July 31, 2006

Frank's Heart Sutra

Just came back from a great 3 days on South Beach. Here is another story inspired by Mad Bull's & Pan in 60’s challenge:

“Frank’s Heart Sutra”

Frank sucked on the cigarette as if he were practicing Tong-Len.

“I told your son I’d left the money on the Buddha table—the table with the Buddha statue. Suddenly, I realized it was the Buddha table all by itself—all things were Buddha things and no thing was Buddha--my Heart Sutra.

Smoke hung lazily around his shoulders.



July 28, 2006

A Fable of Freedom: "I Shot the Sheriff"

Bob MarleyWesterns and the King James Version are two of the main staples of the Jamaican imagination. This is understandable because both share a similar plot and a cast of recognizable characters. The King James Version and most Westerns begin with trouble (original sin or “bad guys” in Dodge City), a “good guy” or hero emerges in the middle of the feud (Samson or Wyatt Earp), and an alignment of forces leads to a final showdown (OK Corral or Valley of Megiddo). The bad guys (Satan or the Clantons) are annihilated; the good guys win and ride off into the sunset on their white horses. 

The fictions that have emerged from Jamaica also follow a similar pattern. But given the history of colonialism and racism in Jamaica, the stories sometimes parody the conventions. For example, in the classic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, there are clearly discernible “bad guys” (record producers) and a “good guy,” Ivan, a singer who is willing to make any sacrifice for his music. Because of the unfair treatment by the record producers, Ivan’s crimes begin small, but then escalate when he takes the law into his own hands. This leads to a showdown on a North Coast beach. To a certain extent, the actions that lead up to Ivan’s shootout with the police are inevitable because Ivan was thrust into an unjust system and given his temperament, the resulting bloodbath was to be expected. Yet, what is made clear in the film is that Ivan’s original sin was being born Black.

“I was born with a price on my head,” said Bob Marley in a 1978 interview (Bob Marley in His Own Words by Ian McCann). It is interesting to note that Marley uses the language of the “Wanted” poster to describe an almost fatalistic viewpoint which seems uncharacteristic with his usual positive viewpoints and the teachings of Rastafari. Yet, both these themes are also evident in one of this most popular song, "I Shot the Sheriff.”

The song begins with the speaker already in trouble, “All around in my home town/ They are trying to track me down/ They say they want to bring me in guilty/ For the killing of a deputy/ For the life of a deputy.” The speaker knows the system is stacked against him because he is to be brought in “guilty” for a crime he would never deign to consider, “the killing of a deputy.” Deputies are not in his league. He knows he killed the “Sheriff” and it is a “capital offense.” But he has an explanation.

“Sheriff John Brown always hated me/ For what I don't know/Ev'ry time I plant a seed/ He said, "Kill it before it grows."/ He said, "Kill them before they grow." The anonymity of “Sheriff John Brown” makes it clear that the “Sheriff’s” influence is pervasive (almost like Agent Smith in The Matrix), and the speaker’s plight has been brought about not by anything that he has done, but by the enmity that “Sheriff John Brown” has towards him for a Kafkaesque crime for which the speaker knows there is only one possible ending: death. The "seed" is metaphorical and could stand for any on the "dangerous" ideas that Rastafari espouse: humans as god or each human as ultimately responsible for his/her choices. These ideas would be a threat to any sytem of dominance and control represented in the Bible as Pharoah, Herod, or Nebuchadnezzar or in the speech of Rastafari as Rome or Babylon and would have to be "killed" or stopped before they could spread among the populace who would embrace these ideas of freedom. Something has to give.

The key to understanding the lyric comes in the final stanza: “Freedom came my way one day/ And I started out of town/ All of a sudden I saw Sheriff John Brown/ Aiming to shoot me down/ So I shot, I shot, I shot him down/ And I say, if I am guilty I will pay.” This was not a fight that the speaker wanted, but the situation was created by the “Sheriff.” The speaker was willing to leave, but the “Sheriff” was about to kill him, so he acted in self-defense. The speaker concludes his ballad with a complex blend of Rastafari and Jamaican mythology and folklore.

"The Sheriff," then represents the antithesis of freedom--the repressive codes of conduct that have been codified into laws that serve the oppressors and have been internalized as the "proper" codes of conduct. In Western mythology, it's the dragon that must be slain.

“Reflexes had the better of me/And what is to be must be/Ev'ry day the bucket a-go-a well/One day the bottom a-go drop out.” The speaker’s defense rests on his claim: “Reflexes had the better of me.” It is to be noted that within Rastafarian mythology, for the Nya man of Africa, the natural, original man who lives in complete harmony with life and his surroundings, “reflexes” are not a crime (Rastafari: An Ancient Tradition). Reflexes are part of his natural makeup and his right to self-hood is expressed in the concept of InI—the mystical union of man with the divine. The Rastaman’s lifelong mission is to reflect the African Nya man in his choice of right foods and right actions (Iwa in the Yoruba religion). In Bob’s vocabulary, Nya man could also be substituted for “higher man” (“We are the children of the higher man”)—the idea of the indwelling god (the i-nity of InI) which is part of the West African religious continuum.

The speaker then says, “What is to be, must be,” and then counters with “Every day the bucket a go a well/ One day the bottom a go drop out.” Besides being another example of Marley’s lyrical balancing that is a trademark of his writing, “How long shall they kill our prophets/ While we stand aside and look/ Some say it's just a part of it/ We've got to fulfill the book,” he completes the circle with the folk wisdom of Jamaica, “Ev'ry day the bucket a-go-a well/One day the bottom a-go drop out,” and admits a kind of fatalism. However, it is a kind of fatalism that is driven by the actions of the persona. In other words, actions (desires) drive destinies. There are consequences to actions and any repeated action, “Ev'ry day the bucket a-go-a well,” is sure to bring about a certain consequence, “One day the bottom a-go drop out.” Is the hero’s destiny inevitable? We’re back to The Matrix: “Ohh, what's really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?”

The song ends with the speaker’s insistence that he shot the “Sheriff” and not the deputy. This disdain for deputies is typical of heroes who even when their life is on the line recognize the greater enemy, “Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons’,” or “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.” Underlings such as Herod and Pilate were the lapdogs of Rome. The real fight wasn’t with the “deputies”; it was with the “Sherriff” (or the Architect 0f The Matrix Revolutions)

In the framework of Rastafari mythology, politicians, the police and courts are lackeys of Babylon—the system of institutionalized racism/colonialism that values capital over labor. The “Sheriff,” then, would be the all encompassing externalized rules (in time, internalized which is where the real battle is fought) of Babylonian conformity--everything that if a Rastaman (Nya Man) is to be free, he must meet head-on and deny. The Rastaman asserts his dignity and right to live on moral grounds in a system that would deny his existence. The final showdown in the Valley of Megiddo or the town of Gibbeah is inevitable.

