For the hustlers, the beach is a backdrop for their survival. For the nation, Hellshire Beach is the peoples’ beach, which means, it is of no value. There is no cover to enter, except for special occasions. There is no exclusivity— it can hold Kingston’s waste domestic and industrial. It can hold all the world’s waste— these seas swallowed some Africans and brought others to slave, suffer and die for whites and their wealth after all. It can do all that without us giving pause.
Hellshire can be forgotten, like the sufferas who ditch church and ram the beach on Sunday and who live there everyday. For me and them, it is still a sanctuary. We make castles on the disappearing shore. Otherwise, there are rock walls to keep the water from taking the shacks built to cook, sell and serve fish and festival to affording people, who enjoy the pleasures of the palette but do not dare touch the water for fear of skin disease.
Pepper shrimp, massage, coconut, sugarcane, fish and festival, ganja, cotton candy, roots wine, jewellery—what’s not for sale on this beach? I bought myself an anklet sprinkled in red, green and gold. Bamboo Bobby is always present, selling saving pans made out of green bamboo on which he carves his name, a hummingbird or some flowers that last until the bamboo turns tan. I rely on him to show up when I return, as much as I want this disappearing beach to remain, as witness to and evidence of my life. He once alerted me to the “dying nature and dying Hellshire,” and reasoned, “wah wi a go du but keep on living?” The water was rough and murky that day. The vendor selling horseback rides had nowhere for his horse to walk. Last I saw Bamboo Bobby, I saw him becoming an old man. Which means that I too, and my story are dying. Just like Hellshire Beach. But you wouldn’t know from the hustling all around.
There is Clownie, dressed from head to toe in red, orange Afro, with animal balloons for sale, paint brush in hand for body art and will not take no for an answer. There are the little boys selling chocolates for their schooling. There is the Indian woman selling guineps and reminding you that it is not just blacks who suffer on this rock.There are the usual vendors of for rent tyre tubes, turned to floaties for the not-uptown; a spliff in their mouth, for calm in the midst of a disappearing beach and livelihood. These are the survivors.
My father used to make that type of floatie for us. He was free of shame, we were not. While his dark skin may have allowed him to disappear into the mass, he must have known that brown skinned babies don’t use those. Didn’t he know his class? It was us it seems, who were unaware that the father on the left doesn’t really care about class expectation. What’s a hole in underwear turned to beachwear after all? He didn’t care if his children were shamed by the not right shoes, the old car, the light permeating cracks in the wall of our left-leaning house. All you had to do was cover the crack with a huge rug from Mexico. A boy I used to meet at night came to see me there once and never called back. I couldn’t help but think it was because of my leaning house. It didn’t matter anyhow because in the daylight, I thought he was ugly.
My parents were oblivious to my pain around our in-between class status. Though we were brown, we had no goods to show. They sent us to an elite high school, but without the wherewithal to contend with the social expectations. Being bright was not enough. Those children’s experiences were different from ours. When they went to summer camps in the country, I worked at my old primary school for a little summer cash. There, our school yard games were reminiscent of the hard labour of slavery— “goh dung Emmanuel Road gyal an’ bwoi fi goh bruk rock-stone, bruk dem one by one…finger mash noh cry… ‘memba a play wi a play.” One game we all had in common was “Brown Girl in the Ring.” Everyone wanted to be that. For brownness, I got a pass at my elite high school. I no longer had to suffer the children’s chants of “puss eye, puss eye,” and “black is beauty and red is corruption” at my black-black primary school. They could tell me so because they knew that brown people like me should have been somewhere else, and since I was at the black-black school with them it must mean that something was not quite right.
That something showed in the fact that, like all the poor, me and my siblings were wearing the locally made gator joggers. I could not hide my out-of-placeness at my elite high school. To their reebok sneakers, I had USA Pop. My siblings and I were wise enough to make our parents none the wiser about that type of distress. We would have been summarily shamed for being ungrateful for all the sacrifices made on our behalf. For every demand for some material good beyond our means, my mother would ask if we wished her to sell her pussy so that we could enjoy the spoils. “Argument done!”
