In Tamara R. Mose’s Raising Brooklyn, the lives of Afro-Caribbean women in a singular borough in New York City are explored through the often informal and exploitative childcare economy fostered by the city’s white upper crust. Keying in on the nanny networks, mutual aid, and cultural connections that provide these West Indian women with crucial support and solidarity, Mose situates the women behind the strollers as strategists who expertly negotiate care work and community in the ways that stave off the cultural alienation and isolation embedded in their work. This week, Atlanta turns toward a white family who employs an Afro-Trinidadian woman as they grapple with, in Moses’s words, “losing ground” to her ingenuity and influence in the rearing of their child.
“Trini 2 De Bone” opens with a middle-aged white man named Miles Warner returning home from a jog through the city (listening to “Black Harlow” by Sada Baby in his AirPods) to his penthouse apartment, where he sees his son, Sebastian (who is referred to as “Bash”), seated on the couch watching The Proud Family on his tablet. Miles asks his wife, Bronwyn, why their son’s nanny, Sylvia, has not taken him to school. In Sylvia’s absence, they try to get Bash to eat coffee and eggs Benedict, but he only eats once some flavor is added to his dish. Here, the first sign of the chasm forming between the parents and their child appears as the Warners just begin to confront the ways that Sylvia has imprinted on Bash, from his taste in shows to the kinds of food he craves. The haunting of this revelation is made visceral by Miles’s hacking and only grows when the mystery of Sylvia’s disappearance is suddenly answered with a phone call. Miss Sylvia is dead.
Bronwyn takes Bash to school, and Bash informs her of Sylvia’s attentiveness and explains that she does not simply bring him to school, but she actually walks him to class. Stepping into a dead woman’s shadow, Bronwyn walks her son to class perhaps for the very first time and is noticeably uncomfortable doing so. A teacher comments that Bash’s parents were notably absent on “Family Picture Day,” and Brownyn later scoffs over the phone to her husband. Certainly, they were not the only parents who failed to attend, she thinks. Miles brings up Sylvia’s death to discuss how they will prepare to tell their son. “Do we want to tell him?” Bronwyn asks. Miles is adamant that they should, calling it a “teachable moment.” That night his parents flounder for a bit in their efforts to tell him the tragic news. “Sylvia’s dead,” he tells his son before mentioning that funerals are “special ceremonies” for people who die where those who loved them are given a chance to celebrate their lives. Bash declares that he wants to go to Sylvia’s funeral. Still, he remains unsettled by her sudden disappearance and the unknown of where the dead go on to. “Maybe Sylvia went back to Trinidad and Tobago,” Bash remarks.
Speaking of homegoings, after attempting to have the package addressed to Sylvia returned to sender, another series of knocks on the door signal that the package has come back. When Bash’s parents discover Sylvia’s wigs and bags at the house, they decide, despite Bronwyn’s hesitation, to attend the funeral so they can give her family the items and the package addressed to her. Bronwyn is uncomfortable with the influence Sylvia has had on Bash and proclaims that she wants to hire someone younger and more “metropolitan” as their next nanny. “Metropolitan,” of course, is coded with raced, classed, and cultural meaning. This is why she suggests a Chinese caretaker so that Bash can learn Mandarin in anticipation of a career in business or finance. “Sounds expensive,” Miles responds, noting the high demand for Chinese nanny’s in the city. “Sylvia wasn’t expensive,” he adds. Not only does this moment reveal the racialized hierarchies which devalue Sylvia’s labor, ensuring she will be underpaid in comparison to non-Black caretakers, but it also exposes the root of Bronwyn’s discomfort with Bash’s immersion in Trini culture: It is not so much that Sylvia imagines a hypothetical Chinese nanny would be a better caretaker but rather that the cultural influence of such a person would be more desirable in a global capitalist landscape that ascribes more value to Mandarin than Trini patois.
Bronwyn’s low regard for Afro-Caribbean people and culture thus reverberates throughout the episode. On the day of Sylvia’s funeral, her hellishness reaches new heights. As the family drives far from home to get to the church, Bronwyn remarks that they are “practically in the islands,” with a heavy hint of distaste in her tone (She’s really the living worst!). When the Warners arrive, they are eventually greeted by Sylvia’s daughter Khadijah who invites them to also stay for the wake and eat. “It’s betta belly bust then good food waste,” she explains, borrowing her mother’s phrase, as Bash finishes the line with her. “You know mi heart,” Bash responds when she clocks him.
