Tag Archives: Jamaica

Repeating or Renewing Island? Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock

Last week I considered a poet, John Agard, who also wrote prose.  Today I’m going to look at two prose writers from Jamaica, who published works for children contemporaneously (between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, more or less) and who occasionally forayed into poetry: Andrew Salkey and Philip Sherlock.  The two men have many things in common; both were raised in Jamaica (Salkey was born in Panama but his Jamaican parents brought him back to Jamaica for schooling), educated in British colonial schools, went to England as young adults, and attended London University.  Both were interested in the education of young people and specifically in connecting children to their cultural roots.  Sherlock worked in education throughout his career, and eventually became Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.  Salkey was known as a generous spirit who helped many Black writers and publishers through his promotion of them.  He worked for the seminal programme, “Caribbean Voices,” both as a presenter of his own work and seeking out the talent of others, he was an advisor to the Black British publishers Jessica and Eric Huntley, and he taught creative writing in America.

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Anansi as top-hatted spider, illustrated by American artist Marcia Brown.

Both of them published versions of Anansi stories, and it is here that I want to start.  Anansi, half-spider and half-man, is a folklore figure from West Africa, the son of the sky god and a trickster; when Africans were sold into slavery and transported to the Americas by Europeans, Anansi came with them (although he became somewhat more domesticated in the Caribbean than he was in Africa).  Philip Sherlock was one of the first to publish the folk stories of the trickster figure for children through mainstream—that is to say, British and American—publishers.  His Anansi the Spider-Man, published by Macmillan and illustrated by the American illustrator Marcia Brown, first appeared in 1956, and some version of his Anansi tales have remained in print in America and Britain ever since.  I mention this because Sherlock was focused on the education of Jamaican children, but it is likely that more children outside of Jamaica than in it have seen Sherlock’s version of the tales.  Sherlock’s stories are, in keeping with both his (white British) cultural background and his interest in promoting education, in “standard” British English rather than patois.  Sherlock is absolutely to be credited for bringing attention and cultural capital to the folktales of Jamaica, but his depiction is certainly less verbally adventurous than those of Black Jamaican writers, including Andrew Salkey’s.  Compare Sherlock’s (prose) introduction to Anansi in his 1956 collection to Salkey’s poem, “Anancy,” found in Time for Poetry (1988) edited by Nahdjla Carasco Bailey.  Sherlock writes:

WHO WAS ANANSI?  He was a man and he was a spider.

When things went well he was a man, but when he was in great danger he                         became a spider, safe in his web high up on the ceiling. . . .

Anansi’s home was in the villages and forests of West Africa.  From there long                  years ago thousands of men and women came to the islands of the Caribbean.                      They brought with them the stories that they loved, the stories about clever Br’er                Anansi, and his friends Tiger and Crow and Moos-Moos and Kisander the cat. (1)

Sherlock’s description puts Africa (and Anansi, for that matter) in the past, and connects Anansi’s spider form with fear; but Salkey’s poem suggests otherwise.  The first stanza and the last stanza are connected by Anansi’s ability to constantly change—not out of fear, but out of preference.  “Anancy is a spider;/ Anancy is a man;/ Anancy’s West Indian/ And West African” Salkey writes in the first stanza.  In the last, he adds, “And always,/ Anancy changes/ From a spider into a man/ And from a man into a spider/ And back again/ At the drop of a sleepy eyelid” (87).  Salkey’s Anancy is present and always changing; Sherlock’s Anansi belongs to the fixed past.

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Sherlock’s poem in Nahdjla Carasco Bailey’s Time for Poetry, a collection of poems for secondary students in the Caribbean.

This distinction is not merely a prose/poetry difference.  Another topic both men wrote about was the fishing communities of Jamaica.  This time, it is Sherlock who writes in poetry and Salkey in prose.  Sherlock’s “Jamaican Fisherman” (also collected in Time for Poetry) depicts an outsider viewing a lone fisherman on the beach.  Sherlock’s frequent use of the term “black” as a descriptor and his negative adjectives (wretched, broken) puts the poet in a position of privilege with regard to the fisherman.  Sherlock’s repetition of the fisherman’s “ancient” connections puts the fisherman’s wealth and status firmly in the past.

