My Jamaican father, like so many other immigrants from the island, had a longing to return to the Land of Wood and Water.
The overt racism of the U.S. was too much to metabolise culturally, especially because he was raised by a Garveyite uncle who saw the mass migration of Jamaicans to the U.S. and Britain as a harbinger of its doom. My father returned to Jamaica with a family in tow. I maintain vivid, yet random memories of our arrival to Jamaica: The calloused eager hands of rum-breathed men jockeying to carry our luggage, the wet weight of the air; the sounds of frogs and crickets — an accompanying chorus to aeroplanes as they flew in and flew out.
We lived in Havendale, on Border Avenue in fact; if I knew you better I would give you the number; what the heck, 26. 26 Border Avenue, Kingston 8. A flat-roofed white, black and red concrete structure with what seemed like then a huge, loose-rocked, scraggly-grassed backyard. That first night we slept amidst the clustered boxed furniture that arrived weeks before we did in the living room. The sound of crickets filled the air. I was five, frightened, and curiously I had trouble breathing…
Later we moved deeper into Havendale, on to Coolshade Drive, and lived there until the bottom fell out of the matrimonial bucket my mother and father shared. The cause, among other things, was my father’s philandering and my mother’s deep paranoia — a horrible mixture. In between my family’s arrival in 1972, and my departure nearly ten years later were innumerable experiences that are etched into my mind.
I returned to the U.S. in 1982 and live in Brooklyn, New York City. My once easily-identifiable Jamaican cadence has been softened by the onward rush of ‘Americanisms’ over my mind; I should explain that. The then (and now) American cliche’ of the melting pot was so far from the truth. It was more accurate to call the phenomenon a ‘cultural shedding’ which occurs out of fear.
I quickly learned that invisibility was my best tool for survival in a land that was violent, poor, drug-saturated and hostile. As soon as I spoke all who listened wanted to know where I was from, and, unfortunately, while attending a predominantly white high school in Bensonhurst Brooklyn (New Utrecht High School), there was successful lobbying done by some of my teachers to enroll me in ‘special education’ classes because my Jamaican accent was misperceived as a speech impediment; I kid you not. This, despite being at the top of my classes.
For me being Black in America has meant adapting a different persona for differing social contexts. It’s terribly exhausting and, at the end of the day, sometimes I wonder who I really am. What I notice, unfortunately, is a ‘cultural drift’ from my ‘Jamaicanness’.
I miss Jamaica. I miss lounging in mango trees, hearing ripe breadfruit hit the ground and split; dogs barking at a front gate. I miss the ‘clang-clang’ of rockstone on metal, the Jamaican equivalent of a doorknock. I miss the lilt of the women when they talk; the warbly echo of reggae in rapidly passing cars and robots (do people still say robots?), the swish of a sharp cutlass on tall grass, and the gleam of the sweat of the Black hand wielding the blade; the lazy slow spiral of a John Crow’s dispassionate observance of something dead; I miss it all. I could go on, you know I could go on, but the purpose here isn’t poetry, but rather describing the incremental dissembling of one kind of person to another: I miss being Jamaican.
What remains is a love of the food, of course (I am convinced I can eat my weight in curry goat), and some of the values: I can’t understand how people in America can throw away what looks like perfectly fine furniture, and books! However, whenever I visit Jamaica I am confronted with how I have changed. On my last visit, I recall saying approvingly of something observed on television, “Sweet”, and everybody looked at me crazily.
Being a young Jamaican in New York enabled me to bolster myself against the dress codes that so entranced my American peers. I never wore a pair of Timberland boots, or baggy pants, and I was utterly shocked and dismayed to come back ‘home’ and see so many dressed like that in the unforgiving Caribbean sun. Yet, here’s the question: would I have dressed like that if I remained in Jamaica? A portion of the Jamaican experience is being inundated with American culture, and so much of that culture arrives to the island unquestioned and readily absorbed. Am I more authentically Jamaican because I came to the U.S. intent on retaining my (Jamaican) self, and filtering very carefully what I was exposed to and confronted?
