RYAN CECIL JOBSON
He had always gone by his Christian name. But they called him Pork.
Pork first encountered nicknames in the schoolyard. Though he rarely joined his mates in afternoon cricket matches — preferring to park his nose between the covers of National Geographic — he looked up just enough to observe the cacophony on the pitch. Some were made in jest. “Efficiency” kept meticulous notes, earning his title because of this exacting approach to classroom tasks. Others grew from insult. The lazy-eyed boy from Pedro Plains became “Cyclops.” But more often they served a practical purpose. There were two Michaels at school. One, a red-skinned boy with the signature freckles of many families in and around St. Bess, remained Michael to the teachers and boys. The other Michael — and this was the other Michael — was known to all as Black Michael, or simply Blackie, by dint of his dark complexion.
It all changed in Third Form. Manley prevailed in ’72. The downpressed clamored for land, bread, and freedom. Their provisions did not arrive with the urgency promised. But there was no turning back the minds of determined youths.
Pork was the lightest of the lot even though he had a touch of the tar brush himself, as Pork’s grandfather often put it. And for the first time, his classmates dashed away his Christian name but the nickname, Pork, stuck. His ruddy skin supplied ample fodder for the title.
Black Power reigned on the cricket pitch. The boys’ history teacher, a graduate of Howard University, regaled them with lessons on Paul Bogle and the Morant Bay Rebellion. Soon, a custom of celebrating wickets with cries of “Bogle!” took hold. The celebrations crescendoed when Pork was dismissed, on the rare occasions he did play. As a batsman, Pork endured his fair share of ducks, rarely making more than ten runs. When he took his turn, he grew accustomed to the oink sounds that cascaded down from the outfield players. If he was dismissed for zero, the oinks would give way to an infernal chorus of quacks.
Pork fought back against his new title. First, by dodging the incessant calls of his classmates. Then with his fists. After several unanimous decisions in his tormentors’ favor, with tears of grim acceptance, he conceded. From then on, he was Pork to everyone at the preparatory college perched on the hill. Meanwhile, Black Michael became just Michael again, among the schoolboys at least. The other Michael — and now he was the other Michael — became White Michael or when they truly wanted to wound his pride: Dundus.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Pork observed the covenants of colonial propriety. Even at home, nestled between the peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, he addressed his father as “Mister” and his maternal grandfather as “Sir”. That Sir was descended from missionaries and debtors, rather than knights, mattered none. Shortly after birth, Pork was christened in the Anglican chapel built by Sir’s own grandfather. Sir expected him to follow the order.
The old Jamaica had been a place of absolutes. Colour fused neatly with class — in theory at least. The many exceptions to this rule could not break through the commonsense of plantation society. Neither did it disappear when the Union Jack came down. On long walks with Sir after an untimely stroke left him partially blind, Pork grew accustomed to long diatribes about the Negroes, borrowed from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Our land will prosper so long as they accept their lot and rejoice in their toil.” Pork wondered silently if Sir extended his disdain to mixed-race boys like him. He never asked, fearing the stern rejection of his grandfather.
The new society appeared like the old, only with minor alterations. Sir, a fourth-generation Jamaican, remembered his mistreatment as a creole at the hands of English lads in his youth. But his empathy did not extend to the majority of his fellow Jamaicans. His faith in colonial pigmentocracy clouded his already failing vision. It was inconceivable that Black Power could interrupt the white creole’s turn at the wheel of the ship.
In an odd twist of fate, the sons and daughters of English settlers and missionaries opposed the monarchy; the offspring of slaves and Iberian planters rose to its defense. Sir and Mummy had eagerly readied themselves for independence. They firmly opposed the monarchy and writhed in disappointment when they learned the Queen would be retained as head of state. Mister, on the other hand, a brown-skinned Roman Catholic of African and Portuguese extraction, firmly cast his lot with the Crown. Mummy took it upon herself to craft the village banner for the independence festivities in Kingston. Her careful hand dyed the fabric and cut it into uppercase serifed letters that spelled out the name of their town. Sewed into the banner, the letters announced the arrival of their rural abode into the compact of the new Jamaica. Pork, not yet two years old, walked beside her in the procession.