The actions of the protagonist also match the themes within Marley’s other work because the protagonist is willing to fight against an enemy that threatens his physical or moral integrity “Brother you're right, you're right/ You're right, you're right, you're so right/We gonna fight, we'll have to fight/ We gonna fight, fight for our rights” (“Zimbabwe”). The speaker is not cowering in the shadow of the “Sheriff” nor is he willing to become a martyr, “But if you know what life is worth/You would look for yours on earth/And now you see the light/ You stand up for your rights” (“Get up, Stand up’) and confronts the “Sheriff” because his life is on the line, ‘You want come cold I up/ But you can't come cold I up” (“Trench Town Rock”). He is willing to be branded as a criminal because he relies on the law of action and consequence, “For every little action/There’s a reaction,” (“Satisfy My Soul”). Or as Bob said in an interview with Neville Willoughby, “The only law is the law of life.” (So Much Things to Say)

In the symbolic language of Jamaica, an island beset on all sides by powerful forces, the identification with the “Children of Israel” has become part of the symbolic language of the nation (“The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker). Similarly, in the fictive imagination of Rastafari, the “Sheriff” is the equivalent of Babylon of which Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Pilate, Tony Blair and George Bush are “deputies.” For the Rastaman to survive, there can only be one outcome in the victory of “good over evil’ (‘War”). The hero must “shoot the Sheriff.”


If you are searching for posts about Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, Rastafari, or Dennis Scott, please check the archives.

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July 27, 2006

Give Thanks, Miss Lou!

Mis LouWhen I began blogging and doing the livications of great Caribbean writers/artists, I told myself that I would not crowd this space with obituaries. Most of my adolescent years were spent in the company of Rastafari who believe in ever-living life. So, the word “death” or any homophone such as “ded”-dication is not in Rastafari vocabulary. I agree with that philosophy. It’s not a Pollyanna point-of-view. Death is a reality. It is companion that I know only too well. Jamaica has killed some of my dearest friends, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to walk with death.

I had planned to write a livication for Louise Bennett-Coverly on September 17, 2006, and I still plan to do so. And although I don’t want to write obits for Caribbean artists in the blog (I resisted writing one for Desmond Dekker), Miss Lou is greater than all of that. Her life is more significant than this belief (which I will have to rethink) because she has contributed so much to my life and the lives of Caribbean people. Jeremy Taylor over at Caribbean Beat has said it better than I ever could in the post: Miss Lou 1919-2006:

“In most Caribbean countries, you can identify an artist (sometimes a group of artists) who managed to engineer crucial cultural change in parallel with the movement for political independence. After long periods as colonies, these countries had to learn that it's all right to be yourself: to use your own language, sing your own songs, dance your own dances, and put them at the centre of your life, not hidden away as something to be apologised for. You don't have to mimic the colonial culture, speak like the colonisers, sing like the colonisers, or (heaven help us) dance like the colonisers.”

Miss Lou made many of us feel at home in our own skins. I may be giving some of the planned livication away, but I didn’t always feel this way about Miss Lou. As a youngster, I viewed Miss Lou as a embarrassment. Here was this “Mammy”-looking Black woman in a tie-head that looked like she just stepped off a banana boat. She appeared to be reinforcing every stereotype of the fat, Black woman that many of us were trying to eliminate from our consciousness. It was a shame! Then, I started reading her poetry and recognized the revolutionary stance behind poems such as “Colonization in Reverse.” Still, I wasn’t convinced and I read Mervyn Morris’ review of her work, and felt more confident about my estimation. Miss Lou was a poet of consummate craft.

The work of Miss Lou and artists such as Bob Marley, Sparrow, and Kitchener is the reason why so many Jamaican/Caribbean people can walk around as if they own planet.

Just being yourself. What a wonderful feeling.

Give thanks, Miss Lou.


July 26, 2006

"Woman Hold Her Head and Cry"

“Woman Hold Her Head and Cry”

Anna, her face wet with tears, wiped her eyes.

“Think he’s hit rock bottom with this DUI?”

“I don’t know. He’s been treating these wake-up calls the way people treat their alarm clocks. They hit snooze and keep on sleeping.”

At the end of the hallway, a man she barely recognized as her son was escorted to the holding area.


On Friday, I’ll be posting “A Fable of Freedom: I Shot the Sheriff.”

July 23, 2006

The Genesis of the"Version Break"

According to Kwame Dawes in Natural Mysticism, the vershan break is “a thing of beauty”: “The vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of the drum and bass, leaving behind the heightened dance of the guitar and keyboard, represents a moment of strange anticipation that affects my whole body. And when the drum and bass enter into that space that has been throbbing with possibility, I am forced to move, to turn, to react” (29). Reggae grew out of the experience of Rastafari, an extension of the African belief system that fused the physical, social, and intrapersonal aspects of being and shares this characteristic with other religions of the African diaspora such as, Lucumi (Santeria), Vodoun (pejoratively, Voodoo), Candomble, and Xango.

As it evolved during the seventies, reggae became a musical expression of InI—the mystical answer of Rastafari to Babylon (in the Jamaican context, British colonialism) and its philosophies, such as the Cartesian mind-body split. Rastafari preached one-ness of body, mind, and soul. For once you really heard reggae, you had to move: “If you make me move/ Then you know you got the groove” (“Night Shift”). Listening to the groove from Family Man, Lloyd Parks or Robbie Shakespeare and the conscious lyrics of Burning Spear, Max Romeo, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Bob Marley, the world became more real. 

And because the musicians, “’the players of instrumants” insisted that the music had come for “the healing of a nation,” and that all Jamaicans were not brethren, but idren—sharing a common humanity and divinity with all iration, then the landscape was transformed in our imaginations. In other words, the ethos of reggae with its emphasis on confrontation of Babylon on equal terms, best exemplified in "I Shot the Sheriff," effectively dismantled the apparatus of British colonialism and provided an alternative set of values by which writers/artists of my generation could think about the aesthetic concerns of Jamaica and the Caribbean. We had become postcolonials.

In Natural Mysticism, Dawes also argues that the principles of “reggae aesthetics” can be applied as “consistent principles” to guide socio-political dynamics” (29). The Calabash Literary Festival and Iron Balloons are testaments to the efficacy of the model. For the past twenty years, Kwame Dawes, Colin Channer, and I have been exploring “reggae aesthetics” (at first without a name—kudos to Kwame for this naming act), and it has been interesting to see how our work and lives have been shaped by our individual and collective experiences of reggae.

In my collection of poems, xango music, the subtext to the poems is that the music, culture, and lives of Caribbean peoples are shaped by archetypes such as Xango (the Yoruba warrior/poet) and partially explains why we are attracted to warrior poets such as Michael Manley and Walter Rodney.


