In life, there are pivotal moments that forever change how we look at ourselves and our world. For me, it began on July 12, 1975, when my custodial grandparents put me on Pan American Airlines and sent me packing to my mother in America who after nearly ten years, had finally gotten her permanent resident status and could bring her family back together again.
Between 1965 to 1975, I lived with my maternal grandparents, a sister and brother, 4 aunts, 5 uncles and 6 cousins. Ours was a modest wooden house that my grandfather Julian built on land he grew up on and later inherited from his fore-parents. It was located just below the bridge in Melvin’s Hill in the eastern parish of St. Joseph. From the bridge, I could scan the east coast from Cattlewash to Bathsheba and bathe in plenty of fresh Atlantic breeze. To the west, there were open sky and fruit trees galore. This was the direction that our kites would fly during the Easter school vacation. As was the custom, a small spot of our land was used for a “kitchen” garden that my grandmother Clarine planted full with parsley, thyme, scallions, lettuce and other vegetables that were mostly for our consumption, but often given to neighbors who came calling.
By the time I came along, my family was firmly rooted in the Spa Hill New Testament Church of God. This was a small Pentecostal congregation, that compared to the established Anglican chapel sitting just a few yards to the south, and the Brethren Meeting hall to the north, was the liveliest spot in the village. It is true that for every church in Barbados there is also a rum shop on every corner and so we had Mr. Springer’s shop to the south, Ms. Foster shop to the North and Mr. Bayley’s shop on the southeastern corner. Shops were where we bought our necessaries like sugar, salt, flour, rice, salt fish, corned beef, etc. But for many of the men in the village, it was an evening hang out, a place to gather and talk politics, village news, drink rum and play dominoes after a hard day.
St. Bernard’s Elementary school was located just a few yards from the bridge. This is where I met many of the other children in the surrounding villages, and it was where I got my early education and the famous “injection” that left a pock-mark on my left arm. At school, our teachers were people who lived in our villages and were members of our communities. Sometimes if you were not so lucky, your teacher would be a family member and would be harder on you than anyone else. Our school uniforms were made for us by the local needleworkers. Mine was made by my auntie Laureen. Our lunches were taken at home, so every day in the middle of the day when the sun was at it hottest we would dismiss from school and run home on the scorching tar to have our lunch. I was one of the lucky ones. Some children had parents who were out working in the fields and would have to be satisfied with the biscuits and milk provided by the government.
Whether at home, church or school, we had tropical trees all around us. Pear, breadfruit, guava, silver sweets, grapefruit, coconut, soursop, almond, june-plums, bananas, mammy apples, peas, golden apples, ackees, tamarind and last but not least, mangos all had their seasons. None of these, however, were more central to our lives than the endless sugarcane fields that stretched throughout the villages and across the island. The cane season was the best because it seemed like everyone found work and the roads were always busy with people going to and fro. Trucks would cross the bridge carrying young men from neighboring villages. They were going to unload the cargo of sugar cane piled high on the trucks. They enjoyed pulling cane from the load and throwing them down to us. We would sing “uh wahn uh cane uh wahn uh cane!”.
In the village, there was a very high levels of respect for our elders. We knew people by their occupations and very often, by their nicknames. The dumb boy was the shoemaker, Mr. Hobbs was the cooper, Mr. Cumberbatch (Lloyd) was a lorry driver, Mr. Holder was the joiner, Mr. Smith was the undertaker, Mr. Waldron (Lordy) was the butcher, Mr. Lovell (Laddy or Deacon) was the carpenter, Mr. Deane was the teacher and Mr. Banfield, the headmaster. Ms. Husbands was the dressmaker, Ms. Small the midwife, Ms. Roach the Pastor, Ms. Walkes the Hawker, Jean the basket maker, Cleo was the barber, and then we had the sweetie lady who peddled her goods outside the schoolyard. We also had the one-foot man, the one hand man and the blind man who we, as children, may have mocked behind their backs, but to their faces, they were Mister, Miss, Auntie, Uncle, Dear Aunt, Godfather or Godmother and, we answered yes please and no, please. In school, maam and sir.