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Cover illustration by Gerry Craig for Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Salkey, on the other hand, describes a very different fishing scene in his 1969 novel Jonah Simpson.

Jonah left the house very early Thursday morning and went down to the jetty to watch the fishing-boats coming in from the long night’s haul.  The fishermen looked tired but satisfied with their catch.  They were all younger than the men who had been in the Co-op shed the night before.  They were strong, muscular, stripped to the waist, and very confident in the way they stood and handled their small craft, bullying them into the shallow water near the jetty, and afterwards dragging them high up on to the beach.  Jonah kept out of the way, as the men began unloading the fish across a large sheet of canvas spread over the end of the jetty.  The women arrived soon afterwards with their basket and deep metal containers.  They chatted with the men and teased them about the very big fish they hadn’t had the luck to catch. (16)

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Not a lonely fisherman in poverty, but a vibrant community; Salkey’s Jonah Simpson.

Here is not a lonely, broken, wretched black fisherman without any fish, but a community of fisher-folk, all busy, all strong, all working and laughing together.  The community, in Salkey’s case, is more crucial than the color of their skin.  Sherlock’s Jamaica is a place fixed in the past, in poverty, in fear and loneliness; Salkey’s is communal, of the present, strong and always changing.  These are just two examples of each man’s writing, and an exhaustive study would likely show more nuance in their views of their island home.  As depicted here, however, Sherlock’s Jamaica is a repeating island, characterized by (as Antonio Benítez-Rojo writes, in The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective) “its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity” (1).  Salkey’s Jamaica, on the other hand, holds the possibility for change, and makes the island part of the future rather than the past.

No one remember Old Marcus Garvey? Biographies of Garvey for Children

Last weekend, I spoke at the Blackness in Britain conference on biographies of Marcus Garvey for children. I examined three biographies from different perspectives: the American Jules Archer’s biography in Famous Young Rebels (1973), Trinidadian Therese Mills biography in Great West Indians (1973), and Eric Huntley’s Marcus Garvey: A Biography (1987). Each biography took a uniquely national perspective on the Jamaican-born leader; helping kids understand the impact of Garvey on Black Power, African politics, and pan-Africanism might be best served by looking at multiple biographies.

Archer's Rebels are mostly Americans.

Archer’s Rebels are mostly Americans.

Jules Archer’s biography is in a book of young rebels that includes mostly Americans (one somewhat odd exception of a Famous Young Rebel is Mussolini). Archer’s story of Marcus Garvey likewise starts and ends with Americans. “The parade began in Harlem” (43), is Archer’s opening line. Although “in August, 1914 . . . [Garvey] founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association” (48) in Jamaica, he soon decided that Jamaicans were “apathetic” (48) due to “malnutrition and illiteracy” (48) and “he needed a larger base of operations to make his dreams flourish” (48). This he could only find in the US. Archer filters Garvey’s success and failures through the eyes of two other famous black leaders, Garvey’s contemporary WEB DuBois, who attacked Garvey’s Back-to-Africa scheme as “a stale revival of old African colonization schemes, all of which had died of ‘spiritual bankruptcy and futility’” (49); and 1960s radical Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote that “‘The practical prospect of Garvey’s actually physically transporting blacks back to Africa turned most black people off’” (55). Archer wants to redeem Garvey as a “famous young rebel,” but by his choice of lenses through which to view Garvey, i.e. American blacks both in Garvey’s own time and during the Civil Rights movement who are critical of Garvey, Archer’s biography suggests his inability to succeed in America as other than symbolic figure.

Mills' politics are in her choices of greatness.

Mills’ politics are in her choices of greatness.