July 21, 2006

Love or Leave

Nothing beats a cold, Red Stripe on a Sunday afternoon when all of the past week’s cares are a memory, and the next week’s anticipations are like froth bubbling up to the rim of the frosted mug. Nothing. Well, almost nothing. The only problem was I was already into my fourth can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and dreading the next week at my job. 

There was no excuse for drinking the way I used to, but I told myself that I was going through a traumatic period, so I deserved a little break. It was 1991 and my mother had died. My friend and mentor, Dennis Scott, had also died. I had a third child on the way, a boy, and my wife and I decided (more my wife’s idea) not to have anymore. It was also a time of change at Miami Dade Community College. A new president, Eduardo Padron, had been recently installed and a friend of mine, Phyllis Washington, who worked on the night shift at the college, told me that the ten year hiring freeze would soon be ending, and that she’d be willing to put in a good word for me. The thought of working alongside professors such as Bruce Firestone, Lou Skellings, and Susan Lev Koren for whom I had worked at a tutor in the Writing Lab was intriguing. I told Phyllis that I would think about it, but the truth was that I was unhappily comfortable with my position at West Miami Middle School.

Since the birth of my first child, I’d been working for six years at West Miami as an English teacher, newspaper and yearbook advisor, and soccer coach. The pay was good with the extra stipends, and I was happy to do the work because the former principal, Mr. Kavanaugh, made my job easier my keeping the really troublesome kids out of my journalism class and not allowing the guidance counselors to dump them in electives as they had done during my first year. Unfortunately, Mr. Kavanaugh had retired and a new principal had taken over the school. She ran the school as if it were her own fiefdom. Fiercely cliquish and intolerant, she only looked out for “her” people. She eyed the stipends that I’d gained under Mr. Kavanaugh’s tenure as prizes that she would dole out to those teachers who would have done anything to gain her favor. In many subtle and not so subtle ways, she made me realize that I and several other teachers were on her "hit list."

The stipend for soccer was the first to go and I really didn’t mind. The training with the team and the games meant that I was going home to my wife and two daughters at nine or ten o’clock at night. Coupled with the duties of the newspaper and yearbook, I was hardly seeing my family. I consoled myself with the fact that the pay was good. But then the principal started doing some things with the newspapers and yearbooks that went against my ethical standards. So when she asked me to give up the newspaper and the yearbook, I did so gladly. But now the bills and payments around the house were tightening up and we’d have to cut back on a few things.

Then I was shifted from teaching English to ninth grade honors students to teaching remedial eighth grade English and I began to feel pressured. Many of my students and there parents were recent immigrants from Cuba and Nicaragua and they didn’t speak English very well. That didn’t bother me. I always find a way to motivate my students. What bothered me was when my class size started to rise and instead of being a teacher, I was becoming a steward of kids who were anxious about being in a new country and everything around them sent an unwritten message that education was irrelevant. Many of them were thirteen and fourteen year old kids and every day was a new drama. Sonia was breaking up with Miguel because she found he was cheating on her with Carmen, her best friend and cousin. But it didn’t matter because Sonia could now go out with Jose, and she had always liked him from seventh grade. In the midst of all this, I was supposed to teach my students about misplaced modifiers and classic mythology. Just to get through one week was an achievement. Still, the pay was good...

So, as I was sitting in my La-Z-Boy recliner about to begin my fifth beer, I flipped to the Nature channel to see what was happening before I changed to 60 Minutes. I came in at the end of a story about a female cheetah that had just given birth to three cubs. The cubs would come over to her side, get some milk, and continue playing. She hadn’t eaten for about four days. She was hungry. Her bones stuck out of her mottled coat. Meanwhile, the cubs frolicked in the tall grass.

Finally, she spotted a Thompson gazelle in the bush. She shook off the dust, glanced over to her cubs as if to say, “Stay here until I come back,” and began stalking the gazelle. She moved stealthily through the long grass without letting her hunger get the best of her. Her back arched and she was ready to bring down the gazelle without exerting a lot of energy. She was just about to pounce on the gazelle when all three cubs popped up out of the tall grass, as if they were playing a game of game of hide-and seek, and frightened the gazelle way. The mother cheetah fell to the ground and had a look as if to say, “I give up!” Dust swirled around her. The cubs came over, as cubs will do, and continued their game. When ever they felt hungry, they came over to her side, got some milk and stated a new game, “Marco Polo.”

And that was when it hit me. The children at West Miami weren’t interested in classic mythology. They were interested in the mythology of underwear. They were doing what horny teenagers do all over the world were doing. I was an irrelevancy in their lives. Their fathers and mothers worked as mechanics, waitresses, and security guards and wanted the best for them. However, the message that was being sent to them was that they didn’t matter. In fact, one of my students said to me, “Mr. Philp, why do you bother yourself so much?” Another complained that only the honors students or the at-risk students got all the attention. “But what about us in the middle, Mr. Philp?” I couldn’t answer her and I couldn’t change anything.

I poured the beer down the drain and went downstairs to my office in the garage. I worked on my CV and the next day after school, I went to Miami Dade and turned in my application.

In the next few weeks, I was called back for interviews and was given a salary offer that was considerably less than what I had been earning as a public school teacher. Considerably less. I accepted the offer. I’d be working with some of the professors who had taught me freshman and advanced composition. In fact, one of them, Bruce Firestone, escorted me to the office and introduced me to my new office mates. I sat down at my desk. I was now Professor Philp. It felt good. It felt like coming home.


July 20, 2006

Happy Birthday, Frantz Fanon

My friend, Stephen Bess, has written a birthday livication for Frantz Fanon. These livications began as an extension of the Wall of Respect, that began with Joseph McNair and Asili. Heroes and role models are important because their lives give us signposts that tell us where we’ve been, where we are now, and give us possibilities for the future. These are our heroes.

Please read Stephen’s post: Happy Birthday, Frantz Fanon.


July 19, 2006

Feel it in the One Drop

Driving through Miami on bright, sunny days when I am crossing the Julia Tuttle Causeway, I like to drop Survival in the CD player and listen to “One Drop.” But lately, when the thunderstorms come rolling in over the Everglades, I don’t have the chance anymore to roll down my windows and to be soothed by the wind along with the toom of Family Man’s bass. Yet, even with my rolled up windows, “One Drop” makes me feel irie. I’ve always liked the song because it’s a distillation of the particular style of reggae that had been perfected Carly and Aston “Family Man” Barrett. “One Drop,” a seemingly simple song, represents an auditory representation of the Jamaican milieu during the late seventies that Bob translated into Wailers’ reggae. "One Drop" may also refer to the "one drop" rule in the United States where anyone with one drop of African blood is considered black--a way of Bob turning the tables of those people who didn't think he was "black enough" and called him a "half-caste."