You could only whisper in your head that you did not ask to be here. If you dared say you wished to die, a sure mark of your ungratefulness, your parents would encourage you to kill yourself with the promise of a backyard burial, no fanfare involved. When I saw the white journalists, filled with concern, telling the tale of that upcoming Jamaican singer on the X-Factor whose mother told him he should stand in the road and have a truck run over him, I could not identify with the pity story. In my world, that meant count your blessings or kill yourself. It was not a death wish; it was a warning about how to live.
We learned lessons for life in our leaning house. From our impoverished helper who was always begging us children for bus fare, we were taught that ‘to be poor is a crime.” She was caught between taking money and “liberties” from us. My brother at least knew how to make money— he started early, selling sweets for profit at our primary school. Thus aware of the crime of poverty and its ever-present danger, we learned to keep the grill locked at all times, to be watchful and vigilant, as part of our security training. One evening when we were playing in the street, daddy called us to watch the house while he went across to the field to play ball. We dutifully observed the house, while racing down the street, only to discover when he returned that the instruction was not a security exercise but a command to go indoors. Having disobeyed, we were lined up, palms out and beaten with a belt. You learned to read between the lines and the metaphors because not all things adults said were said straight. Once, for instance, my mother was reprimanding me for performing poorly at school and warned me to “pull up my socks.” On following her instruction, I was threatened with a ‘box’ across the face for my insubordination.
My mother was ever-threatening. Your room had to be clean, you had to be clean. Saturday mornings were the mornings we were terrorized out of bed to clean. Feistiness was met with a “box” and “nastiness,” a barrage of “bad words.” Weekday mornings however, were filled with the sweet sound of dancehall music on the drive to school. No doubt the “tracing” poetry of dancehall artists appealed to her, as they were kindred spirits— good at dressing people down to nothing with their expertly formed words. On the drive to school, we were liberated from my father’s rule to not play “slackness” in the house. The music distracted us from our fear of the car breaking down, as it often did, and people we knew passing to observe that we were not in their class. We did not yet appreciate the value of the lesson that people were people, regardless of what they had.
The beach was our regular Sunday adventure, without the fish and festival if we went to Hellshire Beach. The rule was: you could not ask for food and embarrass your parents when you went out. You also refused if people offered you something, just in case they felt you were not being fed at home. We were clear when at Hellshire, that there was no money to buy anything so you knew to go to the water and hold your hunger. Our father taught us to swim there, long before the sand started disappearing. We walked or swam to the now dying reef, and dived off his shoulders. I painfully endured the swimming lessons and refused to advance, much like his driving lessons later in life. My little brother stuck to the sand and practiced his swimming there. All the while you cut your eyes at the shacks where fish and festival was being sold.
My little miss has never been denied the fish and festival. We often sit on the little stretch of sand left and eat our belly full, evidence of my semi-rise to the real-real middle class and to real-real brownness on the black-black beach. My rise was only partial because, except for one or two spots there, the real uptown now try their best to avoid the welcome of the hustlers’ beach. As evidence of my precarious middle classness, I, like many Jamaicans, went to seek my fortunes abroad. I did not think I would be among them. No one I know is as rooted on the rock as me. But my daughter, she may be of another place.
At the black-black disappearing Hellshire Beach, my little miss goes to the water and returns to report that she lost her goggles to another child.
“Wah yu mean ‘im tek it off a yu head?” I march off into the water in search of justice.
“Gi’ mi di sumpn!” The child refuses, pretends to dispose of the goggles, my authority carrying no weight.
“Why yu a gwaan like a pussy?” I know this is not the way to talk to a child and that I can’t touch him. Men behind reprimand the child.
“Behave yuself!” Their authority carries weight, the goggles are returned. My little miss tells me in her American accent that I can put them down, turning t’s to d’s or whatever.
“Stop chat so! Yu jus’ a attrac’ foolishness!” I ask myself why I am shaming the child, but reason that she needs to learn how it is in the world. People take advantage of things they perceive as weakness. She needed to understand the context: an American accent has no weight here and makes you a target. All the child needed was one week to acquire it, and two years later, is still killing my ears with it.
Doesn’t she know it is the accent of imperialism? Didn’t I know that at ten? You had to know how to navigate space, know the space, hold your space, small-up yuself (on the bus) or big-up yuself (when you were out and bad) depending on the demands of the moment. You had to know not to be too bold with that fancy walk, just in case you fell before the school body. You had to know not to “act like yu too nice” since you knew your back would be bent over others crammed into the small mini bus, or squeezed up with the million poor people on the larger “quarter million” bus on your way home. Commentators quarreled that the transportation system was taking us across Kingston as if on the middle passage. We knew then that America was a part of why we were re-creating the middle passage, why we were poor as a nation. We knew where Babylon was. Even my four-year-old childhood neighbour knew it. She intuitively knew to tell the white American Mormons when they came knocking, “I can spell Africa, Freedom, and Babylon”.
