The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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My skin is not my secret though my skin keeps my secret. Under lock and key, translucent skin for lock, penetrating light for a keyless entry. Secret buried in skin where depth runs horizontally along the body’s biggest and endlessly self-renewing organ. Treasure trove skin lock encoded maze and trap. Deliver myself to me in my lifetime. But tell no one of this, this secret between us.
I speak about fine lines scripted all over my body, and finer hairs in those lines. But I have said nothing about pores and about the sweat oozed from them that keeps me cool, unflappable and gives my brow a menacing sheen. Sweat may well be a part of my secret. I am at that stage where I cannot distinguish between a constituent of my body and that part of it that comprises the thing I cannot name no matter how much I introduce the idea of it.
It is easier to talk about laundry and easier still to pontificate about skin than it is to put my finger on the thing without a proper name—can you dig it? I hear the funkadelic part of me, that aspect of me set into place by mid-’70s funk Afro grooves emanating from sundry London underground clubs. But with a Caribbean swing if burgeoning dub and reggae deejays count.
I speak out of turn, out of 2002 and more like that bygone era, but then I have gone back in time to paint my life or the life of folk like me in a particular time frame, mind-set, skin school, secret society. Call it what you must but answer its calling or stay dumb, numb. As I move back so I move forward. As I move back I keep all the things I know with me, my shirt remains on my back, my collar around my neck, my cuffs on my wrists. I cannot pretend I am naked. I shed nothing in a return journey. If anything I take on more layers against inclement weather on the horizon. Layers around my secret.
Chicken-foot soup seasoned with salt, pepper, and a memory of giblets. Slurp that soup, mother. Chew that gristle, sucker. You have no idea where the next meal, if meal is the right word, will come from, bum.
No offense intended, dear past.
None taken, dearest future.
My tongue forked a long time ago in keeping with my skin and my secret, which is not my skin. Bifurcation of my sight extends to my forked tongue. I mean I do not see one thing or the other, I see one thing and the other. I see both at the same time. It takes a forked tongue to describe what I see, seeing double or nothing.
Were I to walk around Miami, as I walked London in my late teens early on a Sunday morning on my way home from a spinal tap of a night on the dance floor, or as I wandered Georgetown at age ten say, on an errand for my grandmother, and collect all the throwaway things that when laid side by side might spell my name, which is my secret, I would cover this country from sea to polished brass button, hook, line and sinker, sea.
But mercifully, there are not enough objects in Miami to spell my name, my skin, my secret, or any combination of these. So I settle for a sky without a plot, a path through a minefield, meandering, ziggurats, the very zigzag I was told as a child I must run in if chased by an alligator—yes it was that kind of childhood setting, and yes, I have the scars and laugh lines to show for it. And no, I do not want or need your pity. Stuff it in your Thanksgiving turkey, mother, sucker and bum.
Who attached a firework to a cat’s tail? Someone I know, not me, anymore. I was there, to be sure, but as a passive spectator rather than a participant observer and certainly not as a participant, never. But to this day I find it hard to like cats; rather, I pity them as I would never wish to be pitied by an enemy much less a sympathizer. I am more a dog person, more a dog as the days go by.
It was the Chinese New Year in Georgetown, Guyana. The firecrackers came in a chain and when you lit the thing it triggered the others in a domino effect. Poor cat jumped, catapulted from one end of the yard to the next. And did not reappear for the usual scraps off our plates for days afterward, no matter how much we got on our knees and peered under the house and cooed for it to come out of a cool dark we could see the eyes glistening out of. So that in the end we pelted the bits and pieces and some goodies into the spare space under the house and left a saucer of milk in the shadows, which remained untouched all day but was always empty in the morning.
Why the cat and why now? I wish I knew. All part of telling the secret without saying it. The art of disguise, a dog in cat’s clothing (or should that be fur). Fruit around the seed that hides the tree and the harvests of fruit. Skin on the teeth of a pond if a feather can sit on the surface and depress the skin, under which an electric eel slithers with its electric bite, which is worse, far worse than its seal-loud, sea-echo bark.
But my mornings were clear. Sun fell uncut by rain, undiluted by fog. I could sit undisturbed and see how that sun mopped the face of a lawn dry, dry and then warmed it. There was no one around to steal up behind me and plant a kiss on my shoulder or on top of my close-cropped scalp. I craved that interruption as I do coffee in the mornings or chocolate after rice and peas. If I could stomach it as a teenager I could easily have been a hard smoker. If beer were sweet I would have been a goner, a drunk. Chocolate is my weakness and coffee if I did not have a secret that is my biggest weakness and the one for which there is no cure. Then again if there were, as Diana Ross argued in her ’70s disco era—a cure for this, I don’t want it, don’t need it—I would be a goner. As it is I am here, very much so, and I have something secret to divulge, to pour into any willing open-mouthed listener’s beeswax ear. So hear ye, hear ye, and gather around one and all—how did Groucho put it?—I have something to say before I speak. Yo! Listen up! Riddle me this. If a bird without a beak and feathers gathers a worm from storm clouds, what variety of bird is it? What species of worm?
