Father said later that this African man I was made to shake hands with would have been a chief or a prince in Africa. Evidently, when they speak English you know that they have learned to be civilized—taught English by the white man, missionaries probably. So Father told me not to worry about having shaken his hand because the African man was most likely a potentate.
With such a countenance there was a chance of a golden life for I. What, after all, could Alberta give? Bare black feet skipping over stones. If I was given to my father’s cousins for upbringing, I could learn to read and write and perform all my times tables. And more. I could become a lady worthy of my father, wherever he might be.
I could understand why it was of the greatest importance to her that slavery should not return. Her skin was so dark. But mine was not of that hue—it was the color of warm honey. No one would think to enchain someone such as I. All the world knows what that rousing anthem declares: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Anthropoid—I looked to the dictionary to find the meaning of this word used by Hitler and his friends to describe Jews and colored men. I got a punch in the head when the implication jumped from the page and struck me: “resembling a human but primitive, like an ape.” Two whacks I got. For I am a black man whose father was born a Jew.
Living far from you is a beloved relation whom you have never met. Yet this relation is so dear a kin she is known as Mother. Your own mummy talks of Mother all the time. “Oh, Mother is a beautiful woman—refined, mannerly, and cultured.” Your daddy tells you, “Mother thinks of you as her children; like the Lord above she takes care of you from afar” […] your finest, your best, everything you have that is worthy is sent to Mother as gifts.
Ask any of us West Indian RAF volunteers—ask any of us colony troops where in Britain are ships built, where is cotton woven, steel forged, cars made, jam boiled, cups shaped, lace knotted, glass blown, tin mined, whiskey distilled? Ask […]
Now see this. An English soldier, a Tommy called Tommy Atkins […] Ask him, “Tommy, tell me nah, where is Jamaica?” And hear him reply, “Well, dunno. Africa, ain’t it?”
I was learning to despise the white American GI above all other. They were the army that hated me the most! Out of place in the genteel atmosphere of this dreary tea-shop these three aggrieved GIs twitched with hostile excitement, like snipers clearing their aim at a sitting target […] these poor GIs were in a murderous mood watching a nigger sitting with his head still high. If the defeat of hatred is the purpose of war, then come, let us face it: I and all the other colored servicemen were fighting this war on another front.
“The cheeky ones,” she told me, “will be Cockneys. You’ll want nothing to do with Cockneys, they’re all jellied eels and kneesups. No, that one’s a gentleman. No spivs or ne’erdowells ever read The Times.”
For this dismal garment, which I had taken to be her dressing gown, was her good outside coat […] She look on me distasteful, up and down. I was dressed as a woman such as I should be when visiting the shops in England. My coat was clean, my gloves freshly washed and a hat upon my head. But Mrs. Bligh stare on me as if something was wrong with my apparel, before telling me once more, “I’m not worried about what busybodies say. I don’t mind being seen in the street with you.”
She think me a fool that does not know what is bread? But my mind could not believe what my eye had seen. That English people would buy their bread in this way. This man was patting on his red head and wiping his hand down his filthy white coat. Cha, why he no lick the bread first before giving it to me to eat?
The mechanics, the teachers, the clerks who were all left out here sat brooding on their worth to a country they loved. Wondering what sort of Britain was being built without us. Forgotten war, forgotten army, forgotten again.
Still he went on: “I am not one of those people who wish the English out of India. I like you. Are you not protecting us all this time from the filthy Japs with their slitty eyes? Your British bulldog understands that there is nothing worse than foreigners invading your land […] A dreadful thing to have foreign muddy boots stamping all over your soil. Do you not think?
I want to shoot him […] but he’s still smiling and I start to think, Oh, well, maybe he’s not so bad. Until I see his sword flash. Light cracking off it in a spark. I knew we were in danger. But suddenly Queenie sits up in bed, turns to the door, looks the Jap straight in they eye and says, “Hello.” Just like that. Hello. Like she’s talking to a neighbor. Hello. As if she’d known him all her life. “Hello. Come in.”
There was something I recognized on the face of Bernard Bligh […] Come, I saw it reflected from every mirror on my dear Jamaican island. Staring back on me from my own face. Residing in the white of the eye, the turn of the mouth, the thrust of the chin. A bewildered soul. Too much seen to go back. Too much changed to know which way is forward. I knew with this beleaguered man’s return the days of living quiet in this house had come to an end.
Hortense should have yelled in righteous pain not whimper in my ear […] Come, let me tell you, I wanted to tempt these busybodies closer. Beckon them to step forward and take a better look. For then I might catch my hand around one of their scrawny white necks and squeeze. No one will watch us weep in this country.
The war was fought so people might live amongst their own kind. Quite simple. Everyone had a place. England for the English and the West Indies for these colored people. Look at India. The British knew fair play. Leave India to the Indians. That’s what we did.
And I said to myself, Hortense, come, this is a gift from the Lord—life. What price is a little disgust on your best dress? I decided to pay it no mind.
“Gilbert, come, you no scared of a little hard work. I can help you.” She spun round the room. “With a little paint and some carpet.” She moved to the corner leaning over to spread out her arms and say “And a table and a chair here,” before rushing to the fireplace with the suggestion, “and two armchairs here in front of an open English fire. You will see—we will make it nice.”
“It would kill you, Bernard,” I said. “Have you thought about all that? Because I have. I’ve done nothing but think about it. And you know what? I haven’t got the guts for it. I thought I would. I should have but I haven’t got the spine. Not for that fight. I admit it, I can’t face it, and I’m his blessed mother.”
Gilbert sucked on his teeth to return this man’s scorn. “You know what your trouble is, man?” he said. “Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. […] listen to me, man, we both just finish fighting a war—a bloody war—for the better world we wan’ see. And on the same side—you and me. […] But still, after all that we suffer together, you wan’ tell me I am worthless and you are not.”
For at that moment as Gilbert stood, his chest panting with the passion from his words, I realized that Gilbert Joseph, my husband, was a man of class, a man of character, a man of intelligence. Noble in a way that would some day make him a legend […] But this Englishman just carried on, “I’m sorry… but I just can’t understand a single word that you’re saying.”
Michael Joseph would know his mother not from the smell of boiling milk, a whispered song or bare black feet but from the remembered taste of salt tears. Those tears that on that day dripped, one at a time, from her eye, over his lips and on to his tongue.