CHAPTER II The House at the Forty-Two Steps

23 April 2022

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The house of my childhood memories was a lively, well-ordered place
filled with women and children. In my memory, it is bright, airy, and spacious, its many rooms being cooled by sea breezes off the Gulf of Paria.
I fully understand that an adult return to the places of childhood is often
disappointing, the passage of time and adult perceptions rudely dissolving at once the scale, the wonder, and the magic of our childish
remembrances. Mercifully, I have returned to that house only once and
then briefly so the magic of childhood memory has remained with me
Although my father's labor of love was ostensibly built for his bride, neither he nor my mother, who left for America when I was three, is present
in my earliest recollections of that household. It is my paternal grandmother, Mrs. Cecilia Harris Carmichael, who was the adult center and
anchor of my early years. As were her three daughters, Tante Elaine, Tante
Louise, and Mummy Olga, who was vivacious and pretty but unlucky
with husbands, since she was twice widowed and childless. So the children
of the household called her Mummy. And "Mummy Olga" she became to
us children and "Mummy Olga" she remains to this day.
The interior was organized around a large, central dining and living
room, off from which lay the bedrooms. How many, I'm not sure. But I
have no recollection of our ever feeling crowded. I do remember that "the
boys," Cousin Austin and I, had our own room. I imagine the little girls
did also, or perhaps shared a large room with my grandmother.
From the outside, the approach from the front was the most imposing.
In its unconventional design my father must clearly have intended it to
make a statement, and he seems to have succeeded.
From the front, one entered the house by a wide flight of steps leading
up to the galerie-a porchlike area that in other parts of the Englishspeaking Caribbean is called the veranda. In the American South it is the
porch. The galerie itself, as well as the roof that sheltered it, was built on
five levels. Why? That's how my father wanted it.

The galerie was a cool, fragrant place alternating between sun and
shadow. This impression was created by the many potted palms, ferns
drooping from tall clay stands, and hanging baskets of broad-leafed, flowering plants that must have been orchids of different kinds. These were the
province ofTante Louise, the sister with the green thumb. She was also
the force behind the beds of colorful tropical flowers and assorted herbs
for bush medicines that adorned the front yard.
This, then, was the family of my childhood, my grandma, her three
adult daughters, and the four children. George Lamming, the distinguished Barbadian novelist, has a celebrated line in his classic Caribbean
coming-of-age novel, In the Castle of My Skin. The line speaks to the socalled matriarchal nature of Afro-Caribbean societies. In introducing his
mother, Lamming had famously written, "My mother who fathered
me." As young children we were "mothered" and "fathered" by these four
women equally, as we thought, without differentiation. In retrospect, I can
see a natural and unspoken division of roles and responsibilities among
them according to personality and inclination. From each according to his
ability ... ?
Recently I listened to the report of a Caribbean brother's first trip to the
continent. In Kenya he befriended a local youth who invited him home
"because, my brother, I want you to meet my four mothers." The visitor
was bemused by the quaint locution. "And the thing is," he exclaimed, "he
said it so naturally, 'my four mothers.' " I merely smiled because that
"African" formulation described with complete accuracy the emotional
reality of the household of my early memories.
All the aunts worked while Grandma was responsible for the children
during the day. Tante Elaine, Austin's mom, was a teacher at Mr. Young's
private school. She brought to the household a rigorous attention to
order, detail, and duty. She also brought home her reverence for education and the strict administration of discipline, which were projections of
the classroom persona of all colonial schoolteachers of the time. Mummy
Olga, more fun-loving and easygoing, worked in a department store,
where dealing with the public was an occupation well suited to her outgoing, friendly nature.
Tante Louise also worked out of the house but I cannot remember
where. Her presence in the house does not loom as large, perhaps
because she at some point got married and moved to the country. But the
weekend family excursions to visitTante Louise at Point Fortin loom large
in my memory. We passed through the unbroken green mass of sugarcane
fields, caught glimpses of the bright blue Caribbean, its breakers foaming white against rocky shores, and drove over narrow mountain roads
lined by lush tropical forests, where flocks of birds, an occasional band of
monkeys, or a small deer could be glimpsed.

