I was eight years old in a suburban Toronto classroom the first time I heard the word “negro”. I’d been daydreaming, staring out the window, watching a bird preen itself, its feathers shuttering up and down, while the teacher had been reading out loud. Suddenly there was a change of tone in her voice, a question in the air.
“Does anyone know what negro means?”
Good question, I thought. What does that mean? I looked around at my classmates to see if anyone knew. The teacher seemed anxious; this word had weight. Kenneth Percy put up his hand. The teacher invited him to speak.
“Yeah. Tessa,” he said, as he pointed towards me.
Everyone in the class turned to face me. I froze, my mind went blank and my body felt like a misfiring electric circuit.
My teacher tried to rescue me from the moment but made it worse. “Oh no, not Tessa,” she said, as the other kids continued to stare at me. “No, Tessa’s something else.”
The misfiring electric circuit triggered shocks through my cheeks.
“What are you, Tessa?”
I had no idea what she was asking.
Now, many decades later, a bird comes to the window of my cousin’s house in Georgetown, Guyana. Perched on the edge of the Demerara shutter, the white band above its eyes makes it look like a bandit. It’s a common bird in South America, known for its onomatopoeic call. “Kisskadee” it sings, unafraid of me. I hold my breath, hoping it will stay, needing its presence now, as the past floats up and the findings of my research are on my laptop screen.
I live in Britain, but I have returned to Guyana because I’m writing a book about race, piecing together an anatomy of what it is. Formerly British Guiana, this country is the only English-speaking nation in mainland South America. Its pulsing river arteries connect mountains, savannah, rainforests and coastal plains. It is a land of jaguars, tapirs, giant anteaters, otters, monkeys and capybaras, and it has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. Growing up in Canada I never sought to reconnect myself with this land, but as globally we reckon with fascist politics, refugees, the climate crisis, as the talk of many walls and few bridges grows, I ask myself what is real inside me.
In that classroom so long ago, I knew what black was – my extended family is an array of shades – but that wasn’t what I had been asked. Negro was a word like species, a classification of my personhood. My ancestry includes Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese forebears. I have always known of the complex mix, but without reliable family trees, the stories have always been just stories.
This morning my cousin took me on a tour of Stabroek market, pointing out the traces of life as it might have been when I was born here: “Your mother’s father owned Eyre’s Tiny Cash Store on that road,” he said, and I imagined my Amerindian and “mulatto” grandfather behind a counter. “And that’s the bank where your mother worked; the banks would hire only Chinese and Portuguese people, no Indians or blacks.” I was pricked by a tiny arrow of shame. In colonial terms, my mother’s Chinese heritage was an advantage; her father’s Arawak background was not.
My research in Guyana has focused on the plantation. My family is made up of people from four continents, thrown together in the service of one crop: sugar. I have not spent much time considering the first, obviously Scottish, McWatt in my heritage, certain only that sex happened and people were born. What more did I need to know?
Later, on a tour of New Amsterdam on the Berbice River, close to the border with Suriname, my cousin mentioned casually that our Scottish great-great-grandfather’s cousins were overseers on a plantation nearby. The word “overseer” made me anxious, sending another arrow of shame through me. Since returning to this desk in Georgetown, I have been scouring ancestry sites and the British Library’s online archives.
Three Scottish relatives arrived in British Guiana in the 1800s: two brothers heading to New Amsterdam as overseers in the 1820s, to manage slaves, and their cousin going west to Demerara. In documents related to slave complaints brought to criminal court in New Amsterdam in the 1820s, an overseer named McWatt is accused of provoking the attempted suicide of a slave who was forced into the stocks for being too drunk to perform his duties. The overseer was the elder cousin of my great-great-grandfather. The British National Archives lists this McWatt as a slave owner in 1822. In other documents concerning him, slaves complain of beatings, lashings, kickings. The two McWatt brothers ambushed the plantation manager and killed him. Arrested and tried, they were found guilty of murder and hanged.
The arrows of shame have multiplied.
My distant cousins were slave owners and murderers. My great-great grandfather? At best a plantation overseer, at worst a slave owner. And the black woman responsible for the browning of the McWatt family tree? A slave? A servant? A stranger? A lover? Was there violence from the man with whom she had a “mulatto” child?
I imagine her running in a hostile forest.
I am the result of the movement of bodies on ships: as captains, as cargo, as indentured servants. Sails, winches, shackles and cane fields. I am a song of sugar.
The whiteness in me is responsible for this. I want to run. But I hold still. Am I violence and shame? My DNA represents only the distance my ancestors travelled, so a different question is possible: who in me is the slave master, who the slave, who the overseer, who the indentured labourer, who with skin “fair enough” for privilege?
The dissonance of belonging rings beneath the shame of social inequality. I insist you ask me not what but who I am. Listen, I will tell you. And then you tell me who you are.
Tessa McWatt is the author of “Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging” (Scribe)
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special