Have you ever felt lost and wondered who you really are? Have you ever wondered about the things that happened to you since the day you were born? Have you ever wondered about the things that have made you the way you are? Have you ever wondered about all the people who have been in your life, those you still know and those from your past? Have you ever really wondered how all of these people impacted your past, your present and your future? Have you ever wondered if you had grown up in another place if you would be the person you are now?
I am sitting on Vilano Beach with moistened sand on my feet, staring at the sea. It is a mild summer evening in late May in 2014. The harsh summer heat has not yet arrived. The water is a very deep blue and to me it is raging. Waves are constantly crashing on the shore. There are some brave people who have ventured in. The sun is still high in the western sky. It will be a while before it sets. The air is filled with salt and there is even a breeze coming off the sea.
The beach is on the eastern shore of St. Johns County, Florida. It is a very beautiful beach, just off the Intercoastal Bridge. There are a few hotels on either side of the street that lead to the beach. It is quite popular. There is a public area where you can shower off and some benches where you can sit and enjoy a relaxing evening. It is here I come to get away, to enjoy the atmosphere of the beach. I like to pick up seashells as I stroll along the beach. I like the sounds of the waves crashing onto the shore, the sounds of the birds crying as they fly home late in the evening. I like the smell of the sea and to feel the breeze that comes off the sea. It somehow relaxes me but it is the sea that I do not like. I only go near enough to dip my feet in the water.
The horizon seems so far away. I am looking at the horizon trying to imagine what lies beyond it, yet I know it is another view of endless sea with another horizon in the distance. Here I am sitting on the beach staring out to sea hoping that it will speak to me. The waves are churning and frothing and crashing onto the shore, yet the horizon remains resplendent. It appears as a boundary to mark forbidden territory, a barrier for me. I cannot fathom its depths or know the secrets that it has kept. Right now, all I want is for the sea to speak; to tell me why it was controlling me. I can only hear the occasional sounds the seagulls make as they dive amidst the waves hoping to find prey. My head starts to spin and I begin to feel as though I am the prey of the sea but it ignores me as though I am not there.
The vastness of the sea makes me feel lost; powerless. Where did I go wrong? I am beginning to have strange thoughts. Strange questions come into my mind; questions that I do not have the answers for. I am hoping that the sea will provide an answer for me.
It was then that I started to think about things that happened to me since the day I was born and what made me the way I am. It may seem strange to think of this but now I have the time to reflect on the past. I am thinking about the way things were back then, the way they are now and what may happen in the future. Looking out at the sea seems to bring back memories of all the people who have been in my life, some I still know and some from my past. I am thinking about how all of these people impacted my past, my present and my future. I wonder if I had grown up in another place how different my life would be. That life to me will always be a mystery.
I wonder what scene of what act I am in now in my life. I think about the actors that have departed my stage and about the actors who are on stage now. Strange, I wonder how long their lines will be. I even wonder if they will be in the next scene. It is as though my stage is a revolving door through which many people come and many people go. Some stay a short time, some a while, others stay and are there every day. At the end of every act, I often wonder if the writer of the script will put them in the next day.
The last person to exit through that revolving door was my ex-husband. It saddens me because I thought he would have been there until the play ended and both of us would take the curtain call together. Now given all the heartbreak, I would not want him back on my stage.
My stage was built for me long before I was even born. It was built by people whose presence will never grace it. I have realized that without them laying the foundation and creating the theatre, I would never be the star in this play or even on this stage.
I sigh. Today I just wanted to get away – away from this place, away from me and yet I found myself by the sea. I would never go in because of a deep fear that I have within me. It is a fear of the sea. This sea is very far away from my homeland. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it is not only me who is afraid of the sea. Maybe more than half of the population on Barbados is afraid of the sea. Most of them
cannot swim, so they too must have a deep fear of the sea.