America is not for all of us. It’s not for me. I know this in the mornings when I wake to an ache in my stomach for my displacement. I know it because the only other humans I know are other displaced people, who try to make room for me. I know it because I feel my separation from home and the people I love, mirrored in the distance that people keep between me and them here. I know it because there is no cool breeze to calm my spirits and tell me tales of the spirit, there is mainly cold, and more cold. I am too much of a beach, sandals, battyrider, and tank top-wearing type. I am too rooted in my Africa-adapted nation in the Caribbean. That’s where my kind belong.
My navel string is buried under the Half Way Tree Clock. It was my route to everywhere—through Mandela Park to the Half Way Tree bus stop, from school to home, to high school fetes, and to buy hair ribbons downtown in my primary school years. That’s what I remember downtown for most, back-to-school shopping with my mother for books, shoes, ribbons, and “sky juice” (ice and syrup in a plastic bag) to cool you down. And that one Sunday my father drove us downtown to sit at the Kingston waterfront for cool breeze and peace and quiet. But peace and quiet was not our way, really.
One day I stood waiting on my bus at the Half Way Tree bus stop, hoping to see the boy I had a crush on, and I saw my people mob a reputed thief. They beat him till he bled, and all who passed stopped by to get a kick in. Then, there was that time we lived with the threat of acid. People had taken to throwing acid on their enemies—wifies and mateys included— and burning their skin to shriveled ugliness. You didn’t want to be around when acid was being thrown.
Once when almost home, someone stabbed our bus conductor repeatedly at a stop, until the driver realized what was happening and sped off. The assailant hurled rocks at the bus as we moved. I was too shocked to “duck” like everyone else, until my sister pulled me down with her. All this was after we had escaped the usual refusals from bus conductors— “No schoolers”—and gotten a bus to take us part way home. People piled through windows out of fear, putting us all in further danger in the rush to get out. We had an extra walk to get home.
But we were no strangers to walking—the buses on our route were few and far between. Walking home from school allowed us to stop and beg paper from the paper factory or ice from the ice factory; take our shoes off and walk through rain water on the roads, with the perpetual warning from other children that we would “catch ring worm;” or stop to buy “suck-suck,” the syrup and water frozen in plastic bags that you made a tiny hole in to suck through all the way home.
Syrup and water, sugar and water – those were good for hunger, an ease to the blandness of water, just by itself. Food was not plentiful in my house. You could not indulge as you pleased. How I longed to stop at the patty shop next to our school to eat with the other children. But my money could only stretch to “suck-suck.” The lesson, as practice for Hellshire Beach: control your hungry-belly. Not like my little miss, who often gets to choose whether or not and what to eat. Choice was out of the question for us. You would sit over the food with your father standing over you with a belt in his hand until the plate was clean. You ate because it made you strong, not because you enjoyed it. To my father, the sacrifice of eating tinned mackerel until you were allergic, in order to provide for your family, was just part of life. It was something we children should have been grateful for.
I remember times of meagre as well as growth. We got a colour tv after my father had spent a few months working abroad. My father moved into management. We moved from one car to two. My mother bought nice furniture on credit, pieces of which, we still have in our houses. Our “old salad” disappeared for a newer and more acceptable car. My mother moved from two jobs to one. The cracks disappeared, temporarily. My mother moved to the US. I had clung to her frock tail up till then. I barely let her out of my sight. And the day she left, my sister and I sat on the floor, held each other and wept. The barrels she sent and the clothes she bought us were not enough to compensate for the loss. And when she returned, she left our house for good. And my father left our house. And we were on our own, in precarious young adulthood. But before then, there was Hellshire Beach.
My American love thinks I am harsh. He doesn’t understand that like those other Jamaican people, I was bred out of hard-life, even if mine was not too dread with its constant taste of Hellshire Beach. In my world, hardness was normal and suffering was normal. Women lived as hard women, the world asked nothing less. You have to be hard after a long history of having to give away your children to profit white men. And because she also worked like men on whites’ plantations and continues to labour hard to keep her children, everyone must have thought that the woman of African descent does not feel suffering. And even if you weren’t a field slave or was yourself a suffera, you must have witnessed so much suffering it made you think it was normal.
