In Westmoreland where I was born, the word “royal” was used to describe mixed-race people, equating the African heritage with royalty. Thus there were Indian-Royals and Chinese-Royals. Though I didn’t hear anyone being referred to as White-Royal, a brown person’s wavy hair was described as “royal hair”.
Now if you met the mother of my second father, you would understand why we referred to black people as “Royal”. The tall and stately Jamaican-African Edna Hutchinson married the Jamaican-Indian Joseph Lowrie and they had the most beautiful “Royal” children, including my prince of a father.
At Alpha Academy, we knew we were in the presence of royalty when Sister Mary Bernadette Little sailed like the Queen Mary into McAuley Hall for assembly. Even today I stand up straighter when I see her. It was she who told us “You are powerful”, “Think big”, and had little use for mediocrity or excuses.
It is no coincidence that so many Alpha girls are leaders: Bev Lopez, Eve Palomino-Lue, Betty Wilson, Aloun Assamba, Berl Francis, Maria Jones, L’Antoinette Stines, Natalie Thompson, all of them with a touch or more of “royalty”.
With the arrival of Independence, we affirmed our sovereignty with the naming of indigenous heroes, the creation of our constitution, and self-government. Burnt in our memories are snapshots of our governors general and prime ministers descending the stairs of King’s House looking as regal as the titled guests they were escorting.
If “royal” was synonymous to “African”, it is no wonder then that previous generations carried themselves with so much dignity. When my first father became terminally ill and money was scarce, my dear mother told our helper, Isolyn “Fanny” Ricketts, that she would have to let her go. “No”, said Fanny, “I can’t leave you like this with the little babies.
I will pick breadfruit from the trees, give them to my husband to sell in the market, and pay myself.” Fanny did just that, and several years later when my mother remarried and moved to Kingston, Fanny came with us.
When I was about 10, I spoke out of turn to Fanny, and she packed her bags and left. She kept in touch, but for nearly 30 years I had Fanny on my conscience and decided that I must go and apologise to her. She had such a hand in my upbringing that I wanted her to meet my children.
When we arrived at her house in Llandilo about five years ago, Fanny ran out to greet us and amused my children by sniffing my arm and saying, “Just checking if you bathe good.”
“Fanny,’ I said when we sat down together, “I want to say I am sorry, I was such a ‘facety’ little girl.” “Lord, Miss Jean, I was so vex, but everything alright, I glad to see you. Come, let me give you something to drink. What a way you children nice.” I remembered my mother’s story about Fanny’s faithfulness and with my sister whom she simply adored, ensured that she was made more comfortable. She died last year.
When I was about 14, I got invited to a party at an upper-class address, and on getting home, told my parents proudly that I was the only person of colour there – “everybody else was white!” I announced excitedly. My “Indian-Royal” Dad looked a bit concerned, but careful accountant that he was, added up his thoughts overnight before sitting me down the next day.
“Don’t get carried away by people’s appearance,” he said. “What matters is decency and honesty.” The following year, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Jamaica and gave a stiring speech at the National Stadium. My father set up his reel-to-reel tape recorder to preserve the moment, and our teenage years were indelibly marked with the message of that great man.
So how did we lose this sense of self? There were waves of migration, tearing families apart. We became flooded with media images which were in stark contrast to the pride and dignity of the Jamaican people who had achieved Universal Adult Suffrage nearly 20 years before their American counterparts.
The simpering black Mammy in American moviedom was the opposite of our dignified, resourceful Fanny. Blacks were portrayed in movies as buffoons, drug addicts and criminals.
Hollywood kept them in their place by refusing to reward any movie that fostered black pride. Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter were Denzel Washington’s greatest roles, but he got the Oscar for convincingly playing a dirty cop in “Training Day”. In international news, Africa’s face was bang-bellied babies starving in refugee camps.
My friend Franklin McKnight says Jamaica still has not recovered from the brain drain of the 70s – down that drain went the dignity we had learned from Jamaica’s proud peasantry. The few left, who could properly articulate it, have been all but drowned out by the unrealistic promises of wily wrong-doers from almost every stratum of society.
Our men became self-fulfilled prophesies of the “wutless” labels put on them by careless parents and an uncaring society. We can see the enormity of this waste, in the achievements of those who were rescued, and became record breakers, academic achievers, nation builders. Now our society is quaking under the deadly sceptres of those left behind.
A noted doctor who is involved in outreach in the Grants Pen area says she is alarmed by the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor.
To take back Jamaica, our “royals”, meaning all of us, must dedicate our resources to rediscovering and reaffirming the qualities that took us from slavery, to emancipation, to self-government. Let me quote our king of literature, Claude McKay, as he speaks about the great Antar, an African poet who lived 12 centuries ago:
“The Negro child. should know something of Antar who was born a slave, who fought for his liberation, who loved so profoundly, passionately and chastely that his love inspired and uplifted him to be one of the poets of the Arabian pleiades: ‘The slave has been elevated above his master. I have met every peril in my bosom, /And the world can cast no reproach on me for my complexion’.”
Antar’s influence on modern literature is said to be equal to that of ancient poets Homer and Virgil. There is so much we need to know, to take us where we need to go.
Jean Lowrie-Chin runs an Advertising/PR Agency, PROComm, in Kingston, Jamaica. Visit their website at www.procomm.com.jm