Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Child

Teenagers can be so exasperating! I have one child and you’d think that my life would be easy, but no; God has seen fit to bless me with a child who is as stubborn as I was growing up. As a matter of fact – she’s worse than I ever was. My grandmother always used to say that she hoped I never had children, because if I ever did, I would feel double the pangs of child-rearing that she endured raising the daughter of her last child.

Sometimes, I have to sit and wonder what it is that goes through the mind of our children, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to coming in from a hard day’s work when she’s been home all day and there’s a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Even though she knows how particular I am about my kitchen being clean and tidy – and that dirty dishes will just set me off huffing and puffing. I’m not too worried about what the rest of the house looks like, but I’ve got this thing about kitchens and bathrooms – in appearance - they must present as beyond reproach.

Is it the role of the teenager to give you grey hairs, raise your blood pressure and make you honestly want to commit murder? I daydream sometimes about what it would be like doing time after I’ve thrown her out the window (joke). On the other hand, it really is true, when she smiles that engaging smile of hers and her face looks the picture of innocence as she says ‘mum can I have a hug’ – well it tugs at my heart strings and makes me realize that one of the best rewards of being a mother is in the giving and receiving of love.

Twenty years ago, I was classed a geriatric mum when I gave birth to her. I’d been childless for so long that I’d given up hope, but then one night after baring my soul to one of my closest friends who saw that behind the bravado, I really wanted to become a mother, she advised me to pray. I started praying and asking God to fulfill my heart’s desire. You can imagine my surprise and joy when shortly afterwards I found out that I was pregnant! I would jokingly tell my friends that I hoped for a boy, because everybody knew I couldn’t braid hair to save my life. Well, wouldn’t you know it – “well done mum, you have a beautiful baby girl’. She was the most beautiful baby, always smiling, hardly crying, just a joy. Of course I spoiled the heck out of her, but I believe that children should have a charmed childhood – I know I did. She remembers the doll house I gave her for Christmas when she was 3 years old. I too have fond memories of working on the project after she’d gone to bed so that the surprise wouldn’t be spoiled. Wallpapering and painting the tiny rooms and searching for furniture, cutting small squares of carpet so that it looked just like the house in which we lived. We went everywhere together, my pride and joy. I promised that I’d never leave her and no matter what the circumstances, no matter how tough life got – it would be the two of us against the world. That promise held up for almost 15 years, so much so that friends and family thought that I’d changed my sexual preferences, since I never seemed to have a man. How could they know I was protecting this child that had been given to me and that no man was going to harm her, especially not one that was sleeping in my bed! I have a particular hatred for sexual predators and I knew that I would have serious issues justifying not killing any boyfriend who even looked askance in her direction.

Even though she’s now passed from teen years to womanhood, she’s still my baby girl and I know I’m guilty of treating her that way. Many times I wish she’d move out and find a place of her own, especially when she’s moved something and not put it back, which throws me into a small state of panic – I know when the time comes for her to leave, I’ll not want to see her go. Her friends all think I’m a bundle of fun and they all want to move in – but thank you very much – the one child I have is more than enough. It really is true that God never gives us more than we can handle and he knew what he was doing when he gave me my daughter. Jamaicans have a saying that one child does not a family make, but I know that my one child is more than enough family for me.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Dumfries, a district in Morant Bay, St. Thomas was my home for two years. This was where my grandparents, on their return to Jamaica to retire and live their golden years, settled briefly while they were waiting for their house in Kingston to be completed. The home was shared with another family and it was very strange to me to share a room with my grandparents after having had my own bedroom in London.

As children, we walked up and down Dumfries Hill to attend Morant Bay High School. Back in those days, we would take the shortcut through the valley – Moyston Gully, a beautiful wooded area with an ample supply of wildlife, lizards, birds and vibrant flowers together with an abundance of cowitch. This British girl was always trampling blindly through the undistinguished bushes never being able to tell the difference and suffering the consequence.

Children had no fear then; the whole community was responsible for nurturing and nourishing. If your parents were not at home at the end of the day, there would always be a kind neighbor to offer a small snack and something to quench your thirst. By the same token, it really is true that any adult in the community felt free to chastise or rebuke you should they ever catch you doing anything wrong. On top of it all, you were certain to get ‘licks’ when your parents found out that you were misbehaving in public.

