Finding Home in the Okra Belt

In my earliest memory of the South I am ten-years-old, walking a suburban road outside of Houston with a person I called my cousin. The afternoon was placid, Texan in its pace, and when a truck slowed beside us there was nothing to mask the volume of the driver’s voice. “Dot-heads!” he shouted and the dust behind him rose and fell around us. “Did you hear him?” she asked. “We should tell somebody.” I shook my head.

Though the threads of our histories were loosely intertwined, our parents — old friends — referred to us as family. This shared history preceded our birth, and it was impossible to translate the multiple Tamil expressions for cousin into anything but a stark English word. Now, in the town in which my cousin’s family had settled, the setting of her Southern childhood, I silently coerced her not to tell our parents what had taken place. And through the heat and nothingness of Southern racism, we became kin.

*

My grandmother spent the summer in my home in New Jersey, then fall with my uncle in Baton Rouge before returning to India for the remainder of the year. I would visit her in the final weeks of vacation, when the summer still blazed in Louisiana. We walked through the farmers’ markets on the weekends, she in just her sari and sandals. She loved the green beans and okra that farmers displayed in wide baskets. Men pushed carts down her streets in Bangalore with similar vegetables grown on nearby farms; with these Louisiana vegetables, as with the ones at home, she could taste the earth and season in them, the sun softening them in the days before they were plucked from their stems. She cooked mirlitons with mustard seed and grated coconut, Bangalore kathrikai, as we called it in Tamil, an apple-looking vegetable I had only before seen in India and have since only tasted in the Caribbean and the American South. She kept her cardigan draped over the kitchen chair in Louisiana, wearing it when we sat outside at night after my uncle had washed the pans of okra and beans and gone to sleep. “You don’t need that here,” I told her, picking at the wool of her sleeve. She shrugged. “I’m happiest when it’s hot.”

In the spring of my fifth-grade year, still too cold in New Jersey for my grandmother to be with us, I watched the images of Rodney King’s body on the concrete of Los Angeles, batons slamming against flesh. There were no African American children in my class, and few people of color who walked the halls of my school. The news was something consumed in private, and my parents’ rage, and my own burgeoning sense that weapons still hovered over bodies of color, was unspoken outside of my home. From my couch I watched the city of Los Angeles erupt, screaming to be seen. In my own town we didn’t make such noise and we didn’t discuss the news beyond our borders. Abner Louima spoke from his hospital bed. The Central Park Five were convicted, with evidence as gauzy as that which, in 1931, had condemned the teenagers of Scottsboro, Alabama. Again, the dust rose and settled, and we followed racial brutality with silence.

I missed my grandmother intensely by late spring, but when the weather turned and she arrived, her presence distanced me from the world beyond. She wore her sari and sandals, but the prints were too bold, her accent too thick, the food she prepared too heavy with foreignness. ”What’s she saying?” friends asked when they came to our house. “I can’t understand.” A classmate came to my birthday party and, upon meeting my Indian relatives, cried on the steps until her mother picked her up early, holding her in her arms, neither of them able to name the thing that had shaken them. From behind the screen door, I could not either. Racism conjured Southern images of lunch counters, courthouses, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the man in the truck. We had no steady name for what we witnessed in the North. Bodies broken by the state were misunderstandings. Young boys condemned to lives in prison were a demonstration of zero-tolerance. The racial epithets that cut through the suburban Northeast were flukes, aberrations. Decades of post-civil rights housing policy engineered to build stretches of whiteness, we called homeroom.

I knew few Southerners in college and pitied the feebleness of their winter coats and absentee ballots. I watched the 2000 election in a dormitory common room, noting that the news anchors called the election before the Southern states even formally announced their results. The whole region seemed marked with red; I watched its upward creep, starting at Texas then staining the entire bottom rim.

*

I met my Louisiana-bred husband in New York City in the years following.  He was the only white person I had ever met who had been raised on okra, who knew the satisfaction of boiled peanuts. But I had read about the history of the South, and knew that land had been worked by many and inherited by few. My questions for him were more fundamental. How do you answer for all you’ve taken? Sometimes, despite my growing affection, I saw him and thought of the white arm hanging from the window of the Texan truck so many years ago.

