To speak of George Floyd, it is necessary to speak of my own failures. To speak now is to try to fill a well of silence I’ve been filling for several days, thinking. It’s dangerous to be silent in such times, and my quietness on Indian Arrival Day is part of that lack of speech.
It’s not enough for me to say I have a complex relationship with my Indianness, and leave it there. It becomes more and more important to explain how I have been both a troubled observer and undeniable beneficiary of Indo-Caribbean violence and racism, how I have seen that violence used against black bodies in this, our shared Caribbean space, all my life.
Like many Indo-Caribbean women and people of my generation and other generations preceding and following mine, I was raised in a communal culture of Black Suspicion and Indian Superiority. If my parents didn’t dispense this ideology in clear, calculated language (they did not) it was nonetheless all around me. I was not so much *taught*, as I *understood*, that the worst thing (yes, thing) you could bring home was a big black man™. I *understood*, rather than *learned*, that I should be proud of my culture, ‘preserved and intact’ as it was, sailed across treacherous kala pani and the brutalities of indenture. I was led to feel grateful that I had an identity I could wear like a sari, recite like a mantra, cook like dhal, pick-a-pan like Mastana Bahar, deya like Divali. That against that, the fragmentation and erasure enacted on Afro-Caribbean culture was something to not only pity, but fear and condemn. That it was my Indian woman’s responsibility to carry the filled brass lota of my Indianness forward into future generations, ideally birthed from my hips via the incursion of an Indian husband. To not do that would be a betrayal. This, of course makes me a kind of betrayer.
I would learn that what looked like fragmentation and erasure of Afro-Caribbeanness — the things I’d balanced against my Indian certainty — was in fact a mythology of colonial textbooks, of empire’s narratives doing what empire does: chokeholding truth to serve its power and purpose. By that time, I had much room in which to reflect on how Indo-Caribbean racism had both privileged me, while I’d professed to be disgusted by it: how I’d benefitted from standing beneath its cloak of power and influence while trying, often failing, to rip out the stitches at its golden hems. I think of George Floyd, and I think of all the times I’ve bitten my tongue while my uncles raged on about the grotesquerie of the blacks, their laziness, their ineptitude, their savagery. I think of my silence in the backseats of route taxis, listening to Indian men commiserate with me about the places I should not go, the black men I should not entertain, the blackness to which I should never aspire, in music, hairstyle, or excess. I knew all this to be deeply wrong and hateful. I spoke back, yes. And many times, I did not.
I’m protecting myself, I would say, internally, hands knotted in my lap like a good brown girl. I’m protecting myself from what I fear in *these* men, these Indian men I know and do not know. I was. I did. Is this how I would have behaved, on the pavement watching George Floyd be kneed into a sputtering, wailing death? Change the picture frame from the U.S.A. to Port of Spain: is this how I would have behaved if a black woman were assaulted by an Indian security guard outside of a bank? I don’t know the answer. I know my past pain, and I know my past behaviour. I know, too, that in the past I have conflated Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean responses to structural and systemic racism and classism, right here in Trinidad & Tobago, as though they were the same thing. They are not. What have I done with this knowledge? I’ve transmitted it to my younger self, who knew little better at the time, and I’ve asked her not to make the same mistakes, to consider the true, useful value of her allyship. To strip it of performative spectacle. To listen better.
But Indians *are* and *have been* persecuted *right here* in our nation’s history, an academic will slide into my private messages to upbraid me: for our religions, for our agrarian rurality, for our perceived weakness in the eyes of ‘the blacks’, for our food, which before being popularized was openly scorned in ‘official’ settings, long preceding the miniaturization and pocket cuteness of the tiny goat roti on the porcelain plate on the steps of the Country Club. I will be accused of not knowing my history. I know it, and I know what it does not excuse. I have sufficient thought within me to recognize the long, long arm of empire that stretches over *all* of us, over all people of colour in the former colonies of the Caribbean. How it has shackled and indentured us, used the same and different techniques on our skin, in our homes and hearts and atop our altars, in the tools our hands held in the fields, chapels, bedrooms and graves of conquest.
This, all this, does not make me innocent. It doesn’t make me American, or black in America. It does not put me in George’s shoes, in his body, in his everyday joy, struggle, or terror at the moment of this death, the long minutes of his dying. As I learn, fail in the learning, failing hopefully every time towards a better way of witnessing police brutality, violent and calculated racism against black citizens, and the horrors of the racist police industrial state, I recommit myself to listening. To sitting at the feet of black women, nonbinary, male writers, agitators, thinkers, and listening. To drinking in the rich bloodvein of Audre Lorde, of James Baldwin, of Paule Marshall, of Malcolm X, of Michelle Alexander, of Reni Eddo-Lodge, of Zora Neale Hurston, of Marlon James, without being a theatrical vampire-ally. No, no operatic and ventriloquistic allyship for me, I beg of myself. No co-opting or speaking for, no blood-salutations without personal bloodletting. I know I will never get it one hundred percent right, but if I can’t pin myself to the raised flag of failing upwards with love, then I don’t deserve to be any sort of standard-bearer, at all.
I am holding the flag I’ve made myself to bring to the forefront of my politics, my voice which cannot afford silence, even in its thorny and barbed complexity. Lifting it for George, for Trayvon, for Tamir, for Sandra, for Tony. For Black Americans. Offering my flawed Brown Indo-Caribbean solidarity. Offering it in the hope that my hands, which are not blameless, will become better and cleaner givers in the work. May I learn to give the blood I owe.
Image caption: East Indian immigrants in Trinidad
Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. Her first book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was published by Peepal Tree Press and was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Award for best first collection.