Eyes of My Jamaican Soul
by Rev. Tamara E. Lewis
The smooth skinned chocolate brown man tossed back a head full of long, neat dreads. "Hello, pretty one," he whispered, brushing past the narrow aisle. I smiled, relaxing carefully into my seat. His spirit spoke of something ancient. It talked to me. He was proud of his being, proud of his soul. By loving himself, he loved me, glorified me, because I was part of him. Our collective history, our communal identity made us one. We were united by an unseen bond. It was a bond that spoke of months in the cramped, tiny holds of European ships. It was a bond that spoke of years of work and toil and servitude. It was a bond that spoke of joy and liberation. We were tied together also, by crushing defeat and an ongoing struggle with nature and self. Yes, it only took seconds for us to glimpse into the eyes of eternity, this Rasta man and I. Despite differences in our customs and rituals, we were connected through the holiness of the Divinity we honored within. Our connection was a mutual love of God, the God who loves us. Joyfully, we delighted in the beauty of God’s beautiful creations, each other.
The flight to Kingston from Miami would be a short one, and soon my sister and I would be in the land of our paternal foremothers and fathers. I felt very much like I was going home. Looking down over the beautiful island as we neared for the landing gave me a warm feeling of contentment. Jamaica is the birthplace of my father. The land carries my roots. I had to love Jamaica first even before I began to love Africa. Part of me remains always in Jamaica. When the wheels of the plane hit the runway, a part of my body, connected to the land, felt the power of steel against my skin. We were in the home we never knew, just like our bodies are homes we often don’t know. We were about to traverse lands unknown, yet known—our own bodies, our own selves.
In the airport, we confronted bureaucratic machinery, standing in the line of ‘foreign nationals.’ It was odd. We were asking permission to enter our own home, the land that was us, in us. We were Jamaica too! Seemingly bored, the man checking passports glanced indifferently in our direction. He addressed us softly, nobly, while his creamy black face spoke loudly of African origins. My heart felt at peace. There was a spiritual connect everywhere, a rhythm of belonging without trying, belonging by nature.
Outside, we nervously waited for cousins we had never met. I studied the people. They were Jamaican, and yet walked with the pride and gait of Africa. Hairstyles were varied, but among all, especially the women, I detected little of the shame of having kinky hair so prevalent among many African Americans. My sister and I must have looked very out of place, with our bulky luggage and cautious dispositions, sniffing at the hot Kingston air. Hustlers eyed us slyly, unsure whether to speak, to try to sell us something. We turned our heads with quiet impotence. We were waiting. We were home.
A beige car finally pulled up, and an attractive ebony man stepped out. He walked directly over to me. "Hi," he said slyly, almost laughing. "Are you Tammy?" His pronunciation of my childhood name had the same kind of English hilt as my father’s familiar accent. We both breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes," I replied. "This is my sister Kristin." He nodded and introduced himself as Donovan, our cousin. Hurriedly, we placed our luggage in the trunk of the car. Palorose, the cousin we had spoken to on the phone, got out of the car to greet us. She had a strong and determined disposition. We settled into the coolness of the car and went down the road. We were really in Jamaica! Once before, I had come to this hallowed land as a small child. My sister had also come on that trip, but she was nestled then in my mother’s womb. We had both been too young to know of our own selves, much less a connecting place. Now we could breathe in the sacred air, feel the light within as we breathed. I saw palm trees and miles of beach, bordering the ocean and sky, along with a definite strain of poverty. We passed an industrial area. Gray buildings, packing plants, and factories took up much of the skyline. Kingston is not a resort town like Montego Bay or Negril. My father is from Kingston. This was the Jamaica I wanted.
My cousins live in a tiny house in Greater Portmore, a suburb of Jamaica. There was no air conditioning. My sister and I weren’t used to such cramped, tiny accommodations, but we were in Jamaica! We wanted to see the beach and feel sand in our toes. We wanted to breathe ocean air. This was a vacation, after all. There was no time to wait. We drove to our destination of freedom after quickly unpacking. The residential area through which we passed was covered by tiny, cramped homes varying of pink, beige, and white concrete. Patches of brown land stretched for miles, covered with litter. A lone cow or goat sometimes passed along the way. I saw the people of Jamaica, walking or riding bicycles, coming home from work, from school. Matronly women, dressed properly with Bibles under their arms, walked in the direction of churches. We are all a complex people looking for God.
When we reached the beach, I noticed that the atmosphere reminded me of summer parties in the park growing up in the South. There was loud, thumping, reggae music everywhere. In America, it would be R & B, rap and hip hop, but the vibe was just the same. Before I knew it, we were on the beach. Our sandaled feet gingerly hit the dusky sand, and we slid slowly along, partaking the glorious scene. I wanted to run and wave my arms in ecstasy, but glass and debris in the sand made me watch my step. Beautiful people everywhere!! They walked around in their swimsuits and shorts, talking, singing, laughing. For the first time in my life, absolutely the first time, I felt comfortable in my dark brown skin. I looked just like everyone else. A strange sensation of peace came over me. My soul opened up. I was black in a sea of black, brown, and yellow bodies. But this time my blackness felt affirmed, accepted, applauded. I had the strangest sensation of déjà vu, but unlike that which I had ever experienced before. I was in a place that I had never been, a country that was virtually unknown to me, and yet I felt as comfortable as if I were at my own back door. I was right in the back of my soul. There was the overwhelming feeling of home—I felt, really, like I was at home. No one looked at us oddly. We looked just like every other Jamaican in the place. We walked and walked. Rays of the afternoon sun warmed the glistening color of my arms and face, making me happy to be me. I heard myself laughing.
