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'Negro mode of Nursing', plate from Richard Bridgens' 'West India Scenery', 1836

My own great-grandmother Helen was born after Emancipation, but her mother was a slave called Happy. We never knew if she had any other name. As a child growing up in Guyana, when I thought about Happy, I pictured a black woman with a broad, gleaming smile. Later, I thought about her with a surge of anger that someone had stuck that name on a child born into slavery. Now I wish I had asked my great-grandmother about such things, but I don’t remember her speaking. She seemed like a sort of relic, and at the same time a link with a past I could not imagine. Indeed although it seems in retrospect that I had always known about slavery, in reality it also seemed incredible, and the only evidence that such things had once happened was the silent presence of my great-grandmother. In my memory we never spoke, but I remember gazing at her green eyes, her flowing hair, which was mostly white, but still retained streaks of red, and her strange pale skin. Why she looked so different from the rest of us was a constant puzzle. But as I found out later, it was slavery again which had given so many of the families we knew in those days a grandparent who looked like Helen. Then there was my great-grandfather, whose name no one could tell me, who had escaped from Brazil and reappeared in the Guyanese jungle in true Brazilian fashion, quietly farming a clearing in the rain forest. It was his spirit of adventure and independence that I reconstructed as child, and that I would call on when I was frightened or alone – someone who would call no man master.

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