January 19, 2006

Part Two of "A Fable for the New Year"

Part Two of “A New Year’s Fable”

A new year, whether one subscribes to the Gregorian, Chinese, or Mayan calendar, offers the possibility of embracing fresh possibilities. Whether we have the courage and discipline to manifest the new possibilities is another matter. The unacknowledged poet laureate of Black America, Maya Angelou, has said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently.” This lack of courage is one of the challenges that Benjamin, the protagonist in “A Fable for the New Year,” faces. If Benjamin is to gain the freedom that he desires, then he will have to muster the courage to confront Sycorax (his African past), Ivan (political exploitation), Fitzie (commercial exploitation), Brownie (hedonism and expediency), and Winston (conformity). It is confrontation to gain a sense of wholeness and the obstacles in his path are the very people who in a healthy society should be the ones who should be promoting his well being.

Instead, Benjamin’s growth into psychological wholeness is hampered by the Fitzie, Brownie, Winston, and Ivan (elders with La Verdian society), so that the curative worldview of Sycorax cannot be imparted to him. It is through Sycorax (I am indebted to the metaphorical reasoning of Kamau Brathwaite) and the belief system that she imparts (I am equally indebted to the analytical reasoning of Dr Paget Henry via Leonard “Tim" Hector) that he is able to realize his happiness.

Sycorax is the archetypal black mother at the root of the Caribbean/African Diaspora. She feeds and sustains the music, art, literature, and arts of the region and like Maya Angelou, she has not been recognized for her importance within the culture. Yet, it is only by absorbing the lessons of Sycorax that Benjamin is able to extricate himself from the moribund, exploitative system into which he was born.

It is interesting to note that Benjamin has been taught to fear and despise Sycorax for all his life because she represents the polar opposite of Sinojo’s patriarchal, colonialist system that is supported by Fitzie, Brownie, Winston, and Ivan. Sycorax is a nurturing figure whereas Sinojo’s system is an exploitative system that can only be overcome by Sycorax’s worldview.

And what is Sycorax’s worldview?

“They taught him about the Supreme Being, Olorun, how Olorun planted an okra, an individual divine spark inside all humans, and how these related to his ego or sunsum as they called it and his body or honan. They also taught him about the loas or gods who guided over their affairs and the egum or ancestors which is what he was to become after he learned and taught others how to make instruments, drums they called them, from the hides of animals and dead trees.”

For the Yoruba people (from whom most of us in the Caribbean have descended), Olorunokra is the divine spark that we receive at birth. The loas or gods (who represent archetypal functions in very human being) and the sunsum (ego) all exist with the egum (ancestors) in relationship similar to that of the Great Chain of Being which during the Elizabethan age placed the old girl at its apex. is the Supreme Being and the

With the advent of slavery and the experience of the Diaspora/exile, Olorun was effectively banished from the apex of African/Caribbean Diasporic experience, and a cultural/religious void was created. In other words, the worldview fractured (in relation to the complete Sycoraxian worldview) and what remained was a universe filled with duppies, jumbies, rolling calves , evil spirits and systems that transformed Benjamin and the village people of La Verde, into objects that could bought, sold, or bartered. This is the worldview of many people of the Caribbean. We do not see ourselves as makers/creators of our worldview, but as pawns/objects in a great global game over which we have no control, and live in perpetual fear of King Sinojo, his spies, duppies, jumbies, and rolling calves. This is also true in our personal lives. Our imaginations are filled with dread and given the warrior culture that exists in Jamaica, the lack of opportunities to manifest these energies in a socially constructive way, fuels our spiraling murder rates.