The people in that small community were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, they supplemented their income by farming or taking in children whose parents lived in other parishes or worked in ‘town’. Those children, though not treated like ‘step-children’ received slightly less than loving care from those who were responsible for their bed and board. Nevertheless, everyone shared with their neighbors.

The happiest times for me was the interaction with the local kids. I especially loved to go to the standpipe to collect water. The home we lived in had piped water and there really was no need, but of course I wanted to be like the other kids. It was hilarious; trying to balance that kerosene pan on my head, by the time I got back home, the majority of the water I was carrying would have transferred from the pan to the top of my head, shoulders and the rest of my body. I remember our route would take us past a family burial plot, naturally, this was when we’d run screaming like banshees, water pans wobbling precariously as we raced home before the duppy ketch wi.

Sitting on the verandah, moon riding high, crickets chirping and bullfrogs answering back, it was a ritual for the adults to frighten the living daylights out of the kids with their graphic ghost stories. Stories of stones being thrown in the midnight hour, no one to be seen, just the sound of stones landing on the zinc roof. Everyone remembers the story of the famous Kendall crash and the unfortunate taxi driver who picked up the woman passenger standing alone at the side of the road. When she arrived at her destination and asked the driver to wait while she went to get his fare, he waiting patiently, but concern mounting when she didn’t reappear, received the shock of his life after knocking at the door he’d seen her enter, only to be told that the woman had perished earlier that night in the Kendall train crash. No one moved, pressing legs together trying not to recognize the growing need to use the bathroom! Of course, this is what the adults wanted, before we turned in for the night, someone would have to use the bathroom. Invariably in those days, the bathroom was a separate facility from the main house. I’d feel sorry for any child who had to take that trip in the dark to the ‘outhouse’, I wasn’t going to follow them, no matter how desperately they begged me!

There were the humorous ghost stories too, one Christmas, after too much sorrel, my friend had me in stitches when she recounted the story of “Copie” and the johncrow that visited several parishes riding on a skateboard. Rahtid, me nearly dead wid laugh! The oral tradition is slowly dying as the elders in my community inevitably make their transitions, taking that rich history with them. The sage in the family, Aunt Ivy is a wealth of information. With a memory like an elephant, she can recall the names of her classmates from basic school right up to her attendance at Mico Teachers college. One of my favorite pastimes is to sit with her and prod her to recount stories of her youth and how life back then moved at a slower pace, principles were established from an early age and the love of God kept you from straying too far.


On Sunday April 15 I travelled with a friend to Somerset Falls in Portland, Jamaica to attend the Fi Wi Sinting event. I heard about this festival when Pauline Petinaud (aka Sista P) was being interviewed on Junior Jawara Blake’s 93.5 wvip radio program. I was so impressed by what I was hearing that I made a promise to attend the culturama in Jamaica.

What intrigued me most was the fact that this was a woman who left New York to settle in rural Jamaica making a change in the lives of her community, by teaching the people and rekindling a sense of their rich cultural heritage. Sista P’s passion is documenting and giving life to the connection between African and Jamaican culture and promoting the similarities. Through her school founded in the rural parish of Content, Fi Wi Sinting was born out of the need to fund the school. Celebrating its 19th year, I was privileged to attend this event.

From my approach, my heart filled with pride as all around me I saw my people, every shade of black – heads held high, smiling, laughing and looking so beautiful in amazing African garb.

The venue this year was moved to Somerset Falls in Portland, the verdant cool vista was conducive to this large outdoor gathering. The space was divided into sections. On entering to the left was the performing stage, to the right a small area given over to story telling, where children and adults alike sat captivated listening to Anansi stories and other traditional folktales. Walking deeper into the park, my senses were assaulted by the items for sale, love beads, exquisite jewels made from semi-precious stones, clothes, pictures and the food – all traditional, all natural. The food that I sampled was delicious. I especially loved the mouth-watering sweet potato pudding. Mutabaruka was in charge of the African Dance Party, a huge area in the round where people were freely expressing the movement of Jah people. No one had inhibitions as more and more people entered the circle to boogie down with the conscious sounds.

