I could never hit my little sister quite hard enough. No matter how far back I drew my fist, how purposefully I launched it at her, the punch never did what I wanted it to. On impact, my arm seemed to buckle and flap, and there she’d be, still standing. Once I pushed her and she hit her head on the corner of a bookshelf, but that didn’t feel right either. She bled, which was unexpected, and it felt uncontrolled and accidental.
Fights with my sister could erupt out of nowhere. I can’t remember the subject of a single one. All I remember is the overpowering sense of hate and rage and the desperate urge to act on it. I suppose you could describe it as ‘murderous’, and that’s often the way it felt, which makes me wonder why I never took the opportunity to kill her in her sleep. Perhaps I knew that forethought made violence unacceptable. It was only ever justifiable in real time, in response to a live provocation. These could, of course, be easily engineered; I could make my toys speak in ways that would cause her to lash out, and then I could strike back, even if it was always disappointing. Unfortunately, our mum worked out the trick, so I had to stop.
My hatred for my sister was standard-issue, prelinguistic stuff. She is eighteen months younger. I hated her before I knew what hate was. She was simply an outrage, an intrusion. She screamed, snotted and ate mashed banana. She was also an impossible Dad-thief. When I was five and had mumps, she went on a long holiday with our dad to visit our grandparents. Apparently it was the best holiday either of them, or anyone else, had ever been on. The sun shone every day, the parrots flocked to the garden where they were staying, my sister learned adorable new tricks, like swimming and being the perfect granddaughter. I stayed in bed feeling envious while my mum went out and bought me a 4B pencil – so soft! – and expected me to be delighted.
Over time, eighteen months becomes a smaller and smaller gap. Pretty soon you end up the same size. One day – we must have been eleven and twelve – my sister chased me into the bathroom. I remember feeling genuinely frightened. It seemed clear that this wasn’t going to go well for me, but the shame of losing a fight to my baby sister would have been too great.
‘I’m a pacifist,’ I told her.
‘You can hit me if you like. I don’t care. I won’t hit you back.’
She looked peeved, but it had slowed her down. If she hit me now she’d look bad, but she was easily smart enough to know that something wasn’t right.
‘But you just hit me back there in the bedroom?’ she said.
It was true. I had become a pacifist in the time it took to run between the bedroom and the bathroom of a London flat. And the amazing thing is that I stayed one. I don’t remember us ever getting into another physical fight. Not long afterwards, I became a vegetarian, then vegan. I started to go on marches. I joined the Amnesty International letter-writing club at school. If anyone was disadvantaged or downtrodden, I wanted to be on their side. All this didn’t translate into having a better relationship with my sister, although it probably made us both physically safer. I could keep thinking she was nasty, while getting on with trying to be ‘nice’ to everyone, and everything, else.
Or maybe the whole SJW thing isn’t only to do with my sororicidal tendencies; there’s also the fact of my dad’s Pete Seeger records, and his boundless love for Louisiana bluesmen. I have never overcome my father’s idea of what’s ‘good’. One night, after a party, my dad fell asleep drunk in the living room leaving a scratched Lead Belly record playing all night. It didn’t sound ‘good’ to me at the time, in fact it sounded terrible. My sister and I were kept awake, frightened by the repetitive, jangled rasping, but unable to go in and switch it off. Still, it was as if, in our paralysis, we understood that it was one of the happiest nights of his life. The ‘goodness’ of Lead Belly had to be respected, even when it ruined your sleep.
Kent joined our primary school in the middle of the second-to-last year. Our headmistress, Miss Calloway, was obsessed with multiculturalism. She collected children from as many different races, ethnicities and nationalities as possible. My sister and I lived slightly outside the catchment area, but since the school didn’t have any Australians, we were welcome. Kent was a black American who’d just moved to London from New York. There were no other Americans around, so he was in. To a child in 1979, New York seemed the most frightening and exciting place. We’d seen it on the news. If you walked a few metres down just about any street, you could get shot. If Kent had made it to the age of nine he deserved our respect.
Our classroom was divided into five large tables, each with six children around it. We had never asked ourselves about the meaning of the seating arrangements. Within a couple of weeks Kent had worked out that we’d all been ranked according to academic ability. As he put it, ‘We’re the brainiacs, those are the tutti-fruttis and the others are just floatin’ around in the middle.’ We felt lucky to be on his table; he was endlessly entertaining. He also wore the rattiest, most threadbare plimsolls we had ever seen.
‘Plimsolls?! What the hell, you guys?’ he’d say. ‘Is that Shakespearean? They’re called sneakers. Jeez!’
American things were modern and correct, while British things were stoopid. Although it could be annoying to be pulled up on details the whole time, we basically agreed with him. The first McDonald’s had just opened in our neighbourhood, plus a Dayvilles ice-cream parlour with thirty-two flavours. With their arrival, we now knew that of course America was better. We thought his sneakers were cool.
