Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Black Marks


A powerful tale of a young woman’s quest to unearth her identity, lost between cultures and families.

$14.95 $11.21

Prologue of Black Marks

Everyone knew there was power in names. If an obeah woman got ahold of your true-true name, you were doomed. She’d write it on a slip of paper, and then she’d hold your soul in her fist. Nina claimed that the obeah was nonsense. But I’d heard the cook and gardener whisper that Nina didn’t know spit from shit, and obeah magic was strong stuff. So when my mother called, I couldn’t help but think that it was caused by the names.

Sonia, the cook, had told me about true-true names when my brothers and I first came to live with my grandmother. I had just turned nine, and Nina started sending me into the kitchen in the afternoons to learn housekeeping. She said those lessons didn’t seem to be taking very well.

“Yuh true-true name is the name yuh keep to yuhself. In the dark of night yuh whisper it to gi yuh courage,” Sonia told me during one of the first cooking lessons.

“What’s your true-true name, Sonia?” I asked. I was sitting on the stool, peeling an overripe mango with my teeth.

“Living in the States has made she fool. Didnah just tell yuh that a private name none must know, nuh?” Sonia was so outraged by my question she slammed the heavy iron skillet on the stovetop. Some curry slopped out of the stew pot. “See what yuh make me do, huh? So yuh chop me onions?”

“Then what’s my true-true name?” I began to suck on the mango. Salmon-colored juice trickled down my chin. I hated chopping onions.

“How me supposed to know that? Only oono know.” Sonia stopped stirring the stew and stared ominously. “Spare the rod and yuh spoil de child.”

“Me nuh know notink!” I wailed, breaking into forbidden patois. Nina did not like us using patois; she said we sounded like the ragamuffin boys who hung out by the harbor. But I’d noticed she spoke patois whenever she got mad or when she was sitting in the kitchen talking to Sonia.

“Worry none,” Sonia said, putting her fingers over my lips and glancing at the kitchen door. We didn’t want Nina to overhear Sonia’s stories. “Yuh know in time. Sometime yuh jus wake up in the day with it on yuh lips. Sometime is animal-name. Sometime is made-up name. Sometime is plain old jane name. But yuh just know is yuh true-true name. Me get fi true-true name when me thirty and fi grandmummy—she die and whisper this African word just to me. She gi she mumma who was the daughta of an African slave her ownself. Now, your grandmummy didnah tell yuh to come to the kitchen to learn suck mango like baby suck teat. Me told about true-true name, yuh can snap me beans.”

Sometimes Nina accompanied me for the pleasure of bickering with Sonia in the kitchen. Those afternoons, Nina sat on a tall kitchen stool, balancing herself with the carved wooden walking stick she purchased from a Rastafarian in Runaway Bay. Her short body was surrounded by a thick layer of flesh padding and soft curves—the exact opposite of Sonia, who was as tall and thin as a straight-growing piece of sugar cane. They were the opposite of each other in every opinion as well. The two old women always ignored both the food and me while they fought about recipes and gossiped about the neighbors. Those nights the rice and peas were dry and the meat tough. Nina picked at her dinner while grumbling about the laziness of the help. From my seat near the kitchen door, I could hear Sonia sucking her teeth and muttering about nosy bitches to the garden boy. For the sake of everyone’s stomachs, my oldest brother Alex begged Nina to limit her afternoon excursions to the kitchen to once a month or less.

Alex and Chris always made fun of me for spending so much time with Sonia, but they didn’t realize that I learned just as much about the world from her as they did from roaming around town with those loud boys from the public secondary school. We all kept our explorations of Jamaica a secret from Nina, as she was unlikely to approve of either the cook’s lessons or my brothers’ after-school activities. Sonia’s topics ranged from obeah to cooking to “special relations,” which was what she had with Mr. Sly, but I was not allowed to tell Nina about. As far as geography went, Sonia said the parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, was the center of the world. Kingston and America were nearly as important but filled with a lot of dirty people. Africa was our motherland. The Queen in England used to rule over us until we knocked her flat, and I didn’t need to concern myself with the other places. Now obviously I knew that Sonia was wrong about some things. Mother and Daddy still lived in the States, and Nina said that paying attention to church and school was far more important than superstition, but I listened to Sonia just the same. If you asked me, Satan, algebra, and obeah were all equally unlikely.