I began a career teaching in Brooklyn, working in schools that scrambled for seats to meet funding needs. As friends settled into parenthood, I watched their similar scramble, for seats in districts where African American students were under-represented. It couldn’t have been racism, I gathered, because it was Northern. My contemporaries discussed rates of reading growth, commute times, teacher-to-student ratios. Those who couldn’t find their place in a school of their choosing leaned on grandparents for private school tuition. Yet I still could not give it a name. Racism in education policy evoked images of Little Rock policed by the National Guard, the campus of Ole Miss when James Meredith fought to assume his place. But as the years passed, the question I had once posed to my husband seemed more aptly directed to a wider segment of us. How could we answer for all we took?

Summers after we moved to the South, my husband and I brought our children to India to meet their web of relatives. ”It’s going to be bloody hot,” my cousin warned when we visited his farm in rural Tamil Nadu, dry and scorching even at night. The children spent the week crouched by their small cousins, digging in the dirt, emerging dusty and worn at the close of the day and deeply content. They looked like they did in Louisiana, when the sun did not push them indoors but invited them outside. My husband declared that there was such a thing as an okra belt, winding around the globe, connecting those of us who are happiest when we are hot.

The previous year we had buried my husband’s parents side-by-side in a cemetery in Central Louisiana, he from cancer caught in its final stages, she from a gun inherited from her father.   We had moved down in part to care for them, to tend to the pain of his final year and the disarray of the aftermath. At their graveside, we had buried this primary motivation, and were quiet as we cut through Mississippi to return home. “I hate this,” my son said, and I held his hand from the front seat, thinking that he was talking of the distance, the loss, the details of his grandmother’s death that we would not name. He pointed to a car ahead of us, a Confederate flag stamped on its back, the same image that hung over the state capital. “I don’t understand why they haven’t taken it down,” he said. Dead armadillos littered the road and I watched him stare at what remained of them; I had learned recently that the animals jumped in reaction to oncoming vehicles that otherwise would glide easily over their bodies, leaving them unscathed. “Because we haven’t made them take it down yet,” my husband said.

*

Okra, I came to learn, grows best from seeds, cheap to start, clawing its way upwards in the peak of summer. The first growing season I waited to pluck them from their stem, tempted to let the quick swelling of the vegetable be for another day, another week. They were stringy and aged when we finally did cook them, and my husband froze them to be turned to gumbo. The following year we replanted, harvesting the vegetables when they were young and tender enough to be eaten raw. We sautéed them with mustard seeds, the way my grandmother used to. We fried pans in cornmeal the way my husband had eaten them as a child and left them for the children to snack on throughout the day.

In the 2018 midterm elections, people of color saw those who looked like us claim their power.   Candidates whose parents and grandparents had felt the weight of the state on their backs galvanized historically white districts. I held my children’s hands and we watched. But the South was a block, falling to the systems of power that had governed it since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, declaring, “We have lost the South for a generation”. It felt tough, unyielding, a place that had been allowed to fester, to grow too long in the same place.

The day after Robert E. Lee’s statue was lifted from its platform in Downtown New Orleans, my family and I gathered around the circle. “Did you hear the joke?” my son asked, describing the famed picture of Lee, dangling above his former perch. “This is not what I meant when I said the South would rise again!” A year later, In Florida, Andrew Gillum would rise from concession, demanding a recount. Stacey Abrams would turn a gubernatorial run into a civil rights campaign, calling a history of voter suppression by its name.

The night of the election my children had glimpsed the possibility of a new South, and went to bed with the sluggishness of defeat as the racial order maintained its stubborn hold. The next morning, still bleary-eyed, the eldest stood barefoot in the kitchen. It was warm for November, the month my grandmother, had she been alive, would have left Louisiana to return home. “They lost, didn’t they?” he asked.

I shook my head. “They haven’t called it yet.”

Sheila Sundar is currently at work on her first novel, set in South India in the 1960s. Her writing has appeared in Guernica Magazine, The Rumpus, The New York TimesThe Bookends Review, and elsewhere.