Radical social change is possible. I saw it unfold as a teenager growing up in Guyana, a former British colony caught in the tight grip of the rich and powerful white sugar plantation owners. Such change demands courage, persistence, and self-determination. It means pushing upstream against the flow, ignoring the voices of naysayers, and not succumbing to discouragement and hopelessness when faced with setbacks and defeats. Winifred Gaskin (1916-1977) was a woman who displayed such traits to the fullest measure.
Winifred was born of humble origins on May 10, 1916, into a world engulfed in the First World War (1914-1918). Born in the village of Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara, eleven miles (18 kilometers) from Georgetown, the capital, Winifred shared the indomitable spirit of her African slave ancestors. Seventy-six years earlier in 1840, a group of 128 ex-slaves had pooled their savings to buy an abandoned 500-acre cotton plantation, New Orange Nassau, for an inflated price of $50,000. They renamed it Buxton in honor of Thomas Fowell Buxton, an English parliamentarian and abolitionist.
I’ve never personally met Queen Elizabeth II. The closest I’ve ever come to Her Majesty was watching her drive by in an open-back vehicle in the company of her husband Prince Philip. That occurred in early February 1966 when she visited then British Guiana for the first time since her coronation in 1953. The two-day royal visit also marked the first visit of any reigning monarch during 152 years of British colonial rule. For the auspicious event, we showcased the best of our city, our culture, and our hospitality.
Following its independence in May 1966, Guyana joined the Commonwealth of Nations, founded in 1949 and headed by the British Monarch. The independent nation remained tethered to Britain with Queen Elizabeth as the Head of State until it became a republic in February 1970.
When I read the online announcement of the Queen’s death on Thursday, September 8, around 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time, I stopped what I was doing and tuned into the BBC TV news channel. My teary-eyed response surprised me. Such is the nature of my love-hate relationship with the British monarchy. Their fairy-tale lives had captured my imagination as a child. Over the years, I’ve soaked up news of their marriages and births, scandals and divorces, and deaths.
Kate’s poetic reflections hit me exactly where I am at this moment when she writes: “Growth is suffering, growth is exposure, growth is moving towards the things which make us flinch, perhaps even terrify our hearts.”
Growth is not measured in the present moment It is always by looking back, seeing the difference Between there and here, that we are able to take a bearing Growth is not linear, it is not lateral It is perhaps more accurately, a series of curves that only a certain spatial awareness gained from standing…
December was the most hectic month for my stay-at-home working Mom. As a sought-after dressmaker among middle-class women in the capital, Georgetown, Mom had little time for Christmas shopping, home decoration, and preparation of our traditional Christmas dinner specialties. Guyanese love to party. The Christmas and year-end festivities meant parties galore: office parties, nightclub parties, and house parties. The greatest fete of all was the Old Year’s Night Ball to welcome in the New Year with a bang.
As early as October, to ensure that their dresses were done on time, Mom’s clients who had several functions to attend would start bringing in their dress materials. For the Old Year’s Night Ball, no expense was spared when choosing the best imported fabrics. Clients could select designs from fashion magazines—JC Penney, McCall’s, Sears, and Vogue—Mom made available. A few clients brought clippings of photos from women’s magazines featuring the rich and famous. At the time, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jacqueline Kennedy were the rave. I enjoyed a front seat view of the woman’s world of dolling up for parties and other social events to attract a mate or to hold onto your man or husband.
I was a thirteen-year-old teenager in high school when Mom began sewing for three attractive working-class women of Portuguese descent. All in their twenties, the three friends worked in the office wing of Bookers Guiana General Store. To protect their identity, I’ll call them Catherine, Marcella, and Yvette. Catherine was the most beautiful with hair and features to rival those of the French actress Catherine Deneuve. Yvette had muscular shoulders and arms from playing tennis at a competitive level. Marcella was a dark-haired beauty like the American actress Rita Morena in West Side Story (1961).
Excerpt from Former President Barack Obama’s Eulogy honoring Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland:
[T]here is nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honorable. You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect…
“The cost of doing nothing isn’t nothing,” [Elijah] would say, and folks would remember why they entered into public service. “Our children are the living messengers we send to a future we will never see,” he would say, and he would remind all of us that our time is too short not to fight for what’s good and what is true and what is best in America.
Two hundred years to 300 years from now, [Elijah] would say, people will look back at this moment and they will ask the question “What did you do?” And hearing him, we would be reminded that it falls upon each of us to give voice to the voiceless, and comfort to the sick, and opportunity to those not born to it, and to preserve and nurture our democracy.
It is so easy to disparage others when we are in a privileged position of wealth and power. In such positions, we can lose touch with our shared fragility as human beings. We can forget that the labor of millions of invisible human beings sustains our lives. Immersed in our comforts and luxuries, we can believe we belong to an invincible special breed.
In October 2017, I featured the work of the young immigrant Salvadoran poet, Javier Zamora, who holds a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) now up for review by our Congress. Following that post, another Salvadoran immigrant, who blogs under the name Koyote the Blind, started following my blog. Our president’s disparaging remarks about his country has struck a deep wound.