By the time Pork sat for his A Levels — three years ahead of schedule — he had grown into the pride of the College: A klutz on the cricket pitch, yet a savant in the classroom. He excelled at all subjects but earned distinctions in Biology, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and General Paper, results unheard of for any student let alone a fifteen-year-old.
The principal, a hardy North England man of Scottish ancestry, called a special assembly in the school chapel. After the boys filed into the pews, he began his oration in signature Mancunian patter.
“We are privileged this morning to honour a most exceptional talent. In my thirty years as principal of this storied College, ne’er have I encountered a student who better demonstrates the capacity of the Jamaican to overcome his dark past. He has distinguished himself by his character and hard work, without succumbing to the anger and vengeful spirit that pervades this country today. Indeed, liberty is entitled to all men, but its pleasures will be afforded only to those who model restraint and moral virtue.”
Principal proudly announced Pork’s A Level results and the award of a special government scholarship for him to continue his studies in foreign. Pork nervously rose from his seat to approach the altar. Precious, understated applause ricocheted between the walls before dying suddenly.
As silence filled the hall, Pork danced awkwardly around the stubborn knees of his neighbors out to the aisle. Before he arrived in front, however, Michael (the boy formerly known as Blackie) shot up like a bullet in protest.
“Unu hear dis madness, bredrin?” he shouted as he glanced side-to-side to rouse his mates. “Dark past fi who?” Then, as if he remembered where he stood, he corrected his tone. “Remember, my brothers? Are we not the sons of Bogle? Long live Bogle! Black Power fi Black People!” Then, realizing that he had just earned himself a brutal punishment, if not expulsion, he decided to land one final blow. “Yuh a chat bare fuckery, sir!” He jabbed two fingers at Principal. Without another word, Michael stomped toward the exit. All the boys, save for Dundus, followed him out. Even Kim, the son of the Korean dentist, went.
Pork froze. He had not asked to be made an example of. He did not want to follow the Principal’s marching orders. He envied Michael’s defiance and, for an instant, readied himself to join the procession. But the moment had passed. Pork grudgingly accepted that the spirit of vengeance was not his to bear. He sat down, cross-legged, in the aisle and held his head in his hands.
Barely sixteen, Pork began university that September. As the plane made its descent into Newark Airport, his last stop en route to the Gothic Revival campus in central New Jersey, he peered out of the window at buildings still burned out from the rebellion of ’67.
For Black Power had reigned in a corner of these ivy-strewn grounds too. Though Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael rather than Queen Nanny and Bogle were the favorites of the students at the Third World Center. Pork felt most at home here, joining a small circle of West Indians who fraternized with the larger cohorts of Afro-American and Nuyorican students. Pork was surprised to find that his old nickname did not catch on with his fellow freshmen. His hair, now a long, wavy mop, did not hold the shape of the distinctive Afros sported by his classmates, yet, instead of “Pork” or “white boy,” they greeted him as “high yellow soul brother” or simply as “Brother.” To their untrained ears, his Jamaican schoolboy accent resembled that of the 7up pitchman Geoffrey Holder. Outside the Third World Center, his fellow students would call out across the yard in a poor imitation of Holder’s Trini-inflected tagline. Whenever Pork heard someone yell, “the Un-colaaaaaaah,” he knew a friend was nearby.
In his mind, though, he was still Pork. Trouble at home blunted the pleasures of his newfound brotherhood in America. In letters from Mummy and Mister, he learned of family friends who had disappeared or faced indefinite detention in Manley’s “gun court.” Fearing Manley’s Castroite sympathies, they informed Pork of their plans to migrate. Manley taunted them with his famous retort to those planning to flee that there were “five flights a day to Miami” which they were welcome to board; they intended to make good on his invitation.
