Their thoughts are someone else's opinions,
their lives a mimicry,
their passions a quotation.
Oscar Wilde (De Profundis)
UNTIL THEY ARRIVED in Bermuda in the first week of August of 1925, my mother's parents, from Harle Syke, Lancashire, near Burnley, had only seen one person of colour. For the first quarter-century of their lives, the only black man they had ever set eyes on was The Banana King who, I gather, marketed bananas that had crossed some ocean to the west or south, somewhere in Burnley. They don't grow bananas in Lancashire, not even under glass. Not then, not now.
My grandparents had followed my grandmother's cousin towards the Americas, but must have got side-tracked. The cousin had gone to Canada with her husband, and then crossed into the USA, illegally, in upper New York State. They ended up on Staten Island, where their descendants still live, so far as I know.
Life in the failing cotton mills in Lancashire must have been quite grim in the early 1920s; I've read a few books on the subject, and heard the tales first hand, of course, from my grandparents and back in Harle Syke when visiting family there who'd not moved away. However, bearing in mind that my grandparents didn't go to The Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave in search of a better life, but to a backwater island some 600 miles from anywhere that grew Easter lilies and Bermuda onions, I think it was more a case of getting away than of going somewhere. My grandfather had hoped that his Uncle Mick, who had no sons, would leave him the farm that Mick owned. When Mick said no to that, my grandfather was mightily miffed, he had a temper, and was probably embarrassed at having asked, so they went and booked a passage on a boat to Halifax, and then another down to Bermuda, wherever it might be.
My grandmother was expecting their first child, they were newlyweds, when they left England, but they didn't tell anyone as they knew the family would not be happy to see them go in that delicate condition. My mother was born, in Bermuda, six months after they arrived.
On 3 August, 1925, coming down the gangplank onto Front Street in the City of Hamilton in Bermuda, the first thing William and Elsie noticed was that the Banana King was not unique in his blackness. In Burnley, the Banana King had been a curiosity, he had a certain charm, and he was wonderfully rare. In Bermuda, upwards of 80% of the people were Negroes. Racial segregation was the law. My grandparents never quite warmed to the population mix, they never liked the coloured folks. My grandmother died, in Bermuda, aged 104, in her right (if prejudiced) mind, and complained as long as she was able about the lazy, shiftless coloured girls who cared for her in the home she'd gone to live in when she was 98. She sometimes complained to their faces in her thick Lancashire accent. My grandfather had died some 25 years earlier, and he'd actively disliked the locals till his time ran out.
I never, ever, heard my mother say something disparaging about any person of colour. She had many black and Asian friends, and not just in name or as a convenience. My mother did things with all her friends, went out with them, visited, telephoned and waved to them. My mother was mentally ill most of her life, and one might ask if that is to blame for her simple acceptance of people as people, not considering racial types, or religion either.
I've often wondered if my mother ever clashed with her parents over her unwillingness or inability to see non-whites as different, hostile, fearsome, untouchable or unattractive beings. I certainly had some rip-roaring arguments with my grandparents, for the most part about racial prejudice, segregation, and disharmony in Bermuda. I didn't know a whole lot about the world as a boy. I don't know all that much now, but I recognise illogical hate. It's easy, all hate is illogical!
As a member of a minority group myself, I have to deal with people who have a problem with it. You see, I am a fan of Joni Mitchell, have been for over forty years. For the majority of people, perhaps as much as 90%, I'm a freak. You thought I was going to out myself as a Mormon?
My grandmother operated a little shop in the hospital in Bermuda, the profits went to charity. She sold sweets, ice-cream, soft drinks, potato chips, air-mail writing pads and envelopes, postage stamps and tampons. I'd usually get her to buy me a Nu-Grape drink, sometimes an orange sherbet in a paper tub with a wooden spoon. Through the window, or hatch, at the shop, you could not really see a great deal, you had to know what you wanted, and people did. No point in asking for a sandwich or an apple, everything was pre-packaged.
When someone offered the money, usually coins as I recall, to pay for their crisps or Tampax, or was accepting change, something happened that I always noticed, and that bugged the hell out of me. If you were white, your cash was taken by my grandmother in her hand, and she would place any change into your palm. But, if you happened to be other than white, she would point at a rubber mat on the counter, and you must put your money down on it. Change was placed on the mat for you to pick up. My grandmother could not bear to physically touch a black person. She didn't like cats either, but that's not important in this story.