Like Archer, Therese Mills was writing in the midst of a Black Power movement when she published Great West Indians in 1973, but hers was not an American movement. “By mid-February 1970, Black Power exploded onto the [Trinidadian] national stage, erupting in social and political convulsions such as the country had never known in its recorded history” according to Mark Fraser of the Trinidad Express. As news editor for the Trinidad Guardian, Mills had a particular interest in the Black Power movement and in honoring the leaders of the West Indies, black and white. But even though her book was produced as a supplementary reader for primary school history classrooms (“Introduction” iv), and therefore might tend toward a conservative view of history, Mills made choices about who to include that suggest she was not untouched by the influence of Black Power. She decided to “omit all the former and current Heads of State” (iv)—which included her own embattled prime minister, Eric Williams, and it is significant that many of her subjects were connected with a history of revolution and anti-imperialism. In addition to Garvey, Mills profiles Cuffy, Paul Bogle and George Gordon. Great West Indians, for Mills, are those that highlight the cultural and intellectual strengths of the West Indies, and those who increase a sense of unity. Mills’ biography is the only one that does not mention Black Power—perhaps because it was causing such ructions in Trinidad at the time. Much of the unrest was due to unemployment among youth, and even though Mills’ biography of Garvey does not mention contemporary events, her prose suggests that she believes Garvey’s message was one that would still resonate among the youth of her West Indies too: “During his years in Kingston Garvey saw much poverty. Always, it seemed, poverty and bad conditions were the lot of the black man” (28). The bulk of Mills’ biography is set in the West Indies, not in the US or in England as the other biographies are. Although it mentions Garvey’s travels, Mills’ biography suggests that everything Garvey did concerned the people of Jamaica and the broader West Indies: “Finally, he returned to Jamaica to enter politics and to form the People’s Political Party. Among its aims were self-government for Jamaica, higher wages, more employment, the establishment of a Jamaican university, and protection of the rights of the individual” (31). In many ways, Garvey’s aims for Jamaica were similar to the young Black Power protestors of the February Revolution.

Huntley's book-length biography focuses on community and pan-Africanism.

Huntley’s book-length biography focuses on community and pan-Africanism.

Archer’s biography and Mills’ biography were written during the Black Power movement, and responded directly to the effect that movement was having on the people in their respective nations. I want to look at one more biography which came out after the Black Power movement, but still within the context of contentious racial politics, and that is Eric L. Huntley’s Marcus Garvey: A Biography. The 1980s were a difficult time for black people in Britain, where Huntley had been living for over twenty years. He and his wife Jessica had founded Bogle L’Ouverture Press in the late 1960s to publish and publicize the thinking of radicals in Britain and the Caribbean, including Walter Rodney and Bernard Coard. The Huntleys’ commitment to Black Power ideals was only strengthened by their life in Britain. They had been part of the protests against the New Cross Massacre in 1981, and seen the riots in Brixton that same year. The Huntleys were interested in connecting Black British youth to their past and to the global African community, and this makes Eric Huntley’s biography of Garvey different from the others I have discussed here. In telling Garvey’s history, Huntley also tells a history of Jamaica. The stories that Garvey learns about as a young boy are not those of an enslaved past, but of those who fought the powerful: “Quaco, Chempong, Nanny, Paul Bogle and William Gordon” (2) as well as the Maroons “who had escaped from slavery and set up communities of their own” (2). These historical figures provide Garvey, and by extension the reader of the biography, with positive role models and an image of African people that is neither patronizing nor pitiable. In addition to writing a biography that will teach readers about history and improve their own self-image, the biography (unlike the others I discuss) makes an effort to put Garvey into an international context. It spends more time than other biographies on Garvey’s travels in Latin America and the Caribbean; the United Negro Improvement Association is described by Huntley as a world organization (rather than the primarily American organization described by Archer, for example): the UNIA, writes Huntley, had “the aim of uniting all the Negro people in the world” (18). Huntley’s biography concludes with the international influence that Marcus Garvey had, which “reached into every corner of the world in which African people lived” (32). Huntley devotes paragraphs to Garvey’s influence on Kwame Nkrumah, and Ghanian independence; on South Africa’s Steven Biko; and on Maurice Bishop of Granada.

Each of these biographies is different in their focus. Garvey was a complex figure, with wide influence, and should be considered from multiple angles—especially when using him as a heroic figure for children.

