“Just tell the story like you told it to me. I had goose bumps when you told me,” said my writing friend, Susan, when I lamented that I wanted to write about my recent trip to Jamaica, but loathed that the story looming inside my head felt like I’d be turning my summer vacation into a book report.
My daughters, Leni, 15 and Darla, 13 accompanied me on the trip, a gracious invitation from my friend, Diana Fox, an Anthropology Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Diana, whose work focuses on the Caribbean, has been visiting and forging relationships with people and communities in both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago for over twenty years, and has developed student fieldwork trips to both islands.
This summer, she and Assistant Professor of English, Allyson Ferrante, took thirteen students to Jamaica, stopping in Kingston, the Blue Mountains, the village of Bluefields, and Negril, in service of studying cultural heritage tourism efforts created by local Jamaican individuals and community groups, as opposed to the majority of tourism that is controlled by European, U.S. and other entities outside of the island. Darla, Leni and I joined the group a week and a half into their tour, visiting Bluefields and Negril.
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A few nights into our trip, under the open-air bar at the Luna Sea Inn in Bluefields where the students were staying, I didn’t know at first that I was dancing with a Queen. I had sidled up to the slight woman next to me, moving in step together to the reggae tune being played by the, oddly enough, “oldies” band. I simply thought she was magical and had to connect with her. Magical is the most real way possible to describe her. Small in stature but grand in presence, she wore a shawl crocheted with red, yellow and green pom-poms, a batik-print maxi skirt, and a straw Rasta cap that hid most of the dreaded locks tucked inside. Brass bangles, some thin, some thick, rode well up her arm, a Rastafarian flag unfurled in her right hand.
I had heard that Mama G, or Ga’amang Mama G, her new title, would be coming to the party. She was to speak to Diana’s students about her status of Queen of the Maroon Communities, and the history of the Jamaican Maroon people, escaped slaves from the island, who created their own free communities in the mountain peaks and, as Diana told me, as far into the jungle as possible, fighting off British colonists, not once, but twice, for their continued freedom. But I didn’t know that the woman I danced with was Ga’amang Mama G until later in the evening when Diana confirmed it. If I had known, I might have curtsied or at least asked if I should, or if it was acceptable to just walk up to a Queen and dance with her. She was generous and danced with me for those few moments as I momentarily lost my inhibitions, and she danced and chatted with others, though I noticed she mostly stayed to the outskirts of the festivities.
The following night I got to sit down with Diana and her students to hear Ga’amang Mama G speak. We sat in a circle in the outside courtyard of the Luna Sea Inn. Mama G, whose age I’m unsure of—perhaps she is in her 50’s or 60’s, again made me wish I had the courage to express myself in her manner of dress. While I do love to dress creatively for self-expression, Ga’amang Mama G’s attire seemed to me to be closely linked to her culture, and spirituality. This night she wore a skirt with a pleated hem that she later told us she made from a burlap bag, the same layer of bangles, and a pair of ivory-colored, rather heavy looking, ankh earrings. She sat on tiered wooden steps that led up to the inn’s pool, while the rest of us sat in a semi-circle of chairs lining the perimeter of the courtyard.
Ga’amang Mama G began to speak, her tone soft, and wise, and calm. So soft though that we all stopped to pull our chairs in tighter, with many students shortly after, opting to move in even closer. The students, a diverse group themselves–black, white, Cape Verdean, a mix of heritage and ethnicities–left their chairs to sit cross-legged at the feet of the Queen so they could be sure to hear her.
I stayed in my seat to the side of the stage, feeling I could still hear her, but had to admit at times it was a stretch to catch her words. Mama G began by telling us about her 2014 appointment as Queen, or Paramount Chief, the literal meaning of Ga’amang, of the Maroon Communities. Diana related to me that she is not only the Queen of the Jamaican Maroons, but of all the Maroon Communities, including the country of Suriname.
Ga’amang Mama G spoke of being approached by the people of Suriname for this honor and her trip to Trinidad to receive her title in an official ceremony in the presence of delegates from the Suriname Okinasi Maroon community. Despite her humility, you could tell this honor meant a lot to her. On how the people of Jamaica received her upon her return, Ga’amang Mama G noted that while she is still herself, people who knew her before, don’t seem to know about protocol, and how to approach her for things, like invitations to events or requests for visits or resources.