The song begins with Carly’s signature “one drop” on drums, an introduction by Wire on keyboards, Bob and I-threes on vocals, and Seeco on percussion. Carly repeats the “one drop” and introduces Family Man on bass. Then, Bob accentuates the “one drop” again on the line, “So feel this drum beat”—pause—“one drop”—“As it beats within,” and continues with lines that describe Bob's solidarity with the sufferers (the downpressed victims of Babylon--the system that values profits over people). Next, he offers a solution, “But read it in Revelation/ you’ll find your redemption,” and issues a call for resistance until the end-of-times, “Fighting against ism and skism.” 

Throughout the song, the three elements that gave Wailer’s reggae its particular sound are highlighted: bass guitar, drums (“one drop”), and the syncopated pause. What’s also interesting about the song and differentiated the Wailers from other reggae bands is that the Wailers didn’t play a straight bass line. The Wailers relied on a conversation between Carly and Family Man that was punctuated by Carly’s “one drop” and Family Man’s response to the displacement of time. The Wailers’ reaction in the gap, that moment of suspended infinity, where the spontaneity, artistry and improvisation of the artist become manifest, fired the imagination of a generation. The Wailers captured the mood of radical transformation that Jamaica was going through during the seventies-- “the generation gap”-- when the children born around the time of Independence came of age.

All of the forces that had been simmering in the Jamaica, Rastafarianism, nationalism, and civil unrest over the plight of the sufferers were expressed primarily in music (reggae), verse (dub poetry) and fiction (reggae novel). These three forms shared a concern for the conditions of the dispossessed and a reliance on solutions that began within the experience of the people: “Most people think great God will come from the sky/Take away everything/ and make everybody feel high/but if you know what life is worth/You will look for yours on earth/ So now you see the light/Stand up for your right” (“Get up, Stand up). 

In his book, Natural Mysticism: Towards a Reggae Aesthetic, Kwame Dawes, outlines several of the salient features of this new approach that were articulated in reggae: “A deeply complex music that walks the peculiar tightrope of the sacred and the profane—the holy, the prophetic and the erotic (134). It is this syncopated, uneven beauty that is seen in the landscape, our man-made objects and the way the women saunter. It is the fragmented aesthetic that Kamau Braithwaite champions in “nation language” and his insistence that borrowed forms cannot contain the energy of Jamaican and Caribbean life: “The hurricane does not speak in pentameters.”

For many of the artists and writers who grew up during those the seventies, those dread times continue to haunt our work: the blinding blue of the Caribbean, the haunting ochre of the countryside, the terrible beauty of Soufriere, and the plight of the sufferers. Sometimes, in the middle of Miami when the rain comes tumbling down, the “one drop” is our only redemption.

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July 17, 2006

The Story of an Album

I checked over at Mad Bull, and found an interesting challenge: to create a story in sixty words. It may not fit in with my usual stories or the diaspora or maybe it does. Either way, here goes, Mad Bull!

I secretly envied Frank because he always had money and could travel to exotic places, yet he always seemed to be lost. After his latest trip, however, I was surprised to see him looking over our family album.
“So, have you found yourself?”
“Life is not about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself.”
He smiled and closed the album.


July 16, 2006

I Love it When You Call me Big Papa

I had been sprawled across the sofa in the living room of our small apartment in Biscayne Park, listening to the pigeons and their squabs cooing in the branches of the date palms outside our window, trying to think about something interesting to write about As I Lay Dying for my graduate class in Southern literature at the University of Miami. I looked across at my desk with my pens, papers, cellophane tape, and scissors. The desk and our queen size bed were the only furniture that my wife, Nadia, and I had bought with our own money.

The rest were hand-me-downs from her mother, my mother, her sisters, and friends. We’d been married for two and half years, and we had finally figured out who would cook or wash the dishes. What I hadn’t figured out was how I was going to tell her that the University no longer needed my services as a teaching assistant and that I’d been thinking about applying for a position with Dade County Public Schools. It would be an understatement to say that this wasn't how I thought My life was going to turn out.

I was studying the grain in a mustard colored cushion that my mother had given to us when my wife came in through the door.

She told me to close my eyes and not to look until she told me to open them. I was thinking, afternoon delight? Nadia had told me that she was going to see her doctor and I had expected her to be back later in the afternoon, so I was surprised that she had come back so early. She told me to open my eyes. I was startled when she handed me two gifts wrapped in some very ornate paper and a card.

“Open them,” she said and when I moved to the biggest one first, she said, “No, start with this one.”

I tore off the wrapping and she told me to be careful. I went more slowly. I peeled the wrapping off the cardboard box, opened it, and saw two white booties made of yarn. I looked at the booties and didn’t know what to make of it. Sometimes I don’t put two and two together quickly.

Nadia then told me to open the card. I tore open the envelope and she told me to be careful. I slid the card into my hands and read what she’d written. She said that she was very happy that we’d gotten married, but she was even happier that I was going to be the father of our child.

I couldn’t believe it! Me, a father? No, it couldn’t be. Panic flushed my body and then, an immense joy. I was going to be a father! Then, the panic set in again.

I looked over the inherited furniture. How was I going to provide for our child? I had just lost the one stable source of income. Would the baby change our marriage? Would being a father mean I would have to abandon my writing or could I, like many of my white friends and teachers who were writers, simply depend on my wife to support me and our child while I continued to write novels and poetry?

I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. For no matter how much I tried to “Shoot the Sherriff” there were always the voices in my head that would condemn me as just another Black neer-do-well who had married a white woman (never mind that our relationship was not based on color, but that she’s the most interesting woman I’ve met in my life) and was now living off her and would probably be going on welfare soon—Ronald Reagan was in his third year and
David Stockman was at the helm of his economic battleship. I had to contend also with the idea (part of my Jamaican, middle-class upbringing, which is the source of my highest aspirations and my horrific nightmares) that writing wasn’t really work and that time would be better spent on other more financially rewarding pursuits. Which is true.

Writing takes time. There is no way around it. You learn to write by writing, and writing a novel (counting the time for research and working out the
back-story on all the main characters) usually takes about two years. This is not taking into account revision, which is where the real writing takes place. The average novel is usually about 90,000 to 150,000 words long. Unless you are Stephen King who writes about 2000 words a day every day of the year without any holidays, estimate 500-1,000 words for about 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 52 weeks. Take the rest of the time to work at your other job, pay your bills, and spend some time with your wife and new baby on the weekends. That gives you 260 days of the year to write for 3 hours, which is equal to 780 hours per year. The minimum wage in Florida is $6.40 cents—that’s $4992.30 for one year. Therefore, after 2 years of writing (again, not counting revision) you could have earned $9,984.60. 

That’s a lot of Pampers! This is without any assurance of publication. Also, if you are a committed writer, you will spend as much time on the work that may be deemed a “success” as the one that has been deemed a “failure.” If you do get the novel published, the median advance for first time unagented writers is $5000, so you are already behind by $4,984.60, but you do have royalties to be gained. If you are a poet, (and it takes a greater level of concentration and skill to write a book of poems) not only are you still $9,984.60 in the hole (although you’re extremely grateful that the book got published), but your future earnings on royalties from your books will be diddlysquat.