The Jonkonuu band was fierce, the pregnant woman, the devil, an alien looking reveler took me back to my childhood days when I was afraid of these awful looking creatures who were intent on scaring the living daylights out of children and some adults!

I stood in awe watching the mento band produce music from everyday household items, a grater, whisk, washboard and upturned buckets. I was captivated by the Kumina players, my feet started moving to the incessant drumbeat and a group of other folks and I danced round and round, it was an almost spiritual experience as I felt myself being transported to the motherland. Joyful hoops and hollerin’ were quickly taken up by others as the drummers played faster and faster.

Celebrities abounded, Capleton, Mutabaruka, Prof. Caroline Cooper were just some of the names that come to mind. My only disappointment was that while I was vibzing to the music of Dennis, Taurus and Bob, I missed the main event – the tribute to the ancestors with the launching of the Ancestral Raft.

The celebration was such a joyous event, culture abounding as families came together, old friends were reunited and the hot Jamaican sun put an approving seal on the whole affair. Thank you Sister P – you’ve found a new fan and I’ll be telling everyone I know that attendance at Fi Wi Sinting is our new annual pilgrimage to Jamaica.

Lewd Music

The following extract is part of a speech I made at the Community Forum hosted by the Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music in March 2009

Brand Jamaica is in jeopardy of being stereotyped as something of little consequence, as evidenced by “The Sun”, a popular British tabloid, which recently referred to Jamaica as a “druggie paradise” and that Amy Winehouse (whose drug escapades provide fodder for the gutter newspapers of the world) would be quite at home in Jamaica on revealing she would record her new album there.

In these days of globalization, high-speed internet and news that travels like light, what is done on the small island of Jamaica can reach Japan in a matter of seconds. Artists have a responsibility – despite their claims to the contrary – to ensure that the wellspring of culture from which they draw their craft be maintained in as positive a light as possible.

While it is laudable that the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission is extending it’s ban on suggestively sexualized and gun lyrics to include soca music, one wonders how vigorously this ban will be enforced and what penalties will be levied? The ban should also apply to the music and video transmissions that can be heard in any of the ‘robot’ taxis used to play the public in every town and hamlet in Jamaica. It is not uncommon for school children to be seen fighting to enter taxis where explict sexual lyrics are blaring for all and sundry to hear.

Listening to a popular New York radio program this past weekend, I was astonished by one announcer’s exhortation that “Govt always waan give poor people a fight and that the bigger heads should ‘low the music”. It is this type of ignorance that always astonishes me that in this day and age someone would make that analogy that if the offending music was being played “uptown” no one would have a problem with it. I’ve always wondered what enjoyment can be gained from women who wear extremely short skirts to the weekly passa passa sessions in central Kingston and have no qualms when the video man shows that the “hot girl” is wearing no undergarments as she “skin-out” for the crowd.

It is this type of behavior that not only sexualizes our young girls, but also makes them no more than sex objects for the man who would love to ‘dagger’ her. Taking out the personal and objectivying women in this way makes it much easier to abuse, rape and kill, since women are only seen as inanimate objects for a man’s sexual gratification.

Since women are the majority in the Jamaican society, what if we had a Progressive Women Organization which recognized the need to bring consciousness to women across Jamaica starting with the youngest. Beverley Manley was one such protagonist and I’m sure there are others across the political and social spectrum who despair over the seemingly lack of engagement by Jamaican women in their society.

Jamaica Love Story

My love affair began in 1988. That was the year I returned to Jamaica after having left in the 60’s. A friend and I decided that we wanted to attend Sunsplash and since her family was from Chatham, about 8 miles outside Montego Bay, we packed our bags and set off on our wonderful adventure.

Looking back at my journal of that trip, I’m amazed how apparent it was even then that Jamaica was weaving its spell on me. My traveling companion decided that she was auditioning for the part of “informal commercial importer”. When I met her at the airport, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She had the biggest suitcases I’d ever seen – didn’t know they still made “steamer” trunks that would fit on an airplane. It turned out that she was bringing goods to stock out the rural shop her parents ran. Well, there was such a big rigmarole while she redistributed goods from one suitcase to another and filled the boxes provided by Air Jamaica. It was a very expensive trip for her. I think she ended up having to pay₤200 in excess luggage charges. I did feel a bit sorry for her, but then again, why would anyone want to pack heavy duty padlocks in their luggage!