In the last months of her life, incontinent and crippled, unable to move about, but still thinking clearly, my grandmother had to be handled in every way, touched in every place, by others, usually black nurses and nurses' aides. And she'd yell at them! They could wipe her arse, but they didn't do it right. What a hell it must have been, and it seems, to me, a divine sort of punishment!
My father disliked blacks too. He once had a black man turn up to be interviewed for a position at the bank where my father worked, and the black man pointed out that his middle name was Eldridge, like my father's surname. And then cheerfully offered: "I think we must be related." It took my father weeks to calm down from that affront to his good name.
On one occasion, my father happened to board an aeroplane for London that I was travelling on. We bumped into each other in the Departure Hall in Bermuda. When we arrived at Heathrow Airport, my father asked me how I was getting into the City. I told him a friend was meeting me, and said that if there was room in his car and time, perhaps he'd take my father to his hotel. And my friend, who is dark-skinned, was waiting at the exit. I made the most simple of introductions, no explanations, the ride was agreed, and we headed for my friend's car, which happened to be an enormous Bentley, black, gleaming, spotless, leather interior, buttons to push. I sat in front with my friend, my father reclined in the back. He thought my friend was a chauffeur, as you've guessed. We off-loaded my father and then headed to the apartment I'd rented for a month. My friend was the son of the Ambassador to the Court of St James (the UK) of an African country, and he'd borrowed an Embassy car to come out to meet me at Heathrow. I told my father a few days later, and invited him to join us for lunch, but he declined. A drink then? No, thanks. It was never discussed again.
A few weeks ago I upbraided a sister of mine for complaining about her "Paki doctor" to his superior, pointing out that she was fortunate someone from Pakistan was here in England to tend to her neuroses, and that "Paki" was not an appropriate word to use. My sister snarled: "What's wrong with 'Paki'? And I call the Irish 'pikeys'!" She's like that. She doesn't like coloured people, as she calls them, even though her husband is a person of colour, and their son is mixed-race. Go figure! Finally, she said the most damning thing she could think about me: "You never did care what colour people are …"
The Americans are a fair people; they
never speak well of one another.
With apologies to Samuel Johnson
My grandparents, and my parents, have all passed away now. My grandparents and my father (who detested each other, my parents' marriage was short and unhappy) would be truly horrified to have lived to see a person of colour in the 2008 US Presidential Election. My sister, who is alive, is not happy with it, and says so. I feel sure she knows nothing of American politics, except a few names, and those confused. Republicans? Democrats? Huh? But Barack Obama must not win. She will not know that Senator Obama is accused of being a Muslim, or that it should not matter even if he was. She doesn't know his politics. She only knows he's not quite white for the job.
A reporter from the BBC was in the USA recently, interviewing prospective voters, mainly in Eastern Seaboard states. The blacks, male and female, tended to support Barack Obama. A few whites did as well, but over and over again, concerned white voters said there were problems with both candidates. What might they be?
"Senator McCain, there's the age factor. That is a problem."
"And Senator Obama?"
"Well, the race thing. That could be a problem."
The race thing. Could be a problem, and indeed it is. As one comedian here said: "There are many Americans who won't put a cross by a black candidate. Unless it's on fire."
The Americans pride themselves on the belief that the Puritans, back in the early 1600's, left Europe in search of freedom from the cruel laws that they felt persecuted under. Of course, they took their own brand of those laws with them; they were very nearly Christian Taliban. One's own freedom can only be achieved through the servitude of others. Later immigrants to America, likewise, sought a better life. Many got it by riding roughshod over the rights of others. Ask the original inhabitants of America! Ask the Jews! Ask the Catholics! Ask the Mormons! Ask the Latinos! Ask the Chinese! The Hawaiians! Oh, and ask the women! The blacks didn't immigrate to the Americas in search of a better life, which is just as well, because they certainly didn't find it waiting for them. They haven't ridden roughshod over much of anything, only moving to the front of the bus in 1955!
In 2008, I believe the Americans should think hard and ask themselves if they are The Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave. Then demonstrate it to the world. Elect the Irishman! O'Bama for President!