1. Conformity Stage
I used to pray to be white. For the divine to reach into their paints and select a shade akin to Janine and Sarah’s. I wanted to match the other kindergarteners at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ridgewood. This is my first memory. My father, mother, elder brother, and I just moved from London to Toronto as we waited for my father’s student visa to come through. When it did we landed in New York City—in Richmond Hill, Queens, long before Liberty Avenue’s roti and doubles shops perfumed the borough.
My parents both completed their high school equivalencies and dreamt of a freedom that the United States offered, a kind of freedom that Powellian Britain could not give its brown children. My mother had been spit at and pelted with rocks by skinheads. She had to leave. This dream that they chased across the Atlantic was a myth like following the Ganga River and climbing the Himalayas in search of Lord Shiva. All you would find are the corpses of hikers, the corpses of dreams.
They worked as janitors in the Lutheran church. A perk was that my brother and I could attend their school for free. I remember the red-haired kindergarten teacher for her patience and attention. The smell of crayon wax and the white girls with their hair in plaits. I searched through the boxes on our group tables for skin color. I colored myself with a tan crayon. I did not yet have words for my color.
That winter we were starving. The congregation gifted my family with a Christmas tree, wrapped gifts for each of us, and a Chevy Impala. The first thing my parents did was baptize themselves and us. Next we all loaded the car and drove to Toronto to see my father’s mother. White people were generous. I didn’t know why I had such ugly skin. Surely the Christian God would listen to my prayers. All of his people were white.
The first time I realized I was different was when in Kindergarten a blonde girl named Susan in her church plaid skirt stole my taxi car. It was a British toy that I brought it. A black cab whose doors opened from the back. She grabbed it from me and said, “Black kids don’t live in England.” She meant that I was not from England, white people were.
“Are we black?” I asked my mother that night. She looked at me and told me a story. We are East Indian from Guyana.
“You see, when God was making people he put in three trays. When he made black people he burned them. White people were undercooked—raw inside. We were taken out at just the right time.” My mother asked me if I understood what she meant.
I did. She meant that I better not be friends with black people and that white people will make you sick like eating raw cookie batter.
2. Dissonance Stage
“You don’t have to be embarrassed. I know that you speak another language at home.”
Mrs. Feverston was the teacher in charge of the sixth grade gifted resource class. Her large glasses sat proudly on her nose, framed by her graying dark curls. We were performing with the puppets called “Kids on the Block” which was a curriculum that taught about kids who had disabilities through dramatic staging. The puppet that I chose was Tran Nguyen, a puppet who didn’t have a disability but who was “culturally different.” Something resonated with me about Tran. He was different and because of the way the writers portrayed him, lesser than the others.
I put the puppet down. His mouth gaped back at me. “I don’t speak another language at home. We speak English.”
Jackson Heights was a school in Central Florida. Oviedo, the town, was segregated into sections that stung of “the good ole days” where white people owned black people. Their cruelty remained apparent in the way that the town was divided. The right side of Division Street were the economically oppressed black neighborhoods. On the right side wide yards, lakes, and white pickets stretched out their property lines, comfortable with the inheritance made on the backs of slaves. On top of the hill stood the Southern Baptist Church where “good Christians” set the trends for the area.
“It’s really okay, I know that you do. Mr. White says that your dad writes him letters about math and it’s clear he writes in a different alphabet.”
“My dad is a calligrapher in English.” How many times do I have to tell people that I am not Indian. Or that I am Indian but from somewhere else.
“I want to celebrate your difference.”
I was Tran Nguyen. My black hair was thick and coarse like yarn. My mouth gaped. Mrs. Feverston was telling me that I am not like her or the other students. It felt like she was trying to shove her hand up my ass and control what I said. She was teaching me that I was different—that I don’t really belong here. Actually, I thought, we do speak Guyanese Creole and my Aji speaks Hindi. Why don’t I know this about my family? Why don’t I actually speak any Hindi myself?
My father worked hard to keep us far from any kind of Indian thing. He ripped up Ramayanas and burned their pages. He made my mother get rid of all the agarbati, or incense, in the house. He hated the Hindi that his mother spoke and didn’t let us listen to contemporary Bollywood music because he couldn’t understand it. He didn’t want anyone in the house to praise a false god.
A white student looked at me and said, “You’re not Indian. If you are then count in Hindi.” His intention to shame me was hot interrogation light.
My hands dripped with sweat. I couldn’t do as he commanded. I looked down at the floor.
“That’s what I thought,” Josh smirked, straight blond hair falling into his eyes. He continued, “If white people shit black do black people shit white?” The class erupted into laughter.
I looked at the teacher in her eyes. They were darkening, the skin around them sagging and wrinkled. I wasn’t like her or any of the Kids on the Block or in the classroom. I was going to learn my Aji’s language and be a “real” Indian.