Richly colorful as that landscape was, it paled to insignificance beside
the embellishments of my small boy's imagination. The twenty-mile trip
became an adventure in African exploration, triggered by Austin's adventure books, which I had read. My eyes scanned the surrounding foliage for
the bands of"natives" and the lions, tigers, great apes, and elephants that
just had to be lurking there. That none of the above ever appeared did little to diminish the excitement of my searching eyes each time we took the
During the days while the aunts worked, we were Grandma Carmichael's and she totally ours. Mine in particular. I got a great deal of
care, a lot of attention, and also a lot of medicine from my grandmother.
As a small child, indeed from birth, I had been so asthmatic that my very
survival had been in doubt. My Grandma, along with my mother, as soon
after delivery as she was able, had nursed, coaxed, prayed, and medicated
me out of danger. Those two women watched me like hawks, noting every
slightest change in my breathing, every sign of a weakening condition, literally forbidding by sheer force of personality, will, faith, and traditional
medicine the early death that seemed to be stalking me. My mother vividly
recalls to this day a succession of sleepless nights pacing the floor with me
wheezing in her arms, laboring for every breath.
Despite her delicacy of feature and diminutive size, there was nothing
fragile about Grandma Carmichael. She was a woman as strong and resolute in her faith as in her determination. As a child, most of my time,
from my first awareness of things, was spent with her. From her nurturing spirit I took for granted unconditional love, protection, and care. She
administered the constant and endless succession of bush medicines
that in all likelihood saved my life. A great variety of medicinal herbs grew
in Tante Louise's garden, all apparently for the purpose of making me
strong. Some were bitter. Others vile-tasting in other ways. I believe
Grandma, being of the old school, linked bitterness with potency. For her,
the more bitter the medicine the better it was.
Thanks to her, I developed an early taste tolerance; thus I have always
been able to eat almost anything and to swallow almost any medicine.
My grandma's combination of love, attention, care, and medicine shored
up my health, so that all my life since I've been exceedingly healthy until
the recent advent of cancer, but more of that later.
Grandma Cecilia was the major influence on my young personality, the
adult with whom I spent most of my time and with whom I was closest.
She was a devout woman. A pillar ofTrinity Anglican Church, close friend
and adviser to the parish parson, she was entrusted with the baking of the
communal wafers each week. My earliest and most enduring ethical
instruction came from her.
"Don't ever lie, always speak the truth. Think of others always. Remem24
The House at the Forty-Two Steps
ber the less fortunate. Never waste food. Never waste anything that someone else might need. Waste not, want not." And so forth. And the "memory gems" so much a part of any respectable colonial child's training:
If you in the morning throw minutes away,
You can't pick them up the course of the day.
Whatsoever you set your hand to do,
do it with all your might.
My early encounter with the ethical and moral aspects of life, I trace
squarely to my paternal grandmother. And of course, it was her death in
January of 1952, and the child-care vacuum it created in the household,
that made it inevitable that my sisters and I would accompany my aunt to
New York.
If grandmother "mothered" me, then it was the strict and exacting
Tante Elaine who, first, in the patriarchal sense of that word, "fathered"
me. Like all colonial pedagogues, Tante Elaine believed in discipline, fully
convinced that sparing the rod meant certain ruination for the child. She
was also the "competent authority," the central force in deciding and
directing the affairs of the household, in making sure that everything was
properly maintained and that everyone met his or her responsibilities.
From a young age even the children had their appropriate responsibility.
I cannot remember exactly at what age it first fell to me, but my duty was
to clean the chicken coop each week. And those chickens were prolific in
more than eggs, which is why later, whenever I've heard anyone derogatively described as a "chickens-" so-and-so, I've fully understood precisely the severity and the grossness of that particular abuse.
Tante Elaine was the arbiter of order, not only the maintenance of
proper standards but of the appearance of the same. She also administered
whatever whippings Austin and I earned, and we earned ourselves quite
a few. While she was very, very strict with me, that was nothing compared
to her strictness with Austin, who was, after all, her son. Poor Austin. It
was unthinkable to her that a teacher's son, especially hers, could be anything less than brilliant in school and impeccable in behavior and deportment. Put that way, what chance did he have? I can remember thinking,
"Poor Austin, I sorry for he, oui. "Today Austin is a dedicated and effective teacher in the Miami schools. I see that as entirely due to his
mother's influence.
ButTante Elaine was fair. She was a hard woman, but fair. And I never
for a moment doubted that her punishments were anything other than an

expression of her love and her wanting only the best for and of us. On such
occasions her method was unvarying. First came the summons. Once
present, you would be secured and immobilized by her firm, pinching grip
on your earlobe. Then the charge would be announced, telling you in
explicit detail just what your offense had been. ForTante Elaine, justice
had not only to be done, it had to be seen and understood to have been
done. Then, after the indictment came the question, a kind of ritual incantation, really.
"How could you have done this? You have been taught better! What on
earth could have possessed you to do it? Well, I don't know what got into
you, I'm going to get it out today. I promise you that. I'll bet you, when
I'm finished with you, you will not even think of doing it again. I bet you."
Not a bet to take 'cause that was one Tante Elaine would invariably
win. But after the whipping, Tante Elaine was finished with it. With her
"Now, let this be a lesson to you!" the matter was ended and the incident
behind you both. The record was expunged. You didn't carry a juvenile
record into the future.
Not so Mummy Olga, who never, ever beat us. But would she scold!
Lord ha' mercy. And those scoldings were almost worse than a beating.
They were very, very effective, being predicated on convincing you of your
betrayal of confidence and trust. Of your causing pain and shame to
someone who loved you, to wit, herself. By the time Mummy Olga got
through telling you how ashamed you had made her and the entire
Carmichael family, you really felt so bad that a beating from Tante Elaine
seemed a bargain in comparison.
When you looked at the shame and sadness dramatically etched into
her face, the hurt in her gentle eyes as she told you, "How ashamed you
make she. And here she thinking she have such a big, lovely, responsible
son, an' look you come shame she so? How could you? An' look she can't
even hold up her face before people now," the intensity of the remorse
that flooded over you was certainly more lasting than any whipping.
The blessed Tante Louise tended her garden and neither scolded nor
whipped, as I recall. But she may well have moved to the country before
I was old enough to have merited either from her.
So the formative presences for me in the beginning were women,
and that has continued true. In my life, I've always been surrounded by
women, educated and protected by them.
Just recently I even heard my mother on the telephone with a journalist who must have asked her something about the effect of my present
illness on her. I'm not sure just what the question was or how intrusive it
might have been, but I was proud of the clarity and grace of her answer.
And the strength:

