A youth called Brownskin – A life of missed opportunities and mistakes in rural St. Ann
Gloom and sorrow shrouded the chilly air of the February 1981 morn. The shrubbery , wet from the overnight due , the tall Weeping Willows and lush Guinea grass that lined the roadway to the old limestone cut-stone Baptist church created an idyllic yet somber atmosphere that complemented the majestic structure perched loftily on the apex of the Dry Harbour Mountains in St. Ann, Jamaica. As I climbed the hill to this rural church positioned like the last outpost in some Western Colorado scenery , I became overwhelmed with grief and pulled a white cotton handkerchief from my inner tweed jacket pocket , then mopped my sodden eyes lamenting the loss of a needy but adventurous adolescent.
The windy and chilly air blowing from the North American heartland that morning smashed into the faces of the mourners who huddled together and briskly walked up the steep limestone incline to procure a seat in the pews of the Eccleston Baptist Church. Eccleston Baptist was the perfect church chosen for the funeral of Brownskin, a youth fallen from grace. Built in 1838 from donations sent from the London Baptist Society , it had never falter in its service to the poor. What a coincidence I surmised , Brownskin’s funeral would be conducted by his mentor and role model , the affable Rev. Dr. Sean Knight , Irish – Canadian Missionary pastor from Stoufville, Ontario who had labored with the locals since his arrival in 1926. It would be pastor’s last duty on the island. Strong political voices of descent and resistance , espousing Fabian Socialism resonated vociferously against the western economic models , against Imperialism , against the white man’s system , against American capitalism consequently aborted his desire to retire in Jamaica , his adopted home.
Just five years earlier a funeral of like size was held for Charles Love , the uncle of an International calypso singer Harry Belafonte who had received fame on the US A Billboard’s “Top100 Albums” charts. This morning funeral was not for the celebrity connected as the church was conferred the unpretentious role of providing a solemn service for the district’s son, the once choir boy and church member who had become wayward , departing from the faith , moral upbringing , western religious traditions and fell out of grace with rural values and morals.
By eight o’clock the church was filled with mourners paying their respect to the youth who had cheated death at age 10. Outside the church young boys discovering all the church benches taken took refuge in the branches of the Broadleaf trees facing the side entrance , ostensible to catch a glimpse of his coffin. The small boys some aged four and five swung from June rose branches with the energy in their lithe frames generating acrobatics like young Brazilian muriqui.
I peered inside the church before I took my seat and saw his parents and family members , the vegetable farmers, small time marijuana farmers , school teachers , the village sweet potato pie bakers, the Member of Parliament and the loyal congregants . Death had finally sealed the fate of a restless village youth trapped in a life of poverty, dancehall culture, and clandestine activities , all harsh realities of rural post – independent , post –colonial Jamaica . Again, I sighed , “Independence has not made us independent , our people have turned to so much illicit ways to survive.”
Ten feet from the pulpit laid the glossy cedar coffin in a sea of locally grown Gladiolis, Joseph coats , Carnations, and Star lilies. The poignant scent of the French -polished coffin overpowered the wails of mourning villagers who were , filling the church to view the remains of their aspiring dancehall disk jockey and part time marijuana farmer comically and affectionately called Brownskin. A raspy voiced echoed from the back of the line, “ At last Miss Enid’s son will get some rest , his final rest. This district is not a good district for poor people pickneys , the system kill him mon” . I looked down the aisle in time to hear Miss Birdie blasting the Member of Parliament , Arthur Gallimore for ineffectual duty and failed responsibility to the poor. This was understandable as such a village as Eccleston was located in the mineral rich environment of Jamaica which provided over eighty percent of the island’s bauxite, gypsum and limestone . These resources hardly ever benefitted the locals and villagers. The wealth from these resources gave income and salaries to migrant workers and skilled workers from outside the parish benefitting them tremendously.
As Pastor Knight entered from the vestry I heard another commotion. It was coming from Miss Birdie a neigbour to Pa Crothes, Brownskin’s father . She loudly and openly castigated all those who desired free handouts from the state, stating that prior to independence there were no handouts, no soliciting for staples and no drug trafficking nor quick money mentality. Welfare was not a part of the rural folks vernacular. Birdie knew damn well that traditional black rural folks were too proud to fall to clientelism or any sort of political pork barrel.
Brownskin, twelfth son of Pa Crothes and Miss Enid , like most underprivileged rural youths of central Jamaica, experienced bitter sweet and restless adolescent years during the late nineteen seventies to early nineteen eighties . Growing up in this dark period of Jamaica’s history was difficult in a society stratified and heavily influenced by class , colour , ethnicity and typical post colonial problems of the Third World nations. While the period created a difficult time for youths , for parents it was not much easier.