Kent’s mum was cool too. She was a street performer who wore colourful clothes with grimy puppets strapped to the outside. Although everyone at our school had been chosen for their ‘difference’, she was more different than most. If you didn’t know her as Kent’s mum you might have thought she looked nuts, but when you heard her talk she was really friendly, with a sweet, gentle voice. She and Kent lived in temporary accommodation somewhere near the school. We asked all sorts of questions about it, and about Kent’s dad, who wasn’t around. We needed to know every detail of his amazing life. I didn’t know which was more brilliant, his Americanness, his cleverness, his blackness or his poverty. He was practically Lead Belly. I must have registered unconsciously that my dad would surely love me if I loved Kent. He might even start to love me more than my sister, and possibly even take me on a paradise holiday. So loving Kent must be the right thing to do. In fact it seemed so obviously the right thing that I imagined everyone else must feel the same way. Everybody loves Kent! I perceived a kind of permanent group euphoria around him. It never occurred to me that he might notice and wonder what the hell was going on.
One lunch break, a year later, my friends and I were playing tag in the playground and needed to choose somebody to be ‘it’.
‘Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a nigger by the toe . . .’ chanted someone, maybe Sahara.
‘You’re not serious,’ said Kent.
‘What is it this time?’ we all wondered.
‘That’s, like, totally racist,’ he said. ‘I can’t believe you’re all so backward over here.’
It was the first we’d heard of it, so we had to ask him to explain. His answer seemed head-twistingly weird, but also revelatory. In spite of Miss Calloway’s cultural lepidoptery, we still had a copy of Little Black Sambo in the library. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone in owning a golliwog. When I was growing up in the 1970s it was still seen as only slightly strange that my grandmother would walk into Biba and ask the black sales assistant for a pair of nigger-brown shoes. No one had ever run through it with us.
One side effect of all this was that Kent began to seem more wise and futuristic than ever. It felt like you could hardly get enough of him. Being chased by him during tag was an honour. Having him sigh and spell stuff out for you was a treat.
‘One day my mum’s going to come to the school and buy you all doughnuts,’ he announced. ‘With jam.’
The prospect was almost too brilliant. We waited and he mentioned it a few more times, but the doughnuts didn’t appear. Still, if Kent was bluffing, that was OK.
‘No, she really is going to do it,’ he insisted.
We got on with admiring him, goading him to be interesting and letting him continue to patronise us in the ways we so obviously deserved. Then one day Kent’s mum appeared at the end of the school day and cornered the top-table people in the coats area. (‘Then one day’ was an expression we had been told emphatically to avoid in our writing.) She was holding a pile of doughnuts, each in its own paper bag. She picked us off, one by one, calling us by our names.
‘Nicole? With the beautiful curls? There you go, sweetie. Sacha? Here’s the one without jam . . .’ And so on, until everyone had exited the cloakroom and it was just Kent’s mum and me.
‘Anouchka?’ she said. ‘You need to go easy on Kent.’ I didn’t know what she meant. ‘Could you just be a bit gentler with him? You know?’ She handed me the doughnut in a not unkind way and I wasn’t sure whether to cry. It had never crossed my mind that the way I was dealing with Kent was causing him distress; I was enjoying my side of it too much. And why had she singled me out? We all loved Kent, didn’t we? What had I done to him that had made his mum press me in this way?
While it was impossible for my nine-year-old brain to grasp it cognitively, I think I must have registered that my love for Kent was somehow toxic. My passionate misrecognition was freaking him out.
Fifteen years later, reading Frantz Fanon on a postgraduate course, I finally saw the problem. My dad and I had both been bound up in a massive cultural delusion that placed Kent and Lead Belly in the unbearable role of the abject-sublime; they had been ‘cast out’ in a way that made them irresistibly beautiful to certain white people. It was pretty eye-opening. Despite this, it still appears not to been have fully, consciously graspable. I was also taking a module on Hegel with a wonderful black, male lecturer. I must have loved him too much too; when the head of department assigned him to be my dissertation tutor, he refused to speak to me and ran out of the room. I had to find myself a new tutor, but didn’t quite know how to explain to them what had happened. At the time, I couldn’t explain it to myself. Once the course was over he asked me on a date, but I was already going out with an acquaintance of his. I am so glad for my lecturer that something – a white man, non-coincidentally – came between us. I dread to think what I might have done to him otherwise.
And I’m still not ‘cured’: a year ago I found myself at a party of PhD students where I attributed an idea of Fanon’s to James Baldwin. Whenever I think of it, the shame is so great that I almost double over in pain. And now I double over at the ridiculousness of admitting such shame. Will there ever be any escape?
Not long after the doughnut incident, Kent left our school and we never saw him again, although I spotted his mum on the tube a few years later. Her shoes were made from cardboard and strips of shredded fabric. I didn’t dare speak to her, although I desperately wanted to. I can’t believe she spent all that money on junk food just so she could ask me, so exquisitely politely, to back off Kent a little with my disturbing, racist love.