An Incident on the Fourth of July
We sat in a lazy, dazed, haze. Buzzed, some of us even drunk from ice cold Coronas and cups of sangria made with Dole’s frozen fruit. Our bodies were full from grilled corn on the cob, a spicy cilantro salad, and generous helpings of BBQ Chicken, patties, and ribs. Although I was a bit bored and felt a headache coming on, I enjoyed the peacefulness of the setting sun, and anticipated the ineveitable fire works.
A few quiet conversations fluttered across the table like butterflies; nothing stimulating enough to extend past an observation or polite question.
“Are you working tomorrow?”
Sonya asked if I was comfortable, did I like the food, was I having a good time. She seemed almost nervous. But maybe she was just picking up on my own anxiety. Not the usual social anxiety I experience at most parties and gatherings. No, this one was different. It ran deep and had a profound underpining of terror, rage, and trauma. I tried to ignore it. I couldn’t explain it. Sonya and I were merely acquaintances. I hadn’t known her for very long, and we hadn’t spent much time together until now. But when she learned that my husband was from Italy she insisted on convincing her sister to invite us over for their annual 4th of July BBQ. Both her sisters had also married Italian men and she thought we’d all hit it off. I have to admit, her enthusiasm was persuasive. As Maurizio and I boarded the LIRR that afternoon, I imagined us all in the kitchen, bonding over glasses of proseco, sharing tales about the charming peculiarities of Italian men. I didn’t consider the fact that I was Haitian, and Sonya’s family was Dominican. My fantasy had no room for resentment, retribution, or hate. But I suppose it was there, crouching in a dark corner of my soul under lock and key. And as we stepped onto their manicured lawn I felt it suddenly open, ready to pounce.
My perception was suddenly skewed by the ancestral memory. You see, I wasn’t there. My parents were not there. Not even my grandparents were there.
But just as the legacy of abuse, poverty, or addiction can linger over generations, so can this most unspeakable trauma. Somehow, I remember. In my bones, in my soul, in my blood - I remember. And so their smiles seemed sinister. Their eyes seemed to shift in my presence. And whenever they “accidentally” slipped into Spanish, forgetting I could not understand, I imagined their voices to say “Kill her. She is one of them. Kill her. Now.”
And now here we sat. After a long, long, endless meal. Her sisters thought it would be cute to serve the meal “Italian” style - that is taking breaks between courses. But in their effort to show how sophisticated and European they were, they over did it. Waiting 45 minutes to an hour between courses. I felt captive, but what could I do? Maurizio was enjoying speaking Italian to Sonya’s in laws, and we both agreed to leave after the fire works.
When the meal finally ended, we took turns grasping at one of the conversations floating across, hoping to catch one to sustain us. I eventually gave up, while Maurizio decided to start his own. He turned to the young, lanky boy sitting next to him. Roberto, Sonya’s nephew, was almost 12 and carried a demeanor of perpetual boredom. Maurizio, a natural comedian, was determined to entertain him.
“ No school tomorrow, huh?”
“ Nope”, Roberto said without looking up from his game of Angry Birds.
“ Bet you’re happy about that” “ I don’t know”
“ You like school?”
“ I like my friends.”
“ Who are your friends? What are their names?”
“ I have a lot of friends. I’m friends with everybody” Roberto suddenly looked up, a grin across his face, as if he knew what sort of damage his next remark would make, as if it were a calculated prank.
“ Except for Donald. I hate Donald”
“Hate?”, Maurizio challenged, “That’s a strong word” “ Well, I do.”
“ Why?”, asked Maurizo.
And then the fireworks began...
“ I don’t like black people”
Boom! There it was. The bomb I anticipated, out of the mouth of this babe. Maurizio, my motor mouthed husband, sat speechless. We waited for the smoke to clear. He turned to me, and although I was expecting something like this to happen, I was still stunned. Stunned because it came from this angelic looking young boy, and because his mother was sitting right across from us, listening to the whole thing. We looked to her, waiting to see how she would handle it. Waiting for her to put out the fire, waiting for her to take the machete out his hand...but she didn’t move. She didn’t speak. Her face showed no disapproval, nor regret. It was as if she didn’t care. It was as if maybe she’d heard it before, maybe she said it before. I looked her in the eyes now. I wanted an explanation, an apology, something. But when our eyes locked, she looked away. In a defiant act of apathy she turned her head from the problem and acted as if she wasn’t there. Or rather, as if I wasn’t there.
Maurizio turned back to Roberto, wanting to make a difference.
“What do you mean you don’t like black people? Are you joking? What’s wrong with black people? My wife is black”
“ Well I don’t like them”, he said. And that was that.
Again, I waited for something to happen. For someone at the table, other then my husband, to stand up. I wanted one of these Dominican women to stand up, speak up, address this boy. Sonya was nearby, her sisters were there, everyone heard it, I know they heard it. How could they sit there and pretend it didn’t happen? How could they do nothing while- And then it hit me. The memory. That memory of spirits, the ancestral trauama...I was there.
As the fireworks shot through the sky, I heard gun shots. The streams of light seemed like bayonets, and as the children cheered, I heard cries.
I realized that my spirit, that part of me deeply connected to my heritage, wanted something so deep from these people, because I have not forgotten.
I imagined my ancestors being slaughtered outside, while their ancestors sat in their homes, indulging in pork roast and wine, pretending not to hear, pretending not to know, pretending it never happened - and worse, pretending that we were not the same.
Several days later, I called Sonya and did my own bit of pretending. I pretended as if she hadn’t been there, as if she hadn’t witnessed the whole thing, and I told her what her nephew said, how it made me feel, and what his mother failed to do. She apologized and explained that his mother was probably embarrassed.
“Is that what she told you”?, I asked.
“No”, said Sonya. “She never mentioned it. No one did. I didn’t even know. But I’m sure she was embarrassed.
Embarrassed of what, I thought. That he could say something like that, or that he said it out loud. The feelings inside me ran so deep, I knew I had to let it go. Her apology and explanation didn’t seem like enough, and yet I knew that nothing would be. What I was looking for went far beyond Roberto’s comment, his mother’s reaction, or anything that occurred that night. What I was looking for lay buried beneath the soil of Hispaniola, entrenched deep within the Caribbean Sea, and scattered forever, like ashes, along the border.