And now there was a child involved in my life? As a father, I would be expected to nurture and to protect this life that my wife and I had brought into this world. For although I was part of the
Caribbean Baby Boom Generation and ascribed to certain values such as the promotion of equal rights regardless of race, culture, ethnicity or gender, nearly every Jamaican man that I’d known had an alter ego of a Red Stripe/Appleton drinking massive who respects women, but does not consider them to be his equal. In that world, man was man. If the family could not survive economically, it would not be that my wife tried her best to provide for the family; it would be that I had not lived up to my obligations.

Then, I began thinking about Nadia’s father and my father. Both of our fathers had abandoned us before we became adolescents. They were all part of that cycle of fathers who for one reason of another were absent from their children’s lives. And if they did stay at home, many of them became bitter about “the little hooligans” that were running around the house making noise and they resorted to the whip, strap, cane, tamarind switch, electric extension cords—
“Anything that I can grab to beat the devil out of you!”

The violence would have to end with me. All that I’d learned from Melvyn Smith, my best friend’s father, about goodness and patience; from Leo Rose, my uncle, about steadfastness and devotion; and from Dennis Scott about humor and honesty would have to be put into practice.

There would be no beatings. Beatings only taught me how to run fast. But no matter how fast I ran, I always had to go back home. I had gained a few hours, but for what? I had learned about alternative discipline from men like Jimmy Carnegie who refused to cane the boys at
Jamaica College, no matter what the infraction. He found ingenious ways to punish us: “Mr. Philp, I want you to pick up all the bottle caps from tushy (around the bathrooms) to tucky (tuck shop).” Also, at the end of one of our readings, I remember Felix  saying to me, “I never beat my children. Only the Macoutes beat my children.” He didn’t have to say anything more to convince me.

Nadia handed me the third gift as I sat dazed on the sofa. I unwrapped the present carefully. It was Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare. I guess she was as scared as I was. I told her about the
University of Miami. I knew she was worried, but she said things would work out. She reminded me as Brother Bob sang, "That every little thing is gonna be all right,"

When she said that, I knew exactly what I had to do. I pulled out my book bag and went through all the papers. I began filling out the application to become a teacher with Dade County Public Schools.

My mother had been a teacher in Jamaica and now it felt as if I was taking up the mantle where she had left off. I would be the best parent and the best teacher that I could be.

July 13, 2006

Negril or New York?

Marlon James’ post, Americans vs. Brits, got me thinking even more about publishing and the players: the conglomerates, the independents, and the agents. The conglomerates are only in publishing to make money. Period. Independent publishers, God bless ‘em, survive on the margins with a combination of love and good business sense. Which leaves the agents.

Agents control publishing and the majority that I’ve met are in the business to make money. They make their living off the 15% (and upwards) commissions. They have to eat. Realistically, they are the final arbiters of who and what gets published. 95% of all publishers nowadays will not accept the work of unagented writers. Money is the force behind what agents do. In this respect, book agents are no different than any other kind of agent--they sell things: books, cars & pork bellies. For many of them, especially the younger ones, it’s just one of the things that they can do or will do in their lifetimes. If selling books works out, they can retire (before they are 35!) to a beach (it really doesn’t matter which beach) with their Blackberries (or whatever new gadget is in vogue) and drink mojitos (or whatever new drink is in vogue).

If selling books doesn’t work out, they can take a “long vacation” to a fashionable beach somewhere where they can meet and network with someone who’s been there and who can give then some tips on “selling.” It really doesn’t matter, for even if that doesn’t work out, they can always move on to something else.

I know. I’ve met them on the beaches of Negril or overheard their conversations that sound like “Sonny” in The Apostle when he rattles of his talents, “I can speak in tongues” and the other “gifts of the Spirit” as merely some of the things that he can do to make a profit for the church: “It's pay before you pray."

Here’s my dilemma. Writing is my vocation. Writing not one more thing that I can do. It’s like building a home in Negril. Your first concern as a homebuilder is to make sure that the foundation is secure, to use the natural beauty of landscape to enhance the attractiveness of the house, and to negate the natural threats of salt water intrusion and termites. You’ve built the house from scratch. You’ve lived here all your life and this is your baby that you’ve nurtured and protected against hurricanes and the harsh sunlight.

Enter the agent. If nobody’s buying houses in Negril (“It’s a seller’s market, baby!”), don’t call her. It’s not worth her time. If people are buying houses in Negril and she shows up, she is looking for one thing—how many units can she move? Negril is just another beach. She may even say, “Why don’t you spruce it up a little! You know, Negril could be the next New York!” You resist. You’ve done all that you can to make sure that this house has been true to the natural surroundings of Negril. All the additions that she’d like you to make, even if you had the time and the money to do so, don’t make any sense in Negril: “We could build a skyscraper, a bridge and a subway! The New Yorkers will love it!” The house has all the modern amenities such as indoor plumbing, electricity and a generator in case the lights go off in hurricane. You haven’t compromised on anything, and you say, “Negril should never be New York,” and then add some inanity by paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, “Negril is Negril is Negril.” And she says, “What ever! Suit yourself. It will never sell. But I have to admire you, it's well built!" To which you mutter something under your breath. But to be civil, as the British also taught us, you smile.

The house may or may not sell. Either way, you may find our agent, sad, lonely, and depressed in a small bar in Negril wondering where her life “went wrong” and why things aren’t “working out.” You sympathize with her and even though you’re dirt poor, you offer to buy her a drink. She says no because she knows she’s rolling in the moolah, and that you can’t afford it. Still, you say, “You’re a guest in my country,” and the bartender, whom you’ve known "from him was a bwai," cuts you some slack on the price of the drinks. You say “Cheers,” and you have a drink together while the blue waves crash against the dried roots of a coconut tree.

After the drink, you say it was pleasure and you say you’ve got to get back to work. “Just one more drink,” she says, “I’m here all alone.” You may or may not have that other drink that she is willing to pay for. Chances are you accept the drink because “Bird cyaan fly on one wing.” But then, you leave the bar. You’ve got work to do.

The last thing you hear was that she ended up drunk on the dance floor with a rent-a-dread and that the two of them were grinding on each other way into the night before she left for New York the next morning. Before leaving, she slurred something about she how empty her life was and that she needed some time to “sort things out.” Perhaps, find another beach.

The next afternoon as you walk along Negril with an Appleton on the rocks, in your hand, compliments of the bartender and the rent-a-dread, you look back at the house. It’s still not sold. It may never sell.

Still, you’ve done your job. And that's all you can do, for as Margaret Atwood once said, "Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan.. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine."

July 11, 2006

Imagine Miami: “Art Bridging Ethnicities and Cultures.”