It really is true what they say about Air Jamaica – the vacation starts as soon as you board. Pumping reggae beats, proper three-course meals and complimentary drinks, flight attendants whose very skin seems to exude the hot Jamaican sun, flashing brilliant ‘Colgate’ smiles. No task too demeaning – their aim – to please.

What I vividly remember from that trip was the blistering blindingly brilliant white heat that engulfs you when you step off the plane at Norman Washington Manley International Airport (we’d flown into Kingston because the fare was much cheaper). As I set foot on the hot sticky tarmac, the popular Jose Wales rhythm “Kingston Hot” immediately springs to mind. It’s an intense heat, exacerbated by jet engines, diesel fuel, noise and dust. The trip to Harbour View where we were scheduled to stay for a couple of days was uneventful, but I wish I could find the picture I took of the taxi groaning under the weight of all our bags. I swear, the chassis was permanently damaged – I’m sure those padlocks didn’t help any either!

Sunsplash was a blast. The line up in 1988 was impressive; this was the first time I witnessed Ziggy Marley, leading his family band, The Melody Makers. Ziggy was channeling Bob – the crowd fell silent – it was as if the King had come home. This was also the first time I heard of “reggae beds” – pieces of cardboard that we used to rest our weary legs. Some folks were even sleeping on them. I’d been baptized by my first outdoor all night rave. The funniest and most indelible memory – the sight of Yellowman trying to do a quick set as the hot sun blazed his albino body, blinding his already myopic sight. Taking a quick dip in the nearby sea, was a refreshing pick me up after a night of raving.

As soon as I got into town proper, the thing I wanted most was a patty and coco bread from Mother’s patty shop. Washing it down with a chocolate milk, memories of my time attending Morant Bay High School assaulted my sensibilities. That was a bittersweet memory. I remember being teased mercilessly over my British accent. I didn’t have that many friends, I suspect the few I did have only wanted the association so that they could share in the bounteous packages that regularly appeared from my mother in England.

A mouthful of chocolate milk and I knew immediately that the milk was sour, I quickly changed it for another one, but to my horror on the long walk back to Chatham I realized the damage had already been done. Sour milk and hot patty – not a good combination.

There’s a beach between Chatham and the town of Montego Bay that is majestic in its pristine beauty. Golden soft sand, feels like talcum powder between the toes – smooth. There was no one on the beach the day I stumbled down a rocky path. I couldn’t believe how blue the sky and sea could be. Remember when we were kids and how colors were so bright, taste so tart, senses still sharp with youth. That’s the blue I’m talking about. Sitting meditating on that beach, at peace with nature and one with God – that’s the magic of Jamaica.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Monday August 17 at the Bronxy County offices, Bronx Borough President, Ruben Diaz, Jr., in conjunction with the Jamaica Progressive League, an organization that has championed the cause of immigrants since 1936 hosted the 122nd birthday celebration for The Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

Attendees of this annual event were treated to a stellar performance from the 12 year old student Bryi-zyashyia Smith who ably acquitted herself in her rendition of the American and Jamaican national anthems. Singers and players of instruments were represented in the form of BRAATA, a new 8-strong cultural group whose folk songs and Louise Bennett poem, the latter performed solo by Joan Grant, provided much needed light relief. Andrene Bonner, renowned author and educator also regaled those in attendance with excerpts of Garvey's famous "Whirlwind" speech.

Representatives from the Bronx and NYC Council districts were present and not lax in lining up for the regulatory photo-op in this election year for city council seats. In attendance, Councilman Larry Seabrook, Bronx Democratic Assenmbly Chair, Carl Heastie, Assemblyman Peter Riviera. Also in attendance, Jamaica's Vice Consul-General Burrel Green and Edward Juarez Pagliocco, President and found of the International Immigrants Foundation, Inc.