"No, it doesn't scare me. Why should it? Look, when he was born, they
said he wouldn't Jive. We thought we might lose him then. And see, I've
had my son with me for over fifty wonderful years. And he is here with me
right now, so, my dear, what do I have to complain about?"
Even my first year at school was defined by a woman, though I could have
been no more than three, for my mother was still at home. (And even had
I not remembered this, my mother made certain that I and the rest of the
family would never forget the story.) This was Ms. Stafford's infant
school, a small private school that Ms. Stafford ran out of her house. We
started school early-it probably was more like kindergarten-but we
learned the alphabet, did simple sums, and played a lot. And by age four
or so we could read simple children's books and write our names.
It's my first week of school. There I meet a little girl who evidently must
have made quite an impression, big time. Because after school nothing
would do but that she accompany me home to be presented to my
mother. She was willing enough. But to "make assurance doubly sure,"
I found it prudent to grasp her firmly by the hand and off we went. Or
perhaps she grasped mine. Or else it was mutual. There is always such
ambiguity about matters of the heart, but what is certain is that we proceeded hand in hand. And this holding of hands must have distracted or
occupied me fully. Because, when I proudly presented my new friend to
my mother, she could scarcely suppress her mirth. There I was, holding
her hand and announcing proudly, "I'm walking little Eva Walton home,"
with my pants, socks, and shoes sodden with pee. It has always come back
to haunt me: "Boy, remember that before you could even hold your water,
you were holding women's hands."
The next time I got myself in trouble over a woman-a fatally seductive "older woman"-! was nine.Auntie Kaye's Children's Hour was a popular radio program. Much to the pride of the aunts I was selected to recite
a poem on the air. I think that I was one of the youngest to be selected,
and this may have contributed a great deal to the aunts' pride. It was an
event. Friends and family were duly alerted to listen for "Stokely on the
radio, chile. Ah tell you." So much of an occasion in fact that the proud
parents in the Bronx were duly informed. My parents went out and
bought a shortwave radio, guaranteed, as they thought, "to pick up anywhere in the world," and spent an entire Saturday morning vainly trying
to tune in Trinidad. Tame Elaine escorted me to the station and left me in
a room with the other children. And of course, I was clean, bow tie, suit,
mature and sophisticated. (More of that suit later.) The only vacant seat
was next to a charming young lady. We looked each other over. She
smiled, asked my name, then revealed, much to my distress, that she was

ten. And how old was I? What could I do? I told her calmly that I was
eleven. Her smile grew warmer.
When my turn at the microphone came, Auntie Kaye asked my name
and age. The little girl was looking admiringly at me. So naturally I gave
my age over the air as eleven.
A Rasta elder I know who is fond of commenting on the scandals of the
day says, "Thus are the minds of men made foolish by the gleaming smiles
of women." Let the church say "Ahmen." Talk about snatching defeat
from the jaws of victory. I absolutely cannot remember what poem I
recited that day. But I also know I shall never forget the look on Tante
Elaine's face when she came to fetch me home. (Apart from lying I had
foolishly blown the aunts' bragging rights of being the youngest to have
been selected.)
"Young man, I promise you, you will never tell a lie again. And certainly
not publicly over the radio!"
The offending orifice, my lying mouth, was thereupon thoroughly
washed out with soap. A high price to pay for an older woman's smile. But
it appears to have worked. Since then I can honestly say I've never wittingly told any kind of lie over the radio or any other public medium. Not
even for a woman's favor.
I was born at a time of bustling change and a sudden if superficial
wartime prosperity in Port of Spain. Numbers of folk were crowding into
the city in search of the work that could not be found in the cane fields
or the countryside.
The streets were filled with Yankee soldiers and airmen from the U.S.
base at Chaguaramas. Also large numbers of Allied sailors from the
British, Canadian, and American merchant ships that congested the
harbor while they awaited destroyer escorts to convoy them across
the Atlantic. I can remember dramatic blackouts when the entire city was
kept completely dark as a precaution against Axis air raids, which mercifully never came.
A calypso, popular at the time, commented wryly on the easy-money,
boomtown, wartime atmosphere that prevailed in the nightlife of the
town. Calypsonians are the Trinidadian descendants of the African troubadours who enjoyed license to comment sharply in song on any political misdeeds by the rulers, or on any domestic scandals or gossip within
the community.
This calypso was called "Rum & Coca-Cola" after the drink of choice
of the foreign troops and the refrain lamented:

Both mother and daughtah
working for the Yankee dollar.
The House at the Forty-Two Steps
We children had no idea what the words meant, but the tune was
catchy and we never quite understood why we were forbidden to sing the
Naturally all this bustle of displacement and transition stimulated the
organization of the masses of the workers. And the undisputed leader of
this resistance was a diminutive black man called Tubal Uriah "Rab" Butler, who seemed always to be organizing and making what I now understand to be incendiary speeches against economic exploitation and the
"wickedness" of the colonial government and subsequently being jailed
for these "seditious utterances."
Of course I could not then have understood any or all of this, and certainly not in the way I've just summarized it. But it certainly was in the
air of the times. It was on the radio and it was the subject of the adult
conversation at dinner. I have a strong impression thatTante Elaine was
either involved with or supportive of the trades-union, worker's-rights
Then, as now, economic conditions were harsh, especially for the
growing numbers of unemployed or marginally employed who were
flocking into the city. Many people around us were real poor, as I came to
recognize early on. But our household was insulated from that grinding
poverty for a number of reasons.
All the aunts were industrious and always fully employed. And all the
aunts baked cakes and pastries for sale so the house was always full of
baked delicacies. I am sure that the per capita income of the family
would appear pathetic in the dollar terms of the economic calculus so
dear to the U.S. media. In U.S. dollars, the income of a Trinidad teacher
or salesclerk would undoubtedly seem puny indeed.
But collectively the household had three incomes and we owned our
home, so the Carmichaels did quite well, thank you very much. Then too
we had the added purchasing power in the local economy of the U.S. dollars remitted regularly from New York by our parents.
As children, therefore, we knew no material hardship. We ate regularly
and well and, again courtesy of the parents, were probably the most elegantly dressed children in church or school. The periodic clothes packages-and once shipping resumed after the war they were as regular as
clockwork-ensured that, attired in their Yankee finery, the Carmichaels
turned heads en route to church. Which made me very fond of Sundays.
In our family, Sunday meant church, and I was very taken by the passionate singing, eloquent preaching, and solemn ritual. No small part of
my attraction was the elaborate dressing up, which was the first step in
it all.
In the Caribbean, at least in our circles, the standard and accepted
church uniform for adolescent boys was a white "dress" shirt, a tie, and

