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

1 comment:

Stephen A. Bess said...

Just when I thought that I was alone in the struggle. **smile** No, I knew that there were others, but it's still good to hear about how others made through. That's a lot to juggle (school, marriage, writing) for anyone. I recently married in June of this year. My wife is very supportive of my dreams and aspirations, but she is also my wife (nuff said).

I've been trying to avoid it, but it seems like an academic atmosphere is the best job for someone (me) who has aspirations in writing and research. I taught in public school for 5 years. I've been out of the classroom for 3 years and counting. I've been trying to find another route, but my mind always drifts back to the classroom. I feel like I am delaying the inevitable.