick and poor. I almost unlearned everything good from my other one.
Although Mr. Singh was a professional fisherman, he was not the captain of the pirate ship house. But unlike his wife, he kept the smile he’d always given me, even after the altercation. I'd see him returning from seine fishing on his small motor boat. He'd be carrying various hooks with some fish or another hanging from them. (Mr. Singh must have brought these up from the sea as gifts and staged his bigger haul elsewhere because there were never many.)
Mr. Singh would stop at some neighbor’s place to hand a fish or two over the fence. Curiously, he always dressed more casually for fishing than I’d seen in my story books. In place of a yellow raincoat or waterproof overalls, he’d wear ripped, button up shirts, shorts and black, oversized rubber boots that reminded me of adult galoshes.
Mr. Singh was a kindly man who’d tell Karthik and me about his day out on the waves; although Karthik and I didn't lime alone together anymore, I'd still break from games with the other kids to greet his dad. I was always rewarded with a story that'd make me want to accompany him on his next seemingly jovial, high sea adventures. Sometimes Karthik actually did. I envied their relationship since the only time I spent with my high-ranking policeman, dad (before he left my mother ) was when he dragged me to his ‘small church’ –as Mommy deridingly called his non-denominational fellowship– or to visit my beard-chinned grandmother.
The simplified compassion Mr. Singh showed in taking time to sit with two little boys, answering our eager questions, molded my humanity. While the world around me was requiring that I typify everyone I met by their color, and distrust people of certain racial and historical backgrounds, Mr. Singh refuted that by his very sincere, non-judgmental presence. Still, I did see him at the rum shop, glassily staring into a nip, every once in a blue moon…
“Coolie” was another hateful word I’d come to know as a kid. I'd hear it in school, on the streets, out rum shops, during Carnival, from other car windows, and in casual macco amongst adult blacks. My mother was too god-fearing to slur anyone. But she did disapprove of me and my youngest sister, Philippa, watching Mastana Bahar, the local Indian television variety show. She did advise us away from enjoying the silver age, Bollywood movies we loved on channels three and nine. So we watched them in secret.
In my mother’s mind, I’m sure she wasn’t racist, or classist, or theist. I’m sure no one is from their perspective. She just regarded non-Christian Indians as heathens who believed in a fabricated pagan pantheon. So by extension, Mommy, who loved the one true Judeo-Christian triumvirate, who allowed us to attend our Indian neighbors’ weddings, and to play with our Indian neighbors’ kids, also demoted their culture and religion as inferior to hers. This counter-sensed reasoning always sat uneasily with me as I grew up. And it remains one of my ongoing questions in life; how can people be good neighbors, yet not great friends?
Back then, when Karthik and me saved the world every Saturday morning– and for all this story’s poignance for my introduction to “n*gger”– it was not the harshest induction into real life I received. Neither was my parents’ separation. Nor being pulled away from my two older sisters at JFK airport when no one told me they’d be staying in America for college.
I was most preoccupied with being constantly called ‘Pitch Lake’, ‘Tar Baby’, ‘Black Stallion’, 'Fat Black’ or “Black and Nasty” by my lighter-skinned, black classmates in primary school. I was most wounded by black adults who looked down their noses at me due to my skin tone. And though I didn't learn the term, “colorism” until adulthood, my coming of age years in the Caribbean was more marred by it, than by racism. But that is a story for another Saturday morning.