- Hotdog Curry
The first time my brother Alfred heard the word nigger he was with our father, head first beneath the hood of some beater, learning how to change oil. The car belonged to an “uncle”—the term for any Indian man my parents knew—and had likely been stationed there, immovable, in our tenement’s parking lot for days; no one griped about disabled vehicles in Langley Park. Like kitchen roaches and ice cream trucks, they migrated at their own unpredictable whims, unstoppable.
A cluster of schoolboys had ambled by, engaged in the type of teasing that demands copious cussing. Children are expert cussers. I recall lounging on a jungle gym in the fifth grade lamenting how much I cursed. “I got to stop cussing so much,” I declared. My friends had agreed.
When the boys passed, my father gave my older brother Alfred quick counsel.
“Don’t say that word.”
Then he went back to wrestling the oil filter with an old belt.
“Why not?” my brother asked in Tamil. After all, the boys had used it gleefully. Both an insult and a nickname, a uniterm for everyone, at once intimate and rude like man, another referent my brother would learn better than to use with adults. “Why shouldn’t I say it?” he repeated.
At the time, my brother Alfred was wearing burgundy and gold athletic socks pulled over his shins. He was beaming with Washington Redskins gear, [End Page 111] eager to don his burgundy and gold ski mask in a few months when it would—he hoped—snow for the first time in his life. “Why not, Appa?”
My father answered simply, already re-engrossed in the greasy coils.
“They do not like it.”
This was good information for most immigrants: avoid using the n-word, no matter how often it turns up in the movies or how colorfully black people themselves brandish it. Whatever the word’s allure, its legacy leaves it too fraught. Leave it alone is great advice.
Though my father had surely heard nigger in Sri Lanka, I do not know how much he knew about the word’s particular historical salience here. Not that he wasn’t paying attention. Like a lot of American dads he was attentive to the evening news and the Sunday paper, but he only occasionally read, cursorily rifling through how-to manuals mostly. At six, I had swooned at the thought of ordering the Time Life Book series on Home Repair and Improvement for him; the first volume was Kitchens and Bathrooms. Our kitchen and bathroom were creaky and leaky, one suffering from a layer of yellowing frying grease, the other from the heedless splashing of people who had grown up around wells. As much as I longed for the pristine rooms the books offered, I understood that an apartment was not like a house. You did not improve it. You eventually stopped living in it and bought a house. This was the unbending pulse of Langley Park, Maryland, for most South Asian immigrants like my parents: get out get out get out.
Exactly how my father learned of the mandate against the n-word here I (stupidly) never asked, but like a lot of racial reality, his understanding was forged from proximity. This complicating proximity would explain how the white boys I knew in high school both eschewed and enacted “blackness” as they perceived it, at once admiring and disparaging the ethos they felt surrounded by. It clarified how my mother could weep at the slavery miniseries Roots, and at the thought of having a black son-in-law (not that a white son-in-law was preferred—the prospect of a white member of the family being equally undesirable, just not as disastrous).
For my parents, learning how to navigate the American landscape was inescapably bound with understanding race, with black people as much at the center as white people. Black voices palpitated on the airwaves; they peopled every street and building; they enacted nearly every social relationship. Proximity attached my parents to (mostly working-class) black people, [End Page 112] a different racial dynamic...