Clean shaven and austere, the young Marines with their rifles by their sides stood by the entrance of the US Consulate like the cherubim placed at the east of the garden of Eden to guard the Tree of Life. They were awe inspiring with their unmovable lips, bright, gold buttons on their blue, starched uniforms, and as formidable as Rushmore.

Looking back, they were probably more scared than I was. Here they were in a Third World country where Fidel Castro had planted a mango tree and where according to the daily briefings of the State Department, a revolution could break out at any moment. And they only had two rifles against 2.5 million angry Black people ready to hoist their flags on American soil in Jamaica.

Still I was scared. They did have guns. The sight of young, white men with guns scares me to this day. They also had the full force and might of the United States of America behind them. And Marines were known to have sayings like, “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out later.” There were rumors of CIA operatives in the island. What did they know about me? My friends? Would I see Henry Kissinger in a back room?

And they did have guns. Still, I sucked up my fear and walked up to the entrance, and the Marines opened the door for me. When I entered the lobby, a young woman came out from behind a desk, asked if she could help me, and then led me to the library/reading room. She showed me where all the books and periodicals were located and left me alone in the reading room with all the great books. Was she mad? Were all Americans mad to leave good books like these unattended? Still they had guns and knew everything.

I began browsing the shelves and soon I came upon the work of two American writers whose work I’d never read: Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren. They were not the first American authors I’d read, but I’d never read anything like theirs. I’d read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but the minute I began reading O’Connor, I recognized a world that I knew only too well. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school ten years later that I would be able to give it a name: Plantation America—those places in the Americas that have a history of slavery and/or contact with the African diaspora. The themes in the literature of Plantation America revolve around conflicts involving a small land-owning elite (predominantly white) who hold power over a large underclass (predominantly Black or indigenous) with a middle class (usually a racial mixture of the upper and lower classes) whose allegiances are always suspect on both sides of the divide. Although O’Connor was writing about Savannah, Georgia, I realized she could have been writing about Struie, Jamaica where my mother was born. The story that most intrigued me was “Good Country People.”

Basically, the story is about a proud, educated woman, Hulga, who only has one leg, and she is seduced by a traveling Bible salesman who steals her wooden leg as a sexual trophy.

As I read the story, I was shocked. I was dismayed. I was laughing my ass off. I couldn’t believe someone could write about something like that. Really? And the more I read, the deeper and deeper I went into O’Connor’s work, I felt a connection with her. She was fearless. I felt a kinship with her that I’d never felt with any other North American writer.

How different we were! I was an eighteen year old Black man who was raised as a Protestant living in Kingston, Jamaica, who still had a full life ahead of him. Flannery O’Connor was a middle-aged, white woman raised as a Catholic in Savannah, Georgia, and who had died from Lupus in 1964. Yet, in many ways her work reflected what I had hoped to do, what I had hoped to write about: a people full of contradictions and hope caught between the absurdity of race, religion, and mortality.

On that Friday afternoon in the reading room of the American Consulate on Oxford Road a bridge was crossed, and a whole new world opened up in front of me. And it was probably due to the work of some anarchist librarian (the work of O’Connor and Warren are still not widely recognized) who despite the feelings of some who think that book programs are a waste of taxpayer money or even programs like “Imagine Miami” are completely worthless. But have no fear anarchist librarian, where ever you are, your work has not been in vain. For on that evening in that reading room, America gained a friend. It was a friendship based on the common humanity that I shared with another writer, another person who was in every way my complete opposite, yet we shared a passion for stories, ideas, and the people around us.

Over the next few months I would go back to the reading room for more treasures. And the more time I spent in the reading room, the more I learned about America, and the marines guarding the entrance seemed less formidable. Reading O’Connor led me to other Southern writers such as James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom who had mentored a New England writer, Robert Lowell. Years later, I would read how Lowell’s influence helped a young West Indian writer, Derek Walcott. I had made a full circle in my readings.

But it all began on that Friday evening with the sun setting over the top of the Mutual Life Building in New Kingston, Jamaica, and when I decided to suck up my fears and walk past the cherubim with the flaming sword.


July 10, 2006

Imagine Miami

Imagine Miami
July 11, Tuesday, 5:30 pm
Arts Bridging Ethnicities & Cultures

Free panel discussion, followed by a concert.
Co-sponsored by Imagine Miami, Miami Beach Arts Trust, Arts at St. Johns at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden.

Panel discussion - 5:30 - 7 pm
Reuben Hoch, jazz musician, director of the Alliance for Cultural Composers
Geoffrey Philp, Jamaican author, writer, Professor at Miami-Dade College North
Andrea Seidel, Director of Intercultural Dance and Music Institute (INDAMI) at FIU
Maguinha Machado, Brazilian vocalist, songwriter, poet

LOCATION: Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Ctr. Drive, Miami Beach. (on the corner of Convention Center Drive & Dade Blvd. behind the Holocaust Memorial.

COST: Free

Geoffrey Philp is the author of a novel, Benjamin, My Son, a collection of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien, and five poetry collections. He grew up in Jamaica and attended Mona Primary and Jamaica College. Geoffrey left Jamaica in 1979 and since then, he has attended Miami Dade College and the University of Miami. Currently, Geoffrey is a professor at Miami-Dade College, North Campus. He is married to Nadezka Ferro-Philp and they have three children. He maintains a web site @ www.geoffreyphilp.com and a blog site @ http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com.

Reuben Hoch, grew up in New York. He attended Jewish parochial school, where he embraced the music of his ancestry. He became active on the NY jazz scene as a teenager. After graduating from Yeshiva University, he lived in Israel from 1984-1988 and attended the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine. Reuben relocated to South Florida in 1996 and created The Chassidic Jazz Project in 1998. In 2006, he released a trio CD, Reuben Hoch and Time - Of Recent Time, on Britain's Naim label with jazz veterans Don Friedman and Ed Schuller. The CJP will perform at Makor in NY on July 20 with saxophone great Dave Liebman. They will also appear at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto on September 4.

Maguinha Machado, singer and poet, left Goiás, in Brazil, in 1970 during the military dictatorship that tragically dismantled her family. Forced into exile, she went from the backlands of Goiás, in the Central High Plateau, with its Savannah farms, and forests, to New York City. A graduate of C.W. Post College, in Languages and Education, she went on to live and sing in New York with Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romao, known for his work with the Weather Report. Then she lived in Europe, raising children, and singing, in Italy and France. In Miami since 1997, she's been singing at Tap Tap's Haitian Restaurant on South Beach for the past six years, and more recently, at Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in the Miami Design District. A firm believer in cultural amalgamation, she's made music her life's work, and an instrument for bringing bring people together. She also sings with the "Brazilian Voices,” the woman's choir of strong community participation, founded in South Florida.