Here’s another. A woman shaves her back using a lake for mirror and the sky for another mirror. What kind of woman do I speak of? There is more where that came from, regrettably. Perhaps, perhaps not. Who knows? I do or I do not. I do and I do not, depending on the time of month, the weather and my charts. Yes, I am at the mercy of the usual superstitious variables, the usual elements, and the usual charms. Silver cross, check. Garlic, check. Salt over the shoulder if a black cat crosses my path, check. It is when I shudder involuntarily and think someone is supposed to have walked over my grave that I become skeptical. About time my future guffaws at my past.
I mean if it really is my grave, I reckon, if I really am in it, then why should I, how could I care who or what walks over it? The world is full of such oysters, nuggets, cow pats. I confess I threw cow pats much like Frisbees as a child in Mahaicony (about 40 miles from Georgetown) and used them as goal posts, cricket stumps, baseball bases (infrequently) but never, dear God, never mistook them for a hat. Cow pats do not skip on the skin-thin surface of a pond. They sink like aerated stones, hesitantly. A cow pat when fresh can trip you if you step on it thinking it is one of South America’s giant toads whose backs harbor globules of poison. In both cases the foot must be washed with care much as if something awful has become lodged in an eye and needs clearing immediately.
Have you guessed my secret? I have said it many ways. Each telling might be viewed as one wing beat of a hummingbird parting the air above a rose. We called it “stickling” in Airy Hall, near Mahaicony, so near and yet so far by bicycle from Georgetown. “Stickling” meaning to balance on the spot, to tread air. We were hummingbirds when we stood on bicycle pedals and balanced on the spot by twisting the handlebars this way and that with our weight distributed above the crossbar and split between two pedals.
There, I have said it. Always plural, always the bore at being inclusive, I say us and we all the time but see everything in terms of a single activity. There is more. Oh, no. Oh, yes. Regrettably. Perhaps, perhaps not. More clues in the offing: More later. Right now I have Ocean Drive on South Beach to traverse and my shoes pinch my little toes and turn up in counterpoint to my turned-down chin, averted gaze thrown two feet ahead of me—to preserve the dignity of another scantily clad European on holiday. My brash shoes, in your face. I am looking for something. Some thing looks for me. I am sure and unsure. We find each other at some point. Sometimes I give up and head home depressed and unable to sleep. But if I know my South Beach from my Coconut Grove, if I know anything, I know this, something will turn up. Ever the optimist, my past self says to my future me. Compass in my shoes for such things, retorts my bright future to my gloomy past.
Tack and clack, tap, tap in my right foot, left foot free for a kick, in case a curved ball of a remark is sent my way, dropkick if I need it. Hardly ever. Not since Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon turned that year of London school recess into kick and chop suey for all Freddie types. My skin an automatic invitation for such unsolicited visits of hands and feet. And not a drop of Bruce’s blood in me, only the cover-up technique of an armadillo without its armor. And two dancing feet for running. But the recess seemed long, more than a blue-ribbon event, more like a marathon, as long as Yonge Street. And the same problem with taxis vis-à-vis black males, though that changes even as I speak, so to speak, even as I whine, cat that I am, dog that I prefer to be, bad dog. Who let the cat out of the bag? I have time and again, but heavily disguised so that the lion of rhetoric may lie down with the lamb of ambiguity, just so the fire catching hold of that bush does not actually burn it.
W.H., tell me again about the fire that does not burn. Is it desire? For a breath can be fire. I have felt it hot on me. My neck to begin with and then each toe sucked as if to draw the nails off them. Fire. My body on a pyre, spit, in a tandoori oven. Microwave. Carson’s bakery cut in a volcano. The yeast of desire. No, my past said. Shall I stop? My future asked. No, my past shouted. You want me to stop? My future insisted. No, I bawled, no.
Were the fire merely an idea (merely?) burning bright inside without consuming a fiber of tissue it would be the mere idea of the Amazon (mere?) as the lungs of the globe. Or a waterfall rising at every point where you see it fall as a palace (W.H. again) whose every window is an eye so that it becomes the all-seeing Palace of the Peacock. So it is each pore of my fingertip opens an eye for touch so that a similar palace builds on each finger. I am shrouded in palaces, cloaked with eyes. I look out of the glass of each eye, compound look. A breath steams the glass of each eye, then the steam clears. I polish each mirror and glass, no cracks to speak of or none that make a difference to what I see and need to look at again to see differently, viewpoint added to viewpoint.
