“But I’d rather be a free man in my grave, than living as a puppet or a slave.” ~ James Chambers aka Jimmy Cliff.
When you grow up in the country, (especially in Jamaica) the facts of life and in particular, death, are hard to avoid. You can hear the sounds of a hog squealing as it is being butchered (no more blood curdling sound, to be sure) and quickly make the association between the animals in the district and the food on your table. Or you can listen to a carpenter sawing and hammering away at the coffin for the lady who just died. In fact, you had probably woken up to the sound of the church bell tolling, slow and mournful, finally counting out the years of her age. Growing up in the manse on the grounds of the church, gravestones were nearby. But many country children grew up with the ‘family plot’ right next to their house. Reminders of death were never far away.
One of my favorite shows on TV is the genealogy show, ‘Finding your roots’. It is fascinating to see what can be uncovered with a wealth of expertise and perseverance. In the show, celebrities’ ancestors are uncovered, branches of the family travelling back centuries to England, or Eastern Europe. When the celebrity is African American, the trail very often ends in a census list of the enslaved, first name, age and sex only, along with the name of the ‘owner’ of the enslaved. Another TV show (‘Unmarked’) documents the work done by people in Virginia (both black and white, but mostly black) to uncover overgrown cemeteries of enslaved Africans, where tiny headstones could have been lost forever. How can you uncover your roots, when you are practically nameless both in life and death?
There are so many stories left to be told. The other day I watched a documentary on the life of baseball great Roberto Clemente. I am not a great sports fan. I am not glued to the television when great matches are being played, and I have a passing knowledge of the rules of most sports games. The name Roberto Clemente was familiar, I knew he was a baseball player, and wondered if he had been playing in my early years of living in the US? How little did I know. He had been a trailblazer, not only an excellent athlete, but also a role model, being one of the first Puerto Rican ball players in an era when players were forbidden from speaking Spanish in the dugout. He also fought for racial justice, and back home in Puerto Rico he hosted baseball clinics for underprivileged children. What I also didn’t remember hearing was that he died in a plane crash, in a plane he had chartered to take supplies to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
At the start of Black History Month in the US, I happen to be living in a state that is trying to restrict the telling of the history of America and the struggle for equal rights and justice. There is a bill which has been approved which will prevent businesses and schools from making (white) people feel uncomfortable by teaching facts about racial injustice or discrimination. Rather than expose the real lived experiences of people of color over the past few hundred years, teachers must be careful not to upset those who descend from the oppressors. Rather than ensure that young people who are not heterosexual can feel safe and free to be who they are, we should not be having open and honest conversations. I can hear MLK Jr. saying ‘we’ve come too far to turn back now!’
There are so many who have gone before us, who have been willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of others. I was privileged to grow up in Jamaica during the era of Black Power, of Black Pride, watching the US from a distance as Civil Rights battles were fought. As a teenager I was exposed to the struggles through the writings of Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis and more. When I came to the US in the late 70’s I felt the hostility of the South as I traveled to Jacksonville, a white girl with a black man. I was unprepared for it, having lived in a society with a motto ‘Out of Many One People’. We have come a long way as a country, but if we are not careful, if we just stand aside and look, we will slide ever backwards.
On this first Friday morning in February, I hope you will continue to share your stories wherever you can. We can use social media to expose the impactful lives that otherwise may stay hidden in history books, or lost to memory. It is not difficult to educate yourself, to ask questions about the experiences of people who look different from you. But we need to make sure that we are also being vocal in the defense of justice for all, and keeping our eyes on those in power who try to limit our voices, and turn back the clock.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family! And let us continue to tell the stories of those who showed us how to be brave, those who were more than conquerors!