Andrea Mantell-Seidel, PhD is INDAMI’s founder and director. She holds a doctorate in Dance from New York University and a Master’s degree in English literature from McGill University, Montreal. As an associate professor of dance at FIU, she teaches courses in Global Perspectives in Dance and Culture, Dance Ethnology, Latin American and Caribbean Dance and Culture, and Modern Dance and writes articles on a variety of topics related to dance, myth, and ritual, intercultural education, and early modern dance reconstruction. As a solo artist and scholar and as Artistic Director of the critically acclaimed Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble, Dr. Mantell-Seidel has toured nationally and internationally in Japan, China, Germany, Canada, Central and South America, including such prestigious venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington, New York Lincoln Center Festival Out-of-Doors, the International Goethe Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, the International Festival Sucretino (Venezuela), and International Festival de las Mujeres en la Danza (Ecuador). Dr. Seidel is the recipient of over a hundred local, state, and national grants, including a $225,000, three-year grant from the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary for the Dancing Across Disciplines project.

Funded by grants from Dade Community Foundation and the Florida Humanities Council (the state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.)
Info: 305-613-2325 or artsatstjohns@bellsouth.net www.artsatstjohns.com


July 6, 2006

Genesis (of Benjamin, My Son): Part 2

Benjamin, my sonAfter tossing and turning a whole night in bed, I woke up early the next morning and went to Lester Goran’s office in the Ashe Building He joked with me and asked if I had given up the notion of being a critic. I told him yes and he seemed pleased. He showed me how I could graduate from UM with a Master of Arts with a concentration in creative writing. I agreed to the plan. The only problem was I would have to write a dissertation. Goran asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a novel. I told him that I’d thought about it from time to time, but I’d never given it serious thought. He told me it was time to get serious.

I walked around the campus that evening waiting for the Coral Gables traffic to die down, so that I could get home. I sat under one of the beautiful banyans that grace the campus, and began thinking through my options. I thought about some of the characters in short stories that I’d written when Goran and Isaac Bashevis Singer team-taught our creative writing classes, but none of those characters had a crisis that would match the scope of a novel. In short stories, the protagonist faces a single problem that can be resolved within three to ten thousand words. A novel, however, is more complex and the protagonist has to confront a problem that is interesting enough to be sustained over ninety thousand words.

I didn’t want to write a historical novel about slavery and I didn’t want to write in the style of some West Indian writers whose novels were, to put it mildly, boring. It was as if they weren’t interested in writing novels in the way American authors such as Russell Banks, Phillip Roth, and John Irving, structured the narrative to engage their readers in the story. My model for writing was always Shakespeare and in most of his plays he had something for the groundlings and something for the literati. This seemed to be a rational way to look at writing because at their base, novels and plays are forms of popular entertainment. Novels can be transformed the way Joyce did in Ulysses or Aldous Huxley in Eyeless in Gaza, but those represented the high end of the form. If I was now embarking on a career of becoming a writer, then I would have to write novels that had some commercial appeal, and I didn’t think a Caribbean audience would read novels like Ulysses or Eyeless in Gaza.

As I envisioned the novel, it would be a Caribbean coming-of-age novel (George Lamming's, In the Castle of my Skin) with elements from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Robert Penn Warren’s, All the King’s Men, Dante’s Inferno, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The novel needed a murder at its core because these kinds of stories change one of the essential mysteries of the universe from why to who. Then, I started to ask myself a series of what ifs? based on my life, these books and the situation in the Caribbean. I wanted the novel to connect and find resonance in the lives of the readers, for I still believe a novel should give the reader an experience of meaning.

Drawing on my readings of Joseph Campbell, the protagonist’s mentor—his guide through the circles of a Jamaican Inferno--would have to be a mystical, yet human figure—a combination of Jah Mick, Bob Marley, Leghorn, and Seeco. Especially Seeco, who after getting frustrated with my many questions about Rastafari, said to me, “Benjamin, the questioner! Just let it go.” I didn’t know what he meant until I went to a Twelve Tribes of Israel meeting and asked one of the elders who told me that Benjamin referred to the month of March. I was born in March, but I’d never told Seeco when I was born and he never asked. He just proclaimed. I would call the mentor/psychopomp, Papa Legba, to give him a connection to Haiti like the Maroon Boukman, but also to connect him to the Yoruba religion: Eleggua in Cuba and Eshu/Anancy in other parts of the African diaspora.

I also wanted the novel to have the feel of Jamaica during the eighties—like the dread sound that Bob heard and put in the opening bars of “Burnin’.” It would open with the word, “Bumbo,” one of the ugliest curse words in Jamaican that would signal, like Marley’s guttural rumble or Carly’s signature “one drop,” that the reader had entered a new, yet profane world and in the act of doubling creation, the beginning and end of the novel would contain descriptions of the sea-- from which the purgatorial experiences of Black people in the New World began.

The plot, like Hamlet, would revolve around the death of a father/king/prominent politician, and the main suspect would be David (of the Psalms, a warrior/poet) Carmichael (almost like Michael Manley). The young protagonist would be renamed Benjamin by Papa Legba—a name he would reject because of his bourgeois background at Jamaica College and his leanings toward North American materialism. I gave him the name Jason because he would be on a quest. As an homage to my grandfather and the Scottish presence in Jamaica, I gave him the surname Lumley.

Jason, like Telemachus from the Odyssey and Iliad, would embark on a quest of self-discovery, and he and Telemachus would also be similar in one important aspect: they were brought up by their mothers. Jason, like Telemachus, would yearn to demonstrate within the world of action a “manhood gaining act.” For men in the Caribbean, this act takes many forms and in the ghetto/garrisons of Kingston, it takes a deadly turn as Laurie Gunst's, Born Fi Dead, proved to me. Writing the novel wasn’t just telling another story. The mystery of how so many of my classmates at Jamaica College—idren I used to kick ball with—who had now become hardened gunmen with their faces splashed over newspapers, haunted me for years. And the platitudes of “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” were unsatisfying. I was determined to find an answer in fiction. I would write a reggae novel, and I would call it, Benjamin, My Son.

Part One of Genesis (of Benjamin, My Son)

Benjamin, My Son: Caribbean Literature Textbook


New Book by Donna Weir-Soley

Donna Weir-Soley’s, First Rain, has been published by Peepal Tree Press, and is now available on their website. Donna is a Florida-based Jamaican poet who has been widely published in journals such as Macomere, Caribbean Writer, Sage, Carrier-Pidgin, Frontiers and in the anthology, Moving Beyond Boundaries. She was recently awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship for career enhancement.

The advance praise for Donna’s work by Opal Palmer Adisa, Denise Duhmael, and Campbell McGrath, three fine poets in their own right, yet different in their style and approach to poetry, demonstrates the scope of her talent and commitment to her craft.

Advance Praise for First Rain.

