I’ve always had a feeling for uprooted people; people making it, somehow, amid circumstances and rhythms of life different and distant from those in which they were raised. It probably started quite early. I was raised myself, until I was nine, in an obscure little village in the northwest of Jamaica called Chatham. It lay some twenty miles east of the lush tourist town of Montego Bay. People in Chatham still cooked over firewood in outdoor kitchens and bathed in large zinc pans and wooden tubs in outdoor bathrooms. There was a central watertank and a central standpipe for everyone who did not have a tank in his own backyard. There were no streetlights, of course; wandering fireflies flashing on and off, and dark shapes walking with kerosene lamps to outdoor latrines or putting occasional matches to their smokes in the village square, provided the only illumination in the black, cool face of the night. There were a few shops and houses lining both sides of a worn macadam road, and a post office, which was open two days a week, and there was a church, the Baptist church. Without the church there would scarcely have been any society in Chatham worth speaking of. A large white building, the only one that did not seem dominated by the dense green landscape, the church provided what little there was of a social and moral center to the villagers’ lives.
The preacher there was an Englishman. He was the only white man in Chatham; for all I knew he was the only one for miles around. He was short, slight of build, white-haired with years of hot sunlight dunned into his flaming skin.
What was there in our little place of darkness—for such it must have been compared with his England—to keep him going? Nothing but the church. But, thinking of him even now, I wonder how religion could have nurtured anything fresh in his soul when all its secrets were, by then, so trite and open to him; and when, moreover, it must have required rigors of concentration for him to go on Sunday after Sunday nurturing something exciting in ours. Yet, he never seemed defeated by the place, never seemed to want to go home. Perhaps he grew to like it there; the personal isolation, the cultural desolation. Perhaps he was, at that, a kind of Kurtz—less susceptible, less demonic than Conrad’s man, maybe, but still carrying that seed of madness which is buried in all those who at one time or another, in one far place or another, imagine some irresistible call to take up the “white man’s burden.” In any event, it didn’t seem to me (a boy of nine and bearing the gravid romantic imagination of my years) that any pleasure of fulfillment whatever could be found by him in exile. Whether it mattered any more to our little parson or not, it worried me to think that the life of England, that mysterious cultural feast of civilization at which he had been nourished, was lost to him for good.
In retrospect, one might say that this was a cruel trick the colonial passions and appetites of his country had played on him. England had prospered scandalously, vulgarly, from her imperial cause; yet from her obscure workers in the foreign vineyards, men such as the Rev. Alfred Miller, who lived and expired almost totally cut off from their own native ground, the “civilizing” mission abroad must have exacted an incalculable toll.
I was much too young to feel then that Rev. Miller and I were, in a certain sense, not so different after all. I, too, after all, was serving out an exile. I, too, could never, after all the centuries here, go home again. And from me, too, by way of my forebears who had worked the sugar fields for nothing, the civilizing mission had exacted an incalculable toll. How incredible, or ironic, or both, that, entering the mill of history from different ends, we should, in this very special sense, have come out bearing much the same stamp; or, again, that starting out from different continents we should both have been washed by the same current of affairs upon the same shore: to renounce together, suffer together, grope together, adapt together, and, somehow, make it together.
My experience of living in America these past six years might well have been more maddening had I not been raised in a culture that was not only free, largely, from the explosive passions of race but also full of its share of ambiguous, uprooted, and strange situations. Take that old Englishman again. Aside from everything else, it was of some significance that he was the first white man I ever saw. I may have thought a lot about him, but I was not shocked by his presence; he was a part of the landscape upon which I had opened my eyes. Judging from their behavior, he was even less of an anomaly to the others in the village. Every Sunday he seemed to grow older and weaker in the pulpit, but they paid his salary without a murmur; they washed and polished his old Dodge car; they fixed his little house on the hill when the walls or the floorboards broke or when the roof let in water; and every week or two, they gave him the best fruits of their fields and small farms.