Parents faced so many challenges that were insurmountable, exacerbated by women run homes, poor family structures , financially delinquent and absent fathers , lack of saleable skills, and low educational achievements. Women became sole breadwinners as many fathers continued to see their roles as studs to breed (impregnate) the village women reneging on their God given responsibilities to be productive and moral leaders of homes and society . It was therefore natural for women to look up to the next generation especially to their sons to lift the social and economic fabric of their lives .
The era was unique to Jamaica in that it created international cultural expressions and forms giving the world the pulsating dancehall music , providing the cultural space for its black nationalist Rastafarian religion to mushroom, achieving and attracting international following . The era was also a time when Jamaica came into its own identity because so much social groups impacted on who you became , which Jamaican you associate with and what became your philosophy and ideology. It was a time of groups and they were several of them for which one could and would belong : vocal left of centre movements like the People’s National Party ;the cantankerous and aggressive upper class driven right wing advocacies such as the Jamaica Labour Party and its affiliate Young Jamaica and Women’s Freedom Movement; multi class and multi ethnicities forming the anti-political religious Rastafarians group The Twelve Tribes of Israel; extreme left wing Communist groups such as Trevor Munroe’s Moscow financed Workers Party of Jamaica; Moderate Socialists and Trotskyites such as the Revolutionary Marxist League and Christian pro- American Evangelist and Established churches. Middle ground hardly existed as almost all made alliances and exercised sympathies with particular group and ideologues . It was the greatest period of nation identity and socio-economic consciousness whether you were young, middle aged or old. It was a time of finding the right gear if you were “driving” in this Jamaican space.
In the decade of the seventies to eighties , Jamaica a proud independent nation painfully searched for its true self, its true identity and its role within the community of nations. The island made bold maneuver to change its existing relations with the hegemonic and domineering west. Caught in the middle of the cold war and cognizant of its colonial legacy ,every sphere of its people’s life were severely affected in that challenging period . Its unique geography and proximity to Cuba and the USA , the crossroads of east and west conflict in Latin America stymied national development , social and economic life of many young male adolescent. In this Caribbean space , the politically charged environment impacted negatively on the island’s ability and capacity to economically support its people , especially its rural youths who became handicapped from lack of opportunities and low economic welfare . Exerting power and demonstrating rationale for change some radical politicians devoted their time and power to find a third path – a path between exploitative Capitalism and human rights robbing Communism as neither system decreased the inequity or polarization in the island. This search propelled the wrath of investors, the hegemonic upper middle class, the sons of the plantocracy, and the owners of capital. The dire effect was massive closure of factories, losses in many industries and plantations , redundancies, massive unemployment, flight of capital , flight of the middle class and rich, shortage of foreign exchange and food shortages. The severity forced many citizens to resort to clandestine means to survive and to provide for their families. While markets for rum , bananas, sugar and bauxite exports dried up, Jamaica was punished by the west by high interest loans and structural adjustments by the IMF. Tourism fluctuated from mid occupancies to low occupancies , often kept afloat by nefarious figures some bent on exploiting the poverty and wealth potential from ganja (marijuana) cultivation and export . With turmoil comes survival strategies so the culture began to morph with marijuana production substituting for previously legal economic activities .Elements of the well to do residing in the United States and American criminal elements would influence the drug’s cultivation, financing and trafficking of marijuana in Jamaica for the lucrative American market , making the island the largest exporter of the weed . The fragile economy was fully exploited for criminal activities in that decade. Illicit drugs changed the agricultural activities which had served and provide income for the rural folks.
Creative talents also changed with the music morphing into different genres of Jamaican popular music attracting host of unemployed youths who saw “making a tune” (recording a song ) a ticket out of poverty.
The change of culture impacted traditional values and morals previously mimicked from the colonial master. Slowly traditional culture was substituted by elements of North American culture. Increased air travel, increased mass communication , immigration to the US, vacation of US nationals, farm work programmes , introduced US practices and negative way of life impacted Jamaican society. Ex Vietnam soldiers and lumpen tourist elements also made their inroads into the nation to which some folks gravitated developing this quick rich mentality and disregarding thrift and industry. Their shared values intensify the already transformed values and trapped many youngsters not only nationally but at the village level.
The change in our music made serious and consequential impact on the society. . What was once subtle listening to Rand B and sentimental music gave rise to hard dancehall genre with its lewd , crass, and unsavoury lyric laced with homophobic themes and often social commentary . Vulgarity character ized and popularized many of the practitioners , while for others the socio-economic impact was related in songs. Concretised in patois (Jamaica informal ) , it was easy for those who have natural vocal skills but most importantly the music served as “bread and butter” for marginalized youths deprived of financial support from family or government. It was this music that drove Brownskin to the world of non academics having failed by the education system. He became fascinated to its magnetic draw which could make an artiste a hero and provide the ambition to become night club entrepreneur.
