On this day, Emancipation Day 2018, I celebrate the attributes of the African children of my childhood. My primary school, the Union Presbyterian School, stood at an important juncture in the district. East, towards the Central Range, lay the villages of Macaulay, Caratal, Bhagitola. These were in the main East Indian villages. To the West of the school, towards the sea at Claxton Bay, lived the Africans, St Margaret’s. Here are some attributes of my African friends.
Tony. I have often distrusted European children’s books and Victorian fiction which portray children as the epitome of purity, angelic sweet temper, innocence. But in my friend Tony there was no sediment of guile. Once we had a roaring broomstick fight in front of Standard Five. I was ferocious, reckless, a virtual bull in a chinashop. I lashed out with great ferocity. Tony absorbed all the blows with his stick and smiled. There was no anger. No ego. He was the superior being. There was no winner, but for a spiritual one: Tony. Afterwards, he never complained, fussed, calumniated, like any mortal boy-child would. He just smiled, angelic, calm, sweet-tempered. He knew I was being reckless, wild, egotistical, and he absorbed the blows for me.
Joy. Joy lent me ten cents. In those days, the late 1960s, it was hard to spend ten cents. You could eat out of Mr Niles shop the entire day and still remain with change. I cannot remember why I asked her for ten cents. Perhaps it was to buy a copy book. I remember my father borrowing ten cents from a youthman to buy me a copy book. He had walked down to school with me, to see who he could ask, so that I could have the book. But this time Joy saved me. She took it out from her savings – she was very organized, always with her white ribbons, neatly plaited hair, supremely pressed uniform, real white sneakers – and gave me. She never asked me back for it. Why did she not ask me back for it? Perhaps she saw something, at the age of nine, that touched her.
Desmond. Desmond was a gentle giant. He found it difficult to understand the algebra, codes, of official education. As he stood in front of the blackboard he wept. A creature of sadism, a teacher, was cracking him on his back, on his buttocks, on his legs. Big man lashes. The whip splashed and splintered. There was no way that Desmond could answer those long multiplication sums, too much tears, too much torture and confusion. But the licks kept coming. He just stood there, weeping, hands held limp, or rubbing his eyes, with no one to save him. Licks, licks, licks. He was our safety valve; if it were not convenient, gentle, benevolent he, it would have been us.
Joanne. I was afraid of Joanne. She was tall and wiry. She ran like a horse. I thought I had speed, endurance, but when Joanne ran, all bets were off. She beat girl and boy alike. She was wild and free in running. Really, like a real horse. She had no time for me. Or for who afraid of her or not. Or for gossip, or pettiness. She was just the class goddess. Flying at a different level. Perhaps she damaged my ego. But she had no need to argue the point. Who was I? She just did her thing, and left us lagging behind in the dust.
Lynette. One day Luxy (Lutchmedial) challenged me to a fight. Has the most exciting boy in the class. He was full of mischiefs and laughs and games. But he was also strong. We fought for about an hour in the playfield behind the school. We stopped and fought, and stopped and fought again. Of course, a raging bunch of children, moving like waves, followed the moving gayelle. Lynette arose from nowhere. She carried a big branch in her hand. She began to beat the ground; this did not stop us; she beat us with the branch. She was much larger than either of the mad dogs going at each other. To everyone’s relief, not least the fighters, we stopped. She was referee, justice, proportionality, saying what we could not: enough was enough!
Ann Marie and Wayne. Ann Marie and Wayne were struggling and struggling all the time. I don’t know with what. Perhaps it was the ignominy of confusing schoolwork. Perhaps it was something back at home. But in all things they were as gentle, clear and candid as light. Sincere, earnest, serious and committed. No cuchoor, no comesse, no deceit. No abracadabra. Wayne introduced me to middle distance running. In the evening after school we ran around and around the playfield, making it our duty. I do not know why I was running, or why he was. But we talked a lot while we ran, and he was my mentor, telling about how to run.
Obviously, the attributes of my African primary school friends are radioactive. They do not belong to any particular group of human persons. But in my primary school, just as gold dust might exist everywhere, but not gold ore, veins, lodes, I found the gold of African civilization in abundance. Civility, innocence, non-violence, purity, leadership, athleticism, sincerity, a deep sweetness of being, the legacy of, and ingredients for, great civilizations.