Though most of them were very simple people leading very simple lives, I doubt that they were acting under the spell of his color. “White,” so far as my memory goes, was, in any racial sense, unheard of in their vocabulary. They called him “Minister,” “Reverend,” “Parson Miller,” or “Missa Miller.” With apologies where they are appropriate, I think he was the most invisible white man I’ve ever seen. The fact that he was also the first has made a difference.
When I was nine I left Chatham to live in Falmouth, an old seaport town some ten miles away. I went to grammar school there until I was sixteen, when I moved again, this time to Kingston, the chief city, to go to high school. Perhaps most of the attitudes I took away from Jamaica were formed in Falmouth. For me, given by now to excessive introspection, there was a lot in Falmouth to reflect upon. I had to understand, for instance, why a little black boy of African origin and Jamaican birth was living in a place called Falmouth, named very deliberately after another place in the South of England. I had to understand what those old cannons were doing there, looking out over the edge of the sea, impotent and obsolete with rust and years, but seemingly still formidable. And I had to understand why my own black grammar school master whipped us with so much enthusiasm through rehearsals for Empire Day, and why, when the day finally came, he, fairly shining in white gaberdine as well as devotion to something far beyond the sea, conducted us, with feeling, through anthems like: Rule Britannia; . . . Britons never, never shall be slaves. We, who had just finished being slaves. Britannia’s slaves, at that. The answers to all these questions, of course, were to be found in the same place: our career through slavery and imperialism.
However, I failed to see these answers at the time. It was only in looking back on my old schoolmaster, for instance, that I noticed his acquiescence, his silence about the imperial condition. It is difficult sometimes to say which silence is more frightening: the one produced by indifference, the one produced by cowardice, or the one produced by a combination of innocence and indoctrination. My schoolmaster’s silence seems to me now to have come out of the last, and it is frightening enough. It is also sad. Without knowing it, he was failing many lives. Falmouth may have been urban in facilities, but it was still provincial in imagination; and in a rural town (which is really the best description for it) teachers are next only to preachers as exemplars of intelligence and framers of moral values. My own teacher, whether he knew it or not, had become simply one of the agents in preserving an untenable condition. This was no individual accident. The British themselves had seen to it that all our schoolmasters were well-trained in the moral style of the status quo—a fervor of acquiescence that made dissent from genteel practice seem disloyal, heretical, and, worst of all, ungentlemanly. One did not let the side down; no matter if it were the other side.
And yet I can hardly despise him. He was a good teacher; and, as best as he knew how, he was a good man. He was a victim, simply, of that received ideology under whose spell more than half of the Jamaican bourgeoisie at that time, perhaps even now, imagined themselves to be expatriate black Englishmen. I am even tempted to say he embodied a time and a mood whose passing many of us may well secretly miss: a time, certainly, when at much less moral cost one could stay outside involvement. I am reminded of this today when so many of us must take stands or choose sides on all the questions that invade and peck at the conscience of our age. I know one comfort I had then which I do not have now. I never had to put to myself the troubling question of home: Where, really, it was—here, among the ambiguous faces of the West, the only faces I have ever known; or there, in Africa, where the faces have the certainty of my own, but are faces I have never known and in which I can never hope to find my own image again.
As in almost every town in Jamaica, there were families in Falmouth from different parts of the world. The ones that interested me most were the Whitesides, the Wizes, the Chin Sees, and the Delgados. They were all people who, in one sense or another, had chosen, or been driven into, exile; and if no one could be sure that they enjoyed it, they, at least, seemed resigned to it.
The Whitesides came from America. They were the only Americans in town. He was Bill and she was Maggie. They looked well-fed and well-tanned. They were rich. A boy felt they had to be, considering where they came from; it wasn’t a part of my understanding until much later on that there were Americans who were not rich. Anyway, the Whitesides had what to show for it: the big stone house, the servants, the three motor cars, the large shipping pier. Moreover, befitting their possessions and their national origin, they gave off the easy, brassy confidence of people who had some mystic faith in action and who were free of the ambivalences and uncertainties I now saw in most other people. For the Whitesides there could scarcely have been any worthwhile questions of existence beyond those which could be answered by picking up the telephone and calling the bank.