Master of Ceremonies, Solomon Goodrich, his shock of white hair matching his agbada, kept proceedings moving along, though the audience wilted visibly in the great hall where the air conditioning seemed to have taken a sabbatical. League Vice President and life-long Garveyite, Jose Richards' rousing speech, laid out his definition of Marcus Garvey and his relevance today. Challenged by poor acoustics, the key note speaker, Dr. Julius Garvey, son of the late Marcus Garvey, stirred those in the audience to respond to his call to continue building on the foundation laid by his father, commenting that even though those who seemed most passionate about fulfilling Garvey's dream were now seniors, HE would not stop fighting for the freedom of all black men the world over. the senior Garvey would have been proud of his impassioned plea and call to action.

The event was a triple celebration - Jamaica is also celebrating 47 years of independence from British colonial rule. Much mention was also made of the world record breaking feats of the Jamaican athletes currently ably representing their country in the Berlin World Championship Games.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Loving Aretha

I grew up loving Aretha Franklin, but in a way that had nothing to do with her music.

I left England for Jamaica when I was 11 years old. My grandparents raised me and I’d never lived with my mother but we had a somewhat unusual relationship. I’d always thought she was my aunt. It wasn’t until she tried to discipline me for some ‘rudeness’ and my shouted protest that she shouldn’t hit me because she wasn’t my mother – caused her to burst into tears. That’s what prompted me to pause and wonder at her reaction.

At that time, my mother was always on the periphery of my life, my earliest memories were of this knock-kneed very pretty woman wearing stiletto shoes with pointed toes, pushing the pram with my younger brother, while my baby sister tried to keep up with mum’s short choppy strides that covered distance at a fast clip. She was my wake-up call as she dropped off the kids at the baby-sitter who took care of them while she went to work in London’s West End. Passing my grandmother’s house in Brixton before the ‘colored’ invasion, “wakey, wakey, rise and shine” was the mantra she used. That was the cue to get up, get dressed and get myself off to school.

Living in Jamaica, I never had a picture of my mother, but in my childish memory, Aretha Franklin was her spitting image. I remember spending hours poring over the album cover where Aretha has a smile as she looks off camera eyes twinkling looking every inch the queen that I knew my mum to be. Those high fat cheekbones that so reminded me of my mum. It was a bit of maternalistic nostalgia, that picture of Aretha was the nearest thing to a biological mum half way across the world, whose presence I felt with the sporadic packages containing my precious ‘Bounty’, ‘Beano’ and other comic books. Those care-packages provided the tenuous link to my British childhood and eased the loneliness of this strange country, people and even stranger food.

My grandmother tempted me to no avail, I wasn’t having any of that rubbish - green bananas, plantain, cho cho, turning up my nose in disdain at such delicacies as yam, dasheen and other ground provisions. Mama had better make that trek to Coronation Market to get my ‘Irish’ potatoes so that I could have my chips, or at a pinch, boiled/mashed spuds.

Eventually, I started eating a little chicken and tried some of the other local foods, but I’m ashamed to say that I lived in Jamaica for almost two years before venturing to eat a mango! One summer, a school mate invited me to spend some time with her family in Manchester. It was mango season and the abundance of black mangoes, ripe, ripening and rotting under the trees was too much temptation for me to resist. Licking the juice as it ran down the side of my face, and arms, I couldn’t believe what I had been missing. It’s a good job Mama believed in old fashioned remedies, because I’m sure I also ate my fair share of worms.

To this day, whenever I see pictures of Aretha, that’s the memory that always rushes back to remind me of Aretha as my surrogate mother. Meeting Aretha was the pinnacle of my love affair, I remember she was promoting her autobiography and scheduled an appearance at a mid-town Manhattan bookstore.

I was amazed at how short she really is, she hadn’t ballooned in size yet, but she was still a heavy-set woman who seemed as nervous as me. Here’s the picture of me, standing coyly beside her. Can you see the similarity in the high cheek bones? She seemed very shy and even bored that she had to promote her book by meeting this curious crowd who wanted to delve into her private life.

Aretha’s music, along with an eclectic mix of other rhythms became the backdrop to my life. I cried to Ain’t no Way after break ups, preened to “Natural Woman” and was reaffirmed by her collaboration with Lauryn Hill singing a Rose is still a Rose.

Aretha Franklin has been signing for almost 60 years. She has 20 Grammy’s and numerous accolades, the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She will always hold a special place in history because she sang at the swearing-in of America’s first black President, but to me – she’ll always be my surrogate mother.