short pants. For all my cousins and friends, that was formal Sunday
The American extravagance-not to mention the outrageous precocity-of dressing a little kid in an adult-styled suit was unheard of. So on
Sundays when the family set out, Austin and I were clean, Jack. I, in my
little blue suit with long pants, bow tie, with a stylish handkerchief showing from the breast pocket. I am a little embarrassed now to confess how
much I enjoyed the public sensation we created. (Austin was similarly outfitted, but being older and bigger, the effect was not so nearly startling as
with my pint-size, six-year-old self.) It never failed. As soon as I appeared,
someone was sure to do a double take, point, and exclaim with genuine
surprise, "Wbai, look at that little man!"This had nothing to do with my
character being "mannish," though it could have been. But that is literally
and exactly what I must have seemed in local eyes, a miniature man. The
name took and for a while I was known as Little Man. It probably was the
suit that got me in trouble with the "older woman" at the radio station too.
When the adults in our family said, "Sunday is the Lord's day," it was
no hollow cliche. Talk about ecumenical, we covered all bases. A typical
Sunday would find the Carmichaels at Hanover Methodist for morning
service from nine to ten-thirty. Eleven o'clock would find us at Gray Friars Presbyterian, where the children had Sunday school till noon. Then a
break for lunch, and while Grandma was alive, it was her beloved Trinity
Anglican for evening worship.
Sometimes later on a Sunday, perhaps once a month, there would be
spiritual activity of a more exotic sort at the home of a Ms. Baines.
Then, as I seem to remember, Austin and I would hide ourselves behind
thick curtains to secretly observe what I remember as a vaguely "African"
religious observance. Austin, who is older, says it was "like but not quite
a Shango ceremony since there was neither drumming nor sacrifice." But
it had aspects of a secret society. It was quiet, private, almost secretive,
which is why we hid to observe it. Spirits would be evoked and consulted.
The participants were possessed by "saints," so clearly it was a derivative
of the orisha worship, which to this day survives in Trinidad from ancestral Africa. It was all deliciously mysterious and exciting, a feeling no
doubt highlighted by the secrecy of our concealment.
At about seven years of age I started school at Eastern Boys School, a
public government school some distance from our home. One did not
have to be very old to quickly see the real differences among the boys. No
one there was rich, but some were obviously poor. They had poor clothes,
usually no shoes, and inadequate food. Even a kid as young as I could see
that. It puzzled me. I did not understand it and I remember only that it
seemed unfair to me. It made me sad.

In June of 1996, I was invited to Trinidad by the Emancipation Committee and so returned to my native land for the first time in thirty
years. The reception was really most extraordinary, especially for someone who had officially been banned from the country for most of his
adult life. Moving as the public occasions were, the best part was the
opportunity to visit with Tante Elaine and Mummy Olga on the childhood turf. One day, a visiting journalist gotTante Elaine to dig deep into
her store of family history. The Trinidad Guardian reported the next
"The boy Stokely was always different,"Tante Elaine said. "He used to
always hide food in a butter can to take to a classmate who only ate crackers at lunchtime. On another occasion," she recalled, "a friend of his
grandmother's admonished him one Sunday after church for keeping
company with some barefoot, scruffy little boys."
As Tante Elaine tells it, little Stokely looked solemnly at the woman.
"Miss Annie, I go to Sunday school. There we sing a hymn that God
loves all the little children of the world. An' now you say I shouldn't play
with them just because they poor and haven't got? I'm sorry, Ms. Annie, I
can't listen to you. I have to do what the Bible say."
That one I did not remember. But a number of things struck me when
I read it. I was touched that the aunt I remembered as so strict and
unyielding had carried that story in her head for half a century. But I was
even more struck by the kid's reply. Because in those days, it was
absolutely unheard of for any kid to successfully contradict any adult. And
if it were to be done, almost certainly the only way one could even hope
to get away with it was to base your defiance on a higher morality, on specific and irrefutable biblical authority. But what I do not know is whether
that was guileless, simple faith on the boy's part, or whether it was a clever
strategic maneuver, using her professed Christianity to score points as I
would deliberately do later in life, especially when organizing in the
Bible Belt South. I think it was conscious. Another case of the child being
father of the man?
I also wished there was some record of old Ms. Annie's response.
In that community, any adult could and would correct or discipline
your public behavior whether he or she knew your family or not. And you
expected no less and were expected to meekly accept the correction.
This next incident I do absolutely remember, but it would hardly have
been cherished and preserved among Tame Elaine's repertoire of stories
to be brought out before strangers on appropriate occasions.
I was coming home from school with two friends. Even if they were
the proverbial "bad company," which is every parent's excuse for the mis31
deeds of his or her little darlings, they were certainly not "barefoot and
scruffy." But we were singing some vulgar rhymes and singing them
loud too. The kind universally irresistible to small boys wanting to be daring and "rude." This song not only had forbidden words, but the unnatural action being described was even worse. I don't even know that I fully
understood the meaning. But it was "rude." There we were bellowing out
at the top of our voices:
I know a boy with a big, roun' head
He [unmentionable] he mother on top the bed.
Out of nowhere, an elderly lady (Ms. Annie?) loomed. We certainly had
had no idea she was around. She was glaring at us, but spoke only to me.
My friends fled.
"Listen to you. And you are a Carmichael too. And this is what you
out here doing? Well, young man, you will soon see ... "
And mouth pursed ominously, she stalked off. I knew trouble was
ahead. My friends asked, "You know she?"
"No, I don't know she."
"But, if you don't know she ... t'ain't no problem," they said dismissively.
"No, but she knows me, that's the problem."
Actually, had I known the woman, she would probably have administered a serious whupping on the spot. All adults were automatically to be
respected. And later that evening when Tante Elaine came home, it was
immediately clear that she already knew. Let us just say swift and summary justice was administered.
But that would not have been the kind of story with which she would
have entertained a visitor.
One that she did tell often is in that ambiguous category where you
can't quite decide whether you remember the event or only the story. It
reemerged from Tante Elaine's storehouse during the sixties after I had
begun to work on voter registration in Mississippi. Mr. Butler was much
in the news at the time of the story-demonstrations, marches, detention.
Also, it must have been about that time that Tante Elaine left the classroom for a clerical position at Gwendolyn's Department Store. There she
became deeply involved with the trade union struggle. She was first
elected shop steward, then, for many years, a vice president of the Clerical Workers Union. I did not really understand it all then, beyond a vague
conviction that Mr. Butler was "brave" and firmly on "our" side against
"them," whoever they might be. I certainly had not made any conscious
connection between Mr. Butler's mass demonstrations and my barefoot,
hungry schoolmates.