Meanwhile, Pork enrolled in a course on “West Indian Politics and Development” with the lone faculty member from the Caribbean, a decorated economist from St. Lucia. Surrounded by talented upperclassmen, Pork absorbed the differences between his British colonial education and American university seminars. He marveled at his brash classmates’ willingness to spar with their instructor. A junior co-ed from Ponce, Puerto Rico, arrived at every seminar armed with dog-eared copies of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and a blue-and-white edition of The Marx-Engels Reader. She never hesitated to confront the rconomist’s liberalism with hard data from Operation Bootstrap back home. From “Ponce” as his classmate was nicknamed, Pork absorbed the vocabulary of “underdevelopment,” “alienation,” and the “national bourgeoisie” as seminar discussion spilled over into the eating halls and dormitories.
After another class where the economist pontificated about the benefits of tax holidays for multinational corporations, Ponce left in a huff. Over lunch, she, Pork, and their classmates exchanged their own reasonings. Through most of the conversation, Pork assented to the others. Ponce, having read Manley’s The Politics of Change cover-to-cover, called on Pork to weigh in. “So how is democratic socialism looking in your country?” she asked, turning her gaze to him. He heard the sarcastic tone she tacked on to democratic, meant to signal her preference for Fidel’s Marxism-Leninism to Manley’s reformist line.
Pork felt more at ease discussing the other case studies rather than turning a critical eye back home. His mind wandered back to the cricket pitch and the changes that followed Manley’s election. He shrouded his family’s Labourite allegiance by offering a more subdued appraisal. “Manley talk a good talk,” Pork began, “and many of we Jamaicans feel more emboldened to participate in political affairs. Whether he will transform the material relations of labour and capital, though, I can’t say.”
His classmates nodded approvingly. Ponce inquired further. “So a lot of poverty still, no?”
“Poverty, yes,” Pork confirmed, “but plenty rich men back a yaad.”
Ponce grinned. “Más de lo mismo,” she muttered, shaking her head. “The laws of economics at work.”
Meanwhile, Pork’s parents devised creative ways to finance their emigration to Florida. US dollars had become scarce during the “socialist experiment” in Jamaica. By fortune, Mister entered into a partnership with the Coptics, members of an Ethiopian Orthodox Church led by an eccentric ganja-smoking white man named Brother Louv. Unlike the Rastas, who preached the virtues of health, hygiene, and land reform, the Coptics devoted themselves only to the herb. Their “church” maintained clandestine routes between Jamaica and South Florida to traffic in their commodity of choice. Mister, a “cow man” and manager of a local agricultural estate, deposited Jamaican dollars with Nyah Keith, the local head of the Coptics. Later, on business trips to Miami, Mister would stop at the Coptics’ Star Island mansion to receive US cash at black market rates. Without fail, on each of his visits, he would be greeted by a half dozen adherents, passed out in a ganja-induced haze. The money he put away in an American bank account to raise money for their visa applications.
As Pork prepared to return for Christmas holidays, the situation in Jamaica reached fever pitch. With elections mere days away, Labourites and Comrades resolved to mash up each other’s rallies — sometimes leading to fatal violence. Another Manley victory would doom his family’s plans to leave the country. When his favorite singer, Bob Marley, was shot days before the Smile Jamaica concert, Pork barely flinched at the news. No one was safe. On December 15, Manley’s PNP retained power with a decisive victory of 47 parliamentary seats. That same evening, Pork sprinted to the Economics Department — bags already packed — to submit his term paper on the role of the peasantry in independent Jamaica, before catching a train to Newark Airport for the flight home.
On Christmas Day in St. Bess, Pork received a portable turntable — the Phillips 22GF403, to be exact — courtesy of his father’s latest trip to Miami. The suitcase-style record player conveniently folded out to play selections from Pork’s amateur collection of reggae singles and 45s. During his first semester, he had relied on the sounds of WLIB (1190 on the AM dial) to tap into the sounds of home. Now, with the Phillips unit, he could play his favorites as often as he wished: Ras Karbi, the Heptones, and, most of all, Bob himself.
