When I Reach

When Harry Belafonte released his recording of Jamaica Farewell I was only a year old, but as a little Black boy in Barbados I could tell that there was something in it that spoke of home. More than half a century later it is still stuck in memory like the smell of my grandmother’s house: pleasant enough, but a little cloying and very slightly embarrassing.

The home that it evoked is an imaginary place; Barbados is almost 2,000 km of blue ocean away from Jamaica. In the era evoked by this plaintive ballad you would have had to sail to London or New York then change ships for the next leg of your journey. Even today there are few direct flights. But it does have some Bajan roots because it was Irving Burgie (Lord Burgess), whose mother was from Barbados, who compiled and adapted the song from several folk tunes.

The song harkens back to a colonial economy of a century ago yet it still reflects contemporary globalization and the disparities that it perpetuates vis-à-vis the global south.

island existence is circumscribed by an ever present horizon, beyond which lies everything worldly and important. My intention to escape Barbados into the wider world is a part of even my earliest memories. Even the Belafonte ballad encodes this almost primal urge: “… sad to say I’m on my way/ won’t be back for many a day.” What is more I could tell that he was speaking directly to that wider world “from Maine to Mexico:” the impeccable diction, the studious avoidance of Jamaican Patwa, the tight integration into the colonial world view. The Caribbean might be home to the heart and other sentimentality, but to make something of yourself in life you had to leave.

I had a privileged and happy childhood. The sun did shine “daily on the mountain top,” but even to my childish eyes it also illuminated some darker corners of island life. I led an upper middle class existence as a child of the first generation of post WWII black professionals. We lived in Bellville, a fashionable suburb, and we would go as a family twice a year or so, before Christmas and Easter, to take baskets of stuff (food, clothing, etc.) to my elderly great aunt in Belleplaine, the small rural village where my father was born.

She lived in (what seemed to me to be) dire poverty. Her rotting wooden shack slumped sadly in a small unkempt clay yard where even the weeds fought a losing battle against desolation. I could stick my entire five-year-old fist through the gaps between the rough unpainted gray boards of the walls that leaned together like a house of cards and I wondered how they kept the rainy season outside. Inside was perpetual twilight because the shutters were closed — I don’t believe the windows had any glass, and there was no electric light — a kerosene lantern in the corner did little but give the gloom a gothic air and perpetual murky smell. The shack had two rooms; I never glimpsed the bedroom, but the other was sparsely furnished with uncomfortable chairs and a single dark wooden table. The kitchen was a separate shack an arms width away from her door; it seemed even more precarious if that were possible, containing nothing but a crude hearth on the dirt floor amid stacks of flimsy firewood. No electricity. No running water. No lights. No toilet. No money.

This predicament distressed me deeply as a small child. I talked to my mother about it once and she tried to comfort me by pointing to the church next door, a shiny little white building, always freshly painted, brightly illuminated in the evening, and no more than fifty feet away from my great aunt’s door. We often heard services in progress when we visited; jangly tambourine bouncing enthusiasms of hallelujahs and praise Jesus. My mother assured me that my great aunt had lots of support and help from the pastor and members of this church, her church. I looked from the cheerful bright church to the gloomy gray hovel and I was torn. I thought about our comfortable home in Bellville and this distress in Belleplaine: the distance from town to country, from have to have not. It has left a fissure which I have never managed to heal. I didn’t lose my deep emotional attachment to the Caribbean, but it became too painful to live here.

So I grew up, turned my head around, and set out to make my life and living in Canada. I became as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances —  which is, of course, quintessentially Canadian. The Canadian genius is the talent for assembling lives and livelihoods out of disparate fragments from around the globe… we’re sorry if this doesn’t seem like an inspiring enough nationalism to some of our global neighbors, but it works quite nicely for us thank you.

Life as a Black man in Canada can be almost comfortable. Sure, there is the odd incidence of being pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black), but the officers say please and thank you and sorry and have a nice day. Yes, I know that in the big cities racial profiling is commonplace, but I spent the last couple of decades in a small town where my pigmentation made me an oddity, but not a target. Yet my biracial children faced marginalization and being physically or verbally attacked growing up there because they could be mistaken for Aboriginal. The familiar sharp edged tools of colonialism: racism, poverty and violence, were still all around me — and they picked at old scabs. Perhaps “quite nicely” isn’t quite enough.

When I was a boy growing up in Bellville I had no inkling of the history of those stately avenues. In the late 19th century Belleville was developed as an exclusive residential area: sixty acres of land divided into eleven parallel avenues between Pine Road and George Street. I had no understanding that when my father was a little Black boy of my age he would not have been permitted to walk along those palm lined avenues, far less actually live there. It was an exclusively White neighborhood until the middle of the 20th century.

Perhaps I had run away for long enough. Perhaps it was time that I heal those wounds rather than just conceal the scars.

So “I took a trip,” back to the Caribbean. It’s not simply to make myself face my own reflection without flinching, it’s to do something constructive about that legacy.

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