For Miss Enid life has never been good, especially since the birth of Brownskin , but her Christian virtues and values made her nurtured her children and instill disciplined manner. Pa Crothes had abandoned the family seeking solace in the bed of a younger woman . Miss Enid was left with the brutal task of raising a throng of boys in financially strapped times. Nevertheless, she desired the best for Brownskin her favourite son for whom going to church was compulsory. Other youths had risen from poverty and Enid knew that if her sons followed in the path of the law and pay their dues to society it was highly probable there would become successful men. Her spirit was kept afloat by the strong Baptist faith and her dedication to religion. It was bolstered by the respect the “white” minister gave her. Pastor Knight gave her a job to clean the church and to wash the Knight’s clothes. The income along with that from raising of her goats stretched at most time; it put her pot on fire. At early as six months she took Brownskin to church and expected him to grow and prosper in the faith to become a good boy. She did not mind dragging each Sunday all twelve boys up the steep gravel road to the church , all dressed in their patched hand me down clothes. Miss Enid insisted that Sunday school and church were compulsory for her sons and she would not tolerate absenteeism.
During his formative life as a Sunday school student, Brownskin was able to master reading his golden text as the teachers devoted their times nurturing him in Christian beliefs , values and principles. He won several prizes at Sunday school for punctuality and regular attendance and he excelled in drama and singing so much that at age five he was the young star of the annual Christmas play and Easter Cantata. At church he found solace and refuge in a spiritual inspiration that kept the community bonded, becoming the endearing child. It provided camaraderie and sense of belonging in free village Eccleston.
By age ten in 1972 , his convictions drove him to become a Christian , so he professed his faith and was baptized by Pastor Knight. He joined the choir belching out melodious hymns at inspired services and youth group meetings, especially Sunday evening’s Young People’s Meeting. Being the youngest member he was delighted to be respected by his peer and the church congregation. Church however was meeting ground for everyone and it was their he met Phil, Philly Phil, and Cha Cha all spoilt and delinquent youths whose fathers were gamblers and later small time ganja (marijuana) farmers and whose mothers lack motherhood skills . Associating with these youths would later inveigle him and influence him to break the law. Phil, Philly Phil and Cha Cha had a reputation for constant chattering throughout Sunday school and were rascals who had no second thought to raid the mandarin fruits from small farms adjoining the church lands.
Sunday school was religiously attended as it was not only a place for parents to send the children in the district for religious instruction and knowledge but a place for socialization and consolidation of kindred spirit. Children as far as three miles away in Anderson Town would attend church as conservative and fundamental Baptist worship resonated with the conservative nature of that region of Jamaica.
Sunday school molded him at an early age and instilled the discipline of courtesy, religious tolerance, morality and respect for fellow men and institutions. As one who earned yearly prizes Brownskin became inspired to gain more out of church. Eccleston Baptist Church Sunday school with its rigid adherence to listening, reading, singing and memorization complemented his yearning for primary education .
Pastor Knight ‘s wife Miss Georgina , a very inquisitive woman noted Brownskin’s devotedness to church and Sunday school and burned with a desire to help the poor native. So Impressed was
“ Miss G” that she sent for Brownskin and gave him a weekly errand to collect the mails from the church’s post box at the Cave valley Post Office which was half a mile away from the church. His task was to deliver daily to the church manse all mails collected from the post office . On his trip to the post office one day he met and befriended Brenton and Brown Maurice , kids who had all the time in the world to idle as their parents toiled for twelve hours on the Bog Hole tobacco farms and in the barns operated by Machado Tobacco Company . These friends were of elementary school age, maybe a year his senior but unfortunate young wrongdoers indulging in a myriad of petty crimes including stealing other children lunch monies, stealing oranges from fruit crates and removing bottles of coca- cola from slots in contract lorries . By alliance with these youths he discovered early trustworthiness in conducting illicit activities in the years to come.
Outside religious responsibilities village life at an early age meant firstly attending the Baptist run Infant school. Like most of his peers , poor children had no option but to be in nearly overcrowded pre-primary institution. Poverty however was no excuse for indiscipline and ignorance and Miss Enid had did not subscribe to that; she wanted knowledge for here son, all the knowledge he could possible get. Miss Enid played her motherly role by teaching Brownskin the basic manners and courtesy. She despised and ignored the irresponsibility of some women and aggressively pushed for education of her sons. She had seen how several poor children had done well at Elementary schools, gone to high schools and colleges and later entered the job market as professionals building dream homes for their parents, contributing to the economic and financial welfare and giving them the good life. She was excited that she had at least made him attend Sunday School frequently which had prepared and molded him mentally for Infant school. Now it was time for real secular education.