One day, however, Bill went shooting baldpates and was brought home dead from a heart attack. The obituaries said he came from Nebraska. Today, when I hear of Nebraska, I think of Ted Sorenson and Willa Cather, but in those days I didn’t even know where to look for it on the map. I wondered, though, whether there were still strains of his family up there somewhere in Nebraska who were unaware that in some far place an intimate tie to their own past and place had just been sundered.
The Wizes were refugees from Czechoslovakia. Mrs. Wize was an attractive middle-aged woman with graying hair hanging loosely, a ripe body, and a broad open smile. But it was Dr. Wize whom you noticed. He was stubby, with a short neck pulled into his shoulders like a turtle. He had a high forehead, shiny and gnomish; and eyes which, from behind a pair of ascetic-looking glasses, seemed to know everything. The Wizes spent most of their time at home. The rumor went that Dr. Wize was a very ingenious man who could and did make unheard-of things. But since I never found anyone who had seen one of his inventions, I wondered whether he smuggled them out in the dead of night. Since it was wartime, the image of Dr. Wize was spiced with a flavor of espionage. He always seemed to be hurrying to the post office, or hurrying home from it. Apart from all of their self-mystification, though, everybody agreed it was a shame that a man with Dr. Wize’s intelligence had to waste it so far from home. For in our town no need had arisen yet for an intellect quite so esoteric.
The Chin Sees ran the biggest wholesale business in town. There seemed to be an inexhaustible mother lode of Chin Sees, for every time a Chin See died in Falmouth a fresh one came out from China. Their house was the social hub of the Chinese community. When they celebrated Double Ten, one of their major holidays, the other Chinese gathered at the Chin Sees’s house for all manner of wild festivities, featuring firecrackers and orgies of gambling. Sometimes we would hear that a whole grocery store had changed hands on one roll of the Chinese dice; and a few weeks later when we went to buy bread or condensed milk or mackerel, there, indeed, would be “Hoghead Fatman” running “Willie Madman’s” shop.
The Delgados were of Jewish ancestry. They were a large clan who lived in two stately houses overlooking the sea. The leading family in Falmouth, the Delgados owned the best property, the biggest retail haberdashery, the best motor cars, the finest launches, gave most to charity, provided most employment, and threw the fanciest parties of an evening. They were also the main pillar of the local Episcopalian Church, where, like English squires, they had their own pews. All of which seemed quite natural to me, since I had still to learn of another religion called Judaism, and of the strong pull it exerted on those it had mothered.
At sixteen, I left all these faces behind. I went to Kingston to enter high school and finish growing up. After high school I went to work for The Daily Gleaner, the only morning paper on the island, as a copy editor and cub reporter. There wasn’t much new about Jamaican life to learn in Kingston; the city merely reinforced all the impressions I had formed before. In Kingston there was more of everything than I had ever seen in Chatham and Falmouth except, perhaps, watertanks, outhouses, bushes, and fireflies. Everything there was smarter, sharper, and more sophisticated. And I, too, at first flattered and self-satisfied, became a little smarter, a little sharper, and a little more sophisticated.
Most of the people I came to know were black. But Kingston was the home, equally, of Anglo-Saxons, Jews, Chinese, Syrians, East Indians, and other Asiatics, who were freely and thoroughly intermixed in the life of the city, though concentrated in certain areas of it. Many of the East Indians had grown rich through operating the more exclusive bazaars. The Chinese owned almost all the grocery stores, and perhaps half of the wholesale trade, but they were also prominent in law, medicine, sports, and society. The Anglo-Saxons, though sometimes without visible means of support, maintained the style of a leisure class. The Syrians, who confined their interests to the drygoods trade, were powerful financially. The Jews contributed important investors, promoters, lawyers, corporation executives, as well as some of the more influential figures behind the deceptively plebeian screen of party politics. Every now and then their hidden political power came out in the open, just as Sir Neville Ashenheim recently emerged from the inner councils of Sir Alexander Bustamante’s conservative Labor party to become Jamaica’s first ambassador to Washington: perhaps the only Jew representing a predominantly black country in international affairs. The blacks, of course, were in everything: business, law, government, education, journalism.
