June 11, 2007

Reasonable Men Living in Unreasonable Times

Caribbean-American Heritage MonthFirst, I want to thank the JC Old Boys Association for inviting me to speak about a subject that has been central to my work ever since I found myself on these shores on April 30, 1979. You see, like many of you in this room, I never intended to become a Caribbean-American or even a Caribbean-American writer. As far I was concerned when I used to look out from the second floor of Scott Hall at JC and realized that I wanted to be a writer, the only word that I wanted added was Jamaican. Jamaican writer, Geoffrey Philp. But this was not to be. Despite my protestations and not wanting to leave Jamaica, my mother sold our house in Mona Heights and we moved to Miami. I was angry. I was depressed.
Now, once I found myself in Miami, I had two options. I could either sit around my house and bemoan the fact that I would never be called a real-real Jamaican writer because I didn't live in Jamaica--you know how our people are--or I could seize the opportunity before me and write about what was happening right before my very eyes. There was a slow and steady movement out of the Caribbean into North America and many of these Caribbean people were calling Miami home. The more I examined the movement, the more I realized that no one else from the Caribbean was writing about this. They've come and gone, but it was always like Mervyn Morris said in his poem, "Valley Prince, "Me one way out in the crowd." So out of the bottomless pit of despair I saw a sliver of sunlight, and I've been following that light to discover all that I could about this phenomena called Caribbean-Americans.
The more I studied and wrote, the more I realized that since the founding of these United States Caribbean-Americans have had a significant role in shaping the conscience of America. I'll just name a few of these famous Caribbean Americans and their accomplishments:
Source: Caribbean Wow 2.0
As you can see, Caribbean people are not new to these shores, and they have had a tremendous impact on the lives of North Americans. The big difference between those early travelers and those in our time is the numbers have increased.
Now, without going into the reasons why there is this constant stream of Caribbean people into North America, many of these Caribbean-Americans have influenced the "American Dream" of democracy and egalitarianism, and by their very presence they have highlighted one of North America's most troubling nightmares--the issue of race.
This is not to say that Caribbean people have solved the problem of race. As I said in a recent interview with Global Voices, "The Caribbean is the location of one of the most interesting and unintended social experiments in he history of the human race." You name the race, creed, or religion and we have it. The Caribbean is a space where we have had to learn racial tolerance without resorting to genocide and we have opted for class differences--CLR James sees this and many other things differently*. This is why when a person from the Caribbean who has already figured out from the time they were in their own country that they were Black and not "brown" and then move to the States where they recognize other New World Africans, they've had such a tremendous influence on America's history.
This evening, I am going to talk about three of these Caribbean-Americans, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Colin Powell, who I'd like to call reasonable men living in unreasonable times. Now, I realize that I could have chosen to talk about the accomplishments of Caribbean-American women such as Constance Baker Motley, Shirley Chisholm, and Antonia Novello, and I know some of the sisters who went to St Hugh's, St. Andrew's, and Immaculate Conception may accuse me of Jamaican male arrogance and worse, JC Old Boy "patriarchal attitudes," but this after all, is a Jamaica College Old Boys dinner. And as my old English teacher, Mrs. Holmes used to say to me, "Mr. Flip, always remember that whenever you are writing or speaking, you should always bear in mind three things: audience, purpose, and occasion."
I certainly hope these three choices match the audience. The three Caribbean-American men, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Colin Powell, exemplify what I would like to call the paradox of being of African descent in North America and at least two have been called "radical" and "revolutionary." But I beg to differ with that label. To my mind, it is because of their background in the Caribbean, they approached the issue of race from a different perspective (Watch again, In the Heat of the Night when Sidney Poitier is slapped, he slaps back without thinking) like many in North America, and they were doing what men in more gender stratified countries have always done: protected their families and their communities. In my mind, these were reasonable men living in unreasonable times. And what made these times unreasonable was the issue of race.
We all have the right to be who we are, live how we want to live, and marry who we want to marry or as Brother Bob would say, "Every man got a right to decide his own destiny" (Zimbabwe). Unfortunately, for Marcus Garvey, one day at the age of about fifteen, he went down to his little girlfriend's house and she turned him away at the gate. She said her father didn't want her playing with a "nigger" anymore. Young Marcus was shocked, dismayed, and angry. Wasn't he as intelligent as any other boy? Didn't he have rights just like everyone else? Her father and the world said no, and the more Marcus traveled, the more he found inequality based on race and he began to crusade against racial inequality. In a way, you could say that it was a failed love affair that began Garvey's career, but that this can also be said about many of our lives. In Garvey's mind, all he was asking for was an inalienable, human right, yet these were denied and he was branded as a revolutionary.
The same can be said of Malcolm X, whose mother was from Grenada. Malcolm Little, had he stayed in the Caribbean, would have been called a "brown man." And when he came to America, he became known as "Red." In his career as a civil rights activist, Malcolm X was often portrayed as a foil to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Again, in retrospect, Dr. King and Malcolm were two reasonable men living in unreasonable times. Both were asking America to live up to its promise for they truly believed that "All men were created equal." In the popular mind Dr. King has been portrayed as a "Lamb of Peace" and Malcolm X as a "Wolf of Violence." Both of these may be exaggerations. What Malcolm X did say in the heat of the civil rights movements as a counter to Dr. King's methods was, "You've been told to turn the other cheek. But I say; if any man lays his hand on you, make sure that he doesn't lay it on anyone else." (The Ballot or The Bullet) Was this revolutionary?" Every human has the right to speak and to defend himself or herself against unwarranted violence, and when a system takes away that right, it has turned a person into a zombie--unable to speak or defend himself or herself. Malcolm X didn't want to become a zombie. He would have no part in the zombification of the black nation, and if it came to using the "hard power" of the warrior instead of the "soft power" of the orator, then Malcolm X was willing to pay the price for a war that was declared against him or as he put it, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us." Malcolm X was driven to be a warrior because of the untenable situation that he and his family found themselves and the only way out was war.