The bad news came at school after I had been living on the island for almost two years. Earlier that day, Miss Celine announced the winner of the sixth-grade art contest. The assignment was to create representations of good and evil. Practically everyone took it to mean that we should illustrate a Bible story. Grade six had Bible class only once each week, but Mr. Craig, the principal, said that it was the most important hour of the week. Albert Stevens asked, “But what about church, Mr. Craig, sir?” and Mr. Craig sent him to stand in the hall for impertinence. Anyway, I wanted my project to be different. Instead of drawing Cain and Abel or the Serpent like everyone else, I painted an emerald green circle of power in the middle of the paper. Included in the circle was a watery blue pool, a green sky, gold flowers like those in Nina’s garden, and the word home written in cursive. In the exact center of the circle, a dove perched on an olive branch. Outside the circle, I painted gnashing teeth, glittering eyes, and a series of angry red streaks. In the top left corner, a shadowy figure lurked, watching the circle, waiting intently. Everything inside was still and peaceful with soft colors, unbroken lines, and curves. Outside the images seemed to waver, paint strokes rippled. Shapes that at first glance seemed harmless transformed into howling, furious mouths or sharp talons upon closer examination.

“I am pleased to say the first-place winner is Georgette.” Miss Celine gave me a big smile. She was my favorite teacher with her warm brown eyes and dimples. She was not old and sour like the other teachers at Watson; instead of black and gray, she wore soft colors, and on special days she wore a dress the color of the sea. Boys from my brothers’ forms often hung around our classroom door hoping she’d let them wash the boards and straighten the desks after school. I was the top student in Miss Celine’s class. My marks were always in the nineties, and she exclaimed over how neat my homework was. I never had an absence or got a black mark for misbehavior.

“Class, Georgette has submitted a magnificent example of a surreal painting,” Miss Celine said. I felt hot and embarrassed. I trembled as I went to the front of the class and she handed me the first prize, a beautiful book with a black and red binding, thick and heavy with hundreds of blank white pages. At the beginning of recess, I showed it to Chris, who snorted, but I thought it was real leather and Alex said so too.

Instead of playing, I squatted in the shade of the gymnasium wall admiring my new book. Sarita Cheddie, my best friend, stopped to ask me to be on her netball team, but I shook my head no. The primary-division girls played ball and chased each other shrieking through the yard. As always, the upper-division girls sat on the stone wall by the gate to the school grounds, primly smoothing their blue pleated skirts and crisp white blouses. I hated the jumpers that we had to wear in the primary school. The older girls called them bibs. All the boys, primary in shorts and secondary in long pants, were on the soccer fields except my brothers and their friends. During break, Chris went down to bother the Rastafarians and learn Jah lore, though Mr. Craig said it was forbidden. Alex and his friends hung out in the village with the boys from the local public school—that was also forbidden.

On the front page of the book, I practiced my signature in a smooth, dashing script. Then just for fun, I wrote Nelson Spence’s name alongside, then Mrs. Georgette Spence. I tried all sorts of combinations. It’s not that I really liked him. I was just playing. Mr. and Mrs. Spence. Mr. Nelson Spence and Georgette Collins Spence, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. I drew a picture of the two of us outside a big villa on the cliffs. Suddenly the book was jerked out of my hands. I looked up and realized that I was surrounded by a bunch of older boys from the first and second form. If my brothers had been around, they would have never dared.

“Mrs. Nelson Spence,” they hooted, passing the notebook back and forth. Attracted by my shouts, a group of children from all grades gathered. Everyone jeered except Nelson, who looked embarrassed. The older kids towered above him. He was the smallest boy in grade six, and his light skin and chubby cheeks made him look babyish. But he was smart, and he had read all the books in the library, even the ones restricted to the secondary school.

“Georgette Collins will never marry Nelson Spence,” an older girl declared severely. “She’s American. We will not allow American girls to come over and steal our men.”

“Huh! Nelson is scarcely a man! He is still in short pants. He still hides behind his mumma’s skirts. He’s practically a girl!” Marcus Stewart shouted, and poked Nelson in the arm. Behind his big wire glasses, Nelson’s eyes filled with tears. He ran into the classroom building calling for Miss Celine, who came out and got my notebook back. But the front page had been ripped out and the cover was soiled.

During afternoon lessons, I plotted my revenge. I would have Alex beat those boys up. Sarita and I would lure them into a cave by the bay and watch the tide wash them out to sea. I would bribe old Nancy, the obeah woman in the village. Nancy could call a duppy to haunt the mocking teens for the rest of their lives. Nelson and I would get married and be the richest people in town so they’d all have to grovel. Absorbed in my fantasies, I was startled to hear my classmates giggling. I looked up to Miss Celine’s frown.

“Georgette?” she said.

