I had never planned to become a Caribbean-American or Jamaican-American. The idea of being a hyphenated man did not appeal to me, especially since I grew up in post-Independence Jamaica and was weaned on the idea of reclaiming our national identity from the nightmare of our colonial past. I wanted to be true to the words of Dennis Scott who wrote, “these hot and coffee streets reclaim my love.” But this was not to be so. On April 30, 1979, I left Jamaica because my mother was worried about the rising level of violence in Jamaica and the close ties between gun-men and politicians. If only she could see us now.
It was a dread time. Even the music reflects the murderous mayhem that engulfed the island. Listen to the opening lyrics of "Burnin' and Lootin” to get a sense of what was happening in Jamaica. What is happening now: "This morning I woke up in a curfew/ Oh God, I was a prisoner too/ Could not recognize the faces standing over me/ They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality." The horrors of slavery, which reduced our lives to entries in a ledger and we believed it-- haunts us.
Still, I didn’t want to leave. But two incidents changed my mind: "The Orange Lane Fire" and “The Green Bay Massacre. The violence out of which the Caribbean was born and which continued through slavery and colonialism that divided Jamaica by race, class, poverty, and allegiance to outside forces threatened to tear the island apart. So when my mother eventually sold our house in Mona Heights, there was a part of me that welcomed the inevitability, for I had become disillusioned with those whom I had considered my heroes. I left Jamaica and came to live in South Florida.
My first few years in South Florida were deeply troubling. I couldn’t find my rhythm. I couldn’t find my space. It was a time of prolonged introspection. Out of that introspection, two books about that "watershed period" were imagined: a collection of poems, Florida Bound and a novel, Benjamin, my son.
In the title poem of Florida Bound, I commemorated the two events that changed my life's trajectory:
I never want to tell my story this way,
for is the same old story of my island
losing the young, never growing old to stay
to Brixton and Birmingham, ghettos of England,
Bronx and Brooklyn, to the barbed streets
of Overtown, scattered like cotton chaff, driven
into restless cities by comrades who cut
electoral seat like they own the people til gun
man like bedbug crawl over the land and bite
them in the arse. And brigadistas screamed
'Deserter', for I couldn't bear their rule. Drought
furrowed the land, rankings wallowed
in democracy, and the idren that stay
get lash with scorn hotter than Orange Lane
drown in silence deeper than Green Bay;
lives poured into the earth in vain.
In Benjamin, my son, one of the first novels to explore the connections between garrisons and politicians/gun men/guns/drugs, I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a young man’s reluctant return to Jamaica after his father, a politician, is murdered. The novel was turned down for many years by several publishers because the plot and the incidents in the novel--a state of emergency, lock down and roadblocks thrown up by the residents of the garrison-- seemed farfetched. Perhaps, the book violated their dream of what the “islands” were and what they wanted to sell. Little did they know. Given the recent events in Jamaica, time has proven them triply wrong. Yet I find little solace in saying this.
For I now realize that I may never return to Jamaica. Yet I have also accepted that I have a place to fill here in South Florida with my hyphenated brothers and sisters. Out of that seeming misery of rupture and displacement, a strong community within the diaspora has emerged: "Rise oh fallen fighters/ Rise and take your stand again/ For he who fights and runs away/ Live to fight another day."
We have also listened to other voices from the larger African diaspora such as John Edgar Wideman who has cautioned in Cattle Killing: "Do not fall asleep in your enemy's dream."
The same conditions that led to the undeclared civil war in the seventies have come full circle. The origins of current crisis begin in Jamaica with a mixture of urban poverty and political ambition and extend America's hunger for drugs. The capture of one "don-dadda" or the replacement of a politician will only be a quick fix to a larger problem that only Jamaicans can solve. For Jamaica. From The Children of Sisyphus to Dog-Heart, our dreamers have been asking us: Where have we come from? Who are we? Where do we go from here?
Or as Brother Bob challenged us in "Exodus": "Open your eyes and look within/ Are you satisfied with the life you're living?"
We need to answer that question. Now.