My father was born 118 years ago today. He’s been dead for close to four decades. My research for my trauma memoir, BAGGAGE CLAIM, coupled with the racial (re)awakening after George Floyd’s death, compelled me to take a deeper look at his life as a Jamaican immigrant in the United States.
I learned that my father attended what were known in Jamaica as “coloured schools” in the early 20th century (and I’m using the Jamaican/British spelling for clarity re. what pertains to the island). He came to the United States to attend Yale and graduated class of 1927. He was one of four passengers — all listed as West Indian rather than British — on the Cananova, a cargo steamer also known as a banana boat, sailing from Port Antonio, Jamaica to Ellis Island. He stayed with an aunt, likely one of his mother’s sisters, at 2441 7th Ave — now known as Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. — in Harlem. He arrived in New York on September 11, 1922. I’ve learned dates repeat in my family history: my mother, his second wife, was born on September 11, 1919. His fare was $50 which would be $750–800 in today’s dollars. Not a small sum for his family.
My grandfather was a Methodist minister who attended the coloured seminary. He and my grandmother — a coloured woman — had seven children and my father was born in Manchioneal, Portland Parish. My grandparents were descendants of enslaved West Africans and their masters. My grandmother also from Sephardic Jews escaping the Inquisition. My father was the second oldest and second son, nicknamed Minor to his older brother’s Major. The ship’s manifest noted a scar on the third finger of his left hand — his ring finger. He told us he got it carving a Thanksgiving turkey. They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Jamaica and it happened before he was 19 years old, not after he married for the first time at 30. It’s the first outright lie I know of from him, but there were several lies of omission. My mother and I only learned he had a third brother, five years younger than my father, when we met him in Jamaica on our first visit when I was 10 years old. That brother was married to a lovely ebony-skinned Black woman. My grandmother was a wonderful woman, but also a woman of her time who bought into colourism, wanting her sons to marry white or light-skinned women. My father’s scar might have been from a machete cutting coconuts, though why that would need a cover story, I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to marry a Black woman. No one in the family ever showed any violence, but perhaps the woman’s family was opposed. If there was a woman. Maybe there was some kind of scandal. All I know is that sometime after the scar that needed a cover story, they shipped him off to the States. It’s a mystery.
My father returned to Jamaica after graduating from Yale and stayed five or six months. The Santa Marta, another cargo steamer, brought him back to Ellis Island on January 1, 1928. My father was 25 years old and still listed as a student on the manifest. The five years in New York are also a mystery, other than they started in Black Harlem. It’s easy to imagine someone could have pointed out that he could “pass” for an easier life here. By the time of his first marriage to a white woman, he checked the “White” box on census forms. He did the same on his two marriage certificates. His two marriages also took place in states, Ohio and California, that had repealed their anti-miscegenation laws. That was not a coincidence.
Two of his brothers knew and hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as working for Jamaican independence from Britain and an Afro-centric culture on the island. My dad was a registered Republican who voted for Goldwater. Dr. King said of Goldwater, “I feel that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being president of the United States so threatens the health, morality, and survival of our nation that I can not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represents.” My father went on to vote for Nixon both times.
Few in La Jolla, CA where I grew up knew his real history until well after he married my white mother who owned a house at a time when deeds still carried the warning not to sell to Negroes or Jews. They sold that house over her objections and bought a larger one in a new tract, then he joined the country club. Even then, most did not know his background. In 1984, a long-time associate attributed the lilt in his speech to Scotland in the obituary he wrote for their Kiwanis newsletter. After his death, we learned from a realtor that there were some in town who surmised his background. For them, the house, the country club, being a successful Republican CPA who volunteered at church and Kiwanis made no difference. They only saw the poor, skinny Black kid descended from enslaved West Africans who worked the sugar plantations of Jamaica.
There was a passage in a long-forgotten novel that summed up how I used to feel about my father when he died: “He didn’t make much of a hole.” Now I see that, too, was by design. He was a cipher, most relaxed on our two trips to Jamaica or in the company of light heavyweight champion Archie Moore and his friends, all Black. I only saw him that way a handful of times and back then I didn’t understand the difference in him. The rest of the time and for most of his life, his strategy was to not call any attention to himself and blend in. It came at a cost, one much higher than I can imagine. He allegedly wanted to be a writer, but you cannot write without authenticity, without telling the truth. Even if you try to hide it, truth of your emotions and your situation seeps through. My mother used to blame his not writing books and poetry on my unexpected birth. Besides the cruelty of that statement, it’s not true. I have colleagues who get up at 4 a.m. to write before their work and family demands begin. As a single mother, I sometimes wrote in small time spaces such as waiting to pick up the kids from school. There are always ways if you truly want it. Unless you don’t want to call attention to yourself. Unless you’re not being true to who you are. Unless you’re a Black man passing as white in “one drop” America.