Miss Enid made it her mandate early to train Brownskin to be courteous and polite. In the 1970’s and 80’s good manners were instilled in nearly every Jamaican; for rural folks it was part of their DNA. “Good Marnin Mam, Good Marnin sar, Good day Mam, Good day Sar, Thank you Mam, Thank you Sar, Howdy mam and Howdy sar were ubiquitous to the then polite vernacular.” Her words might have been a far cry from Standard Jamaican English but the broken English and creole she knew was adequate and correctly used for instruction and the child’s early upbringing. Satisfied that he was ready for school, Miss Enid insisted that Pa Crothes , her worthless husband , as she called him, should bear some responsibility to pay the weekly school fee for the next three to four school years. Enrolled at Miss Dinah’s Infant school , Brownskin was a quick learner. Like Sunday School , infant school was one to be enjoyed and it gave him the freedom to express himself, explore , socialize with district kids, and grow exponentially. He mastered his alphabet , singing and reciting and by age five Pastor Knight used his influence as chairman of the School Board to enroll him in the Eccleston All Age school where he discovered he was a year younger than most children.
Eccleston All Age made an indelible impression on Brownskin the first day at “ big school.” . The new classroom on day one mesmerized him – geometrically spaced interior , fresh Berger painted wall, new Louisiana pined cabinets and snow white gypsum ceilings astound his aesthetic sense. The size of the building seems to have a psychological effect , an effect of space and size which would remain in his subconscious ; it was his first encounter of a building of sizable architecture, the exception being the Baptist church. Soon it would be transformational in his life . Size would mean everything , whether the being the taker of most academic prizes or the taker of prizes in music and sports. It would also influence him to be a go getter for money in years to come.
Just after the first break in the afternoon on the third day of school , the new class was visited by Mr. Orville Malcolm, the feared and grumpy headmaster, a former People’s National Party candidate for the North West Clarendon Constituency. Teacher Malcom called on all the new students from Miss Dinah’s church run Infant school who became apprehensive since they had done not misbehaved.
He told them to face the chalkboard while he wrote six words: composition, singing, Switzerland, England, morning, and Bustamante (name of the prime Minister) . When asked what these words were , only Brownskin and his close friends Ardon , Marcus and Black Maurice could answer correctly. Impressed with them, Teacher Malcolm marched them from Grade 1 A to Mrs. Bryan Grade 1 B class, a grade more advanced than Grade 1A. He told Miss Bryan they were too bright to stay at Grade 1A and they were now in her hands. “ Buck Bryan,” as she was nicknamed has a reputation for caning and caning frequently if you mispelt or mispronounce a word . She was known for brutally beating when you get your Arithmetic wrong. However ,her ferocity was not a deterrent for Brownskin. He would attend her class and was determined to shine as an A student.
Brownskin from day one at All Age school was cognizant of class division in the society and relations of cultural power. His dress ,speech mannerism and lunch made him an oddity compared to some around him , although he found solace in the fact that many students came from poor homes . One student Ewen Shadeed, scion of the Lebanese merchant class jeered him for his patched bottom pants but he couldn’t care less as he had a mission to learn and knew that he was bright. In fact none of the rich kids could pronounce the words given by Teacher Malcolm and were left in Grade 1A.
Recognising that in his class were Donna Young , daughter of Charles Young , the village Chinese illicit gambler and bar owner, Johnny Lyn Cook , son of the Chinese Wholesale Merchant and Andre Singh whose father grew tobacco for Machado Tobacco Company at Greenock and of course the mocker Wayne Shadeed. He was determined to out class them academically. Soon “Buck” Bryan ( the jeered class teacher) was singing praises that this was the first time she had so many brilliant and articulate children in her class , but none as excellent a reader as Brownskin. She would boast to Mrs. Case and Miss Douglas, Grade 8 and 6 respective classroom teachers. At the end of the first school year in July he came second in his class but was singled out to be the best reader and the best at reciting poetry. Only a low grade in arithmetic deter him from claiming first prize at the end of the school year.
For several years he did well at the Elementary school and copped first prize in Grade four, grade six, and grade eight but poverty interject itself throughout the years. Poverty impacted negatively his nutrition and by grade nine his mathematical skills as his mother’s income could hardly stretch to decently feed twelve mouths. Pa Crothes his unskilled dad could hardly secure a job as the rural economy was drying up and affected his ability to offer any serious support to his children. So extra classes so crucial to the Eleven Plus Examination and the 12 Plus examination for Technical High schools designed by post colonial educators came tumbling down at Brownskin’s feet . The twice failure of the Eleven Plus Examination meant he would have to prepare to sit the Technical Entrance Examination in Grade 8 . At least that could give him as space at Holmwood Technical if he was successful..
This rural youth became an example of a excellent student despite his marginalised social status and several absences from class . He gave the highest representation that could be given. In Grade six , his closest friends Ardon migrated to New York and Black Maurice left to live with his aunt in Montego Bay. It was subsequently he experienced mild depression on the departure of his friends and sought companionship of Paul, Philly Phill and Cha Cha, sons of delinquent parents whom he met at Sunday school.