When Bash and his parents finally enter the church, they make him hold their hands and stay close. Miles lifts him to see Sylvia in her casket and walks him back to sit in the pews. Next to them is Curtis, a white man who had Sylvia as a babysitter in his youth and allegedly acquired a Trini accent despite being from Tribeca. (Chet Hanks plays Curtis, and while I get it, I definitely rolled my eyes at him getting opportunities that extend his Jamaican patois appropriation tour.)
“Any time is Trini time,” the pastor declares to the funeral attendees as the service begins. As he gets deeper into his sermon, Bronwyn is shocked by how synced her son is with the expressive choreography of the community assembled for Sylvia. Weaving a full tapestry of Sylvia’s life, the pastor explains that she is survived by three children though she dedicated her life to caring for many others. Additionally, he notes her rich artistic life before she became a mother or a nanny, speaking of her initial move from Trinidad to the New York as well as Sylvia’s time in the Alvin Ailey dance company in Harlem and her local work to create dance programs for children in her community. Bash’s parents are shocked by the fullness of Sylvia’s life as they likely never considered what it consisted of beyond her time with their child. In a tribute to Julia Edward, a Trinidadian dancer and choreographer known as “First lady of Limbo,” high school dancers from the program Sylvia founded perform her favorite song, “Trini 2 De Bone” by David Rudder.
As the dancers move fluidly, one of Sylvia’s daughters, Princess, cuts the music and demands that they “stop all this bacchanal” and listen to what she has on her heart. “Who do you think she sacrificed to take care of those children?” Princess asks as she stands before the pulpit. “Where was she when we needed her?” she asks aloud before becoming overcome with emotion and nearly pushing her mother’s casket over. “I needed you, mummy,” Princess whimpers. In a brief moment, the fractured nature of Sylvia’s life is brought to bear by her own child. Despite knowing well the financial pressure to provide, which informed her mother’s constant care work, Princess laments the care she did not receive as a result. For every moment Sylvia shared with the Bashes of the world, she was unable to present for her own babies. This is the toll of domestic laborers with domestic lives of their own.
As emotions run high, Bash’s parents clutch their proverbial pearls and attempt to sneak out of the funeral in the midst of the chaos. “Look, you’re scaring the white people?” Devon shouts to get the family and friends to emote with their audience (white guests) in mind. “It’s okay, we just sad. This is how we sad,” Devon tells Bash as if their mourning and raw emotion needed translating. The cultural differences between the Warners and the largely Trini funeral guests are clear upon their arrival, and yet it is the fullness of their mourning — their laughter, dance, rage, sadness, and rejoicing —which overwhelms the white family. Unlike Bronwyn, whose approach to death is largely dismissive and avoidant, or Miles, whose approach is rooted in careful research into the historical methods of mourning, Sylvia’s family and friends embody their grief rather than isolating or intellectualizing it, allowing themselves to feel the wide range of emotions that come with it.
On the car ride home, Bronwyn is unnerved to hear Miles singing “Trini 2 De Bone” to himself. Bash sleeps easy, saying goodnight to Sylvia as if she were still sitting in the chair across from his bed. His mother, however, remains restless. “Did we do the right thing?” Bronwyn asks Miles, referring to their decision to bring Bash to the funeral. He tells her not to worry; Bash can handle the grief. What Miles misses, however, is the source of his missus’s concerns. When Bronwyn complains about Bash’s desire to play the steelpan when he grows up like Sylvia’s uncle Samuel, it is not her son’s mourning that troubles her but his malleability — the ease with which Sylvia’s consistent influence remade him and his appetites in ways that are illegible and thus horrifying to her. As they both fall asleep, Bronwyn’s fears that her white child could so easily adopt Black Caribbeans’ cultural habits, patterns, and tastes remain unsettled.
A series of knocks interrupt their slumber. The package is back. The husband finally opens it and looks inside, only to find numerous photos of Sylvia with Bash on Family Picture Day. In the end, a package addressed to Sylvia at her place of work reveals the specters of absence that preceded her death. Throughout this season of Atlanta, the show has grappled with the ghosts of the past at every turn. In this episode, we witness how these hauntings and histories produce ghosts and gaps in our present as well. As Sylvia’s death structures the plot, we never actually see her alive and thus, only ever encounter her memory and its enduring hold on those she cared for. Her labor outlives here in the city she called home, far away from her first home. In reflecting on Sylvia’s death and the vantage from which she is watched but never seen by her employers, the words of Trinidad-born Canadian poet Dionne Brand resonate: “If I see someone, I see the ghost of them, the air around them, and where they’ve been. If I see a city, I see its living ghostliness — the stray looks, the dying hands. I see its needs and its discomforts locked in apartments.”