“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” ~ Frederick Douglass.
Music formed the backdrop to my formative years. In a little Jamaican town where the Saturday open air market was our mall, and the only place we got dressed up to go was church, we milked every ounce of pleasure out of music. Whether is was the booming bass of a wicked reggae song blasting out of the juke box in Mr. Dixon Bar or the mellow soul croonings of an Al Green wafting out of the Colin’s record shop, we were always rocking or bopping or humming along to the latest beat. I used my school hymnbook to record my favorites: Sylistics; Chilites; song title on the top of one page, artist on the opposite. Yes, that’s what I would be studying through some of the longer of Mr Mac’s soliloquys during morning devotions. ‘There were two boys, one named Peter, and the other named Paul.’
One of our few social outlets was the school social aka boogie aka dance; a couple hours of music in the triple form room (or in my early years at school, on the verandah of the old great house Tavanore, a beautiful old building overlooking the river valley, surrounded by mountains which mysteriously burned to the ground one night). For those few hours before it got dark (and it gets dark early in the tropics) we would rock steady (‘Why did you leave me?’), do the reggae reggae (’54-46 that’s my number’), and if we were lucky, fall in love during the long, slow, ‘Love Theme’ by Barry White.
But it wasn’t just those scandalous, loose women lyrics that still trigger teenage feelings of confusion and lust that kept us entertained. We learned activism from the rebellious rasta lyrics. The renegades sang of oppression, of Mama Africa, of a proud people who were dislocated and uprooted. And on Sunday morning we would raise our voices in harmony from the choir benches on a Sunday morning. We sang choruses and folk songs and Festival songs and anything with a catchy tune. At nights the sound of the poco drum would waft up the hillside, tapping into and keeping pace with the rhythm of our heart beat. What really went on in those pocomania churches (a little madness), a place where Mother Africa’s spirit was invoked, and the ancestors were called upon to liberate the oppressed? The thrum of the drum felt like the pounding of your blood. I longed to one night be on the fringes of that madness, to feel moved by forces outside and within me.
When I say I know my life was enrichened (is there such a word?) by being dropped in the center of the island of Jamaica at an age when I could soak up the culture like a thirsty sponge, I mean it. The taste, the sounds, the colors, the smells, the vibes filled up the corners of my soul, and gave me a perspective on life that informs me today. And when I meet new people, and it messes with their head to try to come to terms with my whiteness and my Jamaicanness, I don’t even care. That is your problem! Cognitive dissonance, they call it, trying to hold on to two opposing thoughts at the same time.
Sometimes it is difficult to see the positive in this current stage of play in American life, but from the beginning of this divisive intrusion into what we thought was a progressive society I have believed (hoped?) that the downright ugliness and ignorance of racism, sexism, otherism, would result in the stronger opposing forces of unity and brotherhood to emerge and overcome. At times it appears overwhelming, and then the signs begin to appear, like green shoots after a frigid winter; the light of day after a dark night; like rare signs of maturity in a difficult teen. I have to believe that as difficult as it is to watch the daily destruction of democracy; the back-breaking weight of harmful policies; to hear the poisonous language of hate and divisiveness, eventually good will conquer evil, and only love can conquer hate (another song). What’s going on, indeed?
This Labor Day weekend is a special one for me. It is a time when all of my memories of growing up in Jamaica are celebrated with my large family of fellow schoolmates and associates. Music will be the backdrop, but it is the fellowship of people with a common heritage that brings the smiles, the laughter, and the love. We will party with a purpose: to raise funds for those less fortunate who struggle to afford a simple high school education. And it began with the dream of one man, a humble African (another song, but ok, Jamaican) who was determined to start a school in the hills of Clarendon, Jamaica, for the others, the children of poor farmers. Rich landowners and business people could send their children to well established schools in Kingston, but in rural Jamaica the choices were few. Big up Rev. Lester Davy! We keep the flame burning in your memory.
So, this Friday morning, if you wonder whose side I’m on, I’m with them: the other, the neglected, the downtrodden, the abused, the taken for granted, the forgotten. As always I give thanks for the opportunity given to me by my parents, to be able to see life from the perspective of those who may look nothing like me, but with whom I have so much more in common. And I am no different from anyone else. I give thanks for being shown history from a different perspective, from learning that everyone has a story, and that it is up to me to find that common ground.
Party People are you ready? Have a wonderful weekend, Family! I know I will!