An extract from Tessa McWatt’s memoir, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging, published by Scribe in 2019 and the winner of the 2020 OCM Bocas Prize.
Eight years old, I am sitting near the back of the room in the grade-three classroom of my suburban Toronto elementary school. My desk is close to the window, and I am easily distracted by the birds; one particular bird preens itself on a branch, its feathers shuttering up and down. I am not paying much attention to what the teacher is saying. We’ve been reading a book out loud together and I haven’t been asked to read. I feel off the hook, set free to daydream. A few minutes into daydreaming, I feel a change of tone in the teacher’s voice and the class goes quiet. I snap out of my reverie. There’s a question in the air. I look around at my classmates, who are looking at each other in search of an answer.
“Anyone know what that word means?” the teacher says.
Oh, I think, I’d better pay attention because there’s a new word and I will need to know it.
“Does anyone know what Negro means?”
Good question, I think. What does that mean? I continue to look around at my classmates to see if anyone is going to come up with the answer or even a guess. The teacher seems anxious; this word has weight. Kenneth Percy puts up his hand. The teacher invites him to speak.
“Yeah, Tessa,” he says, as he points towards me at the back of the room.
Everyone in the class turns to face me. I freeze, my mind goes blank and all that is going on in my body is a low fizz like a misfiring electric circuit.
As I now realize, my teacher tries to rescue me from something she herself sees as a slur, a word that is fine in a book but not in person. “Oh no, not Tessa,” she says, to comfort me and all who might worry about what is in their midst. The other kids continue to stare at me.Negro was a word like species, a scientific word that clever people knew, but I didn’t. I began to pay attention to the power of words. In being asked what I was and realizing I did not know, I set off to find out. I believe it was the moment I became a writer.
Doing her job as the class’s moral compass, she thinks fast: “No, Tessa’s something else.”
The misfiring electric circuit spews shocks through my cheeks, my arms and my legs, which begin to shake.
“What are you, Tessa?”
What am I?
I have no idea what she’s asking. I feel as if I’ve failed a major test. I should have been paying attention, I should know how to answer this.
“You know, people are certain things,” she says, still trying to help, but wounding me deeper and deeper with every second she allows the class’s eyes to remain on me. “Things like, say, Mexican . . .” She waits, but I have nothing. “Brazilian . . . Filipino . . .” she carries on, offering possibilities she sees in my face, but in that moment I hear only words that describe all the things that everyone else in the room isn’t.
She waits, the circuit hums and it becomes so unbearable that I fold my arms on the desk and put my head onto them. I go away, deep inside myself. I don’t remember where I go or for how long, but when I look up again everyone in the class has gone to recess and the teacher is wiping the board. She doesn’t try to speak to me as I get up from my desk and leave the room, heavier now, saddled with something corrosive.
There, with my head in my arms, I learned that I could disappear; I could become invisible. I wondered why the teacher had not asked anyone else in the class the question, why my best friend didn’t have to answer it. I kept these questions and my invisibility to myself.
I understood, without being able to articulate it, that language had the power to change me completely with the utterance of one word. I had known what black was—our extended family and friends were an array of shades—and I had known where I was from, but that wasn’t what I had been asked. Negro was a word like species, a scientific word that clever people knew, but I didn’t. I began to pay attention to the power of words. In being asked what I was and realizing I did not know, I set off to find out. I believe it was the moment I became a writer.