Caribbean Story Part 8: Brown Skin Girl
Five years have passed since Part 7 in which Miranda’s paternal aunts Myra and Mona Spooner migrated to Curaçao. Her mother Lulu Davis was denied the privilege by Granny Janie Davis.
In this episode, Lulu reflects on her lost opportunity and seems not to be dealing well with the repercussions. Miranda grows into a beautiful, intelligent girl. Mona sends unexpected news.
Caribbean folks have lost ownership of many song lyrics they composed, because at first, they did not think of songwriting as a business. In 1946, the year before Miranda was born, a Trinidadian calypsonian who called himself King Radio, probably wrote (at least, performed) the song known as Brown Skin Girl Stay Home and Mind Baby.
King Radio Sang "Brown Skin Girl" in 1946
Ten years later, when Miranda was nine years old, Harry Belafonte, Caribbean-American singer popularized and was given credit for the said song. It was included in his Calypso album which was released in 1956.
Radios were not popular in Seaside Village, but the sound of song lyrics blasted through the open windows of the few residents who had them. Some, like Lulu, heard them in Daisy Morton’s grocery store. When she heard Belafonte singing the song, she believed that he was singing to her.
"Brown skin girl stay home and mind baby;
Brown skin girl stay home and mind baby;
I'm goin away, in a sailing boat
And if I don't come back
Stay home and mind baby."
Belafonte "Calypso" Album (1956)
The song was a commentary on the practice of American soldiers stationed in Trinidad during World War II. They made babies with Caribbean girls and abandoned the mothers and children when they left. Lulu identified with the burden of these brown skin girls who were obligated to stay home.
“Stay home” is exactly what her mother Janie had told her when she had the opportunity to migrate to Curaçao. Now the baby had grown into an affable, talented little girl, but Lulu was not rejoicing.
If Lulu had any open veins of affection for Miranda, the message of Stay Home and Mind Baby helped them to dry up. Miranda became the symbol of hindrances to every dream that flashed across her mind. No migration. No marriage. No money, because despite the fact that she displayed no affection, she always gave her daughter the best she could afford. And from age five to nine, Miranda got her sixpence from Lulu every Monday morning to pay for her private school.
So, it was not that Lulu hated her daughter; it was just that Miranda did not feel the love. Lulu continued to work all she could, and for Miranda was always the goal: to buy books for Miranda; to buy hair ribbons and girly handkerchiefs for Miranda; for Miranda to go on a church or school outing. It was obvious that Lulu lived and worked primarily for Miranda, but she never gave Miranda reason to run toward her when she came home. They never smiled at each other. They never hugged. They never played together. Lulu was devoted to being a good provider, and a strict disciplinarian, and that had nothing to do with embraces and kisses.
Handkerchiefs Drying. No Disposable Napkins
Miranda was growing up beautiful and intelligent. Her complexion was closer to her father's mulatto skin color than to her mother's dark brown shade. She wore pretty floral dresses, most of which her aunts Myra and Mona sent. She walked and talked with confidence. In the classroom, she was quick with numbers and her teacher declared that she was born to spell.
However, in the afternoon, it was Granny Janie who listened and applauded when she read. It was Granny Janie who prayed with her at mornings and evenings, and told her that she was special to God. Other church women complimented her for dramatic recitals, while Lulu just sat proud but would not say a word. On weekends, it was Grandma Mattie who let Miranda sit on her lap even at age nine. It was also Grandma Mattie who introduced her to her friends as “my good-looking brown skin grandchild.” Lulu would not express any joy about Miranda's progress.
Since Janie Davis and her household moved up to New Seaside Village, they welcomed many visitors. They could now invite folks in rather than meet them at the door. Martha Walters from church was a regular. She was Granny Janie’s friend and sometimes on the return visit, Granny Janie took Miranda with her. Miss Martha loved the little girl, always praising her for reciting her poems and Bible verses so well.
Janie was surprised when Miss Martha asked for Miranda to come alone to her house, for a surprise. Lulu said it was up to Janie. Janie said she trusted Miss Martha, so off Miranda went to her house one Sunday afternoon.
“This is a secret, Miranda,” whispered Miss Martha although they were alone. “You can’t tell anybody, not even your grandmother. When they ask you what the surprise was, show them this shilling. I’m paying you for what you will do for me.”
British Shilling (1956)
It turned out that the well-spoken, glamorously-dressed, regular church attendant could not read. Her husband had left for England a year ago, and had arranged for her to join him. She wanted Miranda to write the letter which she would mail back to the church pastor from England.
“My husband was eagerly awaiting my arrival,” she dictated. “He put on a few pounds but not much. . . I ran into Carlton Sutton who used to play our organ. He said that his studies are going well. . . I also saw the Greens and the wife is not happy; she does not like the cold weather . . .”
“What if you don’t see these people?” questioned Miranda. “Does that mean that I am writing lies?”
“Just forget about it when you leave, Miranda. One hand can't clap. Your hand writes the letter; my hand gives you the shilling, and there are many more where that came from."
Miranda continued to write but she was not sure that she could keep the secret from Granny Janie.
The Other Brown Skin Girl
Grandma Mattie Spooner was doing better at accepting Manny’s fate; and her capacity for enjoying life was improving gradually. Her two daughters were supplying her financial needs, and she had much for which to be grateful.
After not hearing from Mona for about two months, Miss Mattie wrote letters to both her and Myra insisting that they tell the truth about was was going on. Mona wrote back explaining Dutch immigration policy. The Dutch made no accommodations for babies of immigrants. Domestic workers who got pregnant had to leave voluntarily before they were found out. If they stayed long enough to be deported, they could not return. It was Mona’s turn to come home and mind her baby.
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© 2018 Dora Weithers