This suggests accumulation, but no. I forget or imagine something seen or see what I imagine. I forget I may or may not have seen some thing and so on and so forth. It suggests infinity, but not exactly, conjecture mostly. Is my secret itself a part of this imagined world? When revealed my secret alters the substance of what is known, therefore it amounts to little more than speculative truth. I have something to reveal. I tell it differently, tangentially because I can never be direct when obliquity offers itself as the better option, the more attractive alternative to straightforward narrative.
It is how I think, never in a straight line, thank goodness, always in curves, fits and starts. We are back to that curved ball sent my way, back at that bakery cut into the side of a volcano, back on top of that table. In this instance, Tabletop Mountain overlooking a divided and subdivided Cape Town. The pilot who was reared in it called it the most beautiful city in the world. And Robbin Island a stone’s throw away.
Captain, pour the champagne and keep the boat steady. Pilot, please land this craft with as few bumps as possible. My head is light, my stomach empty and shaky. My skin is on fire and my blood boils when I think of all the Bikos thrown away to get to this island tour, this multiracial tabletop, this high-wire act.
Oh me, oh my, I promised myself, both selves, past and future, that I would steer clear of politics. But I lied. I tricked my poetics, lured it out in the open then let politics have its way with it (with or without butter).
The personal is not automatically political. Quite often the personal remains just that, private, and, to be frank, no one cares. Why should they? A private funeral for a private person suggests privacy beyond public concern.
My secret, on the other hand, is private and public. Private to me but public because of what it is, public to everyone like me in my predicament.
I promised my selves (past and future) that I would foster obliquity for the sake of a complex argument, never to call a spade a spade. I cut my finger and write my secret with drops of my blood. It cost me a fingerful to say what I wanted: that I owe my selves honesty, art, and the best possible print of my brain pattern.
That took that much blood! my past self exclaims. Yes, because the utterance demonstrates the argument even as it makes that argument. Take my shortwave radio with its 14 bands stretched around the tongues of the globe. I find English with its many twists and turns with a toggle of a knob across six continents. Each tongue tells the same thing and the thing remains the same open secret.
My geography spans three continents. My biography I should say, since each country accounts for a portion of my life spent in it and each portion packaged my secret in a particular way. Instead of wrapping paper, just a bow knotted around the gift too big for a box or saffron. Or else packaged like a Matryoshka doll.
I picked up pebbles on South Beach, Brighton Beach, and Georgetown’s coastline. I collected a few shells and even a smooth stick or two from each beach. I keep rum bottle labels from each place (too many bottles to keep anything but the labels soaked from each nursed bottle). I walked the old haunts and found them too crowded and devoid of the pull of the past that I anticipated might be waiting for me. The only pull was on my purse strings. My heart did not shimmer one iota. My pulse lay flat below the thin skin on my wrist, unimpressed with these voyages of return.
These places put me in three minds about things. Each altered my secret. Each egged me on to tell my secret in a way commensurate with the light falling in that place, the particular slant of rain there.
None of them wanted me to blurt it out. All asked for subtlety, circumspection. One place loved to see more than my presence in it. It said my secret was akin to waves lining up and each was a page turned by sea current. And sometimes a hand took an eraser to the sea surface and rubbed out all the writing, rubbing the surface smooth as glass, killing the steady voice of the sea in its throat.
A second place, more a continent than a country, behaved as if it could live without salt water and sea noise in anything but a shell. This second place asked me to cover myself in mud, eat a morsel of mud as if mud were knowledge, the flesh of a knowledge tree, and sleep caked in mud until my dreams emanated with the mud spirit. Then and only then my secret would find shape for its utterance as clay as something molded and baked in a clay pit.
The third country surrounded by the sea basked in its former glory and told me history’s ways were best suited to my secret telling and tone. Not color but sound and not my sound but that of the speaker of my secret.
I was a child once, not born big, so the saying goes in Guyana. I owe my mother my life. My mother fathered me, as George Lamming would say. I had no father. The man who fathered me delivered his seed into my mother and that was the extent of his parenting of me. My mother may just as well have used a test tube; then I would not have a grave to visit in a part of the city I would not be seen dead in after dark. It is my father’s part of town now. He hangs out there, I tell people who ask after him, when I should tell them he died years ago and years before that for me. Instead I lie. I want him in my life as a living potential not a faded impossibility. When I think about him I am still a child. When I see my mother on Sundays for lunch I guess I must be about 12 or 13 years old in her eyes. She smiles at me with knowledge about me that I have yet to discover. And she heaps my plate just as she did when she knew I had a sports day ahead of me as well as my studies. You’ll need the energy, her eyes beam now just as her lips made pebbles of those very words 30 years ago.
