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A Jamaican immigrant’s notebook: 50th Anniversary of March on Washington D.C., Aug. 28, 2013

Written by Vinette K. Pryce

As I sat under an Elm Tree, Wednesday morning, hours before bells tolled time for reflection on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Monument I wondered who might have sat at the same spot on Aug. 28, 1963. I pondered mindfully, the image of which brave, dream-seeking champion did I owe a moment of gratitude and how she or he might have felt listening to the voices of so many iconic speakers one year before President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

There I sat, wearing the black, green and gold colors of my native Jamaica. Along the way, strangers at Port Authority, Union Station, outside The Smithsonian,  and on the national mall hailed me with “One Love,” “hey Yardie!” “Big Up Jamaica,” “Bob Marley,” and other endearing greetings. One friendly fellow even stopped to whisper “we nuh miss nutten…if ah egg we inna di red.”

She was Jamaican but incognito.

Honestly, I felt privileged, honored and a sense of pride in my land of birth. But mostly I wondered what it might have been like half a century ago. For sure, members of the KKK might have considered me a communist or traitor to brandish a foreign flag. Fact is, the black, green and gold might have gone unrecognized, acknowledged or even significant.

My country was only one year independent and for most living onthe island the Union Jack was probably the preferred banner todisplay. More than that, at that time, I was totally clueless about the struggles faced by my brothers living north of Kingston.

My universe was Jamaica and for me the enslavers and KKK were the crown and maybe even everyone in colonial Britain.

In 1963, the fact my mother had already decided to pursue her dream in America resonated only with foreign.

But that was then, and this is five decades later.

My mother, Vena W. Baker now retired from being a registered nurse at Montefiore Hospital still dreams but more so she challenges the dream stealers.

On the eve of my arrival to the district capital, she surprised me. We had discussed numerous modes of transportation. Driving in a car was never an option. I also ruled out Amtrak due to the odd arrival time in the capital. So mainly I focused on the Bolt and Megabuses.  My mother suggested Greyhound. Frankly, I thought the companyhad long gone out of business due to competition from the cheap fares offered by China Town companies. However, I checked online and there they were — the wheeled animals of the road — the same company that probably transported thousands to the district when the King of the country spoke of his dream.

I explained my plans of taking the latest bus to Washington that would arrive earliest to bear witness to historic and great performances. My bus was scheduled to pull out of New York City at 1:30 a.m. I had planned to arrive at Port Authority one hour early. I told my mom I had made preparations and with binoculars, hand-sanitizers, camera, a charged cell phone, snacks, poncho,comfortable shoes, frozen coconut water she advised that I add a hoodie (in honor of Trayvon Martin), coins for the Metro bus andtrain, and in order to maintain two free hands carry a back-pack.

We had talked the previous day about my plans.

Therefore when I chose to take a quick nap, awakened at 10 p.m. all I had to do was shower, dress and hop on a train.

But as I showered the phone rang.

I ignored it but responded afterwards to the message left by my mother.

I heard her say “Oh! You are already on the way…take care.”

I tried calling her at home but to my dismay, no answer.

For the record, this retired nurse is not retired from activism.

She is active with the Retired Nurse’s Association, The Jamaica Progressive League, her Lehman College Alumni Association, the National Action Network, the Montefiore Senior Citizen Center, ASCAC (Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations), numerous Africa-centred groups and a myriad of others – therefore her non-response to my call at 10 p.m. was not unusual.

I was well on schedule until 11 p.m.

Perhaps a dream-stealer worked hard but at 11:30 p.m. I was stillfumbling to leave home.

In time I made it to the subway for a brief and usual 25 minute ride to 42nd St.

Only on this night, that trip took a whopping two hours.

The horrors of MTA and their recurring excuse of “in an attempt to provide better service” fouled my easy ride to the city.

The details of the trip is far more harrowing than I will ever find space to indulge, know though that after arriving at the appropriate train station, there was no clear way out. Every familiar exit was padlocked, shuttered and blocked.

After maneuvering every possibility, the last and only resort was to navigate a long path that emptied outside Times Square. As the clock ticked, my heart raced and my feet scampered.