[Tante Elaine:
"W'hen he was seven, we had an election. The child started nagging and
worrying me about going to vote. I kept telling him that I wasn't going to meddle in politics, what with all the noise and contention. But would he stop?
"'Tante Elaine,' he asked, 'isn't it true that Mr. Butler went to jail for us?'
"I told him it was so.
" ''l.%ll, then, you have to vote for him. If he went to jail for us, now he can
do even more for us.' He pleaded and pleaded.
"On election day, what you suppose the boy did? He dressed himself up in
the suit with the big lapels that his parents had sent him from New 10rk. W'hen
he went to church in that suit with his bow tie and pocket handkerchief, people
used to call him Little Man.
"Then, he marched his little self right down to the polling station. It wasn't
far, right on the corner of Belmont Road and Observatory Street, and declared
to the returning officer:
"'I come to vote.'
" 'Thu have to wait until you are twenty-one,' the man told him.
"He raced home in tears. 'Oh, Tante Elaine, that's fourteen more years. Is so
long.' And would he stop complaining and harassing me? Until finally I had to
get dressed and he followed me while I went down to vote."]
Tante Elaine maintains that this made her the first voter I ever registered, for, as the paper reported, "she could get no rest from her nephew
with the hooded, brooding eyes and concerns that seemed too weighty
for a child of seven."
School was great fun actually. Especially the journey back and forth, as
one could dawdle, explore, meander, or, as we have seen, sing vulgar
verses. And if one had a few coppers, there was no end to the delicacies on
which one could feast. The entire business of some adult vendors, people
with families, was based on the passing-schoolchildren market. I shudder
to think what their profit margin must have been.
But, depending on the season, one could buy fresh tamarind or sugared tamarind balls, mangoes or poncete, a fruit known elsewhere in the
English-speaking Caribbean as the June plum. There were big, red, delicately fleshed pomerakes (Otaheite apples), tangy, succulent cashew
fruits (not the nuts, which required roasting and extraction), and the
boiled and salted seeds of the chatine, also called breadnuts. It was
advisable to limit your consumption of these. Their popular name-if no
censorious adult were present-was "farting pills," because of the flatulence they were certain to induce. Or one might have tolum, a confection
of grated coconut stirred with sugar and spices, or perhaps a sugar cake
washed down by the milk of a young coconut. Or you could chew on
sugarcane, suck on the ubiquitous mango, the list is endless ....

Then too you could play in the Savannah's open green spaces or
walk through the Botanical Gardens. There in the gardens I seem to
remember steamy greenhouses filled with orchids and ornate lily ponds
where exotic, brightly hued fish darted around the lily roots. I think these
immaculately maintained botanical gardens, established by royal charter
all over the British Caribbean, are perhaps the only completely unambiguous good produced by colonialism.
Within these enclaves, established under the direction of the Royal
Botanical Society, were gathered just about every exotic species of tropical plant to be found within the far-flung borders of the "empire on which
the sun never sets."
They started with the more picturesque of native species, then ranged
through what must have been hundreds of spectacular "exotics." These
all bore little identifying plaques: Latin name, common name, and provenance, i.e., native to equatorial Africa, the Kenyan highlands, Egypt, Polynesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Australia, Central America, ad infinitum.
The selection seemed to cover the known tropical world. Those sonorous
names of faraway places would have stimulated great flights of the imagination in even the most pedestrian of minds. To a small, inquisitive boy,
they were magic.
Traces of our specifically West African origins also surfaced, though
they were not identified in that way. But I now realize that the stubby
palms with massive clusters of orange-colored fruit were oil nut palms
from West Africa, and the little trees called bizi were the kola nut, which
is so central in traditional African cultural practice.
Let the record show that I've attributed at least one unconditional
good result to colonialism. Speak the truth and shame the devil.
Eastern Boys was a government school and so charged no fees. The
physical plant was not elaborate, so as many as four different classes could
be meeting in the same large space, differentiated from each other only
by their own blackboards and a narrow aisle. This was not ideal, but our
teachers made "of necessity a virtue."
Upon our teacher's entrance, each class would rise.
"Good mornin', teacha."
"Good morning, pupils. Please be seated."
After which there was not-could not have been without serious disruption to other classes-the slightest sound or fidgeting. Order and discipline were paramount. In that enveloping silence in which you could
neither whisper nor fidget, you had to pay attention. It was the path of least
resistance. If the teacher's eloquence and skill were not sufficient incentive,
then sheer boredom-the absence of anything else to do-would compel
attention to the lesson at hand. So whether you wanted to or not, you
learned, even if only in self-defense to have the time pass more quickly.

Once we'd meandered and munched our way home, we'd change out
of our school clothes and play football, cricket, or some other game
with the boys in the neighborhood. This was usually in the street outside
my house's gate. One by one the aunts would return from their jobs. When
Tante Louise came in, we greeted her and continued playing. When
Mummy Olga came, the same thing. But, soon as Tante Elaine broached
the corner, whoosh, we'd fly up to the porch and be bent over our homework before she reached the gate. That evening after supper she'd check
our homework. Austin and I had no choice. We were regularly expected
to place within the top three of our class, and for the most part, we did.
I'd give British colonialism a good mark for the educational system
except for one thing. I can now see the extent to which it was colonial: the
Eurocentricism, the cultural chauvinism, the undisguised, brazen "civilizing" mission of converting we heathen if not into English gentlemen,
then at least into dutiful colonial subjects. To this end the reading books
we were issued were a sho-nuff trip. Poems about daffodils, skylarks,
deserted villages, wintry landscapes, flora and fauna never dreamt of in the
More blatant was the omnipresence of patriotic, heroic, vaguely martial odes celebrating the glories of empire-building.
"The boy stood on the burning deck" or that curious celebration of
military ineptitude and collective suicide, "The Charge of the Light
Brigade," viz:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them ...
Rode the six hundred.
Or "The Burial of Sir John Moore at Caronna":
Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory.
Or, of course, that classic of colonial fidelity, "Gunga Din." Gimme an
ever-loving break. But at least our histories did not begin like the one
issued to young Africans in Guinea and Senegal: "Our ancestors, the
Gauls ... "At least we learned discipline and good study habits.
Actually, the colonialism was so all-enveloping and pervasive that as a
child one did not notice it. At the lower levels of the civil service, the only
ones we were likely to encounter, the functionaries-policemen, teachers,
nurses, bus drivers, sanitary inspectors-were all local folk. The expatriate
community-the governor, High Court magistrates, commanders of secu35