She also shared about how the home she was living in burned down and how she’s been living in a tent for the past year-and-a-half in Kingston. She shared her dismay and worry over the youth there, whom she feels don’t see much hope in their lives, and as a result, resort to violence. I envisioned Ga’amang Mama G., as she shared with us, how she will sit on the street there, and grab a young person or two who she sees getting out of control, saying, “hey, sit down, sit down, let’s talk….” I imagine these young people having reverence for Ga’amang Mama G, much like young troubled teens in the U.S. who might not show respect for any authority figure except for one’s pastor or priest. Ga’amang Mama G told of musicians in Kingston who she admires for creating positive music that inspires youth instead of the current dancehall music that she says glamorizes violence. I of course couldn’t help but compare how many Americans feel the same way about American rap music.
Ga’amang Mama G, who shared that she was educated to be a social worker, lives in a tent, makes her own clothes, makes music, is the leader of an entire society of people in Jamaica and beyond, and is an educator and speaker on the history of the Maroon people. What doesn’t this woman do, I thought? Though, Mama G said she doesn’t like to attract fanfare for herself, she did note that she has received many honors nationally and internationally for her work, and said, “if what I do inspires you in some way, then that’s a good thing.” Inspire me? Yes, you inspire me. Yet, as I sat there, Ga’amang Mama G said next that she still wondered sometimes if she was doing enough.
In that moment, under the open summer sky, filled with stars, the smell of salty sea air, the warm breeze kissing my shoulders, I had a moment that can only be described as some kind of spiritual experience, really. Tears welled in my eyes. I felt connected to Ga’amang Mama G. The thoughts running through my head…”here I am in the presence of this great woman. This woman who is honoring us by sharing her story with all of us, this woman who wants to help humanity, who is so free because she is truly living who she is–the way she lives her life, her expression of dress. Life is beautiful and this moment right here is beautiful and I am grateful to be here and feel this feeling that is much, much bigger than me but makes me feel as large as life itself. I understand life a little better in that moment because of Ga’amang Mama G…”
When I went up at the end of the talk to shake Mama G’s hand, standing in line behind a group of students also waiting, I nearly couldn’t approach her. I thought maybe I’ll just blow it off and not go up, getting how I always get in these kinds of situations. My inner voice saying, “I don’t know what to say to her..hurry up and think of a good question…she probably just wants to leave…” but before I could run away, with all the students gone now, I look up, Mama G looks at me and says gently, “Yes? You are coming up…?” So I stepped up and with Diana and her boyfriend Jomo now sitting beside Ga’amang Mama G, I shook her hand. My voice trembled and I feared I might get tearful again. I managed to squeak out, “Thank you. You really moved and inspired me,” hoping my friends wouldn’t catch on to my emotional state, not that they would judge me.
Ga’amang Mama G looked at me, holding my hand, and said that she appreciated my words. I went to bed grateful and full.
The next day I looked forward to Mama G showing up again. Diana had said she’d come back to answer more questions the students had since time ran out. But the day came and went and Mama G didn’t come. I knew she had said she was only in town a few days. I hoped I’d see her again because I thought I finally had a worthy question to ask her. And I just wanted to be around her, close to her magic.
The following evening, the July 4th cookout at the Wilton Guest House, where we were staying in Bluefields, Ga’amang Mama G appeared.
Ga’amang Mama G, another woman, and Mama G’s granddaughter, a beautiful and precocious young girl around eight, whose charm and poise has her destined to be a shining star, walked across the yard, in between the sprays of hibiscus, lilies and tropical greenery that filled the grounds of the guest house. They approached the buffet table of grilled chicken, ribs, whole red snapper, and a breadfruit salad that no one could believe was not potato salad, as it mimicked it so completely, in its diced shape, texture, and mayonnaise dressing.
I wondered to myself, should a Queen have to get her own food at a cookout? The Queen of England probably would not stand in a buffet line. But Ga’amang Mama G grabbed her own paper plate, just like the rest of us, and sat off to the side of a large picnic table where most of the students sat chatting, none of them yet aware of or acknowledging her presence. I decided I would. I walked over and felt comfortable doing so, perhaps selfishly knowing her company would bring me happiness.
