My skin is yellow / My hair is long / Between two worlds / I do belong / My father was rich and white / He forced my mother late one night / What do they call me / My name is Saffronia / My name is Saffronia.
– Nina Simone, Four Women
A dead white man turned yellow and a whole island trembled. That old dead white man’s newfound yellow streaks of skin – a fateful inheritance – cracked an island’s skull in half and each piece was of different minds, still hanging from the carapace of a now two-headed beast. Rattling the spine of whiteness, that ugly dead man from foreign – née white, now discoloured – delivered us to a compromise of colour, where, even if only momentarily, yellow may have been the new black. Springing from one end of the shell, the head of whiteness made an ass of itself. Seeing this whiteness as some alien threat, removed and altogether separate from itself, the head of blackness chased its own tail. Withholding just enough credit from the blight of that petrified tourist’s rotting skin – as any whiteness of his that remains is now mostly just a caked-on facade of pigeon shit – I, Saffronia, can only be happy that yellow brought us together, even if only in conflict.
Some dead rich white man squirted me yellow into my mother’s black belly and a whole island sucked the plaque from its teeth in damning unison. In light of my father, a latent pink sat in my skin that only awoke either to the paling grace of winter or by the tickling trickle of sunrays. And yet, in light of my mother, that hateful sun could beat a darkness into me. I used to care, back then – indeed, I did – whether my colour would out my blood. Perhaps that world cared a little too much and maybe it still does. Both my mother and father were idiots, which makes me the two-faced idiot of both worlds. Both of them, beasts – my father’s humanity renounced by his own savagery and my mother’s taken away from her. My blessèd mother never lived to see the yellow idiot she released in her final breath, nor were my eyes open enough to see that shining darkness I crawled from. I only met my father in my shame. Others who looked like my father and mother met me with suspicion and that is the only thing we would ever share. Yes, I was suspicious of how I could be both tragic and magic, both a traitor and a shining example, both the celebrated gift and the hidden filthy secret – I am suspicious of both sides that would only ever recognise in me, what they cared to look for. Indeed, I am suspicious of ‘both’.
Some dead white man painted me yellow and a whole island creased its eyes to a stink look. That old dead white man from further foreign named me Mulatto and I laid my cloven hoof on his neck until his head popped, draining his thoughts from my concern. Some think I hide my face from the sun, in some pathetic allegiance to my father’s pork-pink skin, in some hateful refusal of my mother, whose shadow sits within me. I don’t refuse the sun. This black disc of velvet refuses your gaze. For a face, you can see none. For if you chance upon me, would you think a monster or devil meets you. Some foolish dead white man painted me yellow and his bloodied trodden smear of a face is now as indeterminable as mine. I stitched opacity to my face, so no other man would dare resolve the question of my skin. I do not fear the sun, for its judgment lines the limits of our pigment all the same. I do not fear the sun because it keeps the secret of an island where a muddled conflict runs deep in the blood of many. A whole island grew yellower and yellower, in both skin and class, and only the sun would remember this shame. Under this spiteful sun, some dead white man turned yellow by the hands of blackness and a whole island turned green at the sight of it. For that dead white man’s new face only revealed the shame kept drowned beneath the husk of whiteness; that indeed, its blood was not as pure as once relished. Indeed, in the right light, that is, in light of my mother, her shade could be recognised in the yellowed char of all my fathers’ cheeks and, in light of my mother, her darkness had been squirted back into those white foals’ bellies. And, in light of my mother, that dead white man had always been yellow in the blood. And, in light of my mother, that dead white man had become mulatto. And in light of my mother, a whole island trembled in the tremble of a shaken whiteness. A whole island painted some dead white man yellow and a whole island trembled, because it was about damn time.
The fate of these islands I do not know, but man must live like a god or a dog, or be a stone that is neither dead nor alive, a pool no wind will ever wrinkle.
– George Lamming, In the Castle of My Skin
They found my body bloated in the mangrove. The only thing of me that feigned life was the mosquitoes nesting in my skin. Blood curdled; hair sticky; eyes fat and aimless – each glance upon this dead thing I had become moved in staccato; but, only dead in my claim to stillness, in my refusal of change, in the unholy keep of a rotless flesh. I smelled of baked toad though I wasn’t trying to and I couldn’t be described as driftwood as I only floated – no current lived in the swamp to move me. I stood out like a sore thumb and I looked like one too; bulbous and leathered brown in the hot sick hue of swamp water. My body curved to a smile and hung by the grimace of an unspoken evil, as if Obeah itself pinned me in place. Frozen in tepid waters, everything else lived; tadpoles grew in the back of my throat and someday I would speak frogs, dragonflies landed on the arcing Pitons of my risen shoulder blades, searching my skin for food. Even breeze scraped through the gnarl of trees whose roots had grown to skewer me. I am the body floating in the swamp. The mangrove moves but I do not.
They found my body swollen in the mangrove. Its water cradled me in an embrace of grease and my flesh would feed an entire village. Worms carved homes into the warmest recesses of my mind though I housed only thoughts of regret and disappointment. Change had arrived in the village and it met me – it met all of us – time and time again. We never recognised change; it always caught us by surprise. And when change dropped itself into our hands, whether in the form of gun violence or the promise of sovereignty, we retreated in fear, as we tend to do in the presence of strangers we were never prepared to meet. So change forsook us and we returned to a labour of flogging dead horses. Fear took me to the mangrove, where change could never reach me; the swamp water would not allow it. My hands did not move when they should have and revolution slipped over me with not a single wrinkle to the surface of my concern. In my black right hand, the plough keeps ploughing and in my white left hand, the whip keeps cracking and a fear of sovereignty forfeits me to the swamp. I am the body bloated in the swamp. The mangrove moves but I still have not.
I fear they’ll find our bodies floating in the mangrove. Backs arched and risen from beneath the surface of liquid amber glass, each an island plotted against the pride of stagnation-hood. What does independence mean after fifty years of dormancy? Sunken fragments of epic memory captured in molasses fog, preserved for half a century in the brine of servile living. Dropping its weight like snapping branches, the sun rests Hell atop our backs. It wants to burn this malaise from us just as it eats the flesh clean off mango stones. Everything trembles in the sun, while our bodies decline to act. Another fifty years and we will have anchored to the bottom, held beneath boots of dead masters and the failing of our feet. I fear we’ll find our bodies broken in the mangrove, if we do not move towards revolt. Restless and starving for sovereign thought, our memory wrinkles a clamour to action. We are the bodies ripened in the swamp. The mangrove moves and now must we.
Adam Patterson is a Barbadian visual artist and writer based in London and Rotterdam. He completed his BA (Hons) Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, London, in 2017. He is currently enrolled in the Masters Education in Arts programme at the Piet Zwart Institute. His work has been exhibited at Tate Exchange at Tate Modern, the Live Art Development Agency and Jerwood Space, London. In 2017, he participated in “Sonic Soundings / Venice Trajectories,” a sound art project coordinated with the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. He has contributed to panel presentations at the “Caribbean Diasporic Dialogues” conferences at Goldsmiths University and the British Library. In 2018, he participated in the group residency programme, Caribbean Linked, at Ateliers ’89, Aruba. He has written for Fresh Milk Arts Platform, ARC Magazine and Sugarcane Magazine.