It was one night practicing for the Grade 8 class quiz , when Cha Cha passed by his home with a small paper bag in his hand. Brownskin asked what they have in the bag and they invited him to come with them to Mr. Lyn Cook’s truck shining under the moonlit country night. In the truck the wrongdoers exposed what they disclosed was Lamsbread marijuana stolen from one of their parents illicit plot. They rolled a spliff and jubilantly participated in puffing the pungent smoke of this variety of the weed. It was his initiation in ganja smoking and this would be the genesis of his illicit activities . He did not mind the experience , he thought it was a big boy thing and that he was a big boy now. Grade 8 became a disappointment as he also failed the Technical Entrance which he was relying on to attend the four year high school. He wondered why he was so bad lucky but kept his hope high as he could also attempt the Grade Nine Achievement test. . Yet he was not jealous nor did he demonstrated ill feeling towards those like Donna Young and Everton Brown , well off youths who passed for Knox’s College or Olga and Adeane who passed their Technical Entrance for Holmwood Technical High school . His emotions were naturally human and a feeling of sadness and guilt temporary overtook him. His willpower told him to do excellent at Grade 9.
By the Easter term Brownskin had captained the school music and poetry teams at the parish finals in St. Ann’s Bay. With a repertoire of Colonial songs instead of patriotic “yard” music their delivery was so profound and harmonious. Betty was a black cat, Up the Airy Mountain and Coromantyne Tacky were rendered getting in music and speech respectively. He also captained
the cricket team winning the coveted Hugh Marston trophy for rural St. West St. Ann Primary and All Age schools in . He was highly respected for his bowling and was voted the best batsman of the competition; he gave the highest representation that could be given.
During Grade 9 , he became fascinated with the drug . Not satisfied with his introduction and some casual smoking of bush weed he wanted to experience smoking of the real Mckoy . This led him to request of Brenton some Lambsbread variety . Brenton ‘s father was a known small time ganja farmer who boasted he produced the best weed in the Aboukir Woods interior. It was at the same time Miss Enid’s intuition told her something wrong was going on. Her son had failed three exams and she was advised that he was truant at times. She was livid and pressed him for answers but he insisted everything was okay. Brownskin started to arrive late from school, sometimes as late as seven o’clock. Miss Enid did not spare the belt and beat his buttocks more than once. Pastor Knight learned through the grapevine that Brownskin was also homegrown tobacco leaves laced with pumpkin leaves. He knew and was conscious that as an adolescent he was breaking the law and worst doing that undesirable of a student .
Brownskin’s friendly nature and respect for mentors pushed him to call on Pastor Knight and during his last term he made a visit to the manse. He knew that in this world you have to relate to those who are leaders and those with influence and conviction. Pastor Knight warned him of adopting what he saw as creeping and alien culture. The American ways of getting rich quick and drug usage were abhorred by the man of the cloth who stressed the values of hard work, Christian virtues and importance of education as a means of getting out of poverty. Knight decried the current economic trends of Dry Harbour , St Ann . Knight bemoaned the resorting by some farmers to ganja farming which he said could only be a quick fix, it was not conducive to long term rural agriculture. Ganja cultivation was anathema to what was a culture of hard work and toil.. “ By the sweat of thy brow , thou shall eat bread.” Were his words of wisdom to the restless kid.
Brownskin’s drug usage affected his countenance and behavior and even his relationships with some family members and friends as he now begin to adopt alternative lifestyle. Averse to the culture of rural populace. His style of dressing when not at school compromised the norm as he adopted the sartorial elements of the lumpen of Kingston’s inner cities .The ratchet knife, argyle socks and exposed trousers soon became standard dress code. He had also graduated from smoking raw tobacco or tobacco laced with pumpkin leaves to smoking tobacco soaked in Bull Brand Shandy, a sugary bulk unrefined wine. Friends to Brownskin now were lawbreakers who could supply him with illicit substances and he became more engaged in the company of Brenton and Brown Maurice. Their passion for smoking Lambsbread and Collie Weed nearly resulted in his death one hot June night in 1977.
