It’s been almost a month since I’ve written a blog. Forgive me. It isn’t that there hasn’t been anything to say. Actually, there have been too many things. In Jamaica a group of rather ‘unchristian’ Christian pastors came out against a pro-tolerance public service announcement (that was never aired) and they seemed unaware that this decision to block a message of love was to promote its opposite.
Maybe these pastors had convinced themselves that the church has some kind of copyright on love, and that no one else has the right to promote it — or that if anyone else preaches love, then it needs to be somehow nuanced. But the pastors’ decision only proved that the specific ‘nuance’ that they so often preach is not altogether true. For the pious rhetoric goes, ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’. But their message over the past month has been clear – “hate the sin, and hate the sinner too, for they are one and the same!”
Thank God it wasn’t all Jamaican Christians who jumped on this silly bandwagon and columnists like Ian Boyne who presents the show Religious Hard Talk quickly separated himself from the group.
Well that was in Jamaica. Here in the UK, there were of course the riots. The looting started in London and made its way as far north as Manchester, but it never crossed the border into Scotland. Scotland in fact became insistent that the whole thing not be called the ‘UK riots’ as they wanted no part of the blame. It had been limited to England. Still, near my office in Glasgow, the newly sprayed Graffiti on top of one building reads ‘Riot is the language of the unheard’ – an eloquent statement of empathy, not with what happened but with the reasons it may have happened. And also in the wake of those riots I couldn’t listen to Starky talking so contemptuously about the ‘Jamaican patois’ that was supposedly to blame for the all the violence without feeling suddenly included in this whole thing, even from Scotland, and thinking…not so much WTF!… but perhaps more appropriately, the more Jamaican expressions — WTBC!! or WTR!!
Still and all, in the wake of Starky’s stark racism, almost everyone was climbing up on a soap box (and rightly so!), but I couldn’t be bothered to join the multitude. And then after a day repeating my stunned mantra (WTBC do dis white man?) it suddenly struck me that his contempt for the Jamaican patois, and his privileging of those Caribbean people who can speak so ‘white’ that if you closed your eyes you couldn’t tell what race they were – that it actually echoed exactly how so many people in Jamaica think about themselves and their language. Starky’s sentiments were both shocking, and shockingly familiar. But this isn’t really a blog about that…
You see, I write this blog now, from Glasgow International Airport because I am on my way to a much happier event. My ‘baby cousin’ Le’Rhone is getting married.
It makes me realize my age! I am now one of those who can claim about the groom – ‘I used to change his diapers.’ And that I can claim such a thing, condemns me to that most spurious category of wedding guests – the kind invited not by the couple who understandably want to share the day with their friends. Rather, I am the guest invited by the mother who would have insisted, ‘But you HAVE TO invite so and so! They used to change your diapers!’
Alas, a wedding invite twenty years later is the thanks we all look forward to for that most ignominious duty of handling baby poo, of wiping and powdering and wiping and powdering baby bums, holding our noses during the whole stinky operation. We do it all knowing that one day down the road, this act will effectively knock an old schoolfriend off the invite list, and we will claim our spot at the church service and reception, dabbing our eyes with a piece of tissue which may or may not make us even more sentimental if we think of that tissue wiping bums and not eyes.
The funny thing is, it isn’t actually true that I ever changed Le’Rhone’s diapers. And not for lack of effort! My sister and I tried once. We were babysitting him and at about midday we noticed the tell-tale ballooning of his diaper as if he was about to float, bum-first up in the air. If the actual fecal matter had not begun to escape, the smell certainly had. It was time to change the boy.
It wasn’t a huge chore. It felt like something you do for your little brother. That’s kind of what he had been to us. Though the child and his parents were now living in Delaware (which is where I am heading to now) they had lived with us for their last few months in Jamaica. My sister and I had grown attached to our infant cousin and were glad to see him in his new American home. Changing his diaper was no big deal. Well…not for us.
Unfortunately, it was for Le’Rhone. The child just would not have it! The pickney cried blue murder as we attempted to get the soiled diaper off of him. One piece of hollering and cowbawling and screaming!
