Just finished talking to my mom about family history. What an emotional conversation. I want to talk about how the rationality of the state’s archive can never contend with the duppies that haunt its limits. I found my uncle’s death certificate. He was four when he died in 1976.
On the death certificate are a few words that sit uneasily beside each other, cause of death: “fracture of the cervical spine, and no one is criminally responsible for his death.” The statement reveals as much as it obscures.
Even after two autopsies and a criminal investigation, they could not find a probable cause for the fracture; that is, they could not find a cause that made sense based on what they believed to be real. But mommy tells a much, much different story.
It goes a little something like this: one night, my mother, my uncle, and my grandaunt were walking home through the cane fields of Aberdeen in St. Elizabeth. The darkness enveloped them, a darkness so totalizing, you might lose track of yourself, my mom says.
So terrifying was this darkness that she didn’t want to walk behind my grandaunt and her brother, but she didn’t want to walk ahead of them either. Still, she settled with walking ahead, sandwiching her brother between her aunt and herself. He asked a question in sweet innocence.
It was the kind of question that people know you never ask. Especially not in the darkness, lest you invite a kind of trouble to come and sit in your bones. But this is a child, you see, a four year old who does not have the wisdom of the village. He meant no harm when he asked
his sister and my grandaunt if they saw the man sitting in the tree. My mother told him he was being silly. And they went back and forth about it until my grandaunt put an end to the vigorous debate between my four-year old uncle and six-year old mother. “I don’t see nuh man!”
And that was the end of that until they got home and an elder in the village asked them how many of them traveled home. Three, of course.

And the man who was sitting in the tree.

So four.

The elder saw the man even though they had not said a word about what they saw.
And, as elders do, he chanted a prayer baptized in fire, spinning protection around my uncle like a cloak.

But perhaps it was too late. Because the next morning, uncle woke with a fever to put all fevers to shame. My great grandmother was in such distress that she tried to
borrow money to take him to the doctor in Santa Cruz.

Apparently, the spirits had tried to take him before. My family would always bemoan uncle’s tendency to disappear, often an hour at a time, only to be found in the bushes.

But this time was much more serious.
They didn’t have the money to take him to the doctor and the fever was not subsiding but they suspected that this sickness was not ordinary, that it was caused by the presence of someone beyond the realm of the flesh, someone who was angry. But for what?
Well, everybody knows that if you see a duppy, you must never make their presence known to anyone else, at least not immediately, and not while you can still see them. Duppies do not want you to make their presence known to people who cannot see them. Otherwise, they would have
made their presence known to those people in the first place. This is what my great granny always said and even, on a separate occasion, when she saw one, she kept quiet. The duppy came to her window in her dream and told her how lucky she is that she kept her damn mouth shut.
But this was a child, you see. A child who saw a man as real as you and I in the hungry blackness of an Aberdeen night.

How was he to know that the man in the tree would take his revenge on him in the weeks following?
My mother woke to the news of uncle’s death. So traumatic was this news, she couldn’t believe it until she saw his body wrapped in a white sheet on the bed.

He asked my great granny for water, sat up in bed to drink it, then his neck flung violently backwards.
It was such a terrible death that they called the police and they flooded the yard, prodding and poking my inconsolable great granny with questions, their primary suspect for murder.

Because, of course, no other explanation made sense to them. Or maybe they understood that
duppies would frustrate the logic of reality on which state documentation depends, even if they believed in them too. They had to speak a language that not only rendered our sense of reality impossible, but rendered us the uncivilized charlatans they already decided we were.
But we know what we know, mommy says over the phone, overwhelmed.

His death always hung over the family and they would have to explain away the criminality that was often suspected long after investigations closed.
I never knew how much those words would mean to my mother: “fracture of the cervical spine, and no one is criminally responsible for his death.”

No one is criminally responsible for his death. Not in this realm, at least.

She feels a sense of closure not just in knowing
the exact physical damage that the duppy inflicted, but in knowing that “no one is criminally responsible for his death.”

But I also see a metaphysical struggle happening in this document, a tear, a hysterical attempt to account for a reality that is not legible to the eye of
state produced out of a confluence of antiblackness.

I hear pain settle into my mother’s beautiful lilt: “More than di death of yuh other uncle, dis one mash mi up bad bad. Mi did love him so much.”

But, because she is my mother, she ends by laughing at how he appeared to her
eleven years later as she was on her way to deliver breakfast to my great great grandmother.

One after another, he pelted small stones at her that rolled along the dust road, just like he did when they were children.

Everything on the tray was hurled up in the air as mommy
took off running and later that day she saw him standing by his grave in the backyard in his crisp white suit.

We both laugh, me quietly grieving the poor baby, an uncle I never knew, mommy keeping the sadness at bay for another day.
And so I feel this document’s hauntedness, haunted by the man in the tree, haunted by a black lifeworld that is not a metaphor, haunted by a truth so unspeakable to the colonial and postcolonial imagination that it is ultimately this given explanation that appears unbelievable.
I know this is a cheesy way to end but the first song is one of my favorite songs ever and I’m going to sing it today and hope my sweet uncle can hear me. I hope you are somewhere in the afterlife frolicking, dancing with the rest. Walk good, mi love.
Also I’ll be teaching an introductory undergrad writing course this Fall which will be about ghosts! Ghosts as a way to think through who gets to define reality and as a way to think about people across the black diaspora who occupy a ghostly space.
Whether it’s the enslaved in the New World, Haitians at the border of DR and Haiti, black queer people in discourses about the Caribbean, the Black people murdered by the police that haunt this platform, etc.

Might start them off with my family story! 😂
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