And war is not something that Caribbean people are afraid of. Mention Bois Caiman and Morant Bay and some diplomats still get the chills. It is out of this race of warriors that the so-called "Gentle Warrior" Colin Powell emerges. I say so-called because when he was going to fight in the first Gulf War, Powell said, "Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it." Does this sound gentle? Colin Powell's job was born to the role to the role of America's "First Warrior" and then "First Diplomat." Colin Powell has always been surrounded by armchair warriors who have never fought in a war nor have their children fought in wars, yet these men are quite willing to send other fathers and their children into battle to fight for so-called American values. Colin Powell rose through the ranks of the American army during the Vietnam War. He knew intimately the horrors of war. It could even be said that unlike other Secretaries of States, knew the limits of American power. As Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Powell knew the truest American value is an undying love of freedom in every sense of the word. This is something that many of us Caribbean-Americans still have to learn for we sometimes we place too much faith and trust in governments. The Founding Fathers did not have that kind of faith. They constructed American democracy with the peculiar arrangement of three co-equal branches of power. Colin Powell knew the range and limits of American power and always tried to balance America's awesome power with America's responsibility to promote the highest ideals of freedom. It's a delicate balance. There are some who have said that he was a failure because of the Gulf War, and there are some who still see him as a hero. We will never know the true reason behind his decisions in the Iraqi War, but one thing remains clear, Powell has always been guided by a sense of rightness and integrity and for that he should be called a hero.
And what is a hero? A hero is a person who convinces us that whatever is holding us prisoner can be overcome, and the lives of all these Caribbean-Americans attest to that.
But what does all this mean and especially to this audience? The motto of Jamaica College is Fervet opus in campis, "work is burning in the fields." What are the fields? Our everyday lives. In our everyday lives there is a purpose and I believe there is a reason why we have found ourselves here on this other beach, this other land of limestone. We have much to learn and we have much to teach our families and others.
For we haven't come to North America empty handed. We've come to North America with more than just our clothes in our suitcases. And I don't mean ganja. We've come to America with values that have been untouched by American racism and the holocaust meted out on our Native American brothers and sisters. And we've also come to learn from that indomitable American spirit that knows how to come together and to build engineering marvels like the Brooklyn Bridge.
But sometimes we hold back. We behave as if we are still guests and in a way we are. Many of us haven't fully made the transition to becoming Caribbean-Americans. But many our children have. They were born here and we will have to give them the examples of how to live fearlessly as they become Americans. For believe me, they are quite different from us. Those who have taken their children down to Jamaica know what I'm talking about. Or maybe it's just me alone "way out in the crowd again." But one thing I've noticed is that my children, when I've watched them interacting with the children in Jamaica, seem to have acquired that strange American restlessness. This may be a good thing or it may be a bad thing. Who knows? I only hope they have learned from me how to sometimes relax and not fight certain un-winnable fights and to save their energy for what truly matters. I hope they can learn from these Caribbean-Americans that life should be lived fearlessly. All of these Caribbean Americans have shown by their lives that we can and do make a difference in the life and dreams of America, and if we hold back, it will not only be a loss in our lives, but the lives of our families both here in America and in the Caribbean.
We can't let them, the ancestors, down. We have been privileged to go to one of the best--I'm sorry the best high school in Jamaica, and as Dr King once said, "Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education." I believe we can do it. I believe we can live up to Fervet opus in campis, "Work is burning in the fields," and we know as JC Old Boys, "For if a fire, make it burn." ("Revolution")

Caribbean-American Heritage MonthText of a speech to the Jamaica College Old Boys Association of Florida, Miramar Civic Center, June 9, 2007.
To view more photos, follow this link: JC Old Boys Association of Florida
* Thank you, Nicholas Laughlin of Antilles.

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Rethabile said...

"Now, once I found myself in Miami, I had two options. I could either sit around my house and bemoan the fact that I would never be called a real-real Jamaica writer because I didn't live in Jamaica--you know how our people are--or I could seize the opportunity before me and write about what was happening right before my very eyes."

With hindsight, I think it's easier to see which option was the most desirable for you and for everybody else. Glad you chose the second.

Geoffrey Philp said...

I'm glad I chose the latter. Although at the time I can tell you, it didn't feel that way.

Khotso, my friend.

John Updike said...

Thanks for reprinting this talk.

Stephen A. Bess said...

This was a nice read. I didn't know that James Weldon Johnson had Bahamian heritage. Oh yeah, I don't care how long you've been gone from Jamaica you'll always be. Also, I don't care how long we be absent from Africa...we are still African. I know. There are some who will disagree. Peace, brother.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Peace, Stephen!