A youth called Brownskin – A life of misadventures and mistakes in 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.
As I climbed the hill to this rural church overwhelmed with grief , I pulled a white handkerchief from my jacket and mopped my sodden eyes lamenting the loss of an adolescent.
The windy and chilly air blowing from North America that morning smashed into the faces of mourners who huddled together and briskly walked up the steep incline to find a seat in the Eccleston Baptist Church. Eccleston Baptist was the perfect religious institution chosen for the funeral of Brownskin, a youth fallen from grace. Built in 1838 from London Baptist Society donations it had never falter in its service to the poor.. What a coincidence I surmised , Brownskin funeral would be conducted by his mentor and role model , the affable John Knight , Missionary pastor from Toronto who had labored with the locals from 1926. It would be pastor’s last duty on the island. Strong political voices of descent , espousing Fabian Socialism resonated vociferously , against western economic models , against white man system and 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 who had received fame on the US A Billboard’s “Top100 Albums”. Charts. This morning the church had the role of providing a solemn service for the district son, once a choir and church member who had become wayward , departing from faith , moral upbringing and western religious beliefs.
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 finding no seat inside the church took refuge in the limbs of the Broadleaf trees facing the side entrance ostensible to catch a glimpse of his coffin.
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 local MP and the loyal congregationists , Death has finally sealed the fate of a restless village youth trapped in a life of poverty, dancehall culture, and illicit activities , all harsh realities of rural post –independent Jamaica .
Ten feet from the pulpit laid the cedar coffin in a sea of locally grown gladiolis, carnations, and Star lilies. The poignant scent of the French polished coffin overpowered wails of mourning villagers 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 son will get some 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 to the poor. This was understandable as such a village as Eccleston was located in the mineral rich environment that provided eighty percent of Jamaica’s bauxite and limestone which hardly if ever benefitted the villagers.
As Pastor , Knight entered from the vestry I heard another commotion. It was coming from Miss Birdie, neigbour to Pa Crothes, Brownskin father . She loudly and openly castigated all those who desired free handouts from the state, stating that prior to independence there was no handouts, no drug trafficking nor quick money mentality.
Brownskin, twelfth son of Pa Crothes and Miss Enid , like most underprivileged rural youth of central Jamaica experienced bitter sweet and restless adolescent years in the late seventies to early nineteen eighties . Growing up in this dark period of Jamaica’s history was difficult in a society stratified by class , colour , ethnicity and one facing all the problems of Third World nations. The era was unique to Jamaica in that it created international cultural expressions and forms giving the world the pulsating dancehall music, and providing the cultural space for its created black nationalist Rastafarian religion to mushroom, achieve and attract international following . For parents in rural society the challenges were so insurmountable exacerbated by women run homes, poor family structures , delinquent and absent fathers , Women became sole breadwinners as fathers saw their roles as studs to breed (impregnate) the village women.
Fast forward to this decade Jamaica a proud independent nation painfully searched for its true self, its true identity, its role within the community of nations and its relations with the hegemonic west. Caught in the middle of the cold war and cognizant of its colonial baggage ,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 adfolescent. In this Caribbean space , the politically charged environment impacted negatively the island’s ability and capacity to economically support its people , especially its 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 between Capitalism and Communism as neither system decreased the inequity or polarization in the island. This search propelled the wrath of investors, the hegemonic upper middle class, and owners of capital. The dire effect was massive closure of factories, industries and plantations , redundancies, massive unemployment, flight of the middle class and rich, flight of capital, 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 cultivation, financing and trafficking of marijuana in Jamaica for the American market , making the island the largest exporter of the weed to the USA. The fragile economy was fully exploitated 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 subgenres 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 slowly 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 the sentimental music gave rise to hard subgenre dancehall with its lewd lyrics . unsavoury lyrics, homophobic themes , and often social commentary . Vulgarity popularized many of the practitioners , while for others the socio-economic impact was related in songs. Concretised in patois, 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 Brownskin 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 boy and therefore 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 they would succeed. 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 boys 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 prizes at Sunday school for punctuality and attendance and he excelled in drama and singing so much that at age five and seven he became the star of the annual Christmas and Easter Cantata. At church he found solace and refuge in what to him kept the community bonded, becoming the endearing child. It provided camaraderie and sense of belonging.
By age ten in 1972 , his convictions drove him to become a Christian , so he professed his faith and was baptized by Reverend Knight. He joined the choir belching out melodious hymns at inspired services and youth group meetings. Being the youngest member he was delighted to be respected by peer group and church congregation. Church however was meeting ground for everyone and it was their he met Phil, Philly Phil, and Cha Cha rotten delinquent youths whose fathers were gamblers and later ganja (marijuana) farmers and whose mothers were engaged in every anti-social behaviour one could imagined. They who would later inveigle him. These lads had a reputation for constant chattering throughout Sunday school and were rascals who frequently stole from farmers mandarin fruit trees.
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 .
Sunday school molded him at an early age and instilled the discipline of courtesy, religious tolerance, morality and respect for fellow men and institutions. Achieving yearly prizes for attendance , Brownskin became inspired to gain more out of church. Sunday school with its rigid adherence to listening, reading, singing and memorization complemented his yearning for primary education .