3. Resistance-Immersion Stage
Molly opened the fridge in my house. “Teri fridge bilkul desi si nahin hai. Your fridge isn’t really very Indian.” In high school there was one person that I met who spoke Hindi. Her name was Molly. She had a non-Indian name like I did. I was Raimie. It’s a Guyanese custom to have a “right name” and a “call name.” My parents mixed it all up and gave me four names—Paul Raimie Rajiv Mohabir. They called me Raimie in the house and Paul on all official documents.
In tenth grade at Oviedo High School Molly agreed to teach me Hindi. What this mean is that we would pass notes back and forth to each other with her writing in Latin letters what Hindi sounded like to her. I read each of her letters. I studied them greedily drinking in the jarihoos and liyas I could.
My Aji had come from Toronto and was staying at our house in Chulutoa. It was a community in a fairly rural town just outside of Oviedo with about 3,000-5,000 people. We were the only brown people for miles and miles. Aji said that we lived in the bush. And you na frighten fe live yahso?
Molly and I planned on going for a picnic at Lake Mills Park, but first I wanted her to meet my Aji so they could speak together. Aji sat on the couch leaning forward, hands folded. Her cataract glasses sparkling and reflecting the pink flowers of her dress. Her hair was a white knot atop her head. The holes in her ears stretched from the heavy gold jhumka earring she wore.
“Tohar jew achcha hai?” she asked Molly.
“Haan ji. Aap batayie, aap kaise hain?” she replied. I looked around the room, astonished. My father glanced up from across the room. He said that Aji only spoke “broken Hindi.” This exchange was anything but broken. At the time I didn’t understand.
“Ham achacha hai beti. Ham gaana gaaye walla hai ki ham itna khus hai tose milke.”
“Agar aap gayengi meh to zaroor nachoongi,” Molly added.
“Tu nache beti ham bhi tohar saath nachab.” Aji broke into her laugh and Molly joined in. It was slightly nasal and sounded like bells. What did I just witness?
When Molly and I left my house Aji said to Molly, “Bhagwaan toke bhala kare,” and Molly pressed her palms together.
I was in my own house and I felt shut out. I wanted to know what they said, but I wanted to know from the inside. I wanted to laugh in Hindi too.
“What did you guys talk about?” my voice broke as I drove down the rural streets.
“Your Grandmother said that she was happy to meet me, so happy that she could sing. I said if she sang then I will dance and she said that she would dance too.”
I looked as the asphalt before me darkened in the shade of oak trees lining the road.
“She also said, ‘May God keep you well.’”
When I dropped Molly back at her house her mother insisted that I come in too. Aunty was very happy that I wanted to learn Hindi and graciously offered to teach me once, over a cup of chai. Molly narrated to her mother the events.
“None of them understood what their own Grandmother was saying,” she said. It was sad. I hated the fact of Hindi being erased in my family. I hated Christianity for outlawing books in Hindi from my house. I wanted to be Indian like Molly. Not Indian like Aji. I hated my kind of brown. Outside the cicadas started to hum.
4. Introspection Stage
If I were a good child I would have been a medical doctor. There are some parts of conformity to cultural expectations that can break your back. The load is not designed for one person, ironically. It was time to confront my family’s anti-black racism. Like everyone else in my family I had been brainwashed into believing that Burnham’s transgressions against Indian people in Guyana belonged to every black person in the world.
My mother’s family fled Guyana for political reasons in the 1960s, just at the riots ended. Black Friday in Georgetown (February 16, 1962) saw the protests against Cheddi Jagan and the burning down of Indian establishments. My Nana, affiliated with the People’s Progressive Party, fled to London where he spent the rest of his years hating black people for “driving him into exile.”
News reached him in his Georgetown home of the alleged Wismar Massacre of 1964 where Indian women were brutally raped. More than 2,000 Indians were allegedly killed in racist violence and some 3,000 needed to be evacuated from Wismar. These statistics were always exaggerated to suit the needs of whichever uncle would recount the atrocities that East Indians faced. They were always quick to tell their children, nephews, and nieces why we should fear black people. The stories began, “Back home in Guyana…” and would end with, “that’s why we left.”
My family’s pain was real but the racialized hatred was not justified. The stories of Indian oppression started to ossify and fossilize. The prejudice was a hard stone that was cleaved like some kind of flint stone knapped into a sharp blade. My mother used to tell us that horrible cookie story when we were children.
I have never lived in the Caribbean. I have visited, but the oppression that I felt in the United States came from white hands and eyes. It is an oppression that wages war on black and brown bodies. To white eyes all immigrant bodies are overcooked, burned. I told my mother that I was gay and she cried for two years. Everyone lamented what a shame it was for me to have become this thing—raised in a foreign country. My father said we never should have left Guyana when he found out. The irony was that Guyana was only ever a destination—his stories were buried in the past.
I was home in Chuluota. My mother and I folded laundry at the dinner table. I was visiting from New York. I had moved there and was working as a teacher in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
“Ma, I’m seeing someone.” I kept my eyes on the red t-shirt now faded to a pilly pink.