That dark and quiet Wednesday night Brenton, Brown Maurice and a cousin Moses decided it was smoking night. Meeting in my grandfather’s pumpkin field, near where his dad Pa Crothes cultivated an hectare of cayenne peppers , the group of young weed smokers lighted a huge chillum pipe with Collie Weed . Earlier in the day Brownskin had persuaded Brenton to cut down a marijuana tree at his father’s farm and plucked the fully mature buds bearing the potent THC content . He thought it was just another Collie weed plant , not knowing that Brenton’s dad has resorted to planting the new strain of weed known as Sensimilla introduced a year earlier to the parish. Believing the spliff was hi s usual Collie weed variety , he decided to light a second chillum pipe without knowing that what was now placed in the pipe was Sensimlla strain. He took a deep gulp smilingly and was felt he was in the air . He proceeded to take deeper gulps but on the third puff , he subconsciously reckoned that something was amiss. “ How di feed mek fi feel so, I feel cherry now, Ifel cherry now ” he kept repeating in the typical rural patois . “A sensi mi give you, “ retorted Brenton. But by the time he said sensi, Brownskin thought he saw three houses instead of one and felt like someone knocked him with a twelve inch brick. Such was the effect and potency of the weed that he immediately ran down the hill from the pepper field like a mad March hare being chased. Subconscious of what was happening to his brain he ran right into an six feet pond of water at the foot of the hill retained as a watering hole for My grandfather’s cows and goats . Unable to swim , he went immediately under the water . He again submerged and came up struggling and panicking . The gods must have had favour on him that night because as he was to make the third and last dip he was spotted by Roy Reid , a small farmer who went to collect his goat nearby. An able swimmer Reid dashed into the water shoe and all to try and save him. He grabbed his waist and pulled him onto the African star grass. His friends came storming down glad to know that he was saved His breath had stopped for what seemed like minutes when miraculously he started breathing again. That night the village came out in drove to help on the cry of his wee smoking crew.
Obviously , Miss Enid and the family were quite furious . Embarrassed and upset she told him if he was smart to “sleep on di same side you sleep last night.” As for Pa crothes , the worthless father , he came late and nearly collapsed his face saturated with tears. Surviving death’s clutches. Brownskin promised , “I am going back to my savior. I want to reconcile with my church. I shall never touch the ganja again. I believe God is punishing me because I have become a backslider” Miss Enid reminded him that history has shown that when the poor abused themselves or violate the law of the land, the penalty has always been harsher than for those who are rich . She scolded him for the abuse of drugs , and for truancy and keeping bad company and exhort him to cease using the grass , reminding him d that ganja smoking is alien to the culture of St. Ann freevillagers. “Brownskin,” she shouted , “if you break stick into your ears, you will feel it. If you break the law , I can’t help you. I cannot afford lawyer fee. Bwoy, mi always a tell yu , long road draw sweat, but short road draws blood. Stay on the short road of the life . If you spread your bed in worms, you will wake up in maggots. I have nothing more to say to you. I am begging you, leave that ganja thing to bad breed people. Ganja smoking belongs to old negroes and American jueveniles. Let me say again , if you use it the weed, it will mad you. You will end up in Bellevue , the national mental asylum.” For weeks when he came home she warned him to leave bad company and take up the book.
But Brownskin was trapped. One has to understand that psychologically youths who do not see immediate dangers are filled with adventurism. As one who witnessed Brownskin’s adventurism and who was a member of the community I fully understand youthful indulgences and exuberance.
That year he again failed his examination for high school , the Grade Nine test and realized that life now would be harder for him.
Especially for a country boy whose parents lack resources to send him to a private high school , life was going to be difficult. The new secondary schools at Alston and Alexandria were not accommodative to youths who had gone to Grade 9 as they only had one more year before graduation. Thinking rationally ,it resonated that options for post elementary education were limited. Miss Enid and Pa Crothes fell despondent and encouraged him to learn a trade , to try get skilled training perhaps at a youth camp or with a private contractor but that was the last thing on his mind , he just was not interested. They could not spare another cent , things were so hard financially. Worst, he felt that with his knowledge apprenticeship would be below his status. It was belittling as high school attendance had the status. By 15 he wished he was living in “foreign .” With the devasted economy of the seventies and he being unlucky in securing a farm work ticket for the farms in Florida or the Hudson Valley of Upstate New York , he drew on the one talent he thought had , dejaying . He was known outside of school especially around the microphone of Sir Davis Music System to be good with the lyrics of the Jamaican popular music. He followed the sound system to wherever the dances were kept honing his talent as a musical poet. And, for a virtuoso of the lewd dancehall lyrics he could manipulated the music for his fans to enjoy.
