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.


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