“Are you? Who is he?” her gold bangles clinked as she folded more vigorously. She knew I was gay but this was the first time I was telling her about someone.
“His name is Maurice and we have a lot in common.”
“Maurice? Is that a white name?” Now her hands were machines, folding furiously.
“No, he grew up in Haiti.” Silence.
“I always thought you’d be with an Indian—a South Asian,” she said, surprised. I had dated South Asian men. I wasn’t against it.
“But this guy is really nice and he’s a teacher too.” I looked at the work at hand. The cloth in my hands was soft from wear. “He’s Caribbean. I feel like I have more in common with him than someone from India.”
I was generalizing to make my point. Black folks were dragged to the Caribbean as slaves. Dehumanized, punished, and worked to death for sugar. Indians were brought as indentured laborers. Dehumanized, punished, and worked for contracts of five-year periods. Our suffering was not the same, yet we were taught to hate each other by the same system that saw us as heathens, as lesser than. I realized that it was the British who were the masters of erasing others. That the period of colonization galvanized the hatred that I grew up immersed in. That Indians were brought to Guyana to do the work more cheaply than emancipated slaves. That the British fanned the fires that tried to keep our communities separate and to view each other with suspicion. To undo this logic would take years of being suspicious of my impulses and subconscious actions. Even if it was the British who originally taught us to hate, I now had to undo their hideous knots and imagine a past where Black and Indian Guyanese suffered injustice, something that unites us rather than divides us.
It was the British who instituted their colonial laws that saw antiman, batty-bois, bullahs, and all other genders as illegal and worthy of punishment. The act of decolonization would be to see ourselves as the same and part of a Guyanese culture. That love of our neighbors was what would save us. Not just love of the straight, Indian neighbor who was educated and had sons. I could never be that and my father grew to hate me for it. I could never be the ideal Caribbean Indian, to him.
5. Integrative Stage
Last week a special issue of a journal came out, a South Asian American special issue. From the website I saw so many names of poets and writers whose work I admire, whose craft I aspire to. South Asian poets saved my life—but that is a separate “special” issue I may recount one day. I ordered a copy, excited to see in print so many brown voices, hoping to learn of more Indo-Caribbean American writers. When it came in the mail to my Honolulu address, I tore open the package and put aside the grading that I had to do for the next day.
Hundreds and hundreds of pages of creative writing titillated. I held this thick book up and was so glad to look through it, reading the titles of pieces that I would like to teach in my poetry workshop at the University of Hawai‘i. Being in the Pacific, Hawai‘i is uniquely positioned as a place that draws Pacific scholars and writers out. Work by Indo-Fijians like Sudesh Mishra, Mohit Prasad, and Sangeeta Singh resonate in this atmosphere, as settler colonialism and indentured labor are issues also experienced in Hawaiian contexts. My time as a Ph.D. student in the Department of English had prepared me to strongly present the resonances between Indo-Caribbean writing and local (not “capital L” Local) writing from Hawai‘i. Part of this means stepping out of the way so that indigenous people have space to contribute to the craft conversation. I particularly like moments when I can use my own sense of cultural poetics to create grounds for a conversation between these two disparate archipelagos.
For instance, No‘u Revilla and Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio gave a poetry workshop for Native Hawaiian students that used Haunani Kay-Trask’s poems as a template for understanding their oral culture and indigenous craft techniques. Since I also come from a family that only in recent generation has become literate, this moved me. I saw the types of repetition and metaphor available in my grandmother’s music as being similar—strategies that I use in my own poetry. These resonances provide a way to forge a connection with Native poets as well as to be complicit with their movements to dismantle and decolonize the white literary establishment.
I was looking forward to reading poems by other Indo-Caribbean Americans to share with my friends. I thumbed through the pages and then the bios. I was astonished to find that there were none. Not a single Indo-Caribbean American name. I used to want to be white, it’s true. Then I used to erase my Caribbean heritage and history, preferring instead to identify as Indian. The real kind. The kind from the subcontinent. The kind with a desi fridge filled with perfect cookies. But now to me my Caribbean heritage is something that I fight for and celebrate. I seek resonances with colonized spaces around me. Something beautiful wrought out of fragmentation, indenture, oral cultural, and survival.
Speaking with my mother on the phone last night I recounted the ways that her cookie story made me think of race in the United States. She laughed at the crudeness of burned cookies and said that she was naïve and was brainwashed just as I was by her father, her brothers, her community. She said she is glad now to challenge the racist notions she dealt with long ago and sees how anti-black oppression is related to immigrant rights and Islamophobia. She has never stopped learning about the world around her, refusing to fall into the calcified fossilization of diasporic logics.
I come from a long line of people who have survived colonization, including my mother. Our writers need to unite against the machine of white supremacy. Our writers need recognition. We need a platform in the United States. We make up one of the largest immigrant groups in New York City. We are Caribbean. We are South Asian. We are South Asian American. We have been in the Americas longer than the “South Asian Americans” who are recent immigrants or their children. We are not Indians. Don’t try to erase us. We will not be erased.