“Yes, miss.” I hurriedly stood up. My classmates were staring at me expectantly. Miss Celine sighed.

“I was remarking to the class that we’ll miss you when you move back to America. You will have to send us drawings and paintings of your new school.”

“Pardon, miss? I’m not going back to the States.”

“Of course you are. During break, Mr. Craig told me that your mother has called asking for a report to send to your new school.” While Miss Celine smiled as if I should be pleased, I gaped.

“But miss. I live here now,” I said.

“You’re visiting here temporarily,” she corrected. “You live in America.”

“Please, miss,” Alice Rowell raised her hand, “may I have Georgie’s desk?” But I didn’t hear the answer. I grabbed my bag and fled the classroom. As I rushed through the hall, a sixth former tried to stop me.

“Georgette Collins! No running in the corridor. You’ll receive a black mark.” She reached for my shoulders, but I slipped out of her grasp and headed out the front door and across the yard to the village.

Sarita Cheddie followed. She was the most popular girl in grade six. My first days at the Watson School, everyone else called me a tourist, but Sarita declared that she liked Americans and I could be her friend. Later she whispered to me, “When I moved here from Kingston, the class teased me for being Indian. But I knocked them all down. Then I won the netball tournament for Watson Primary. Now everyone likes me.” Sarita was hard and athletic; she was always racing somewhere, her long black plaits flapping behind her. To be honest, I liked her at least as much as soft Nelson Spence.

“Georgie, wait! Miss Celine says to return to class,” Sarita said when she caught my arm. I was waving it up and down hoping that a car would stop.

“No, I am going to hitchhike to Kingston. No one will find me there.”

“Georgette Collins! Your grandmother will lick you all the way to America if you ride with a stranger to Kingston. And Miss Celine will be angry if I don’t bring you back.”

“Nina will understand,” I said, sounding more sure than I felt. “Besides, it doesn’t matter about getting black marks anymore. Miss Celine says I am leaving.”

Always ready for adventure, Sarita (who had many black marks) stuck her arm out as well. “I’ll go with you then to make sure you stay out of trouble,” she said. Unfortunately, the village road was always nearly empty. No one stopped but Mrs. Redfield, the white lady with the BMW. She only gave us a ride as far as the beach, and she half-laughed and half-scolded when we told her it was the first leg in our journey to the city.

We walked through the scratchy grass, over the sand and rocks, and down to the water’s edge. Sarita swung her schoolbag in wide arcs while I wore mine across my shoulders so that the sac thumped my thighs with each step. Kicking rocks and bits of seashell ahead, we moved along the coast trailed by a band of shirtless little boys in ragged shorts and bare feet. They seemed to think we were playing follow-the-leader. When Sarita grabbed my hand and began to run, they followed, giggling and shouting. Finally all of us collapsed on the white sand in a heap of arms and legs. We made growling noises as we tickled each other. Sarita crossed her braids in front of her face and roared out, “Look at me! I’m dangerous and fast like the wind.”

My screeches sounded thin next to her hearty laughs and the little boys’ yelling.

“Miss Sarita,” one of the boys said, “yuh gwine give me dollar. Me give yuh fi treasure.”

“Cha! Yuh nuh got notink!” Sarita answered. The seven-year-old grinned, opened one fist, and revealed a tin whistle; in the other hand, he held a sand dollar.

“Aaah!” the boys all murmured, crowding around. Sarita gave him a coin but let him keep his treasure. The boys wandered away. We took off our shoes and socks and spent the next few hours wading and sharing the candy bars from the bottom of my satchel where I had hidden them from Chris and Alex. We walked along the edge point where soft dry sand started to become damp and hard-packed under our feet. I could taste the wind—cool and salty.

Suddenly, Sarita stumbled and sat down hard, grasping her right foot with both hands.

“What’s wrong?” I shouted.

“My foot. I’ve stepped on something sharp.”

When I reached her, she was glaring at a bleeding toe. I sat down beside her and examined the wound. “It’s not so bad, Sarita.”

“Papa says that I run too much,” she said glumly. “He says that no real girl would behave this way. Do you think I’m not a real girl? Maybe I’m a boy, or an animal in a girl’s skin. Maybe I’m a beastly girl like my father says.” I didn’t know how to answer. It is true Sarita didn’t act like other girls. At least not like Alice, all prim and proper with a flurry of skirts and a sugary voice.

“I hate him sometimes,” she added in a matter-of-fact voice.

“I hate Daddy sometimes too,” I whispered. “In the States, he’s always watching me like he’s waiting for me to be bad or like he’s surprised I’m still there. And he makes Mama cry.”