rity forces, and various technical managers and executives-were quite
remote. So too the relatively small population oflocal whites, the descendants of landed gentry, slaveowners, and their agents. So these people were
not really a presence in our lives. One might say we moved in somewhat
different circles. In fact, I can remember but three instances when the
white presence made any impression on my conscious experience.
Once when I was very small, Mummy Olga took me to play in the
Savannah. Under the protective eye of my gentle, kindhearted aunt I was
playing on the lawn. A policeman ordered me rather roughly off the grass.
I think I was just about setting my face to cry when my sweet-natured aunt
turned tigress. She flew in the cop's face, arms akimbo.
"You don't see that Ii'! white boy over there on the grass? Why you
don't go chase him? Or is it only black people's children you got strength
for? Why ain't you go chase that one, eh?"
The cop quailed and beat as dignified a retreat as he was able. I
hadn't even noticed the other little boy before my aunt's outburst. I never
forgot that incident.
Later, when I went to Tranquillity Boys' Intermediate School, I found
a scattering of expatriate boys. They kind of knew their place, though,
because the school leaders, the best athletes and the best students,
seemed always to beTrinidadian-African, East Indian, or Chinese.
One day, however, we were reading and there was a reference to
snow. Our teacher, who was local African, began to explain and describe
it when he was interrupted by an English boy, who stopped him and
explained exactly what snow was. Interrupting and correcting a teacher
was unheard of. After class there was an excited discussion among us.
Some boys were saying that our teacher had been exposed in his stupidity. My position was that it was not a question of our teacher being stupid. He, never having been to England, should not be expected to know
as much about snow as someone born there. What was so special about
snow that our teacher should be expected to know it? What could we in
Trinidad be expected to know about snow anyway? Why was it even in
our book? Do English schoolbooks teach about Trinidad? I remember
taking this position rather fiercely, largely because in some vague, unarticulated way I felt the humiliation of our teacher as an insult to us all.
Apart from those two incidents, the annual obligatory Empire Day
observances, and one visit by a member of the "royal" family, Princess
Margaret, colonialism in Trinidad was everywhere present but rarely
obvious to a kid.
Empire Day was a head trip. This judgment is by no means retrospective; even then we found it a little odd, kind of artificial, and pointless.
Once annually, what seemed like all the schoolchildren of the city
would be assembled on the Savannah, there to sing "Rule Britannia,"

"The British Grenadiers," "God Save the Queen," and other such uplifting compositions of Anglophiliac excess. After which we were addressed
briefly and perfunctorily by the governor or some other British dignitary.
An utter nonevent so far as I and my friends were concerned.
Now the visit of Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret was a different
story. I was about ten, and for weeks that was all you could hear, in school,
in church, on the radio, in the newspapers, and in the marketplace.
"Princess Margaret is coming. Royal visit! A national honor. Historic
event. The country must put its best foot forward."
So of course I was prepared, if I could figure out which one it was, to
put my "best foot" forward too. And from all the hype one could not
avoid a growing anticipation. We children-alas, the crimes against the
young-were again enlisted. We were each given a tiny Union Jack and
attired as though for church. We lined the route, where we were promised
a good look at the "princess." So, of course, the noble wench is late. We
children stood for some four hours in the hot sun. At first it was sun hot,
but then came a tropical deluge that drenched us thoroughly. No princess.
After which the sun pops out and dries us out again. No Princess. After
about another hour, the long-awaited moment. A couple of police outriders with some kind of flags streaming above their motorbikes. A ripple
of whispered excitement, "Princess coming, princess coming," moves
along the line of kids. We start waving the small Union Jacks. We all perk
up. At last a look at this royal paragon. Maybe she'll smile at us and wave.
Finally this weird covered carriage with drawn curtains rolls on by. That
was it.
The response was unanimous: "What were we standing there for if we
didn't even get to see her?" And obviously she did not want even to look
at us.
As I said, the European presence was, at least for me, distant and
Not so the East Indian community though. They were very much a
presence in my youth. After the abolition of slavery in the Empire in
1838, the sugar planters in the West Indies and South Africa were hardest hit. In both places the importation of labor from the Indian subcontinent to replace the Africans in the cane fields began in earnest.
In Trinidad, the recruitment of these indentured workers, whom the
planters referred to as "coolie" labor (a term we were forbidden to use in
our house), continued until the numbers of Africans and Indians reached
parity. My impression is that, with the exception of a few demagogic bigots on both sides (V. S. and Shiva Naipaul come to mind), the relationship between these two very different peoples was reasonably civil and tolerant.