Some Sundays I really am just 12 years old. I think I drove my father away. I leave too much on my plate and she becomes quiet and unsmiling. I leave and skip a couple of Sundays, punishing her and going hungry or opening tin soup for Sunday lunch, a culinary act of sacrilege in Guyana or anywhere on the globe where West Indians gather.
My brothers are the same ages too, but they always find room for her food. I should be like them and put my stomach first and my quarrels second. My mother is an excellent cook. Her oxtail kills me. Her souse and pepper pot are two meals worth dying for. She should market them, I tell her. Patent them. They should be celebrated: oxtail for poise and equanimity, souse for the soul, pepper pot for virility. She makes a curry and roti that forbid me from ever ordering these dishes in restaurants after countless disappointments on six continents and huge bills for the privilege of finding out my mother is the best. My mouth waters thinking about her in the house, mostly in the vicinity of the kitchen.
My father was a fool to give up my mother’s pot for another woman’s honey. His eyes were truly bigger than his belly. I promise myself I must call my mother in the morning just to hear her voice. She always reserves one piece of news about one or the other of my brothers that makes the most casual of phone conversations into a drama. She drops the little detail in our meandering talk just as I am about to say I must go now. It is always a divorce, separation, or altercation at traffic lights in London traffic, or police encounters and sometimes some unwelcome pregnancy in a daughter-in-law newly demoted to her shit list. All this courtesy of my brothers, who are all at that age for cooking up small dramas and all of whose lives remain an open book. But not me and mine (my past and future selves). I have a secret I must tell, but not to my mother and always to my father’s grave, and never to my brothers who I find decent enough but not confidants. My talk with my brothers is an idle engine at red lights that soon must change to green and send me away from that junction.
Blood is a particular burden I can do without. I pass when it comes to family and ancestry. I have no love but history and all the nightmare relations history brings into my life. This last part may well be because of my secret. My secret may be wrapped up in the motto that runs something like this: a banana a day keeps the doctor away. Sun, sea, sleep, and sand help bring the devil back.
Last night I had trouble getting through turnstiles. My dream dumped me in New York, on the orange train line that spinally divides Manhattan. I placed a coin in its slot and pushed my waist against the bar and it rejected me. In the very next clip of this same dream I transposed myself to the turnstile at the university library and flashed my university library card and the librarian pointed her index finger at the box beside the turnstile. I sliced my card through the gap and it read my credentials and yet the cog stayed locked when I pushed my hips at it for the second time. I considered jumping the turnstile but I was now on London’s Piccadilly Line and acutely aware of CCTVs dotted around the station. I waited for a clerk. A woman in a peaked hat looked me up and down and just as I prepared for a third push at that turnstile she refused to let me go through.
Next I walked on a coastline then flew over trees for what amounted to no more than a few seconds, then tangled with a faceless body in a wrestling match before another turnstile presented itself. Rather than push against it and fail I found myself singing a hymn in a wooden church. The wood pew pressed my pelvis and caused me to roll from one hip to the next. After the hymn I knelt on wood and heard my knees crack and I could not stand when the congregation rose for another hymn or canticle. No one seemed to notice me walk along the aisle on my knees and exit that church. I shuffled along until I came face to face with another turnstile, another manifestation of my secret.
“In the sweet by and by,” I sang at that turnstile. There will be no turnstiles. Right then I needed kneepads more than I wanted to be saved. My knees ached. I pulled myself to my feet using the locked turnstile for leverage. An alarm triggered as my body leaned against that turnstile. Security guards appeared and I saw my body on three planes simultaneously, three places all at once, three crises to resolve at the same time but all in one head.
I waited for a hand of bananas to advance on its chartreuse, but a watched pot, my grandmother always said, never boils. The sky stayed stubbornly aquamarine. A vermilion sunset altered the cane fields from green to suddenly ready for harvest. My stomach grumbled for that cane and those not-quite-ripe bananas. Look again, my past self quietly instructed my future self, it’s a six-fingered hand half-closed on something delicate no longer in its possession.
Born in London in 1960 of Guyanese parents and brought up in Guyana, Fred D’Aguiar later returned to London, where he completed his secondary and university education. He has published four books of poems, the latest of which is a verse novel, Bloodlines (Overlook, 2001) and three novels, most recently, Feeding the Ghosts (Ecco Press, 1999). A fourth novel, titled Bethany Bettany, will be published in early 2003 by Chatto & Windus in London. Among other prizes for his writing, D’Aguiar has received the Guyana Prize for Poetry and the UK’s Whitbread First Novel Award. He is professor of English at the University of Miami, where he teaches in the graduate creative writing program.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.