We spent evenings, Easter vacations and long summers frolicking and playing. The only interruptions would be an adult cautioning “come in out the hot sun.” We played road tennis, cricket, dodgeball or sometimes cars. We played in the yard, pitching marbles, playing pix-ups, hop-scotch, skipping rope or playing hide and go seek. We made kites with long tails, used empty can to make believe we were using a phone, made balls with newspaper and strips of bicycle tubes, made baskets with strips from coconut limbs. I even remember making baskets from the colored wires discarded by the technicians who serviced electrical lines. I’ll never forget when we made a cricket field on our land in the back and made a high jump set-up using tree limbs and an old mattress. We were masters of invention and creativity.
One crucial backdrop to my childhood was politics. I was born in 1963 on the eve of Barbados’ independence. I can’t think of a time when adult conversations were not dominated by political arguments about the rights of the laboring class and/or educational opportunities for all. Even as a child, it was hard to ignore that in Barbados there were disparities that ran along class and color lines. In and around the house there were occasions when my grandmother had to explain something in terms of, “we poor and we black.” I also recall my grandfather gushing with pride when he shared that his employer, the white manager of Vaucluse Plantation, where he worked as a carpenter, respected him. The evidence he was that they allowed him to eat at the table with knife and fork, while the other workers ate out back”.
It wasn’t hard for me to catch comments that suggested that my dark skin placed me in a less than privileged position in Barbados. My grandmother would be especially complimentary when a baby came along with “sweet skin,” or I can recall her telling a lady that “yes, she is my gran, she get de hair”, and I remember in my head saying, “if not de skin”. Barbados was still an agrarian society where adults were painfully obvious of their station in life. I knew that we were better off than a lot of people, but I could see the strain, especially on my grandfather, who would come home tense from a long day and could beat us at the drop of a hat. My grandmother was my savior when he would get in his moods. I could hear her scream “Julian, you ghine kill she, I tell you not tuh hit de people children.” Life was hard for my grandparents. They raised ten children and now, with immigration open to England, Canada and, the US, they made the tough decision to take in grandchildren whose parents had gone off to find a better life.
I came along three years before Barbados gained its independence in 1966 and from that moment I was shaped by the spirit and nationalism and activism. I had a sense of pride, and I could see industry all around me. I was Barbadian in the real sense of the word. Early on I learned what it meant to have a country, a flag and an anthem of my own.
I took this patriotic spirit with me to America. My mother, Erma, had found a small one bedroom apartment to house the five of us. My first impression was wow, a toilet and bath, in de house, everything looked shiny, just as we had seen in the American television shows. But it didn’t take long for all of that to wear off and for a darker reality to sink in.
I spent my first summer around the apartment building. We weren’t allowed outside, except if we went into the backyard. We couldn’t sit on the front steps like the other residents, and we weren’t allowed any visitors. The other residents in the building were mostly older, white people and they were very friendly. On the streets, I would say good morning, good evening as usual to the people I passed, but hardly anyone would respond. There was a cluster of townhouses across the street where some of the other neighborhood children lived, but we weren’t allowed because my parents came home, sometimes after 5:30pm. My mother had arranged for Sister Bishop to take us to church on Sundays. It was a Pentecostal, predominately Jamaican church and was the closest thing to home.
My parents enrolled my siblings and me into the neighborhood public school named Eleanor B. Kennelly. We were the only obviously Caribbean family at the school. The other Black children came on the bus and sadly, they had little appreciation for foreigners like us. We were taunted most unmercifully. The school was predominately Irish and Italian with Greeks, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans and, Black Americans sprinkled in. The teachers were all white, except for Ms. Crawford, who taught music and there was a black paraprofessional, Ms. Smith, whose only role it seems, was to help with discipline for the black students or to make them more comfortable. The white kids didn’t seem to mind me. I felt like I could compete academically and I was filled with curiosity about them.
By the Spring of 1976, the entire school was engulfed in a celebration of the bicentennial of American independence, giving me hands-on experience with colonial American history. The stories of Betsy Ross and the flag, the patriotic songs like Yankee Doodle, famous Americans and their traditions were all impressed upon my mind. The one thing that really grabbed me was when the teacher mentioned, or I read that George Washington had traveled only once out of the country. It felt great to finally hear someone say, Barbados. The bicentennial reminded me of the many exciting Barbados independence days I had spent playing with star-lights, bomb, canons, singing new songs, watching car racing and eating cookies. It was a great distraction from my extreme loneliness.
