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Laying the Bricks on My Ancestors’ Foundation

On a frigid October morning in 2018, I was decked out in royal blue robes and a plumbago blue cape, preparing to attend my university graduation. I stood between my grandparents to immortalize this moment when my reality shifted. My grandpa’s jovial laughter not only filled my heart- it opened the floodgate of my father’s tears. This small, intimate detail-filled my soul; after all, I was the fruit of labor of generations of ancestral indentured servitude. My degree was not only mine- it belonged to them as well.

I would always refer to my grandpa as “Uncle Nathaboy”; he was a perennial jokester with a high-voltage smile, reminding me of happy memories from when my cousins and I began to call Nath, Uncle Nathaboy. He reveled in the sounds of steelpan and calypso greats such as Black Stalin, Mighty Shadow, and David Rudder every day. He was a lover of his sweet, sweet Trinidad and Tobago; a true patriot who served his country until retirement, and with community service afterward. He taught me what it means to be me- not just as a Trinidian or Diasporan child, but as an individual.

Ambition, Heart, and Determination

My grandpa was born and raised in northwest Trinidad, one of seven children to his parents. His father was a farmer who planted and reaped on his land and sold his produce in the market, while his mother was a homemaker. As it was custom, he was forced to drop out of secondary school in Grade 4 to find financial stability for his family. It was not long before he became the sole breadwinner of his family. My grandfather began working his way in his career, paying his way through schooling, and possessed traits that my grandmother believed to be “ambition and heart”. These traits broke straight the veil of dew on that October morning, for it was clear that if he had opportunities, he would have worn that blue robe before me. But he didn’t. He instead took the roadblocks thrown at him by life and carved a chiseled bridge that created a life for him and his family. Uncle Nathaboy and my grandmother were the captains of the ship, steering it towards an abundant future that was filled with a worth that money could not ever buy: boundless love. Recounting one of the sayings he told her years ago, my grandmother stated, “‘Whatever good shall I do, do it now. I may not pass this way again.’” Hearing this filled my heart; not only for how simple the message was, but for how beautiful it also was.

If we are to do good, we must do it now. Why wait?

He didn’t. Uncle Nathaboy gave without thought of reciprocation. He gave the benefit of doubt to many; he lent a helping hand to family, friends, and strangers, never forgetting his financial hardships. But most importantly, he loved all things and did everything with love, laced with kindness.

There is a Light that Never Goes Out

Anyone who knew Uncle Nathaboy recognized him as an undeniable embodiment of light. Uncle Nathaboy could have met you for five minutes, and would have spoken to you like he had known you for his entire life. He, alongside my grandmother, Mary Ann, opened their home. Although he may not have intended to, he inadvertently did what so many are trying to do today: champion positive change in the face of adversity. After he passed in May 2021, my grandma shared a story that still makes her laugh to this day. In the 1970s, there was a man selling Bhagavad Gitas in their street, a common practice. The only thing out of the ordinary?

The man was Black.

To my grandma, this was a bit weird, a sentiment many of the time have shared. But Uncle Nathaboy? He called the man and bought a copy of the text, no questions asked. Afterward, my grandma encouraged me to examine my grandpa’s book- to look at the date of purchase and his writing. As I retrieved the yellow, ancient book, I opened the cover to see a note inscribed in his calligraphic handwriting: “Purchased on the 2/11/75 for my children Premnath and Cynthia, under protests from my wife, Mary-Ann.” And he signed it.

“Why didn’t you want him to buy the book?” I asked my grandma. “Because to me, it was strange that a Black man was selling the Gita. But your grandfather, he didn’t care about that. He never treated people differently because of their race.” And it’s true. Growing up, I knew my grandfather’s friends as uncles and staples in our household. They were around decades before my birth and were extensions of him; his goodness and goofiness personified in his diverse array of friends. When they were under my grandfather’s roof, they were all his brothers, seemingly cut from the same cloth, united by their friendship and ability to appreciate each other for their character-- not ascribed attributes that said far less about who they were.

Continuing his Legacy

Sometimes I think about the days when I sat on his veranda with him, the north coast winds raising our pores and the green of the hills glowing under the sunlight. It was during these moments that he would tell me about his family; his grandparents, my ancestors, and the strife and triumphs they experienced coming to the West Indies. A grandson of East Indian indentured labourers, Uncle Nathaboy acknowledged his appreciation for where our ancestors came from, but more importantly, he acknowledged where we are today: on a Caribbean twin isle with its own unique and nuanced culture. Flecks of East Indian, African, European, Middle Eastern, and even Chinese influences are found throughout its cultural fabric. He taught me to appreciate the sheer power of us, as a people, and to appreciate our unique histories while seeing our differences as our greatest strength.

Though it has taken me years, I can now see that I am a product of my ancestors surviving the trek from India. From working on cocoa and sugar plantations; spending hours in their garden under the Caribbean sun to earn a living; paying their way through school to become a public servant; to finally setting the precedent for my life. Uncle Nathaboy’s legacy does not end with him. In fact, it continues through his children, his grandchildren, and the lives of those that he touched. Now, it is up to me to lay the bricks on the foundation that he and those before us established. It is time for me to live up to his example and live a life that is true, just, and filled with love and light. Through my writing and support of the #blindianproject, I will do my part to keep his lesson alive and help build a community, country, and world that can be a bit better than I found it- from my little island that we both share a deep love for.

Uncle Nathaboy may not be here anymore, but I know that his spirit lives on through the lives that he has touched; through the happy memories that he has given us, and the lessons that he has taught us. Now I know that I do not need to label myself: I am me. And that is enough. Now I also know that to know where we are going, it is important to understand where we came from. Perhaps this can help us chart the course ahead. But of all the lessons he has taught me, one rings a little higher than the rest: stand up for what is right and just. Be sure that you live a life of integrity and leave this Earth having made life a little better for others, not just yourself.

As Common rapped, “My ancestors, when I’m writing I see ‘em and talk with ‘em, hoping in the promised land I can walk with ‘em.”

Uncle Nathaboy, this one’s for you. Thank you for making this world a little better than you found it.

Until we meet again in the promised land.

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