My mother’s mother grew up on a plantation. I don’t know much of her story. I know she was massaged by an Indian woman, a “coolie masseuse.” I don’t know who she made her playmates. I know as an adult, she had many mouths to feed, and worked till late into her eighties. She was a wife and a mother of ten, too cash poor to live in comfort. I often observed her and her sister at the supermarket painstakingly adding each item on a calculator to avoid exceeding their budget.
My mother said my grandmother was prejudiced, but I don’t know how she coped when most of her children married black and had little brown babies. I know she buried her husband, her sister and four children before her death at 102, but never once did I see my grandmother cry. She must have been tough. She wasn’t that feminine. She was practical. She was not a good cook but she made the best fudge and taught us girls how to crochet. She could not comb our type of hair. I remember her brushing her own hair at night and when I asked why, when she was going nowhere, she told me she was preparing for bed. She may have been taught that that’s what women do for their lovers and kept doing it long after her husband had passed.
Since my grandmother was the daughter of an overseer, who may have passed for white, and a mixed mother, she should not have been a sufferer. It seems she did not marry well enough to secure a comfortable life, even if her husband was considered white. Her sister did not marry at all. I once asked my grandmother why my grandaunt did not marry and she said she never found anyone suitable. I asked whether she would have married black and she told me she did not think so. That aunt was known to be disagreeable, miserable we would say. But my memory doesn’t fit the rest.She made me my first two-piece swimsuit; it was pink. She pinned a handkerchief to my uniform for my constant cold, and walked me to school with the dog in tow. She took me to the library where she worked. She reminded me constantly to speak “properly,” and abandon the patwa I decided early on was most appropriate for me. She eventually lost her breath on her single bed in the smallest room in my grandmother’s house. She had lived there with the many others who ensured that my grandmother’s house was always full with people— a sister, a friend, grandchildren, children long past the date of living with their mother. I was born in my grandmother’s house. My entry to the house would have been just another day, another child born to a woman not intended to be a sufferer.
My little miss chose one of those mothers. If only she had known there were others, elsewhere maybe— with sweet words, calm spirits, big excitement at the smallest achievement of their offspring— she could have done better. When she was more optimistic about her mother, she marched to my room, climbed on my semi-sleeping back, and demanded to know why I had not bought her any “craisin raisins.” I told her they were expensive, and she reminded me that she likes expensive things. To my: “you chose the wrong mother,” she replied: “but you’ll have to keep me.” She was not yet aware that it was she who had to keep me, and journey our uneven journey, coming from a history of harsh and semi-available mothers to fuel her rage, rather than her calmness. She would have to endure with me all the difficulties of my own upbringing, in a harsh world that I often met with silence and disengagement.
As a child I met my fear with bed wetting and sucking my big finger. I was her present age when I decided to stop after I had fallen asleep on the desk at high school and woke up to find my finger in my mouth. Before then nothing had deterred my thumb-sucking— not the open white slit on my finger, not my parents attempts at persuasion, or them seasoning my thumb in my sleep. I would merely make up my face, pause for a minute and return my finger to its place of comfort. In the end, it was shame that got me to stop.
My mother was perpetually concerned with shame. She was forever warning us not to “shame her out-a-road.” She felt shame about her worn down shoes. Shame about my father’s inability to dress well. Shame about not having enough to pay the cashier when she got the final bill at the supermarket. When the bill looked good, it was like magic. So magical, she was convinced her regular cashier was neglecting to add some things to the bill to help her out.
People like my mother. Poor as they may be, they are always giving her gifts. And she too, is a gift giver, a sharer of her little nothings or small fortunes. She brought people to her with her charisma. She was my favourite person in the whole world. She prepared Sunday dinner after the beach—rice and peas, “cook-down” chicken, vegetables, plantain, and freshly made lemonade. No other day of the week guaranteed vegetables or juice. Sunday was special. We bathed and put on our Sunday best. We washed our hair and sat between our mother’s legs for chiney bumps or canerows. You had to look good for Sunday evening, and it was our mother who taught us how. She was fly, turning her hands to make fashion from the few clothes we had.
