‘Hang down your head, Tom Dooley

Hang down your head and cry

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley

Poor boy, you’re bound to die’

– 1958 Kingston Trio number on the lynching of black youth, Tom Dooley


Where I live, in French-speaking Quebec, there is a 189,000-strong Haitian diaspora who are French-speaking and even have French names. In fact Haitians speak a purer form of French than the local Quebecois – descendants of the early French colonists.

I’ll vouch for that. With my smattering of French, I can clearly follow a Haitian but I have to strain to catch keywords to be able to figure out what a Quebecois says.

I have come in contact with many Haitians, at work as well as in the neighborhood where I live and invariably I have found Haitians to be smart and cultured. Usually well built, with a wicked sense of humor, Haitian men around these parts have no difficulty making friends with one particular demographic within the local white majority – young white women. I have heard they are well-endowed and that this demographic craves the attribute, but it could just be a myth. After all, Masters and Johnson said that its not the size that matters. For my sake, I hope they were right. Not that it makes any difference now. I’m 60. So, there.

With all those pluses, Haitians in Quebec should have fitted right in, but they haven’t been able to. Like the blacks in America, they remain pushed back to the furthest and darkest corner of Quebec society, working mostly at menial jobs, driving around in rusted jalopies. There are of course those, a handful, that have made it. They are a tiny fraction, like my Haitian colleagues at work. Stephane is a propulsion specialist (we make jet engines) but I’ll leave him for another post. I don’t want to turn my female readers on unduly. This one is not about sex.

If you are Haitian and happen to have broken through into wealth and comfort over here, something that is rare but not impossible, you take care not to wear expensive clothes or drive an expensive car. If a cop spots you, you’re sure to be pulled over, searched and harassed, maybe even verbally denigrated. This is a sweeping statement that I have no hesitation in making. It is a rule, not an exception.

In comparison, Asians do not have to face the same level of derision, though they are still viewed with a certain amount of petulance for having usurped white jobs. The image of Asians being generally docile and law-abiding, smart and educated, hard working and conscientious, seems to be well etched into the white North-American ethos. An Indian in a BMW is not likely to be pulled over. Come to think of it, most of my Indian friends in America are well-to-do and vote Republican and those in Canada go with the Conservative Party.

I am an exception. If there is one single thing that can bring America down, it is the Republican Party of America and it’s evil step sisters, the Tea Party craperoonies and the Libertarian heads-in-the-cloud loonies and those multitudes of whites who populate middle America, not having a clue and not giving a damn about how the world works.

If there was a totem pole inside the white psych with them at the pinnacle, an Indian would find himself somewhere in the middle, while a black, regardless of which African or Caribbean nation he was from or how well he carried himself, would be at the bottom. I understand that this distinction, between Asians and blacks, is not unique only to North America but very much apparent in other western societies in Europe, Russia and Australia as well. A Gandhi might have stood in the British Parliament in a loin cloth and given a lecture but can one imagine a black African trying the same thing?

In November 2012, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, both black, were driving past the police headquarters in Cleveland, USA, when their beat-up Chevy Malibu fatefully backfired. Also fatefully, both happened to be spaced out on drugs.

Mistaking the car’s sudden backfire for gunfire, white Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo’s squad car and 62 other police cruisers chased the Chevy down and killed the duo.

Dashboard cameras, traffic cameras and surveillance cameras mounted at businesses and a school along the way, revealed a grizzly truth – the occupants of the Chevy were high and also had substantial quantities of drugs on them. In a panic, the driver of the Malibu tried to flee and the cameras captured the furious pursuit with officers’ Dodge Chargers rocketing past repeated red lights and weaving through traffic at speeds of upto 110mph, tires squealing as panicked drivers peeled onto the shoulders.

The suspects came to a stop in a middle school parking lot. Eleven officers got out of their cars and formed a semicircle around the Chevy. Although two police radio broadcasts had reported that the pair was unarmed, the officers fired a total of 139 rounds into the car, Brelo himself firing off 34 of those shots. Then, even though the occupants were already dead, Brelo climbed onto the hood of the Chevy and fired another 15 shots at point blank range through the windshield, in his words, ‘just to make sure’.

Brelo has been charged and the case is ongoing but, as in so many similar shootings, he will most likely cop a deal and avoid jail time. I won’t be surprised at that but what really surprises me, what stands out in the extra-judicial killing of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, is the venom, the slaughter, the extermination – as if they were getting rid of cockroaches.

So, why does the white world have this denigration, this scorn reserved for black folk? Why do only blacks seem like less than human to them?

Guess what? The derision which comes to the surface in white North America isn’t an isolated phenomenon……

When I look back on my childhood in 1960s India, I clearly remember the ‘mathor’, a guy who was  usually a member of the lowest caste, the untouchables, whose job it was to get down on their hands and knees and clean the toilets of the houses in the neighborhood.

This guy, ebony black, gaunt and weather-beaten, would come up to the front door and shout out,” Ma ji! Shanthali mathor!” He was forbidden from pressing the door bell or knocking. He was an untouchable which meant that he was not supposed to touch anything other than his work place – the toilet.

On hearing Shanthali’s call, my grandma would first lift and curl up all the door curtains so he wouldn’t brush past them inadvertently. She would then stand there and watch him like a hawk as he entered. Sometimes when he came very close to one of the door frames and appeared to be about to touch it, you could hear grandma scream at him,’ Ki? Mod kheye eshechish na ki? (Are you drunk or something?). Through all that tirade, Shanthali’s face would remain inscrutable and impassive, devoid of feeling of any kind.

For some reason, Shanthali was not even allowed to speak, except when he needed some more of the cleaning agent, phenol. It was almost as if he did not have the right to say even the most mundane of things. Like,’ nice day, isn’t it, Ma ji?’ or ‘oof! Summer this year is really hot’ – things that folk usually say to each other without really meaning anything other than to sort of break the ice, words that are so common out here in the west.

Under the eagle stare of my grandma, Shanthali would quietly slip into the bathroom which was bare, cleared of all towels, soaps and other stuff by my grandma beforehand, in order to prevent any accidental touch. He would clean out the toilet bowl with the broom and phenol that was stored in one corner for him and then he would leave, as unobtrusively as he had come. On payday, my grandma would leave a wad of bills on the floor by the front door, which he would pick up wordlessly on his way out.

Shanthali had been visiting that piece of earth, our home, for years but we had no idea of where he lived, if he had a family or if he even had aspirations of any kind. I do not think it ever occurred to any of the adults in the household that this was exploitation at best and persecution at worst and that it was a sin to see someone as being untouchable.

Shanthali was the Indian version of the cotton-picking nigger.

I understand that 21st century India still has it’s Shanthalis, in far greater percentages than there are blacks in America. This is not an India-specific phenomenon either. My Pakistani colleague tells me that the job of sweeping the streets and cleaning toilets in Pakistan is carried out by one single community – Christians.

Shanthali makes me look at America with admiration – a nation that is waging a long and valiant battle. With itself. It’s own Christian conscience and it’s Christian values are acting as it’s sword and shield.

I note, with the same admiration, that in this battle, the United States of America is taking small and yet, significant steps toward equality. It is a battle that is unfortunately laid bare by the media, for the sanctimonious world to watch and wantonly criticize, while some of them, like India, still have their own cotton-picking niggers.