“Hello, how are you..how was your day?” I said as I crouched down by the side of her nylon-webbed lawn chair.
“Good, good,” she smiled, “I had some things to do, but wanted to come because Diana said the students had some questions left over from the other night. How was your day?”
I told Ga’amang Mama G about our crocodile river tour, and how we were leaving tomorrow to spend a couple of days in Negril. I tried to think of how I’d transition to the question I wanted to ask her, but then became self-critical again and decided my question was merely self-serving. I had wanted to say that when she said in her talk that she wondered if she was doing enough, that I sometimes wonder as well if I am doing enough. I was going to tell her about my years of work with homeless adults with mental illness, of my work using the arts to work with people facing many of life’s challenges–of moving from the stance I held twenty years ago when I started this work of feeling like I’m this good person helping others, to the stance that none of this is about charity, or me being any better off, but that we are all in this together. We are all the same and life is about human connection. I wanted to tell her how she made me feel that connection the other night at the Luna Sea inn, a spiritual connection—a knowing of all of us being connected to one another and something greater than us, and I wanted to ask her, as if she was some kind of fortune teller, or at the least, a royal, wise elder, what should I do with my life now because I feel stuck between focusing on my current work at a psychiatric hospital, my art which is my writing, and making enough money to raise my daughters. I wanted to tell her I felt stuck in the petty physical small stuff and wanted to dare to dream bigger.
But I couldn’t muster the courage to say all that, so instead I sat there silently, happy to be by her side, but hopefully not creeping her out by being there with nothing to say.
Thankfully, Diana came over and struck up a conversation. I got to see Diana in action this trip as the skilled anthropologist and conversationalist that she is, asking the questions that drew out ever deeper thoughts and feelings from those she engaged with. She is too, another person whose expression of dress reflects her open, adventurous spirit. And for the cookout, she shined in a flowing, flower-print dress, large, multi-sphered hoop earrings, and a killer pair of hand-crafted sandals that she purchased earlier on in the trip. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Diana asked Ga’amang Mama G a pointed question.
“Did you know when you were a little girl that you were going to live this life…that this would be your path?” Diana asked.
Mama G paused for a moment and then began, “I always knew I was different. I always felt different from other children. I lived with my grandmother. And, even as a young girl, I didn’t like playing with and being around other children too much. I liked to spend a lot of time alone. I spent a lot of time in the woods…just walking in the woods…and looking up at the sky…and, I read. I loved to read. Book after book I read.
“What books did you read?” Diana asked.
Ga’amang Mama G flashed back her answer.
“Nancy Drew. I loved Nancy Drew….and The Hardy Boys series. My friend had all the Nancy Drew books. Sometimes I’d read one book in just one day, and the next day I’d bring it back to her house and take the next one. I loved those books…” Mama G smiled, as she reminisced about her favorite past time. “…and Heidi,” she continued. “I read Heidi and I liked Heidi, because I could relate to her…she lived with her grandmother, and so did I…She lived in the mountains, tended goats, and so did I. She spent a lot of time alone, and so did I…I loved that story…”
With Ga’amang Mama G sitting between us, Diana and I looked at each other in a silent yet knowing, excited astonishment.
We continued talking with Ga’amang Mama G a bit longer. Diana told Mama G she should write her own auto-biography, that Mama G’s life was a tremendous one, and certainly a story that should be shared and heard by others.
Ga’amang Mama G acknowledged her desire to do this, and told us how she is currently involved with a film director who is making a documentary about her life. “Yes, I know..but it’s thinking about how to tell it…for me, one story leads to another and another..” Mama G thought out loud.
I knew what she meant. At her student talk the other evening Ga’amang Mama G did tend to go from one story to another and another, and we all felt she could probably talk all night until sunrise under the star lit sky. In fact, Diana had to bring closure to the talk because it seemed Mama G had difficulty doing so herself.