I could not understand where my thoughts were headed but that old Bajan proverb, “de sea aint got nuh backdoor” was still on my mind from the night before as though someone had planted a seed there. I started to wonder why because I had no intention of going to the beach today, yet I am here. My intention was to go to the town of St Augustine to Hobby Lobby to get some art supplies. The town of St Augustine is said to be the oldest town in the USA. It was originally settled by the Spaniards. All the streets still have Spanish names; it has an old-world charm which I find appealing. There are lots of old buildings; there is a ruin of an old fort and a boardwalk runs along the waterfront. The mainland is connected by the famous Bridge of Lions to Anastasia Island. Somehow, I did not remember to go into the left lane to turn off to go into town. I was in the centre lane and proceeded straight ahead. By the time I got to the next traffic lights on San Marco, the beach was on my mind again so I turned right and headed to the Intercoastal Bridge and to Vilano Beach.
That proverb seemed to be trying to tell me something. I pondered on it for a while longer. My mother must have warned me a million times and, it is now ingrained in my brain: “ if the sea rough, don’t go in, if the waves breaking high, don’t go in, if you feel the tide get out, cause de sea aint got nuh back door.” I still tell this to my son. He is so familiar with it that when I start, he says, “Mummy, I know the drill.”
The more I thought about it, I began to realize that it was more than just an old proverb. All the mothers in Barbados that I knew must have told that to their children as it was told to them. It was more than a proverb; it was our eleventh commandment. Then it came to me, crystal clear, the true meaning of that proverb. You see, I now believe that its true meaning was lost through time and my ancestors placed it on my mind. I think it was the Africans’ way of saying that they would not get back home to Africa. If I were aboard a slave ship not knowing where I was headed upon the open sea, my thoughts would be on how or if I would get back home. If I were fortunate to survive that perilous middle passage journey so far across the sea, with no hope of seeing Africa again, my thoughts would be that the sea did not have a back door to take me back to my home and that makes sense to me now.
Gazing out to the open sea had finally solved the mystery. It was always something that I could never explain. I did not even have the words to ask to get the right answers but here it was that the mystery was solved that had always bothered me. It was then that I started to think about me; my past seemed
to flash before me.
I am haunted by the horror of slavery. My people must have been living in fear of being captured. I guess that the slave traders were the terrorist of their day and in their reign of terror the people never knew when they would strike. I have no knowledge of my people, not even the circumstances of their capture or the language they spoke. I have wondered if in the dead of the night, their entire village was raided and the young and able-bodied bound and put into coffles and taken on the long trip to the coast to the horror that awaited them. The chances of escape were probably few because too many were captured and transported across the sea. I bet every step taken on that walk to the coast was in apprehension of not knowing what to expect.
Only heaven knows of the torture they saw and experienced deep in the dungeons of Elmina Castle as they waited for a ship to take them to an unknown destination. It did not matter what language they spoke then; it did not matter who was Ibo, who was Mandingo, who was Popo or who was Fulani. From that point on it would matter no more, they were no longer free. If they belonged to a religion, I am sure that they must have prayed that they would be delivered from the hands of the evil men.
I shudder as I think of that wretched castle by the sea where black men were forced into slavery. Did my ancestors look back as they departed from Elmina Castle from the Doorway of no Return? I wondered about the minute details of that journey across the sea when grown men were stacked like sardines in a tin, occupying every square inch that was available and I wondered how they survived. They must have been in shock, thinking of what further perils could befall them as they journeyed to the unknown across the sea. Our separation from Africa was only just beginning. Forever severed from Mother Africa’s womb, did they cry? Did they laugh uncontrollably to forget the agony? After a while, did they become numb when their brothers and sisters dropped dead at their sides when disease set in? I am amazed that so many survived after weeks on that long perilous journey. Barbaric is the only word I have to describe it now. The only thing I know for sure is that my ancestors were strong. I know of this because I have felt it inside, the determination to survive.
I have often wondered about my ancestors that the slaves left behind in Africa. How did they feel when their loved ones went missing? Was there pain, anguish or suffering? Day by day by day, did their pain ever go away? Did those mothers cry every day? Not being able to see their loved ones and not even knowing if they were still alive seems to be too much to bear.