At about seven or eight I was playing with a group of boys in the
street. An old, bearded, and turbaned Indian man passed by.
"Look at that ol' coolie man," someone shouted, and we laughed.
"Shame on you, boys." Glowering down on us was a large, disapproving African woman. "Don't call them coolies. You know they don't like
"Then what we to call them, ma'am?" someone asked, genuinely
"They are East Indians. That is what they call themselves. And when
you see an old man like him, say, 'Salaam babu.'That's how his people
call him." I could hardly wait to see another elderly Indian to test this
novel salutation.
The Indians made a profound impression on me. At this time, being
the more recent arrivals, they frequently wore their national dress, spoke
their national languages, and maintained their religious faith and practice.
Periodically, they would have colorful religious festivals and processions.
I think in addition to the Hindus, some were Moslem, because one such
festival seems to have been the Shiite festival of Hussein and Hassan.
I used to look at their colorful dress and say, "Wow. India must really
be beautiful because all the people in India must be dressed like this." I
thought we Africans suffered in comparison. Since we wore only Western
clothes, were mostly Christian, and spoke only English, I for a long time
considered slavery and the ruthlessness of oppression and imperialism to
have seriously trampled on, even stamped out, our original culture.
Indeed, I can remember once answering a question about African culture
in Trinidad to the effect that the only element I'd experienced was those
meetings at Ms. Baines's, which I thought "vaguely African."
Of course now I know better. I now understand how thoroughly
"African" the base ofTrinidadian popular culture is. And the extent to
which, instead of dissipating away, African culture has informed, indeed
to an extent colonized, the European and Indian cultures in Trinidad.
In the late sixties, on a visit to England, I can remember once meeting
Sam Selvon (peace be unto him), the distinguished Trinidadian comic
novelist of Indian descent. An African brother born in Jamaica greeted
"Aha, a writer, huh? So you must be one of that Naipaul gang, eh?"
"Oh, God, boy," he wailed. "I don' business with them boys, eh? I creolize, boy. I completely creolize. No, man, doan say that."
We just laughed and hugged him.
"We just yanking your chain, bro. We know your work and we know
"Yeah, man. But don't make them kina joke, ouz? I don't know what
wrong with those two, eh?"

Selvon's comic masterpiece, The Lonely Londoners, chronicles the misadventures of the Pan-African emigrant community in postwar London.
It is a true classic of the Pan-African spirit. Its rich cast includes workingclass characters from Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, all parts of the
Caribbean, the countries of British colonial Africa, and the Indian subcontinent all thrown together in close alliance in the alien culture and climate of London. Bro Selvon, ostensibly a "Trinidadian Indian," displays
in his work not only comic genius but a remarkable spirit of Pan-African
Ironically enough, my experience of Africa and the American South has
enabled me to recognize the extent to which the Trinidad of my youth was
very much one of those deceptive creolized cultures in which "Europe
rules but Africa governs." And certainly in the tonalities and styles of
speech, our music, the cuisine, the style and sensibility of popular culture,
and the rhythms of daily family and community life, it was Africa that governed there. Or at least did when I was a child.
My mistake as a youth with regard to the culture is easy to understand.
In school, we learned about snow, daffodils, and skylarks. I had no references by which to properly understand, identify, or analyze the culture
that was all around me. So much all around us, in fact, that we never recognized it as culture. (The distinctive Indian dress was culture.) What we
were looking at all around us was simply what folks did naturally. We took
it for granted. Carnival and the steel band phenomenon is an excellent
case in point.
As I said, the Casa Blanca steel band was a natural and constant part
of my earliest environment, like the moon or the sun. Some things are
simply accepted and never really examined. And of course, it was not a fit
subject for discussion in school.
It took me, therefore, a long time to realize just how unique an act of
creative genius and what an aggressive and subversive act of African cultural resistance those steel bands actually represented.
It is quite a story. Sometime in the late 1930s, the government in
another of its persistent and futile attempts to suppress African cultural
survivals, decided that the colony would more easily be governable if
drums and other traditional musical instruments were outlawed. The
colonials must have sensed, and correctly, the importance of music in the
cultural independence and political resistance of the African masses. I
would, of course, encounter this phenomenon again in the American
South. But at least the George Wallaces and Ross Barnetts of that world
never tried to outlaw our spirituals and freedom songs. Though I'm sure
they must often have wished that they could have.
So in Trinidad by legislative fiat an African could be jailed for possession of drums and other musical instruments? Not a gun, not a grenade,

or some dynamite, but a drum? I have often tried, and failed, to visualize
the campaign to enforce that law. In implementation of this policy, did
armed police and soldiers-the governor's minions-surround African
communities and conduct house-to-house searches? And for what, those
threats to public order, drums, tambourines, maracas, and marimbas? Did
they kick down the doors to shacks with guns drawn: "Freeze. You're
under arrest. Seize that drum!"
So, suddenly deprived of their traditional instruments of musical
expression, Africans resorted to their creativity and whatever materials
lay to hand. In this case, the fifty-five-gallon steel drums used to store oil
at the refinery.
These they took and cut to varying depths. Say nine inches down for
an alto pan, two feet deep for a tenor pan, and twice that for a bass. Then
on the top they would heat and pound out a number of raised areas, each
of which when struck would produce a precise musical note of a certain
pitch. Over the years the brothers experimented with ways to refine the
basic instruments and to create others. The result is what is today known
the world over as the Trinidad steel band: an ensemble of musical instruments of great range and flexibility, capable of playing not only calypso
and other forms of local popular music, but the most complex and
demanding of jazz compositions or any form from the European classical tradition you care to name. A sound immediately recognizable in the
distinctive, liquid purity of tones and the fluency of its melodic lines.
Hey, as you may have noticed, I can't pretend to be an ethnomusicologist. I'm a revolutionary. But that description should give you a
fairly accurate sense of the accomplishment represented by the creation
of the steel bands. And remember, this unique innovation and the musical tradition it evolved into came directly out of the determined and
indomitable will of Trinidad's Africans to resist colonization and to
maintain their culture.
The music of the steel bands became an integral part of carnival and
Trinidad's popular music. Carnival proper takes place over the four
days immediately preceding Ash Wednesday, which begins the forty austere days of Lent. This explosion of music, spectacle, and fervent celebration before the dour solemnity of Lent is common to many Catholic
cultures, especially the Latin ones.
It comes the Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Lent, but
the bands will have been rehearsing and composing all year. The masquerade troupes will have started constructing their elaborate and fantastical costumes from the day after Christmas. But many a poor worker
will have been saving pennies all year for carnival costume in which to
"play Mas'."
The origins of this giant communal fete are interesting. It followed