As I raced, two at a time down stairs, hopped across an escalator, to finally spot a Greyhound I noticed a queue longer than any I had ever seen anywhere except those that formed at the 2009 Barack Obama inauguration.

Another glance at the line, and up front standing firm was my mother.

She had been there since 10 p.m. when she called me and because of that surprise she secured me a space on an over-booked bus towitness history part two.

In her bag, she had brought frozen water, hand sanitizer, fruit and healthy snacks along with coins for the Metro in Washington D.C.

I am/was overwhelmed.

She waited until I was seated on the bus.

She watched as many behind who stood behind her were told to wait for the next bus.

And when she watched me seated on the bus that pulled out at 2:15 a.m. she revisited the subway to return uptown.

I worried about her safety but mostly prayed.

She had an early outing to Connecticut and I wondered if she could make her 8 o’clock appointment with the senior citizen’s group she had pre-arranged for an outing.

Had she not booked that trip early she would have been front and center with me when President Barack Obama spoke at 3 p.m. She would have heard the bells ring for the freedom she continues to pursue for all immigrants and Blacks. We both travelled together to Washington D.C. on many occasions. The last time was the inauguration of the 44th and only Black president of the United States.

But this time it was not to be.

That she secured me a place to represent my country, myself, her, my son, her nurses’ association and all the fraternities she finds membership with is what dreams are made of.

As I perused the massive, only non-presidential monument on the national mall, thoughts of my mother were most dominant. At one moment I heard a sole trumpeter who sat off from the crowds facing the Potomac River. The music he played was Louis Armstrong’s“What a Wonderful World.”

I started to walked over to listen. But park rangers seemed busy about something. Their excited and concern looks distracted me so I turned to look and there in my immediate midst was the entire King family.

I had seen and heard three US presidents Barack H. Obama, William “Bill” Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Vice President Joe Biden, LyndaBird and Caroline, the daughters of presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and John F. Kennedy, Cong. John Lewis, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie, Myrlie, the widow of Medgar Evers, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, Randy Weingarten, Soledad O’Brien,actor/singer Jamie Foxx, actor Forrest Whittaker, television personality Oprah Winfrey. Sybrina Fulton looked less stressed on this day. Perhaps on this anniversary she took a brief hiatus from grieving the loss of her son, Trayvon Martin.

Maybe on this day she was dreaming her teenaged Martin might meet the Nobel laureate Martin we were celebrating.

I had heard the music of Trinidad and Tobago-born Headley Headley; cheered the gospel of Winans family members BeBe, Marvin and Carvin and Shirley Caesar. I listened keenly as the only invited Caribbean leader opine about his Bahamian nation’s affinity for the northern landmass united by diversity and opportunity. Christie was brilliant.

To my surprise, the inspiration from a performance from indigenous members of the Maori tribes of New Zealand seemed native – a rare treat.

But for me this was the icing on the cake, the King family was in my midst.

The Nobel Prize winner’s son, Martin Luther III, daughter, Rev. Bernice King, grand-daughter, Yolanda, sister Christine King Farrisand countless and unidentified family members who visited the site probably at a time they thought few visitors would be present. In the entourage I noticed Omarosa Manigault. A double take me jerked me to the resolution that she is no longer a television Apprentice she is now a full-fledged celebrity.

I was among the few who even dreamed that long after the official ceremony security would open the monument. 

For me it was the realization of a dream I never even dreamed.

I suppose it could have been a dream my mother dreamt.

She had already visited the site when it first opened and had asked me to check for inscriptions.

By the time I left the mall, only a few residents of the district lingered.

I missed my scheduled return bus to arrive much later but I didn’t mind. I was fully prepared to maneuver MTA’s after-midnight underground maze.

On the return it did not seem as daunting as it was 24 hours earlier.

On arrival home, I called my mom. She said she had been waiting for my call. She said she had a glorious time in Connecticut, was not at all tired and although it drizzled in Washington D.C., the beautiful spot she visited in the New England state was bright and sunny.

She said the sun shone brilliantly all day.

Living in America 51 years, she maintains a dream. She had a dream day, and with 31 years, so do I.

About the author

Vinette K. Pryce