These poems of speak of kinship, the stuff that gives one roots and a sense of belonging not just to a particular lineage, but to the world community. The poems journey from Jamaica to New York, to what it really means to be a Caribbean immigrant, and have to make do with unfulfilled or foiled dreams. Mostly, the poems are about love -- enduring, long-lasting, gifted -- written by one who bathes and dresses in love. So read these poems, and experience unconditional love.-- Opal Palmer Adisa, author of Caribbean Passion

First Rain
is part memoir through poetry, part mythological journey. Through vivid and haunting narratives, Weir-Soley alters the expected scheme of things, changing how her readers see the world. She gives us a creation fable through Criolla, the origin of the Creole language. She confronts Mawu, the supreme creator of the Ga. In addition, Weir-Soley’s storytelling includes family legends, those of home, emigration, and displacement. First Rain is an amazing and passionate book, with poems of nuanced meditation and engaging thought-provoking anecdote.-- Denise Duhamel

Donna Weir-Soley is a poet of roots and rootlessness, of homecoming and exile. Her fine ear for nation language and the music of human speech is grounded in the soil of her native Jamaica, from which these poems emerge as vibrantly as jackfruit, ackee, and soursop. First Rain is an important and delightful addition to the literature of the Caribbean-American experience.-- Campbell McGrath

Poet and critic, Donna Weir-Soley, was born and grew up in Jamaica. She currently teaches at Florida International University.

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July 5, 2006

Genesis (of Benjamin, My Son): Part 1 of 2 Parts

Standing between Mahoney and Pearson Halls at the University of Miami, I watched the lights flicker in the apartments above my head, playing what seemed to be an ethereal game of tic-tac-toe over which I had no control. The tamarinds were motionless. Campus security, who regularly checked my friend Dennis Martin and I on our walks back from the Rathskellar, pulled up in a cruiser and drove away. But I was alone that night after class. Dennis had graduated while I continued as a teaching assistant in the Caribbean, African, and African-American Studies (CAAAS) and an adjunct at Miami Dade Community College. Changes were occurring all around us. Ronald Reagan’s administration had altered the political climate of the nation and the conservatism that he preached resulted in budget cuts in education. The University of Miami needing a fresh inflow of money turned to Tad Foote, who began eyeing programs like CAAAS that were becoming increasingly unpopular across the nation.

The budget cuts started coming and Dr. Dathorne began fighting. He was one of those men that institutions like UM fear. Fiercely intelligent and one who did not suffer fools lightly (he considered them all fools and racist fools to boot), Dr. Dathorne was formidable, physically and intellectually. And at that time when the smoking temperance campaign was just beginning to take root, he would often let many of the professors in the English Department know exactly how he felt when he had to stub his cigar before one of their tedious meetings. He was fearless and many of the football players who signed up for his classes would shout out to him as he crossed the bridge to the cafeteria, “All right, Dr. D! You show them.”

And Dr. Dathorne was always on the move which meant I was always trailing behind his frenetic schedule. As his teaching assistant, I was no more than his personal gofer. I would do rough edits on the Journal of Caribbean Studies, look over his revisions on some of his stories, or pick up his friends at the Miami International Airport. I loved it. He would throw me the keys to his monster Cadillac and I would have to maneuver through Miami traffic and the congestion at the airport to pick up some of his friends: Cheddi Jagan, Ivan Van Sertima, Selwyn Cudjoe, John Figueroa, or Sam Selvon. As an added bonus, he would also invite me to dinner at some of the most expensive restaurants in Miami or we would have catered meals at his home in South Miami. I was even part of Michael Manley’s entourage when he came to give a lecture and witnessed firsthand his charisma with the ladies and the respect he commanded among the men with his knowledge of sports, including American football.

But then Dr. Dathorne left under a cloud and many of us were left to fend for ourselves. The English Department was not exempt from the changes. A new set of scholars committed to deconstructionism (George Lamming called it “deforestation”) took over.

I switched from the program in CAAAS and despite the advice of Lester Goran, who was starting a fledgling creative writing program at UM, I decided to become a critic. An MFA to my mind just didn’t cut it and given my history with exams and literature, I wanted to prove myself. During my first year, I took classes in British and American literature and studied primarily Pope, Dryden, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. I continued to publish poems such as “Exodus” in The Apalachee Quarterly, but I needed to break away from the style of “Exodus” because they were more imitations of Scott and McNeill. I’d also published a long poem, “Florida Bound” in Caribbean Review as answer to Derek Walcott’s “The Star-Apple Kingdom,” but that poem was not the kind of poem that I wanted to write. I had grown up with reggae and I belonged to the generation that invented dub poetry, so I had to find my own voice.

Goran had tried to persuade me to join the writers, but I was determined to become a critic because the prospects for employment seemed more promising. Besides, the rejections were also piling up. But I hadn’t yet learned the rules of graduate school which meant that students asked questions to which they already knew the answers and they were always be ready to genuflect to their professors. They were the authority on the subject they taught, so when some one from like me, “from the islands” suggested an alternate reading of Faulkner whom I saw as belonging to Plantation America—, well, I just didn’t know what I was talking about. And the more they tried to show me their genius by the fact that they spoke Latin or Greek, I remained unmoved. I knew real men of genius such as Jimmy Carnegie, Dennis Scott, and Rex Nettleford. In fact, I once told Professor Nettleford that even though many of my professors at UM were brilliant, I remained unimpressed because despite their intelligence, they couldn’t dance to save their lives.

As a critic, however, I wasn’t going to write dissertations as some of my colleagues had done on scatological references in Shakespeare’s plays and then annotate every reference to bodily functions. Nor was I going to find Christ images in every work of a Western author. Luckily, a friend of mime introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I began reading all of Campbell’s books. I had also borrowed, The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates from Dr. Dathorne’s library before he left. I began re -reading Kamau Brathwaite and the African writers that I read under Dr. Dathorne’s tutelage and saw the Eshu/ Anancy/Trickster paradigm emerging. I also began to realize why we were fascinated consciously and unconsciously by men like Michael Manley and Fidel Castro because they embodied Shango/Xango--the warrior/poet.

I had found what I wanted to write and research, but it was all coming too late. My transition to graduate school was not as smooth as I had planned. I was newly married to Nadezka, the Colombian girl, and I was fighting the banks because of a mistake they had made in calculating my “grace period” before I entered graduate school. I had to get a job as an adjunct at Miami Dade and take graduate classes. I was falling behind. I earned two C’s in two semesters. Just before Valentine’s Day in 1985, I got called in to face the chair of the department who told me that they were not going to extend my contract for another year. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have the money to continue paying for credits at UM, but I was too deep in credits with them to transfer to another school—I would lose a year. My stomach was churning when I left the Ashe Building. I was beginning to feel like Ralph Singh in VS Naipaul’s’, Mimic Men, and felt that no one was going to be surprised by my "inevitable failure."

Benjamin, My Son: Caribbean Literature Textbook

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Part 2 on Friday