Pork admired Jimmy Cliff, but not as much as he loved Bob. The album Jimmy Cliff Unlimited caught Mummy’s attention, though. Rather than Jimmy’s sound, it was the gatefold construction of Unlimited that piqued her interest. With time of the essence, she decided to send Pork back to the States with US dollars in tow. Using the same careful hands that had assembled the independence banner less than a decade and a half ago, Mummy made a fine cut into the vacant side opposite the vinyl record. Inside, she placed stacks of US bills, though not so much as to bulge and invite notice. She managed to slip nearly $1,000 into Unlimited before gluing it back with precision, veiling her handiwork.
As soon as the new year arrived, Pork loaded his belongings into Mister’s Land Rover, taking great care not to forget his Phillips 22GF403. As they spiraled the mountain roads from St. Elizabeth to Montego Bay, Pork played out his smuggling scheme over and over in his head. He knew he would be a mark for the authorities. After the East Indians, Jamaica whites were most notorious for their currency smuggling. Many resorted to unorthodox tactics to move money hidden in juice tins or plaster leg casts. Mister reassured him. “Just remember, you are an upstanding boy. A Jamaica Scholar at that! Stay vigilant. Cyaan let di police dem vex yuh.”
Pork unloaded his belongings and checked his large suitcase at the terminal. He carried his smaller Phillips “suitcase” and a book bag to the gate. With his parents watching from the waving gallery, Pork sat down placing the Phillips on the floor beside him.
Within seconds, two khaki-clad policemen entered his peripheral vision. Pork clocked immediately that these were not ordinary policemen. They lacked the signature red seams of petty officer uniforms. The inspectors marched directly in front of him and, pointing at his Phillips unit, the larger one boomed, “Make it play.” They presumed that Pork had loaded the Phillips with illicit goods.
Recalling his cadet training, Pork buried his pounding heart under a stoic veneer. “Yes, inspector,” Pork agreed while shakily folding out the turntable. Grasping at the first record in his bag, Pork opened the gatefold cover of Unlimited and slid the 12-inch LP out from its inner sleeve. He allowed the stylus to fall delicately on the record as it began to spin. First, a thumping bass drum. Then Jimmy Cliff’s spoken word preamble to “Under the Sun, Moon and Stars,” arrived in crisp stereo.
“Yes, as I was saying,
I like work, you know
But when I work I must get paid
You don’t know the sound I’m trying to tell you
Listen — try to understand — listen!”
Jimmy’s melody had barely begun when the inspector huffed, “Enough! Cut the music, yute!” But his interrogation was far from over. Summoning Pork with a wave of the finger, the inspectors led him to the tarmac where a trolley of bags sat waiting to enter the cargo hold. Without missing a step, the smaller policeman grabbed Pork’s suitcase and threw it to the ground. Pork nearly choked. If they knew which bag was his, they surely had clocked his every move. Pork unzipped the suitcase and stepped away to reveal its contents. After rummaging for mere seconds, the inspector stood up, indifferent. “Clear!” was the first and only word he uttered. In disbelief at his luck, Pork gathered himself and returned his bag to the trolley.
His parents had watched it all unfold from the waving gallery. But Pork had no time to waste. His heart still racing he boarded the plane at first call.
Even after the jet landed at Newark where he cleared customs with ease Pork could not calm himself. Only once he had settled into his dorm suite did he call Sir to send word of his safe arrival. After the line disconnected, Pork wondered how it was that he came to be in this odd predicament. He laughed, thinking of what Ponce would say: “The laws of economics at work.”
He never asked to be a smuggler nor a banker nor an exile nor Pork. Yet Pork he was. He sat down, crosslegged, in the doorway and held his head in his hands.
Photo credit: Lee Jaffe