A few years ago, my father told me that once as a preschooler I came home in tears complaining that a mean little boy had called me a bad name. It was apparently devastating. I wound up weeping all night. The terrible name that boy had called me tore into my tiny psyche. That name implied that I was no good and somehow filthy. It made me feel less than real, less valid. The boy called me ‘black.’ It was a name, spoken in derogatory fashion that would be hurled at me over and over throughout my painful childhood. It’s funny how a word, describing the reality of the way something is, could be used in such a negative way. Connotation means everything. I was made to hate myself for being exactly what I am—dark skinned. Apparently, this episode was the beginning of the development of hatred and anger I would carry throughout most of my life. Indeed, the final legacy that historical European domination has left with African Americans is just that—self- hatred. But how can you hate yourself without hating God?
I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. Black middle class society in the deep South during the 1970s was a world trying desperately to hold onto to color consciousness. Black, educated, socially mobile folk, usually one generation removed from the ghettos, were trying to soak up the stained legacy of an entrenched racial self-hatred by lashing out on itself. The result? Internal social fragmentation and the destruction of souls. I, among many others, was a tragic casualty left in the wake of that nihilism, saved only by God’s enduring love.
Now I was in Jamaica, the land of relatives who shared my skin color. I now understood why my skin is ebony, brushed with just a hint of mahogany. My father’s people look just like me, I look like them. Even Donovan had recognized me at the airport because I resembled the family. It all made sense and was right. For the first time in years, I began to relax and to lose the nervous tightness that has been so characteristic of my personality. And all of this was beginning to happen, this complex awakening, while we were walking along the beach! It was fun to converse with people as we strode. Many people in Jamaica just walk up and start talking as if you were a long lost friend. My sister and I laughed at our incomprehension of patois, a mixture of British English and African dialect. One handsome man who said his name was Richard stood in the ocean with me and tried to teach me to speak like him and my ancestors. "It’s impossible," I giggled. "My father didn’t teach us patois when we were growing up. He wanted us to be good American girls." Richard shook his head in mock pity. "That’s too bad," he said.
We met others. One young woman, wearing a short wig, the apparent fashion trend among many of the Jamaican sisters, admired my sister’s chic haircut. We stood in a crowd, watching amateur reggae artists perform. Our bodies huddled closely to get better views and absorb the sound. One man stood so close to me, apparently so immersed by the hypnotic beats, his dangling cigarette singed my bareback. He apologized profusely in broken patois, trying to wipe off the ashes. Sweat dripped from his nervous nose. He had been standing so close. I was one with him, with the whole crowd. He hadn’t thought of keeping his distance, hadn’t really even seen me. I was part of the scene. I was just another Jamaican woman. We were close because I was one with him, I was Jamaican—he could see it so well, he hadn’t seen.
As the sun met with the ocean and the red dusk colored the landscape, my sister ran to jump into the ocean, playing with children who laughed and splashed. The dark blueness of her swimsuit streaked across the pale ocean blue as the sky, once light, now orange, now red, now yellow, bounced across the heavens in its evening ritual. We laughed as she swam and talked to kids who talked back. We were home, and our souls danced as God smiled.
I felt the spirit of the grandmother I never met as we traveled across the countryside to Ocho Rios. She grew up in country hills a few miles from Montego Bay. My heart expanded to receive. Her presence became real. Love from my father’s mother enveloped me, and she could see we were in her homeland, and she was happy. How she longed to hold us and kiss us! But she had always been with us, and I knew then that the spirits of ones long gone continue to bless us. As I breathed the air she had breathed and walked in places she had walked, I came to love my paternal grandmother and thank God for her. We will meet one day. Until then, she is still with me.
We walked up the pathway to my father’s childhood home in Kingston. Once a nice, middle class neighborhood, the area is now notoriously known for its poverty and criminal element. My sister and I felt no fear. We were covered with protection by the angels and ancestors who walked with us. My sister boldly took pictures in the dark as we cautiously stepped along the forbidden lanes. Our father had run through those very streets as a boy, so we were safe. My grandmother traveled from here to there going to market. We met neighbors who actually remembered the day of my grandfather’s death. They spoke of that man, my grandfather, with dignity and respect. That man, a ‘Mr. Lewis’ other than my father, belonged to me. He was my grandfather—a good, Jamaican man, a policeman, an elected official. I must admit I was proud. His blood was in me. Old, tight skin was metaphorically released from my being, like old wine skins being exchanged for new ones to hold new, better wine. I was being reborn.
Upon returning from Jamaica, across the ocean, across time, across alternating rhythms of my beating heart, a void in my soul was closed. The part of myself that was lost has been found. Love, stolen once, is back home. My dark ebony skin is beauty, covering beautiful places in my soul. Silence reveals my dancing spirit, floating still among the whispering winds of island breezes and hot sun. Jamaica gave me permission to embrace myself completely. I am thankful.