My encounters with Jamaica and Jamaicans are fewer and further away from each other. My neighborhood has suffered due to Black flight and White encroachment; some people call this ‘gentrification’, but, I take issue with that word and what it implies. The direct effect of white presence in Brooklyn is sudden unattainable rent increase for long time residents and the forced migration of working class Caribbean people. Corner stores that once catered to a Caribbean clientele are now boutique eateries selling tiny plates of mish-mash on fancy tables with chairs seemingly designed to hurt the bottom if one sits on them too long. Brooklyn has become a haven for joggers, tiny dogs, and yes, Starbucks. Increasingly few from the Caribbean remain.
I try to stay current by delving into Jamaican newspapers. I have this daydream that I’ll become professionally successful enough to move back ‘home’ and raise my (American-born) daughter in the land I love. This of course is tempered by terrifying anecdotes from friends that all seem to end with, ‘…and then he put a gun to the back of my head…’, and gruesome newspaper reports of other idealistic-yet-clueless expatriate Jamaicans slaughtered like goats in a Jurassic Park’s dinosaur pen. ‘Jesus,’ I say to myself, ‘Do I want to go back to that?’ What I read is often disappointing, frustrating, and depressing.
I try to commiserate with the increasingly few Jamaican friends that I still have: I left the island suddenly when I was fourteen and lost contact with all my school chums for decades. Becoming reacquainted with them has become a mostly fruitless task that more than anything reveals how much I have changed. The advent of Facebook was almost magical for me. Within three minutes of joining I was inundated with friend requests from so many with whom I went to school, and all wondered what the hell happened to me. It does my heart good to reminisce about the good old days in high School (I went to Wolmer’s), but this quickly becomes stale once so many of these same Facebook friends post their fidelity to Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior — and out of nowhere let it be known their disdain for homosexuals.
I’m decidedly atheist and I have friends and relatives who are homosexuals. It is very difficult to remain quiet when someone posts an image of white Jesus and asks others to ‘Like’ their post. I cannot remain silent about it; I just can’t. I have to let it be known that I don’t share their opinion, nor their faith, and I am still a Jamaican. But, I’ve come to realise that a part of being Jamaican is being socially intolerant, and being Christian.
Jamaicans have no regard for individual liberties. The culture doesn’t allow for it, and there is little hope the law will either. I think there is no such thing as a ‘gay Jamaican’; that’s called a ‘battiman’, or a ‘saddomite’ — both said derisively of course — and I think there is a de-facto stripping of your ‘Jamaicanness’ if you proclaim yourself as gay. That’s an anomaly. Ditto for possessing an atheist perspective. In the same epistemological process that enables 1 + 1 to = 2, obversely one cannot seemingly be Jamaican without being Christian. It’s right up there in the first line of the Jamaican national anthem — which still gives me goosebumps by the way — ‘‘Eternal Father bless our land…’’ So, I am in a quandary. I get goosebumps from a song that is essentially a prayer to a god I have no belief of…
So, here, in the midpoint of my life presumably, the only identifiable cultural trait that remains is a love of the food. My Jamaican accent is now rounded and weathered by time and confrontation with difference. Like a river stone, my words are smooth and soft, lacking — unless angered — angular cadence. My faith in The Good Lord is also weathered away; my faith in The Land has been ripped asunder by the deluge of merciless violence against the unwary; my Jamaican friendships are sparse due to my time away, and how I see the world. And the land too has changed.
A few years back I went to my Havendale neighborhood. The streets were eerily empty of people, and the asphalt turned to rubble due to constant rain and governmental neglect. All of the houses were caged in steel rebar. Few of those with whom I grew up remained. In conversation they greeted me with wariness and cool dispassion. I was disheartened to see the house I lived in on Coolshade Drive painted an absolutely awful shade of yellow — and according to all it had become a reputed whorehouse.
Well, there you have it. What remains to describe as proof of my uniqueness dissipating is the recent Labor Day festivities on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn New York. I warily took my three-year-old daughter. There were too many people standing in front of us to view the elaborate costumed people as they danced on that broad road, and the ear-splitting volume of the speakers made it difficult for us to appreciate the amplified music. Her priorities were lobbying me (successfully) for an Italian ice (a kind of sorbet in a paper cup) and ensuring that her all-white ensemble — save for the Jamaican flag her mother insisted she wear as a cape around her neck — was not stained. Sweet ice treat finally in hand, she ate it enthusiastically while the contents threatened to spill out. I turned the flag-cape around to the front and used it, fittingly, like a bib…