For a revolutionary generation of young Jamaican men, the strong and available role models looked like the enemy.
This was previously published on Geoffrey Philp’s blog, Exonerate Marcus Garvey.
A few days ago as I was getting ready to take my daughter to her new job at Starbucks, I looked up and saw the Morning Star hovering over the top of the Poinciana that stands like a sentinel at the top of our street. In that moment, I considered all of the travelers through the centuries who have been guided to and from home and for whom the Morning Star was a constant. And although I do have my Zen-moments when I say to myself, “The only thing permanent is impermanence,” it’s comforting to think of the Morning Star in that way.
Unconcerned about either departures or arrivals, the Morning Star’s message seems to be: “Wherever you are going, you can count on me.” There are very few things or very few people about whom this can be said, and I count myself among the fortunate to have known a few people who have been my Morning Stars or heroes: Dennis Scott, friend and mentor; Melvyn Smith, family friend and supervisor, and James Carnegie, teacher and scholar.
These three men personified what it meant to be, as Mr. Carnegie often reminded me at Jamaica College, a “Jamaican gentleman.” That phrase stuck with me. As someone who came of age in post-Independence Jamaica, I grew up in revolutionary times in which the idea of resistance, especially to British colonialism, became my raison d’être. The emotional zeitgeist of this era has between captured somewhere between the poetry of Mervyn Morris and Ralph Thompson, but in Trust The Darkness: My Life as a Writer, Anthony C. Winkler describes the dilemma:
The blueprint of what a man should be like is implicit in the culture of every nation. Boys unwittingly study it and absorb its details by observing and mimicking the behavior of men around whom they admire … As the boy grows older and becomes more self-confident, he will shed those adopted traits that do not fit his particular personality and keep those that do, and out of the lump of clay that was his boyhood will eventually emerge the figure of as solid, unique man.
The problem Jamaican boys of my generation faced was that the English had scorned and denied our culture for so long that the Jamaican blueprint for manhood had become scuffed-up and blurry. Stilted Englishmen, who were as conspicuously different from us as penguins are from pea doves, were the strong and available role models. But for many boys of my generation, these men smelled like the enemy, and to emulate them with their emphasis on class, protocol and snobbish language was to become a patchwork creature that some might call “colonial” but was definitely not Jamaican.
We had examples of what we weren’t supposed to be, but what and who never had a clue about what we should be. After we assumed the reins of power, we were left with the questions: What are we going to build? How would we define ourselves as men and women or as fathers and mothers? What would become our blueprint for these roles? Or would we slip into the default mode of nature, “red claw and tooth,” while rutting ourselves into eternity in our playground of sand, sea, and sun with copious amounts of weed and rum thrown in for good measure?
Who would be our Morning Star(s)?
I saw my trinity in these men, Melvyn Smith, James Carnegie, and Dennis Scott, whose lives showed me what a father, scholar and poet could be–that my life didn’t have to be hemmed in by the stereotypes.
Melvyn Smith was an excellent provider and administrator at the Collector General in Jamaica, where I had my first job; James Carnegie was an outstanding assistant principal at Jamaica College and his encyclopedic knowledge of history, cricket and the names of nearly every boy in the school endeared him to us; and Dennis Scott, poet, playwright, and Director of the Jamaica School of Drama, showed me that a poet did not have to be the consumptive, fever ridden model that we inherited from our reading of British literature. From their lives, I saw possibility. They demonstrated a way to become successful men and fathers, and I’ve tried to emulate then as much as I could—even if it meant waking up early in the morning to take my daughter to work.
As we drove along Biscayne Boulevard, their memories travelled with me. And when my daughter got out of the car, I looked at her and suddenly realized how much she had grown and how proud I would have been to show her off to these men and to my own father had they been alive. For I often speak about them to my children and I’d like to think that some time in the future they may look up at the Morning Star and muse about me as I did about these men who became my wayshowers.
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