It was interesting, rich, and varied, but after about four years on The Gleaner, I became restless. The Gleaner is a great power in Jamaica, and if you work there it is very easy for you to trade on that power. But it is also very easy to become intellectually undernourished. I found that there was little that happened in a city room to replenish the energies of mind and spirit it required merely to fill its narrow, shallow, but endless channel of information. Then, too, most of my high-school friends had gone away to Oxford, London, McGill, Edinburgh, Columbia, NYU, Howard. What was left for me to do in Kingston? Get married, and become a hack? I do not mean to suggest that everybody in Jamaican journalism was a hack. Theodore Sealy, the first black man to edit The Gleaner, was a brilliant writer and one of the most vigorous minds in the country. Peter Abrahams, of South Africa, and Vic Reid, a native, edited weeklies. But the latter two had already made it as novelists and needed to give to their newspaper work, or so it seemed, only the practical and routine side of themselves—left over from their private ecstasies of creation.
And so I put my things together, and came to New York to attend college.
On the flight from Kingston I found myself sitting beside a white man. He turned out to be the only one in our compartment. I hadn’t noticed him when I took my seat; otherwise, I might have sat elsewhere. My reluctance had nothing to do with his skin; it concerned his clothes. One of the mental habits the colonial rulers imparted to our upstart middle class was an incredible regard for the mere facts of appearance: if clothes did not entirely make the man, they did, infallibly, classify him. This man, my neighbor, had on a dirty, rumpled khaki shirt and shorts; army stockings rolled to his ankles; and heavy mud-stained boots. He was hardly the sort of traveler I expected to see on a flight to New York. This being my first flight, perhaps I should have been prepared for unexpected experiences, but I already knew enough to realize that my own black Jamaicans might have been reluctant to let me on the plane if I had been dressed as he was. He was reading a magazine called The Cricketer, which I knew and often read, since I played a fair game myself. He had not taken his eyes from it since I started my surreptitious and somewhat disgruntled inspection of him. Struck, finally, by what seemed to me his loneliness, I leaned toward him and asked “Do you play?”
Cricket may well be one of the significant reasons for the adhesiveness and continuance of the British Commonwealth; indeed, along with the Bible, and perhaps the gun, it must, in the early days of Empire, have aided considerably in tightening the noose of servitude. In a very short time, and on no stronger attachment than our shared knowledge of the game, my neighbor and I were chatting with the ease of old acquaintances. My first surprise was that he spoke so well. His conversation was fluent and charming, often punctuated by gestures that were both so relaxed and controlled, it was hard to tell whether they derived from genteel breeding or natural style. It turned out he came from Leeds; that he had been living in the United States for some time; that he was on his way back from a field trip to some remote Caribbean island I had never heard of; and that he was a professor of anthropology at one of the major American universities (possibly it was Princeton). Meanwhile, a sort of paralysis had come over me; there was nothing I could say now which, even while I was considering it, did not seem trivial. Struggling to master, or better conceal, the collapse of my own fantasies, I slowly looked him over again; and without daring then to look at my own self, I felt awkward and clumsy in my new tweed suit, choking necktie, glistening cuff-links, and fancy English shoes.
Might he not have been allowing himself a small, silent chuckle at my expense? Here was I trapped within the standards of respectability and worth that his people had taught me, while he retained the privilege of escaping them whenever he wished, of seeing through their hypocrisy and meaninglessness. By the time I left the plane at Idlewild, I was still filled with the feeling that even if this place, this strange place, was somehow the place for all of us, the time, this infuriating time, was still the time of those who were white.