After so many years I still believe that they never stopped hoping that the missing ones would return someday. They, too, must have been living in fear by day and by night that they, too, would be taken away. It is now unimaginable for me to understand that this could have happened and that my defenceless people were forced into submission and taken from their lands. There was no help to seek to stop this invasion; no one to call to find the ones who were taken away. There was no medicine to dull that pain, that sorrow, that lost.
Now I realize that for generations my ancestors in West Africa were living in a cycle of fear. How else can I describe it? Those traumatic experiences had been going on for 180 years. Yes, one hundred and eighty years of being hunted down like animals and then shackled and put on ships that took them to distant unknown lands. That psyche of fear was what they knew. That was the life of six generations in West Africa.
Each year about 42,000 slaves were shipped to the British West Indies. Now I know why the slaves developed such a fear and hatred of the sea. They were so afraid of it that they never learned to swim. Maybe they were too afraid to venture in, fearing it would take then away again. It was a fear that became ingrained in our psyche so deep that it was passed from generation to generation – that fear of the sea, warning us that it had no back door for us to get back to Africa. Now, I blame the sea for taking the Africans into slavery. Now, I understand the pain of those who were left behind in Africa so long ago, for I too have felt the pain of the sea taking my people from me.
There are four people that I have never met, never heard them speak, never seen what they looked like, never even knew their real names or where they came from. Yet they have the most profound effect on me. I realize that through me they live forever because their blood runs in my veins.
They are my ancestors. Two men and two women who were taken off a slave ship in Bridgetown. They endured the harsh physical and mental conditioning of slavery and survived. Their determination to survive must have been passed down to me because my mother used to say that she knew of no one who was as determined as me.
Throughout my life, I have wondered about them. The stories my maternal grandmother told were never enough. I was an inquisitive child. Those four people, those men and those women, are my missing link. They are the blank chapters at the beginning of my book. It is where I started and yet I have no knowledge of it.
I have wondered if I am a descendant of a king and what was my religion way back then. Then there are simple things like who I resemble and whose genes were tall and slim. I will never know whose big doe eyes I see through and whose Nubian lips still grace my face. I sigh because I will just never know.
I am sure that at least one of those people was an artist. Were it not so, the desire to create would not have survived in me. It has undergone transformations, but it adapted and now it thrives as it must have done a long, long time ago.
Here is where it gets blurry. I do not know exactly what it was. It could have been art, music, drumming or singing, making jewellery, making baskets or pottery, storytelling, making masks or God knows what else. What I do know is what I have sensed inside of me that I am connected to someone who did something similar a very long time ago and that spirit still thrives in me.
So, in my book, the book about my ancestors and me, the words really start from chapter 2 or 3. Chapter 1 will always be a mystery. I will never know what really happened. However, I have been trying to connect the dots to my ancestors since I became curious about the stories my grandmother told me. She told me stories of the old-time people, as she called them, who lived in huts made of thatch roofs and mud floors; who buried their dead facing the east so that when the spirits rose, they would find their way back home.
When I was 17, I searched one of the old slave registers in the archives and found the names of some of my maternal ancestors, whose surname I bear, living at Hannays Plantation in Christ Church. However, my grandmother Ada Viola (Aunt V) said we were from Rising Sun and years later a search of the baptismal records from the Christ Church Parish Church confirmed this. I do not know when some of them left the plantation, but it may have been at emancipation because from what was passed down, my maternal great grandmother Mary lived in Lodge Road which is on the way to Rising Sun. That Plantation no longer exists. Aunt V lived on Oistins Hill overlooking Ashby Land with a view of Oistins Bay. She had a backdoor to the sea and later moved to Cane Vale.
When slavery ended, many of the ex-slaves who lived along the coast stopped working on the plantations and became fishermen. On my father’s side this was the story. I know that our people lived in Foul Bay, St Philip. They were fisher folks. They were among the first black entrepreneurs of Barbados.
My great-great grandfather’s people were among that lot. They lived in Foul Bay where the poor whites and the blacks intermarried. My great grandmother was brown and my great grandfather was black. Their union produced two brown girls, two black boys and one black girl. My grandmother was the black girl. Those colour distinctions that were created so long ago have been passed down to this day through my family.