In that moment at the cookout though, my writer’s mind and heart leapt. It occurred to me that I’d love to help write her story. Just as I thought that, I could have sworn Mama G gave me the “side-eye” as if she knew what I was thinking, and I grandiosely continued with the delusional thought that I hoped she didn’t think that was the only reason I was sitting by her, to suck up to her so I could be her writer helper, and instead, another I hoped she might think I’d be a good person to help her do just that.
Of course, with all the thinking and writing I do about race and race relations, I couldn’t help but also think about the implications of Ga’amang Mama G, a woman of African and Caribbean ancestry, sharing about her love of the books, the Nancy Drew series and Heidi. I thought about how I hear many people of color talk about how they never see themselves portrayed in books or movies or television, how they don’t have that person that looks like them, that they can say, “hey, that’s me.” I strongly acknowledge and validate people of color’s call for more books, movies, television shows, arts-related images and representations of themselves and stories that feature them in the center, told by people of color.
Yet, here was Ga’amang Mama G, who grew up far from the desks of the authors who scribed those books, who did not have the blonde Lana Turner hairdo that Nancy Drew sported, or the same kind of braids that Heidi wore, yet she connected deeply to these stories and characters. Mama G saw herself and her lifestyle in Heidi. Mama G was thrilled by the badass sleuthing of a pre-feminist days, young Nancy Drew.
Because of this I couldn’t help but also hold the thought that good literature transcends race, allowing ourselves to become one with the character, or at the least, a very close companion, along for the ride. I also know that white authors who write characters don’t mean to suggest that only white people can see themselves in a white character, just as authors of color don’t mean to suggest that only people of color can see themselves in characters of color. It all gets back to humanity, of us all being connected, and imagining yourself seeing the world as that character does, regardless of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or what corner of the world you live in.
As I held both of these thoughts, I was reminded of a swim in the turquoise waters behind the Wilton Guest House with Assistant Professor of Caribbean, British, and World Literature and Postcolonial Theory, Allyson Ferrante. Allyson and I were talking about the made-up social construct of race, and then got on the topic of how she became passionate about Caribbean literature. I hung on her words as she spoke, yet without a waterproof notepad to write any of it down, and once home again, realizing my memory of the conversation had a number of holes in it, I reached out to Allyson to jog my memory, and graciously she replied with this:
“My entry point into Caribbean literature was in graduate school when deciding on what I would write my dissertation on….I didn’t want to have to give up anything I loved studying: postcolonial theory, multiculturalism, identity, mixed race, magical realism, the uncanny, the fantastic, and multiplicity. I realized that Caribbean literature allowed me to continue studying everything I wanted to because it continually defied others’ identifications of it. Just because a first world nation doesn’t recognize what a Caribbean culture does, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, hence my interest in the magical real. Like W.E.B. DuBois writes in The Souls of Black Folk, one does not have to measure himself by the tape of the world. The American media’s habit of calling any black person African American without knowing their nationality, ethnicity, culture, or experience is ridiculous.”
On how Caribbean literature helped her shape her identity, Allyson continued by saying, “the diversity of the Caribbean demands an attention to an individual’s language, culture, heritage, color, expression, and self-identification. I loved how literature gives Caribbean people of mixed ancestry (and really all of them are) an opportunity to define themselves and communicate with the world beyond the globally constructed categories that ignored them, reduced them, or misidentified them altogether. In Caribbean Studies, I found a vocabulary for my identity of being: Jewish, Austro-Hungarian, Ukranian, Jamaican, Scottish, Cuban, black, and white, and it was incredibly liberating to be able to define my own mixture as legitimate, valid, and real, just as Caribbean literature defines its subjects in the face of European colonial ideologies. Yes, to me, this self-identification evident in Caribbean literature is a kind of self-emancipation, this is freedom.”
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If I had to summarize my summer trip to Jamaica, and what Ga’amang Mama G gave me, in the form of a book report conclusion, I would say, the thing I will remember most about my summer vacation is how Ga’amang Mama G, and by extension, Diana, Allyson, Diana’s students, Diana’s boyfriend Jomo, her daughter Sophia, my daughters, and the many beautiful people we met along the way in Bluefields, and in Negril, and the glory of the landscape and sea, liberated me, giving me larger-than-life, we are all connected, loving, shining, magical moments. For that, I am forever grateful. And, to my friend, Susan, who told me which story was the one that needed to be told.