My parents purposely took me out of the country in '67, after Malcolm X was shot. The intent was to go to Africa, but after spending time in France to learn French we ended up in Jamaica the winter of 68-69. There were many reasons to go to Jamaica rather than Africa, but a major reason we went to a tropical location was because I developed severe asthma. Where other people outgrow their asthma, I never outgrew mine.
I went to school there until I was 7, where I learned how to read, do basic math and some Jamaican history. After awhile, my father figured that the headmaster of the English-styled school was stressing me and it contributed to my attacks.
Without medication, an asthma attack can last a few days, and mine often did. It takes all your energy to breathe when you have asthma, and you can't really eat and breathe at the same time. Your body freaks out at the thought of yet another thing obstructing your airways and shuts down your appetite. I was a really skinny kid as a result.
After awhile, my dad just took me out of school altogether, and he and my mom began a loose attempt at educating my sister and me. We learned American and European history. We learned to speak "RP", Received Pronunciation, how to read and write phonetic symbols, and how to write a short story.
We read a lot. We had no TV after awhile, and at the time there were only two radio stations in Jamaica... RJR and JBC, so when we weren't digging up nannybugs, making mudpies, playing the "Eric and Johnny Game" or taking care of the cats, we read. We looked forward to Poppy's trips to town... he'd stop by the library and bring us books to read, or he'd buy us some. My favorites were Enid Blyton's "Malory Towers" series, about English girls at boarding school. I tried to make a game out of it, but the idea of being without your family in a boarding school was a really foreign concept to me, so we stuck to "Eric and Johnny"... were the Professor was married to "Eric" and I to "Johnny", and we had children and nursed babies and ran a household and ran an organization that saved widows and orphans and helped peasants. Except for the saving of widows and orphans and the helping of peasants, the "Eric and Johnny Game" was fueled by real life. However, the widows and orphans and peasants aspect was fueled by our weekly readings of the Old Testament during Sabbath Service, and the communist books my Poppy often brought home.
When I had asthma I read a lot, because that was about all I could do. I couldn't sleep... it was uncomfortable laying down and the sound of wheezing in my head made me dream of screaming ladies. I couldn't play with my sister or the cats. Laughing made me cough which sent my lungs into spasm, and talking was too much work. I couldn't eat. So when I wasn't sitting quietly somewhere waiting for breathing to come easier, I read because it took my mind off my thoughts...and my mind raced during asthma because without reading there was nothing else to do.
Aside from Malory Towers, which was just mindcandy, two books I remember best are Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, and Yenan Seeds and Other Stories, "a collection of short stories... (that reflects... ) the Chinese people's new life of struggle since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from several angles."
Just for a moment, imagine being twelve years old, trapped in your own mind and reading things like:
The ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class forced them into numerous uprisings against its rule.... It was the class struggles of the peasants, the peasant uprisings and peasant wars that constituted the real motive force of historical development in Chinese feudal society.And...
Our enemies are all those in league with imperialism - the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big Landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia attached to them. The leading force in our revolution is the industrial proletariat. Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie. As for the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, their right-wing may become our enemy and their left-wing may become our friend - but we must be constantly on our guard and not let them create confusion within our ranks.
Stuff like that has a profound effect on a twelve year old.
So then, because we were strangers in a strange land and we owed money to the landlord and he called immigration, we got deported from Jamaica, and I no longer had the luxury of endless reading, playing with cats and digging up nannybugs. I decided I wanted to go to school. Poppy was willing to keep us home and hidden, but I insisted.
I did well in 7th and 8th grade. Academically, I mean. Socially not so much... I was skinny and didn't wear flare legs or colored overalls and Pro-Keds, my unpressed hair didn't stay in curls for more than an hour and I knew too much. Teachers loved me, kids teased me. Especially light-skinned wavy-haired Kay, who I realized later had a host of problems that had nothing to do with me. She lived in the rundown tenement across the street from I.S. 201 with her mother and several brothers and sisters. Her mother was a large, surprisingly dark woman. One day I got a glimpse of her dad... a white man who wore black rimmed glasses and came to visit sometime but didn't live there. She picked on me to deflect attention from her poverty and her bi-racialness. Back then, "white in Harlem" was DECIDEDLY uncool.
In 8th grade I had band, and started to play the saxophone. The breathing exercises I practiced to calm my asthma made my lungs pretty strong when they weren't spasming, and I was pretty good at sax. But then I discovered, by accident, that I could sing, and with that talent and very good grades (way better than most... I was the 8th grade Salutatory) I got into Music and Art for voice.
And that freshman year, we read George Orwell's Animal Farm.
It messed me up... because this was, apparently, the dark side of communism. At least that's how the teacher presented it. And it was the first time I was really forced to question things I had learned.
In January when I got evicted, in attempt to secure a "one-shot" deal, I applied for public assistance. I got PA briefly, but then I started to work, and after my first paycheck, welfare cut me off. I sent in the paperwork required to extend my Medicaid... I even made a note of the date: July 5th. The cut-off date was the 11th. And I'm guessing Medicaid didn't get my paperwork in time, so they cut me off on August 1.
It's a simple thing, going down there with my proof (I'm well under the income limit, living under my roommate's lease and on payroll for $250 gross a week) but God knows the thought of dealing with them just sends me into knots. And I'm afraid to do it online, because I know it won't get processed. I need to get over my dread and just do it, because I've now been without asthma medication since September. And for the first time in YEARS, I had a real attack last night. Asthma sucks. It forces me to double-think everything I'd like to do... like go get my hair done (cuz I made some extra money working with BigMan selling pictures the other night), or going down to an Occupy Wall Street meeting.
I've been paying attention to OWS. There are still things that disturb me about it... mostly to do with the lack of brown faces I see associated with it. And based on my own life and in talking to other brown faces, the lack of brown faces has mostly to do with a lack of time. Most brown faces feel that their daily struggle--which existed long before the struggle began lapping at toes of lighter-hued folk--takes up a lot of time. In particular, brown mothers of sons would rather spend their time administering to football leagues and school involvement, cooking, laundry and work than go down to OWS because the former collection of efforts is a tangible way to keep theirs sons from the hazards of poverty and racial profiling by the police. Whereas, OWS is more longterm and sort of not in the realm of immediate results. But mothers that I've talked to are interested and hopeful, but wish to hear more solid, tangible things they can do from home. Like close bank accounts. Or boycott Black Friday.
On a day like today, when I'm sitting here writing, waiting to see if my lungs will clear up so I can selfishly go get my hair done, I contemplate OWS and how it relates to brown faces, and my fear is that these brown faces will be late to the party. And the party has everything to do with them. Without them, without actively acknowledging how this country came to to be, how brown faces and red faces were systematically brutalized and marginalized in the name of capitalism, I worry that this party is going to be just another "Animal Farm".
Yup, I know that's a leap... but my mind races when I have asthma.