How does Benjamin overcome Sinojo’s system? He learns about his okra (his divine spark). This is similar to the advice that the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, gave his students at Sarah Lawrence, “Follow your bliss.” So, what if, like Benjamin, for the new year we begin to find our okras and encourage our children to do the same instead of pursuing the same old doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, and security guard routine that we’ve grown up with? Not that there is anything wrong with these professions. Not if they are your okra. We can’t all be makers of drums. But what about the many people who like Winston who have gone into professions for either the money or security—have become involved in work that is not their okra? They usually end up hating their work. They are in The Wasteland of T.S. Eliot. They are living inauthentic lives because they have not found their okra. Brownie and Winston are prime examples of people who have not found their okra. Brownie, who realizes the emptiness of the Sinojo system, escapes into hedonism because he sees himself as powerless and drinks himself blind. He tries to get Benjamin to do the same. Winston also sees himself in a similar vein. But notice also that it is Winston who tries to stop Benjamin when he tries to make a run for the forest. He doesn’t know what he wants, and he will block those who try to seek their own happiness. How many Winstons and Brownies do we have in our lives and culture because of our failure to use our imaginations positively and creatively?

Of course, the a priori assumption is that our lives have meaning or a purpose. Modernism and the scientific advances have created a kind of cognitive dissonance in our minds and within our culture. For on the on hand, we organize our lives in day, weeks and years, balance our checkbooks and perform hundreds of other tasks that yield results according to our intentions. Yet, on the other hand, we are taught that life appeared in the universe and continues in the universe because of random molecules bumping into each other. I am not arguing either the Intelligent Design for evolution debate here. What I am arguing for is the realization that on a personal, familial, and cultural level, an intentional purpose, if only for the welfare and continuation of a family and a culture, needs to be part of a worldview that is transmitted to the next generation. Surely that will be an improvement over the current worldview that conveys to us through folk tales, sayings, and aphorisms about the world: “Cockroach don’t belong in fowl fight” (There is a truth there about minding one’s own business, but how many times due to expediency have we not fought for a moral issue? How many times have we called ourselves cockroaches or used similar epithets such as “ole neyga” and “nigger” to deflate our self esteem and then react violently when others use the same word. We are a strange people) Many of our so-called traditions that we inculcate into our children (beat them if them hard ears) perpetuate the worldview that we are victims/consumers (objects) of slavery, colonialism, etc. and not active creators within our families and culture. We can choose to be conscious creator or merely go “along with the flow” and be an unconscious creator. The choice is ours.

Sycorax teaches Benjamin to be a conscious creator and that his life has a purpose within the community. Benjamin adapts what he had learned from Sycorax to his life. Benjamin, because he was not born in the forest, must find a middle ground between the village and the palace. What Sycorax grants Benjamin is the knowledge that he has a right to exist and that his intentions are blessed and upheld by her. This is what a living, functioning healthy family or culture does—it supports the dreams and the integrity of its sons and daughters. Under Sycorax’s influence, Benjamin grows to know that he is a valued member of his culture. Benjamin also becomes a maker/creator (and not merely a consumer) and passes on his knowledge to the next generation. What if those of us with a little talent really began to promote talent and to teach what we know to those coming after us instead of pulling up the ladder and closing off opportunity for the next generation? Under Sycorax’s guidance, Benjamin changes from seeing the universe hostile and uninviting to a generative and nurturing place. Or as the Rastaman would say, Benjamin learns the true meaning of I and I-- one of the most original theological concepts in Western thought because it simultaneously recognizes oneness with divinity and the diversity of Incarnation.

There is a direct co-relation here. It’s personal and it has to do with the creation of the fable. Whether one is a Christian or not, Yoruba or not, the influence of Rastafari on the Caribbean Baby Boom generation cannot be denied. Rastafarians with their insistence on themselves as subjects (and never objects) and I (in unity with the divine and all creation) offer a worldview similar to the Sycoraxian worldview (some may say it’s the same), and my choice in naming the main character, Benjamin, has an explicit delineation with the Caribbean Baby Boom generation and Rastafarianism. Benjamin represents that group in their early to late forties (myself included) who find themselves in the Diaspora, and are trying to figure the meaning of these events in our lives and the history of our culture. It is the story of the Benjamin (Reggae) generation that I have been trying to tell in my poems, short stories, novels and plays. In this respect, I am following the advice that was given to me by my teachers and that I pass on to my students, “Begin with what you know.”

This is how I know.



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