pretty much the same pattern in those "creolized" societies where powerful currents from Europe and Africa mingled and combined-New
Orleans, Brazil, and Trinidad. In all these places during slavery, elements of European Catholic ritual and spectacle merged with similar
aspects of African religious cultures. Specifically, these were the colorful
and spectacular rituals of the saint's day parades of Latin Catholic culture,
the frenzied pre-Lenten or spring festivals of pagan Europe merging with
the masked ancestral dances or masquerades ofWest African cultures, to
evolve into carnival in Rio or in the New Orleans Mardi Gras. The quality of the music, the dance, and the elaborate, colorful masked dancers are
clearly African in origin: "Europe ruled but Africa governed."
As I recall, the excitement and anticipation began to build in January
with the launching of the Mas' camps. In these camps the construction of
the floats and costumes for the Grande Marche took place. As the time
approached, people-our family included-would stroll from camp to
camp previewing the models and drawings of the costumes under construction. We would argue over our favorites to win the grand prize. Then
the bands would begin to refine and rehearse their musical routines
composed for the contest called Panorama. Today, so I'm told, the steel
bands come lavishly attired and equipped courtesy of their multinational
corporate sponsors, the marriages of capitalism and local culture. The
Shell Oil Invaders and Mobil Corp's Casa Blanca? Somehow it doesn't
ring quite right, given the militant history out of which the bands evolved.
All motion is not necessarily progress.
Around mid-February, the calypso tents would go up at different
venues around the city. In those days some really were giant circus tents.
In the tents in nightly concerts, aspiring calypsonians would show off and
test out their repertoires for the big contest. Calypsonians are not merely
performers. They are poets, satirists, social critics, musical composers, as
well as singers. Very much in the tradition of the African griot and taleteller. In fact, one important category of carnival competition is extemporaneous composition. Each contestant is given a subject or theme
around which to compose a calypso. On the spot, he is expected to create
the words and music and to sing his instantly created calypso before a very
critical audience.
This was Tante Elaine's favorite part of carnival. But we children
never got to go to the calypso tents because the scandalous, irreverent,
antiestablishment tradition of the form was very much still in evidence at
that time.
One year, the governor had repeatedly threatened to cancel carnival or,
as the people called it, Mas'. This naturally provoked everyone, especially
the calypsonians. One night, a singer strode to the front of the tent and put
up a detailed-anatomically correct-picture of a large jackass behind the

stage. The picture of the animal excited considerable interest. What in
Hades was a donkey doing in the calypso tent? Without explanation the
brother launched into a rollicking song, the chorus of which went:
De governor say no Mas'?
Tell de governor he moddah's ...
And he pointed to the animal as the audience shouted out the obvious
De governor say no Mas'?
Tell de governor to haul he ...
And he pointed at the animal and the audience, laughing, completed the
I have no idea whether that song won that year, but it certainly is the
performance that all Port of Spain was laughing about and singing that
week. No more was heard from that particular representative of the
queen about banning Mas'.
Carnival proper began on the Saturday with Panorama, the daylong
shoot-out, so to say, the mother of all steel band battles. The contest
determined the year's champion and, I think, the order of march in the
big parade, or Grande Marche.
Dimanche Gras, or "Big Sunday," saw the judging of the costumes of
the troupes of dancing masqueraders and the crowning of the calypso
king, as I recall.
Before sunup on Monday was J'Ouvert (day opening), the beginning
of masquerade activity. This was the time reserved for 01' Mas', the
rowdy, raunchy, orgiastic element of carnival (as distinct from Pretty
Mas'). The audience would be chased, daubed with mud in Mud Mas',
and all kinds of madness and excess would take place. 01' Mas' was not
at all respectable. It was the time when revelers who'd been up all the previous night drinking would blow off steam. It's bacchanal, oui, bacchanal.
Being as young as I was, I know J'Ouvert only from the shocked descriptions of my elders' conversations.
But the finale, or Mardi Gras (FatTuesday), was the family's. We would
take benches and chairs to our friend Mrs. Brito's house. She conveniently
lived on Charlotte Street, opposite the Rosary Catholic School, near to the
entrance where the Grande Marche entered the Savannah. It was a perfect vantage point from which to view, comment on, and judge the entire
parade. Almost daylong, with the steel bands, spectacular masquerade
troupes, the calypsonians, and with masked individuals and groups of supporters dancing behind them.

We were too young to "play Mas'," and as the aunts pointed out, by
not being in the parade we got to see everything much better anyway.
Unfortunately, I leftTrinidad before I could assimilate and process all
this. I've placed it all here in much more of a context than I had at the
time. For what I had while I was there were simply experiences-impressions and sensations-which I'd been absorbing through my senses and
by osmosis. I left at the age where I was just beginning to understand it all,
but my impressions are indelible.
Trinidad was beautiful to me. It was love, it was security, it was community and protection. And my recollection of my childhood there is
happy. Good times, secure times, in which I was totally at ease. I was free
even as a young boy to roam the neighborhood with no restraints. We
could walk around the Botanical Gardens, we could go to the Savannah.
At night, when the moon was bright, all the lights would be turned out
and we children would play in the moonlit garden. There was music, there
was vibrancy, there was color, there was dynamism. I can honestly say
that, as a young boy in Trinidad, I do not think I ever felt conscious of
lacking anything.
Because I didn't know, or didn't at least really understand, the impact
of belonging to a colonial subject people, I would not have changed
Trinidad at all. I would have left it just the way it was.  

Ready for Revolution
Carmichael ultimately sided with those calling for the expulsion of whites. He said that whites should organize poor white southern communities, of which there were plenty, while SNCC focused on promoting African-American self-reliance through Black Power.