A Band of Angels Coming After Me

As people across the world mourn the shooting of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, comparisons have been made with shooter Dylann Roof’s act and that of four white supremacists who, in 1963, planted bombs at another historic church—the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. This is an apt comparison, even though it may seem incomprehensible that a person would attack a church group, whether killing little girls or accusing the people gathered for peaceful Bible study of “raping our women and taking over the country.” The Black church (not just in America, but in all places where slavery existed) has been seen as a threat from its inception because it separated itself from the whites—and remains separate, even though Blacks are no longer banned from or allowed only in the back of white churches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves who gathered on Sundays for worship were often suspected of sedition. And indeed, the Black Church was a place where the rights of the enslaved were advocated and protests organized. In general, as Kadir Nelson puts it in Heart and Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), “White folks thought that if slaves learned to read or write, they could read the Bible for themselves . . . and begin to question their master’s behavior” (24). Many of them did just that: Jamaican Sam Sharpe, for example, was one of the church leaders who instigated a protest that led to the 1831 rebellion in that country.

After slavery ended, the position of the Black Church as a place for civil rights organizers and advocates continued. These advocates were often met with violence, as in the case of another Jamaican rebellion led by church leaders George Gordon and Paul Bogle, the Morant Bay rebellion. Therese Mills, in her collection of biographies of Great West Indians (Trinidad: Longman Caribbean, 1973) writes that George Gordon “founded a native Baptist chapel in Stony Gut, in the parish of St. Thomas, and this brought him into close contact with many of the poorest people” (12). These poor people were often accused of crimes, and then tried by their own employers. Gordon and Bogle, a deacon in the church, organized their members to protest this injustice, but their pleas were ignored by the British governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre. Peaceful protest led to outright rebellion, and Bogle was hanged for his attempts to gain justice for his people.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book.  Illustration by Tony Evora.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book. Illustration by Tony Evora.

Despite the deep connection between faith, people of African descent, and the violence and racism perpetrated against them, children’s books often have a difficult time balancing a discussion of all those things—and religion tends to be the loser if one thing is to be left out. Sometimes this happens through omission. There are no children’s biographies in print of Sam Sharpe, and few of Paul Bogle, even though they are both considered national heroes in Jamaica. Therese Mills’ biography, mentioned above, seems to indicate that Bogle was chosen to be a church deacon because of his radicalism rather than his religion: “Bogle was one of the former slaves in Stony Gut who was able to vote, and he was a natural leader,” she writes. Nothing more is said about religion. Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul has, despite the quotation above, few references to religion in his poetic history of African Americans.

Children’s books about clearly religious figures also struggle with this balance.  Abolitionist and Women’s Rights advocate and preacher Sojourner Truth changed her name from Isabella Baumfree because, as she puts it in her autobiography, “I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare Truth to the people.” But in Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp-Stride by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney (New York: Disney, 2009), her name change is explained this way: “She gave her slave name the boot, and called herself Sojourner Truth. She said the name Sojourner was just right for someone who was a traveler. And Truth—well, that was what Sojourner did best—she told it like it was.” This alteration shifts the agency to Sojourner Truth and away from any religion or deity. Although the book cannot escape a discussion of Truth’s faith altogether, it avoids linking religion and radicalism by stating that she preached about “her beliefs about what the Bible meant to her.” She does not preach about what the Bible meant, or even about how other people should act based on Biblical teaching, according to this text; her “beliefs” only mean something to her.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys' version of Sojourner Truth.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys’ version of Sojourner Truth.

Even a children’s book that describes the racism and struggle experienced by singers of spirituals can leave out religion. Deborah Hopkinson’s A Band of Angels (New York: Atheneum, 1999), with its lovely illustrations by Raúl Colón, tells a fictional story based on the origin of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded by three men, two of whom were ministers, and sponsored by the American Missionary Society. (It is still affiliated with the United Church of Christ today.) The Jubilee Singers were named after a passage in the Book of Leviticus, and became famous through singing spirituals—songs that were religious and radical, advocating the freedom of black people throughout the world.  The racism they faced in the north is discussed, but not their religion.   “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Many Thousand Gone,” are both quoted in Hopkinson’s book, but she otherwise entirely avoids any mention of the singers’ religious faith. The songs that the Fisk singers perform are “song[s] of freedom” and the Jubilee singers were so named because “jubilee means a time of hope and freedom.”

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson's book.

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson’s book.

Whatever an author’s (or reader’s) personal beliefs about religion, it has inspired many people throughout history to both good and bad behavior.  It is unfortunate that many children’s books are so hesitant to talk about one of the strongest motivating forces of some of the heroes of Black History—especially when white murderers have no trouble making the link between the Black Church and Black people’s freedom and equality.