Ruins of Tazumal – pre-Columbian Mayan archeological site in Chalchuapa – El Salvador
In his blog post, “I come from a shit-hole,” on Thursday, January 11, he wrote:
I am Salvadoran, even if the term was imposed by Spain. I am American, even if the US thinks they own the name. I am güanaco, even if you think it’s an insult.
I am not Mexican. Mexicans call me “cerote”–a piece of turd.
Today, Trump agreed with them. Today, he said he didn’t understand why liberals want to bring people from those shit-hole countries.
I am a piece of turd from a shit-hole country in the backyard of Ronald Reagan.
Yet, I am here. And I come from the Land of the Jewel, Cuzcatlan, the last bastion of resistance.
I am here to stay, and to change this land, this entire continent, into what it truly is: the mother land in the process of awakening.
You may see in me a turd from a shit-hole country, but I see in you and me and all the true silver light of the empty mind, the freedom from the past, the glory of the New Sun that heralds the coming of the True Human Being. I am here to share that future with you, my reader, without hatred in my heart, without resentment, and without any names to hurl back at you.
Whether we live on the African continent, El Salvador, Haiti, Norway, or the United States of America, we are all human beings with short life spans in the grand scheme of death and rebirth of interconnected cycles of life on Planet Earth. What makes our insignificant lives meaningful is not our material trappings, but rather the way in which we touch the lives of others we meet along our journey. The greater our influence and power, the greater our responsibility to do good in the world.
East Indian Cane cutter – Guyana
Photo by John Gimlette (2013)
In honor of Guyana’s fiftieth Independence anniversary on May 26th, my Poetry Corner April 2016 features an excerpt from the poem “Sugar” by Guyanese poet and award-winning short story writer Ruel Johnson. His work largely focuses on social and political issues facing Guyana. In the long, multi-sectional featured poem, he addresses the legacy of colonialism on the enduring divide between the two major ethnic populations: the descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured laborers.
In section 1—stalk, Johnson recalls his boyhood days growing up in the capital. Sugarcane was a sweet treat. His imagery of his mother whacking the stalk along the joints with her best knife takes us into the canefields. The sweet juice comes at a great price. Continue reading →
Unknown Pianist Performs John Lennon’s “Imagine”
Tribute to victims of terrorist attacks – Paris – France – November 13, 2015
This past week has been a difficult one for me. Today, November 15, I said goodbye to a couple and their six-year-old daughter: my dear friends and neighbors for the past six years. They are moving to another state to be close to the wife’s family. A victim of the toxic fumes and dust damaging his lungs, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the husband and father now faces a battle to keep breathing.
Unlike those who sought vengeance and war against the “barbaric” enemy, this man did not fill his heart with hatred for those responsible for taking away the life he once had. Instead, he and his wife raised their daughter with a bounty of love. At eighteen months old, on recognizing me, she ran towards me with her arms open in flight. Since then, she has been my joy and gardening companion. She and her parents welcomed me into their hearts and lives.
Today, my heart is heavy with loss. Though far away, they will remain close to my heart.
On Friday, November 13th, came the news of the attacks on Paris in France, leaving 129 dead and 352 injured. I feel the pain of the people of Paris who have lost a loved one during these attacks. I mourn their loss.
I feel the pain and desperation of millions of refugees from across Africa and the Middle East who have also lost loved ones, as well as their homes and means of livelihood, and have turned to Europe for a safe refuge. The attacks on Paris – allegedly carried out by jihadists posing as refugees – now place their lives in even greater jeopardy.
Following the 9/11 attacks on New York City, our government initiated what has now become an endless War on Terror. How does one fight terror with more terror? It beats me. Over the past fourteen years of terrorizing our enemies with our military might and raining bombs, we have created what I consider our “Terrorist Beast.” Created with deception, lies, and greed, this Terrorist Beast feeds on our hatred and acts of violence in its hunting grounds.
France’s President Francois Hollande called the recent attacks on Paris an “act of barbarism.” How easy it is for us to demonize our enemies as barbaric! Warfare is barbaric, no matter which side wields the weapon. Will France and its allies continue to feed this Terrorist Beast with more bombs and boots-on-the-ground?
Lest we risk losing touch with our shared humanity, I highly recommend that you set aside time to watch the three-part series of the documentary film, HUMAN. It’s producers give us a remarkable opportunity to listen to and reflect upon what it is to be human as expressed by other humans across our diverse planet.
The fate of humanity rests in our hands. Let us not allow the powers that be to continue stoking our fears and sabotaging our lives.
Born in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican immigrants, Madison is the youngest of three siblings. Her memoir, Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem, recounts her quest to find her maternal Chinese grandfather. At the heart of her riveting journey is her mother, Nell Vera Lowe Williams.
My connection with Nell Vera Lowe was immediate and intense. I saw the multitude of Caribbean women who fight against all odds for their place in the sun, raising their children to become achievers. I saw my mother. I saw myself. Continue reading →