In 1979 Brownskin fully immersed himself into the new genre of dancehall music drawing all his skills with the use of creole language, social commentary and native poetry . He put the pulsating and vulgar lyrics to the mike and chanted in the fluent vernacular about street life, ghetto life, country life, sex , love , money, economics, and thuggery in the local bars, nightclubs, pubs and dancehall lawns in the parish and in the adjoining parishes of Clarendon and Manchester . His songs and music were sweet to the ear of post colonial youths dabbling into their native creations. By 1980 Brownskin became man in demand for dances and dancehall parties; without his songs , the dances had no spirit and would be lifeless. He became village icon for his mastery of the dancehall music. His peer loved him and it was easy to influenced the young rural listeners of Central Jamaica. His style of infectious dejaying style , his pleasing personality and his repertoire and ouevre of music created a loyal following for whom he could do no wrong. Hundreds would attend his dances. The “lost” generation became fascinated with his lewd and vulgar lyrics especially those about sex and the female genital. The village market frequently became home for him to demonstrate his artistry and the Christmas dance of 1980 sealed his prowess as rural king of the dancehall when thousands from Middlesex county watched him defeated the other lyrical genius Papa Galante . He recalled the first day at elementary school when he was enamoured by size . Size was always impacting him physically and psychologically . For a youth who was five feet four inches he had high ambitions now to own a nightclub. He thought he had arrived , unstoppable and no one could convince him to return to school books. He would often complain, “can school provide food. School cannot pay my bills” To him skill and trade training and anything post elementary were tantamount to boot camp.
I remember clearly coming home from Kingston and seeing him a late July evening at “Cleve’s Hideaway. “ He had one foot on a box of Red Stripe beer, argyle socks exposed , shirts unbuttoned and churning out rhythms and lyrics in profusion as he charmed the crowds with , “tourist season, me and one tourist a go reason.” Later he switched to his ubiquitous anthem song, “ My ganja (marijuana) plane a go land Sunday morning.” I realized he was smart, heard of his accolades in school and encouraged him to go to evening class to pursue the subjects that could prepare him for college, but my counseling was futile. To me Brownskin had the aptitude to become a fine Caribbean poet or at the least a lyrical master of Jamaican music. His interest was money by any means. “ is money mi a defend now, brother Winston, “ he snarled. Well, I could not convince him to change his ways, not one for who money now was god.
How could popular culture , drug culture and the fascination with quick money changed the life, morals, values and the character of a country boy who grew up with a caring mother ? That was the question asked in the last two years of Brownskin’s life. Academics and hard work no longer matter or surfaced on the agenda of many youths caught in the harsh economic and political realities of the seventies and early eighties. Youths had to make ado with what was available. It is sadly the same now. The more things changed , the more they remain the same.
The growing illicit drug trade of the seventies became attractive to Brownskin. Many adolescents were using their contacts working at the few operational hotels on the island’s north coast to fuel their entrepreneurial passion for illegal business. To Brownskin , this was the golden opportunity to uplift himself and family from poverty. It means bigger things than pop music. Meanwhile Pastor repeatedly sent for him to beg him to leave the business of singing lewd lyrics. Nothing was hidden from the Rev. John Knight. So integral has he become a part of the society since leaving Stouffville, Ontario that what happened in Eccleston, Nine Miles, Cave Valley, Clarksonville and Borrowbridge concerned him . It had reached pastor’ s ear that his good choir boy and one who he mentored had turn against the Lord. But Brownskin had more “earthly” things to achieve. God’s business was secondary.
Not satisfied with the direction and income from dancehall music , he sought out Philly Phil and Paul whose marijuana farming empire could supply him with adequate amount of the Sensimilla variety . He paid for the first bag of weed to be delivered to a white American on the northcoast. The price of $1000 US by the white man was attractive and he sworn he had to get a piece of the action. Making connections with friends at Club Caribbean Hotel and Redgewick Sea Resort he was able to connect with some traffickers from Boston , USA. They would fly their Cessna plane to Jamaica, and he would contribute four bags in the total shipment. By spring of 1980 despite the increased concern and presence of US authorities , the deal was made , Brownskin negotiated a good deal for 1500 pounds of marijuana . With precision The boys from Boston sent their pilot to fly the stuff from the lonely Bauxite company constructed road one Sunday morning. It arrived successfully in the states and two weeks later the Boston boys sent their bearer to pay for the portion they had credited. The returns in US dollars were great for such a shipment. Brownskin’s capital for his night club was getting bigger and bigger. It was his desire also to build a “mansion” for his mom.
While Jamaica ’s winter tourist season was launched officially in December 1980 , the American drug importers from Boston came under the guise of tourists to strike a deal with Brownskin and other local marijuana farmers. They wanted a larger shipment for the winter , this time 2000 pounds of high grade sensimilla . It was to be the biggest shipment out of Aboukir and the Murray Mountains. The month of February 1981 was thought to be the best time to come for the drug as the harsh New England winter created a large demand for smoking. It was also ideal from the supply side since no ganj farmer in the island’s hinterland wanted to keep dried marijuana for extended period; it could rot or become trashy resulting in use only as for fertilizer. The abundance of the weed that year , the rich harvest of late 1980 created a surplus in which Brownskin had the upper hand. He would only use a portion of the money to advance the other four farmers , buying the rest on credit. The Bostonians traffickers Teddy , the Greek and Walter the Italian paid their contacts in St. Catherine to bribe the Guanaboa Police who would turn a blind eye to their airplane landing on the private Worthy Park estates in the community.
