My Father’s Land: The indelible marks of slavery in Jamaica

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Issue 3 of Stranger’s Guide (which focuses on the Caribbean—see previous post Strangers Guide Issue 3: Dedicated to the Caribbean) includes Courtney Desiree Morris’s fascinating personal/historical exploration of the vestiges of slavery in Jamaica and our “tendency” to forget. The author explains, “Slavery produced a void in black social memory.” Here are just a few excerpts; please read the full article at Stranger’s Guide.

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is History.
—Derek Walcott

When I was eight years old, my father gave me three books: The Selected Speeches of Malcolm X, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Selected Poems, by Claude McKay. I tore through all three but was especially intrigued by McKay’s slim volume of poetry. My father told me that he and McKay came from the same place: Jamaica.

My father was born in 1960 in the parish of Clarendon on the eve of Jamaican national independence. Twelve years later, my grandfather moved the entire family to South Bay, Florida, where he established himself as a mechanic working in the region’s sugar cane fields. It was, my father recalled, a difficult transition.

“Yeah, man, we were Jamaican before it was cool to be Jamaican,” he said. He told me that his African American classmates teased him and his siblings mercilessly, mocking their accents, calling them “Ju-bwoys” and claiming that West Indians ate rats. Eventually, though, they made friends with their classmates, and as more Jamaicans moved to the region to work in the canefields, they slowly began to transform the cultural landscape of South Florida into a Caribbean outpost.

For most of my life, Jamaica was song and symbol to me, found in the funky-smelling dishes my father fed me and my brother: jerk chicken, curried goat, steamed red snapper (or as we call it, Escoveitch), oxtail simmered in lima beans. We were baffled that none of our classmates had ever experienced the comfort of a freshly baked beef patty or cured a cold with a bitter cup of cerasee tea.

Jamaica was Marcus Garvey hanging from my father’s rearview mirror. It was dancehall reggae and the sounds of Barrington Levy, Yellowman, and Gregory Isaacs playing in the garage as my father washed his car every Saturday. The Melodians singing “By the Rivers of Babylon” [. . .].

[. . .] When I asked him how long the family has lived on the property, he shrugged. “Long time we been here. Mi fadda was born here and his fadda born here. Me no know exactly when them come here but them was here long time before I born.” He didn’t know anything about slavery or have any property records. I tried to hide my disappointment, but he could read it on my face.

“You want to see the tomb them?”

I perked up. “Tombs? Here? On the property?”

“Ya, mon, they right there up the hill.” And with that he turned and began walking up the hill. When we reached the top, I spotted a cluster of three tombs. They were covered with vines, and an enormous tree trunk stretched across the newest one that bore a small headstone with my great-grandfather’s name, Ralbert Morris. Uncle Ralford disappeared behind a tree and returned with three machetes. He silently handed them to my father and my husband, who removed their shirts and, without a word, began chopping away the brush on the tombstone. It was as though they were performing an ancient ritual. The sun rose high in the sky, and the three of them began to sweat but kept working. When they were done, we all sat quietly on the tree trunk on Grandpa Ralbert’s tomb. [. . .]

Slavery produced a void in black social memory. Slavery is the reason it took me 33 years to learn the names of my great-great-grandfather. Slavery is the reason nobody knows who is buried on the Roehampton property. Africans held enormous value as property for the people who owned them, but after slavery, their lives were considered meaningless, beyond the purview of history, not worth archiving or remembering. Slavery is the reason their lives can be forgotten or overlooked in plantation tours and no one bats an eye. Slavery is the reason that our history lives at the bottom of the sea. [. . .]

[Photo by the author: The Counting House. Good Hope Estate.]

For full article, see https://strangersguide.com/articles/my-fathers-land

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