Lou Lord on a rather awkward encounter at the dry cleaners where he sets the record straight on his Jamaican ancestors.
After sneaking a few spoons of Irish oats from my son’s bowl, I started my Saturday with a trip to the dry cleaners. I always enjoy these brief visits with Park, the owner, because he is on my list. You see, I keep a mental list of people that I enjoy talking to because they always impart some wisdom, some jewel that I tuck away and unfurl when the time is right. So you don’t walk away from this questioning yourself—yes, you are on the list. It is actually a working document made up of all of the people that I have met, will, and hope to meet before it is said and done, but that’s not what this is about.
When the normal pleasantries were dispensed with we got down to business. I normally leave with a bit of small business advice, a parenting note or piece of information for the file, but there was no time for that. “Can you believe what happened in Haiti?” he asked. “No,” I responded. “It’s really incredibly sad and hard to fathom. I mean, how much can one people stand?” He went on to tell me that while he lived and operated a business in Florida he gained immense respect for the Haitian community there. “Really hard working people. They keep to themselves and work hard,” Park said, qualities any hard-working and honest immigrant would appreciate. He went on, and the shoe dropped. “I like the Haitians, but I have no respect for the Jamaicans. They are all into the drug selling, and they steal.” He might as well have added “They smell and talk funny,” all things I heard about any group of people that migrated to the New York borough of Queens I grew up in. When my family moved from Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens in the early 1970’s, my new neighbor Ms. Iboni still rushed through the vacant lot next door after a rain to collect the snails that appeared and made wine in her basement. I mean she “made” wine. There was a small wooden pit down there that she actually used to crush grapes with her feet. I bet we smelled funny to her, because she smelled like grapes and the corner market to me, but again, I digress.
In 38 years I have learned to welcome moments like this instead of run from them. I let Park finish, pondered a moment, and responded. “You know not all Jamaicans steal and sell drugs. As a matter of fact, I’m Jamaican.” Before he could respond or apologize, something the look on his face told me he wanted to do, I continued. “Well, I’m not from Jamaica, but my grandmother was.” I went on to tell him about Ruby Hyacinth Duncombe, born in Kingston in 1897, and migrated to America around 1917. I told him how proud I was when I found her name in the Ellis Island online logs, and how she cooked and baked the best black cake and royal white icing you could buy, all to support herself in a Harlem that doesn’t look much like the one that stands now.
The bell rang and the door opened for another patron on a Saturday morning pick-up mission, but I was on a roll. I told him about my immigrant Guyanese grandfather, Edward Adolphus Rufus Lord, a member of the freshman class of 1918 at Howard University. He was the first black doctor in Bainbridge Georgia circa 1935, and both brave and fool enough to believe the town needed an NAACP chapter. His death went down on the books as an accident. I also invited him to visit Lord Avenue in Bainbridge if he got the chance, and let him know that if there are any drug dealers on the block, I don’t know them.
I paid for my clothes in silence, but we smiled, shook hands, and parted with the relationship in tact. The conversation left me with much to think about, as I pray it did him. On the eve of a national holiday that was fought for to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in the midst of a tragedy of mind and body but triumph for the soul in Haiti (yea, though Haiti and her citizens are bowed, they are not broken, and the world’s response nourishes the soul) when will we ever get to “the content of one’s character” and deal with the individual versus some misplaced stereotype? Can we ever? Can we as Black people acknowledge that we too suffer with color and class consciousness issues and move forward? Why can’t we respect and enjoy each cultures individual contribution to the word, without infusing our individual assumptions and opinions? Why are people so damned scared to discuss race in this country?
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Photo credit: Getty Images