Nobody anymore comes to America quite innocent. Especially if he is black, he has some idea of the experience that awaits him here. And I hadn’t been here a good thirty minutes before my experience began. I was still at Idlewild; still filled with the excitement of a new adventure; still overpowered by the bigness and the brightness of the place. All my defenses were down. Loaded with suitcases, I was trying to figure out which direction to go, when a customs officer barked, “Hey, boy, this way.” “Me?” “Yes, you.” Well, what can I say? It is a moment when any vein running with self-esteem wants to burst. God, I thought, not so soon! And not here! The very gateway of the country! And yet, if it was to be, if it was to start, what better time than then, what better place than there? I ached to avenge a hurt, to assert a pride. But what was there to do, or what was there to say? I certainly could not rap him in the mouth, though I would have enjoyed nothing better. And I have no gifts whatever for repartee. I just stared into his eyes, his cold, murderous eyes. And he stared back into mine, mixing murder with mockery. His eyes were clearly saying: No matter what, baby, you can’t win. When he was finished fishing through my bags, I picked them up and walked away, but never before had I walked away from anyone (unless it was my father at the height of his hegemony) feeling quite so futile.
If this was to be my welcome, with its own incontrovertible character, I quickly took some of its meaning to be that as I went out into the country I would do well to arm myself with caution; that here I would have neither power, nor a say, nor love, nor certainty, nor, perhaps, help for pain. This melting pot was different from the one I had left. Mine, strangely, had been cool, and had smelted only to blend. This one, it seemed, was hot and smelted only to isolate.
My intuition about American society has not needed to be modified very much in the subsequent six years I have spent in New York. To the nativist I have been a “foreigner”; to the majority of whites, however clean or careful their public rhetoric, I have been a “nigger”; and to the majority of American blacks I have been a “West Indian.” Each of these images has carried its special odium; each has entailed its special burden; each has created its special chasm.
There have been times, in fact, when I have not been able to say which chasm was greater. At such times nothing has remained but an optimism wrenched with pain, a feeling that my experience in Jamaica could not have been for nothing, that I had sensed in it a kind of truth, and that somehow, this truth could be found here too. However, there were also other times; far fewer, but sweet with hope and vindication. They were the times when hands unexpectedly reached across the gulf of difference and touched mine. Moved by these experiences, I could feel that I was not wholly a fool to hope for sensible relationships, I could even believe with Ralph Ellison that: “In the end, when the barriers are down, there are human assertions to be made, whatever one’s race, in terms of one’s own taste, and one’s own affirmations of one’s own self, one’s own way and sense of life. . . .”
Still, because these moments were so few, because they gave a glimpse into possibilities of connection that were otherwise so far from being recognized, much less taken for granted, they tended only to sharpen my misery. So that, these moments of light notwithstanding, and my native memories notwithstanding, I, too, learned here what it is to rage inwardly at the barriers of ignorance and vanity which do not go down and which make my own human assertions seem either futile or dangerous or absurd.
Some thirteen years ago, in his famous letter to Sartre, Albert Camus said that he wished to speak “in the name of that poverty that finds hundreds of advocates, but not a single brother.” Something similar, I think, may be said, here in the “new world,” for what we keep referring to as our “common humanity.” It has had so many advocates, and so few brothers. And yet, I cannot think of any other place where the need for brothers is greater than here. Having created everything else, almost, we have not created community and thus cannot understand why our fulfillment does not come. All frightened, estranged, and uprooted people—the kind of people that most Americans are—share an experience in loneliness. But loneliness, I think, has its blessings; one of which is that it helps to clear the mind for insight. And the insight for now is plainly that only through the risking of a certain secret strength which the uprooted develop—whether in the darkness of a village like Chatham, in the polyglot diversity of a city like Kingston, or in the isolation chambers of New York—can we hope to be saved or, if nothing else, soothed.