“Don’t go back to America,” she whispered, lips close to my ear. “Georgette Collins, you are the only one who lets me be real. Everyone else wants me to be a butterfly or a little meek bird.”

“I don’t think I have a choice.” I kissed her cheek shyly.

“Can we be blood sisters then? Forever?” Sarita asked pointing her toe upwards. I picked up a sharp shell and pricked my finger. The sharp sensation felt good—it meant our friendship was real. The blood was warm and bright. I briefly pressed my finger to her toe, and then we lay down, her back flat on the sand, my head resting on her stomach. We were still lying there silently when Chris found us.

“Sarita Cheddie, go home to your mother,” Chris said. “Georgie, Nina is wanting you.”

“How did she know where I was?” I asked. Chris shrugged, a Nina-knows-everything gesture. I shivered. Suddenly the magnitude of my disobedience struck me. While Sarita muttered a quick goodbye, Chris pushed me toward the path into town.

“Is she angry?” I asked. Chris refused to say. He moved a few steps ahead of me on the path to make clear his lack of interest in his younger sister. While I dragged my feet, he strolled, carelessly whistling a calypso song and keeping his eyes on the dirt road to avoid cow patties. Each time he heard the motor of an approaching car, without lifting his head he moved to the grass and then back onto the road after the vehicle passed. As we walked through town, we passed groups of women coming from the market. The women carried babies or boxes in their arms, balancing sacks of groceries on their heads. Several called out greetings that I scarcely heard—it took all my concentration not to cry. The mile from the town beach to the house seemed dustier and longer than usual. And my feet dragged on every step on the long drive up to Nina’s villa. By the time we arrived, I was sweating, convinced that Nina had a terrible punishment in store.

Nina’s house was painted the colors of the Caribbean, cool greens and a dusty pink. At first glance, the house appeared modest, enveloped by a large verandah, wrapping its entire length. However, its reserved exterior masked ten airy rooms that often hosted an endless rotation of visiting friends and family.

Nina greeted me on the verandah. Her small body bristled with energy, but she didn’t look angry at all; instead, she stretched out her hand and guided me through the living room, out the wooden doors, and into the back patio and courtyard. The garden was her paradise with flowers ranging from milky white to deep purple. On very still days, I sat there with my head on her knee listening to the ocean and breathing in the scent of mint and spices.

“Georgie,” Nina said as she strolled along the slate path, “I’m sorry that no one told you about returning to the States. I didn’t find out until your mother called today. She’s very excited to have you children home again. She has a brand new house in Cambridge for you all.”

I didn’t say anything. I thought perhaps I would never talk again.

“Sweetness, I thought you wanted to go home; that is all you talked about when you first arrived here.”

“I’ll miss you, Nina!”

“You’ll be back during the summers. And you’ll be near your mother and father again.” Nina put a consoling arm around my shoulder and drew me close.

I didn’t answer. I had no interest in being with the mother who brought me here and left me for nearly two years. And Daddy no longer even lived at home. Months ago, a telephone call revealed that he’d moved out for good. “Thank God that’s over,” Mother had said. I would never forgive her.

“I don’t want to leave Jamaica. I don’t want anything to change. Ever,” I finally admitted. “I want us to stay like this always.”

“Sweetness, everything changes sooner or later. Look at the ocean. The waves, they crash in and out, washing some treasures ashore and sweeping others away. It’s beautiful, nuh? You like to play there.”

I nodded reluctantly. “But what if the ocean takes away something I really love or brings me something I hate?”

“Oh, it will now, Georgie. That you can be sure of.” Nina seemed sad for a moment, and then continued, “But you can still collect what the tide brings.” She handed me a book sitting on the wicker bench. It was my art prize. “Your teacher says you forgot this at school.”

I took a pen out of my satchel. On the new first page, I wrote my name again. Georgette Collins, St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, West Indies. Underneath I wrote, Georgette Collins, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America. I turned over the page, and starting with Nina’s garden, I began to sketch the parts of the island that I was going to miss. Miss Celine’s solemn face breaking into a smile when I got the right answer. Mr. Craig, reassuring and dull, standing in the school hall as he repeated the same old sermons on duty and honor. Nina and Sonia in the kitchen during the weeks before Christmas, baking, wrapping gifts in brightly colored papers, and cooking a huge feast for the Eve. Saturdays weaving in and out of the crowded market stalls. My cousins’ and brothers’ angry stances as they fought (always to make up again). And Sarita’s braids flapping in the wind. I would always draw everything and write down everything. I would never forget.