Pastor Knight ‘s wife Miss G had noticed his punctuality and devotedness to church and Sunday school. Highly impressed , Miss G gave him a weekly errand to collect the church mails from the post box at the Cave valley Post Office, a mile away from the church. His task was to make delivery to the church manse the same day. It was conducting these errands that he met during his formative years when he befriended Brenton and Brown Maurice , children whose parents labored in the tobacco field at Bog Hole and who would be elementary school age be young wrongdoers who stole other children lunch monies. It was them that he found trustworthy in conducting illicit activities in the years to come.
Village life at an early age saw Brownskin attending the Baptist run Infant school. Like most of his peers , poverty meant attending an overcrowded pre-primary institution. Poverty was no excuse for discipline and learning and Miss Enid played her motherly role by teaching him basic manners and courtesy. She ignored the irresponsibility of some women and aggressively pushed for education of her son. She had seen how other poor persons children had gone to school and college and became professionals building dream homes for their parents and living a good life. She was excited that she had at least made him attend Sunday School frequently. It had prepared him mentally for Infant school.
Miss Enid made it her mandate early to train him in saying, “ Marnin Mam, Marnin sar, Good day Mam, Good day Sar, thank you Mam, than you Sar.” Her words might have been a far cry from formal English but the broken English she knew was adequate and correctly used for the child’s early upbringing. Satisfied that he was ready for elementary education Miss Enid insisted that Pa Crothes , the worthless husband as she called him should t bear some the responsibility to pay the weekly school fee for the next three to four 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 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 his peers.
Eccleston All Age he made an indelible impression on Brownskin. School was very transformational . The first day of new class was visited by Mr. Malcolm, the principal. He wrote three words, composition, Switzerland and Bustamante (name of the prime Minister) on the chalkboard. 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 higher than Grade 1A.
Brownskin from the first day of school was cognizant of class divide and relations of cultural power. His dress ,speech mannerism and lunch made him feel odd compared to some around him , although he found solace in the fact that most of his peers were just as poor as him. He could.t care less as he had a mission to learn and they knew that he was bright. None of the rich kids could pronounce the words given by Teacher Malcolm.
Recognising that in his class were Donna Young , daughter of Charles Young , the village Chinese 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 , he was determined to out class them academically. Soon Buck Brayan ( the jeered class teacher) was singing praises that she had three bright children in her class , but none as excellent a reader as Brownskin. When July came at the end of the school year he came second in his class but was the best reader and singer. Only arithmetic had failed him .
For several e years he did well at Elementary school and copped first prize in Grade four , grade six, grade eight and grade nine. Poverty impacting his nutrition and lack of resources to attend extra classes were instrumental to his failure of the Eleven Plus examination , so he continued to grade nine. Yet he was not jealous nor did he demonstrated ill feeling towards Donna and the other well off youths who passed for St. john’s High School in Christiana.
He continued to do excellent captaining the school singing team to the parish festival finals of the performing arts . He also captained the cricket team winning the coveted Hugh Marston trophy for rural primary and all age schools. Browskin was best batsman and could bowl a spin to the frustration of opposing teams.
Brownskin became an example of a n excellent student , despite marinalised social status . 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. He experienced mild depression on the departure of his friends and sought companionship of Paul, Philly Phill and Cha Cha, sons of wrongdoers who he met at Sunday school. It was one night 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 investigated and the two of them went into Mr. Lyn Cook truck under the moonlit country night where they rolled a small joint of ganja and blew out the pungent smoke. It was his initiation in ganja smoking and this was the beginning of his illicit activity. He did not mind the experience , he thought he was a big boy now.
He failed the Grade Nine test and discovered that it would not be an easy road to equip himself to socially move up. During grade nine he decided he wanted to sample the weed again and asked Brenton if he could secure some grass from his father who was a small marijuana planter in the Aboukir Woods interior. . It was at the same time Miss Enid sense of intuition told her something was going wrong. She 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 has also learned through the grapevine that Brownskin was smoking weed and also tobacco laced with pumpkin leaves. One day he decided to see Pastor who warned him of adopting alien American ways stressing that his continuation would lead to his destruction physically, spiritually and mentally and that he could end up in prison and forfeit an education and the ability to take his family out of poverty.
His drug usage affected his countenance and behaviour as he now begin to adopt alternative lifestyle. Averse to the culture of rural populace. His style of dressing compromised the norm as he adopted the sartorial elements of the lumpen in the inner cities .The ratchet knife, argyle socks and exposed trousers soon were features of his dress code. Continued practices of marijuana smoking and engagement the wrong companions such as Brenton and Brown Maurice nearly ended in his death in 1977. It was at Mass Joshie pumpkin field that he and a group of young marijuana smokers ers lighted a huge chillum pipe of seasoned ganja,. Earlier Brownskin had told Brenton to cut down a marijuana tree at his father’s farm and plucked the buds which had the potent TLC chemical. He thought it was just another weed , not knowing that it was a knew specie called sensimilla which was was introduced some months earlier into the parish. Not accustomed to such a potent drug he took a deep draw and immediately ran like a mad march hare from the pumpkin field. Unconscious of what was happening to his brain he ran right into a eight feet pond of water. It was the third dip he took that night when Roy Reid , farmer who went to collect his goat saw the body going down and dived to save him. That night the village came out in drove to help. His breath had stopped for ten minutes when miraculously he started breathing again. . Miss Enid and the family were so mad , but he promised , “I am going back to my savior. I am reconciling with my church.” Unfortunately , the culture of youth had already taken effect.