At school, it seemed no one but me cared that I was Barbadian, and nothing upset me more than for people to call me Jamaican. How could they not know about beautiful, beautiful Barbados, BIM? How could they say we swung from trees, we came in a banana boat, that we dress tacky, or why would they sing “Come Mr. Tallyman, Tally Me Banana” or “put de lime in de coconut and eat it all up,” in harsh, demeaning style? I wanted so badly to be back home because, if I couldn’t feel safe being Barbadian, then I was nobody. It was about this time that I began questioning my identity. All I wanted was my normal and to fit in.
Then came the Summer of 1977. Every night, for two weeks, we glued ourselves to the TV to watch the ABC network mini-series “Roots,” based on a novel by Alex Haley. Haley had learned that whites violently kidnapped his ancestors in Africa and forcibly shipped them across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where they were sold as slaves to white plantation owners[i]. There were scenes of African and white men ripping boys, girls, men and women from their rural African villages, marching them in chains to the coastline, packing them onto waiting boats and taking them to a foreign land where none one spoke their language, appreciated their culture, appreciated as their right to be who they were.
This all had a profound effect on me. I could relate to the story of separation from family and country, but I had never, imagined Black people, Barbadians, and by extension, my family and myself in the context of this unimaginable and cruel version of life called slavery, nor had I learned about it in school in Barbados and definitely not at my new school.
It had not occurred to me till now to question who I was in relation to students who were white. They were kind to me, and I was kind to them, that was it. But, more and more it was becoming apparent that there was a big difference between them and the black students at the school. I began to notice those how many black kids seemed so angry and mean, or that they came on buses and the white children walked to school. I can remember the day I raised my hand to answer a question in English class, “me teachuh”, something that was normal for me. Ms. Walsh seemed to like my enthusiasm. As I walked up to the board, Connie Smith, a black girl stomped on my foot and causing me to stumble. I retaliated but she was very strong and just threw me on the desk. Her mother was the disciplinarian, Ms. Smith. I later told the Principal that “she mash me pun my foot,” but I don’t think she understood my thick Bajan dialect. I just didn’t understand the black kids. They looked like me, but they didn’t accept me, and this continued through to high school.
Here I was, facing literally the most challenging transition in my life, and the people I loved the most, my grandmother parents, aunts, uncles, friends, cousins were not here to see me through it. I returned home in 1979. The customs officer looked at my passport and looked and me and asked, “you are a Bajan?”. I said yes. He asked, “why the #### you don’t talk like one.” America had changed me and not only my accent. My drive home from the airport felt long. I couldn’t wait to see my family, to feel normal again. When we reached Mount Wilton Plantation, I had a whiff of that familiar smell of cow manure, and it felt good. Then I saw them, the men and women bending over rows, digging what might have been cane holes or potatoes. This is a scene I had passed hundreds of times before on the way to school. But that day, the white/red man overlooking the workers from his green jeep was all I saw. The scene had taken on a sinister and evil shadow. “Roots” had forced me to see my beloved country, village, neighbors, my family and myself through this unfortunate lens called slavery. I asked my grandmother, Clarine Lovell (1915-2010), what she knew about slavery. Her cynical answer was, “I din needuh one!”1.
Coming to America had shattered my identity. The backdrop for my early experience here was the tail end of the racial tensions of the 1960s. A couple of years ago, two former students, who happened to be white, began the thread by asking “do you remember Sandra Taitt and Jimmy?”. I wonder if they were conscious of the racial dynamic of the time.
I needed to heal from all that had happened since I left Barbados, to be just Barbadian again. I had always listened to my grandmother talk about her family, and now I understood the loss she must have felt when they separated in 1668 when her mother passed in 1968. I asked her to tell me about the family. My grandmother, bless her heart, took me to visit Etta Cox, her cousin who she said, “knows the family real good.” Etta’s small, chattel house was on the main road in Jackman, St. Michael, about five country miles from our family home. My grandmother and Etta embraced, and she told her why we were there, but the truth is, most of the conversation and names were lost on me.
Near the end of the visit, I took notice of a large portrait on the wall. The subject was a distinctively dressed gentleman in a single-breasted jacket with wide lapels, a collared shirt with patterned tie and he had a silver chain pinned above his right pocket. He had white features and short wavy hair. I learned that this man was Uncle John. He and Etta’s mother, Aunt Tena, were siblings. Their eldest sister Georgianna aka “Dawdy” was my gg-grandmother. My grandmother had no photos of her family at all so I couldn’t put this big, oval, museum-like piece out of my head. I was anxious to know more about these people. I hoped it would help me to find what I had lost when I left Barbados.