Brownskin welcomed the demand for a larger shipment. His greed was only matched by a desire for earning more Yankee greenback for expenditure on his planned nightclub and big house. It was this deal which the white men came and sorted out in early February 1981 giving him a hefty down-payment in US greenbacks with promise to settle the remainder after the shipment arrived in Boston. “Yes, my bank book will be full of cabbage,” he excitedly smirked. Quite pleased was he calculating that if these white men did not return after the shipment , he could cut his losses and personally made a profit . He made sure all the Sensimila to be shipped was procured partly on credit and promised Vee, Ivor Shaw, Brenton’s and Brown Maurice father eternal riches when the plane landed. The thought of money and more money washing his pockets stimulated his mind for the following weeks. Evil thoughts came to his mind as he wonder if he could send some criminals from the adjoining Thatchwalk district to rob the white men when the plane land and take back the weed to St. Ann which he could double profited by selling to another American trafficker. After all, these dirty games played out some times in the lucrative ganja business.
The success of the illicit activities to date gave him courage to break the narcotics law of the island again. “I want this big shipment to the USA and then I’ll call it quit and this will be the last time I dabble in marijuana business t ,” he excitedly told his brother. It was four days before the fateful event in late February 1981 when he hopefully expected Teddy and Walter to visit him with the downpayment. Ganja business in the seventies to early eighties was done with respect and honour and the Americans kept their words turning up with a hefty down payment of US dollars.
Brownskin paid off the police in his district to ensure the weed leave Aboukir without a hastle for the main road. He could not take any chances because the entire police force knew Aboukir was the ganja production centre of St. Ann. He also contacted a few more farmers for extra pounds of cured weed. . Excited by the prospect of wealth and believing his goals would soon be accomplished he decided to host a dance at Ruddy’s lawn in the most quiet district of Clarksonville. He thought his time had come and advertised the biggest dance to be held in the village. It was to churn out his repertoire of the finest lyrics , some which would be new and which he hoped would excite his fans and audience inclusive of social commentary, lewd lyrics and even some anti-politicians and homophobic lyrics. This dance would draw the entire communities of the Dry Harbour Mountain and crowned him not only as premier entertainer but as an entertainment host. It was free to all villagers and the first hundred would get free spirits and beers.
In his now twisted self he wanted to avoid spending but maximizing on earnings. Losing his moral way over the last few years he decided that he would steel electricity from the cables of the government owned utility company. He could not bear to know others were stealing electricity and he could not. Why should he use up much kilowatts of hour pumping his 3000 watts amplifier disco.
At five o’clock that evening Brownskin decided it was time to get the party rolling, time for the good vibes to kick off and time for noise in the dancehall space by the 3000 watts Jack Ruby HI Fi sound system. In the absence of “Jack Ruby,” the owner he decided to take his chances at stealing the electricity. In his now morally deprived state he decided to connect the cables and toss it on the high tension via stone balances. . “Watch your self , brother , “ shouted Roland , his sibling. “ “This is the way poor people get free light,” was Brownskin response. “ This is the way we take from Caesar what is ours,” These were his last words , he had cheated death by nearly drowning in 1977 , but this time he was playing with fire and high voltage! Stepping on the grass covered stone he tried to toss the illegal extension to the government utility company high tension cables . He failed at the attempt and his foot moved a foot more from the stone on which he stood. Just then he slipped and lost his balance. What happened next was that the rodwood stick with the wire attached caught the 240 volt wire instead of the 120 volts. A large sound emitted and fire gashed as we looked around and saw Brownskin flung to the soggy ground burnt and scorched by electrical shock. We knew that moment that he was no longer, he was dead as a doornail. His face blackened and his torso twisted by electrical currents as the wailing started and the police was summoned.
I took a breath of relief wishing I was not present. “ I came to listen his muical recitation but I witnessed death instead. Just then I realized , “ this is life in the tropics.” A poor youth had lost his way , education had failed him , or he had failed to make use of education . I could not answer , the society made life so harsh for the poor but sometimes the poor failed to step above the system. For a certainty opportunities were lost and chances missed. Not everyone should believe in luck but I was certain there is a thing called destiny. Perhaps, this was Brownskin’s destiny. Isn’t that the core belief of Baptist Christians? Brownskin was preached to so often. Rev. Knight had not espoused Calvinism but Brownskin must have read about it; he read profusely. He would not listen and like some adolescents had chosen to break the law and ignored the straight road of the law for the highway of crime and its attendant glamour. Now he paid the price for his stupidity and stubbornness. Another generation has been condemned, his poor mother looking for a son to take her out of poverty was now left to face embarrassment and jeer. It would be perpetual poverty. I wanted to continue listening to his deejaying gimmickry and mastery of the Jamaican music, but he was now no longer alive . I bit my lips and repeated again , “ Such is life and destiny in the tropics.”
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