If I am my mother’s daughter, my mother, the last of ten children was probably not as belonging to her own mother. My mother belonged instead to herself. She grew herself with some help from her sisters and my father. She belonged maybe to my father, to the present, to the student movement during which she demanded to wear Afros to school in the 1970s, and to the people at the bottom with whom she identified. And in the middle of the decade, she had me and gave me an African name to match her Afro and her spirit. It did not match her colour though. Her colour would put her in another realm. It could make the people wonder why she was among them and to ask when she walked with my brother in hand: “is where yu get da black baby deh from?” She got him from my father, who was among that black, educated middle class pushing for revolution in his time. And they named my brother and sister after the revolutionaries of their time. My father had everything to allow him not to choose the life of a sufferer.
I have been home a lot this past year. I came to my friend’s wedding. I came to see my sick grandmother. I went to her funeral. I am without grandmothers now. She will no longer bake Christmas cake with my little miss. One Sunday, instead of going to Hellshire Beach I sat with my aunts and sister and we shared the jewellery grandma left for us to wear and remember her. It is strange to recieve a gift from someone to whom you can no longer give praise. It reminds you of the impossibility that death creates. There can be no answers to the questions you may have had. Did she see your mother and her offspring as the root of her son’s suffering, after all she had done to give him options? How did she tie us to her complaint that she was transplanted from her Dutch Caribbean past to the black-black Jamaica where all she could hear was patwa? Did she see blackness the same as the sufferer, and worry that her son became one of them? Was the fact that my near-white mother did not make good on her colour, seen by my grandmother as my mother’s ultimate flaw?
At Christmas I observed her absence. At my grandparents’ house, I took note of all her things still in place. Glasses and other fine things, the refrigerator aplenty, her powders in her bathroom. I became aware of using the wrong glasses to serve sorrel. I felt free to look and take from the refrigerator, but I was also aware of the possibility of her turning in her grave. I took nothing, I just looked. My grandfather offered us the store-bought, dry Christmas cake. I took a taste of the one made by one of my aunts— from my grandmother’s recipe— with fruits left behind from the year before. I did not taste her pain in the sweet cake. It was wet and heavy.
I returned as usual to Hellshire Beach. Once with foreigners, who ignored its slum likeness and enjoyed the parrot fish, that has been disappearing like the beach. On New Year’s Day, I went again. A Rastawoman approached me, asking if I remembered her, then asked after my mother. I did not recognize her but she said she remembered me and told me of my life. She said I came to Hellshire with my mother and father when there was still space for almond trees to grow out of the sand. She said I came with my parents until “dem mash up” and then I came with my mother. She said she had left the beach for a while. She had been shot up and now had a piece of iron in her foot. I wanted to ask more of her story but was stopped by my anxiety about her requesting a gift of me. She asked for nothing, just left me with her story and a greeting for my mother.
“Rasta Juliet” had come to remind me that the other side of the intimacy of violence in my home is the intimacy of care. When I decided to move to the US, my grandmother complained— melodramatically I thought— that she would never see me again. I missed birthdays, including my grandmother’s ninetieth. I missed visitors, gatherings, special occasions and everyday specialness. Except for my American love, I did not find better in their place. The chaos of home and Hellshire makes sense to me. There are people who know me. People who I know. They give lessons for life. We care for each other. There is the reminder of your responsibility: do not shame your mother or anyone you care for. There is music and dancing, always music and dancing. There is testing of the social order because it is an injustice. And we all suffer the consequences.
And with our suffering, the beach must disappear and take the markers of our memory because we concede. The beaches that matter are on a different coast and for a different people: the white tourist and the real uptown. Those beaches come with a cover cost, not to protect the shoreline but to keep the suffera out. But there are other possibilities. There is the reminder in the absence of my grandmothers, that where I am from, we do not die. We return to guinealand across the sea and from there we work for the living. And from the disappearing beach, we can look across to that faraway place and contemplate what it means to work for a better here.
Image credits: Photos of Bob Andy (born Keith Anderson, 28 October 1944 – 27 March 2020), one of Jamaica’s best songwriters and singers, at Boardwalk Beach, Hellshire, in January 2019 by Annie Paul.
Maziki Thame is the daughter and mother of liberationists. She teaches and writes in hopes of turning our focus to the cause of the sufffera.