Now, my sister and I had heard stories about America, and so we ended up cowering in a corner thinking a neighbour was surely going to call the Police or Child Services on us. LeRhone, who was only just learning language, had won. And that wasn’t the only time that he would cuss us out royally that summer.
Le’Rhone is named (I am guessing) after his father – Leroy. The sonics are similar, if not the meaning. Le Roi of course is ‘the King’. Le Rhone is a big river. Or a popular engine. Either way, a driving force. It seems a good name. Incidentally, I have another cousin whose parents were also fascinated by the French language. They named her this thing which in Jamaica sounds wonderful and musical as all French words do, but I have occasionally wanted to ask the parents if they really meant to name the child ‘Lunch’! Yes. That is her name in French. Lunch! I fear for her when she goes to France and tells all and sundry with pride, “Bonjour! Je m’appelle Déjeuner Miller” — “Hello! My name is Lunch Miller.” Oh God! Di shame!
Anyhow, I digress. That summer, years ago in Delaware, Le’Rhone had fallen quite in love with the cereal Cheerios. It was his ‘petit déjeuner’ every morning.
One morning the task fell on me to share out his breakfast. I dutifully poured out what I thought was a decent serving for a two year old.
The child did not agree. He looked into his bowl with horror at first, and then he seemed to look inside himself. He was struggling, trying to sort through the twenty or so words he knew, trying to think of all the other words he had heard but had never tried using for himself. He was trying to come up with something to express this great injustice he was feeling on the inside. Almost trembling with the effort, he finally came out with a forceful cry. ‘NOT ENOUGH! NOT ENOUGH!!’ I don’t know if it was just schock, but my ten-year old self quickly complied and gave the boy all the Cheerios he wanted.
But when Le’Rhone really laid into us was the day when he went outside in the backyard to play. I don’t know how children do it – how they disappear so quickly. You turn your eyes and they’re gone. That’s what it had seemed like to my sister and I. We were watching him playing in the back yard; we turned around to look at something; we turned back and he was gone. And the yard was completely fenced in, so it didn’t make any sense.
So then I looked up…and panicked.
The two year old child was climbing up the fire escape – one floor, two floors, three floors up. Just climbing, climbing, no sense of danger. When you see something like that, there is a kind of unbendable steel that goes into your voice. My sister and I, only children ourselves, became adults in an instance. ‘Le’Rhone!’ we said together, the steel in both of our voices. ‘Get down here at once!’
Le’Rhone heard the steel and knew he had to comply, but he wasn’t pleased. No sir. He was one angry baby. And the problem was, he knew he was angry but he didn’t yet have the words to express it. He knew however what a good and proper tracing sounded like, and that’s what he went for. The sound of it. As the child climbed down he kept his eyes on us, pure anger, and shouted with every step, “YAYAHHYAYAHYA YAYAYAHYAYAH YAYA YAYAYAHHHH YAYAYAYAYA!”
The modulation of it was incredible. It rose and dipped and swelled and stretched and snapped and thundered. This little boy was speaking from the overwhelm of his little heart, a torrent that seemed to have no end. And when he was finally on the ground again, my sister and I quaking in the corner as we had on the day we tried to change his diaper, he continued to shout, his eyes still burning into us, ‘YAYAYAHH YAYAHYAYA YAYAAAHHHH!’ and with that he stormed into the house.
It has struck me over the years that though Le’Rhone was the one learning language, he had taught be something about it as well – this need to create new sounds to give a perfect shape to the things that happen in our hearts; this need for language to never rest, but to always be invented – every day, for every injustice and triumph.
And maybe it’s something close to Le’Rhone’s language that I should have been saying in this past month of silence – these few weeks of feeling so overwhelmed by racist idiots like Starky. Probably I shouldn’t have been trying to make sense of anything but should should have just written in the most violent and heartfelt patois I could think of, a patois that would make him quake in his corner, and that would have sounded like a hundred recently migrated babies rioting. I should have just written, YAYAYA YAYAYAYAAAA YAHH YAHHH YA YAYAYA YAYAHHHYAHYAHHH