With this experience he failed to learn his lesson. Brownskin failed the Grade 9 achievement test and it now resonated that options for post elementary education were limited. Miss Enid and Pa Crothes fell despondent and encouraged him to learn a trade , but he was not interested. By age 15 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 he drew on one talent he had – dejaying the lewd dancehall lyrics. Brownskin immersed himself into the new subgenre of dancehall music drawing all his skills with the microphone .He put the pulsating and vulgar lyrics to the mike and chanted the fluent vocabulary of street life, sex and thuggery in the local nightclubs, pubs and dancehall lawns. . By 1980 Brownskin became man in demand for dances and dancehall parties. The village market became host for him to show off his artistry and the Christmas dance of 1980 sealed his prowess as rural king of the dancehall. He had high ambitions now to own a nightclub. No one could convince him to return to school books. He would complain, “can school provide food.”
I remember clearly coming home from Kingston and seeing him one foot on a box of Red strip beer, argyle socks exposed , shirts unbuttoned churning out rhythms and lyrics in profusion as he charmed the crowds with , “tourist season, Me and one tourist a go reason.” , and his ubiquitous anthem song, “ My ganja (marijuana) plane a go land Sunday morning. I encouraged him to go to evening class to pursue the subjects that could prepare him for college, but my counseling was futile. 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.
How could popular culture and drug culture and the fascination with quick money changed the life and character rter of a country boy who grew up with values . 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.
The growing illicit drug trade of the seventies now became attractive to Brownskin. Many youths 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. Meanwhile Pastor repeatedly sent for him to beg him to leave the business of singing lewd lyrics. It had reached pastors ear that his good choir boy and one who he mentored had turn against the Lord. But Brownskin had more “earthly” things to achieve.
Not satisfied with the direction and income from dancehall music , he sought out Philly Phil and Paul whose ganja growing fathers could supply him with the weed . He paid for the first bag of weed to be delivered to a white man on the coast. The price of $1000 by the whiteman was attractive that he sworn he had to get a piece of the action. Making connections with friends at a North coast hotel he was able to connect with some traffickers from Boston USA. They would fly their Cessna plane to Jamaica, and he would contribute three bags in the total shipment. By spring of 1980 despite the increased concern of US authorities , lucky as he was, he was able to sell the marijuana for export and earn a some decent yankee dollars .
The greed of more money meant a bigger deal would have to be made. It was this deal which the whitemen came and sorted out in February 1981 giving him a hefty down-payment with promise to settle the remainder after shipment to Boston. The success of the illicit activities to date gave him courage to break the narcotics law of the island again. “I want one big shipment to the USA and then I’ll call it a day,” he excitedly told his brother. It was two days before the fateful event in February 1981 when he expected a plane from the US to land at a private air strip in Worthy Park, St. Catherine. Everything was in place for the export as the American white men had arrived a week earlier with a hefty down-payment of cash .
Brownskin paid off the police and had purchased additional stuff from other small time marijuana farmers. Excited by the prospect of more money and the desire to open a big night club he decided to put on a party at Ruddy’s lawn. 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 –social commentary, lewd lyrics and even some anti-politicians and homophobic lyrics. This dance would cement him as not only entertainer but entertainment host. It was free to all villagers .
Losing his moral way over the last few years he decided that he would steel electricity from the wires of the government owned utility company. 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 sound system. In his now morally deprived state he decided to connect the electricity source illegally. “Watch your self , brother , “ shouted Roland , his sibling. “ This is the way poor people get free light,” was Brownskin response. This was his last words , he had cheated death by nearly drowning, but this time he was playing with fire! Stepping on the grass covered stone he tried to hook the illegal extension to the government run high tension. He failed and went a foot more on the stone. Just then he slipped, the roodwood stick with the wire he attached catched the 240 volt wire above those intended. A large sound emitted and fire gashed as we looked around and saw Brownskin flung and scorched by electrical shock. We knew that moment that he was dead. His face blackened and his torso twisted by electrical currents as the wailing started and the police summoned.
I took a breath of relief wishing I was not present. “ Just then I realize thisi s life in the tropics. A poor youth had lost his way , education had failed him , or was it that he failed from not being educated. Brownskin would not listen and like other youths he had chosen to break the law . He had despised the straight road for the highway of crime and its attendant glamour, Now he paid the price for his stupidity. 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. I had wanted to see his deejaying gimmickry and mastery of this form of popular music, but he was now no longer alive . I bit my lips and repeated , “ Such is life and destiny in the tropics.”
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