From Caribbean Roots in Canadian Soil
Memoirs of a Child
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Nineteen fifty five: August brooded over the Southern Ontario landscape. Pressure cooker conditions, a combination of temperatures over 100 degrees farenheit and humidity near 100 percent had residents of Oshawa migrating to the shores of Lake Ontario for momentary relief from the afternoon and early evening swelter. I had already spent my first six months in Canada in a psychological limbo, with a provisional status of landed immigrant conditional on my attendance at school. My family, Lloyd and Gloria A, and brothers Leighton and Philip shared a rented house in Oshawa with a young Francophone couple from New Brunswick.
Oppressive August became even more difficult when I came down with chicken pox mid way through the month. During the time of my contagion I was confined to my attic bedroom and felt the discomfort of the heat of the day magnified by trapped air at the top of the house. The rays of the August sun penetrated, virtually unimpeded through the roof into my sleeping quarters. To that torrid misery was added a low grade fever as my body sought to rid itself of its virus.
Escape from my discomfort in the August evenings in 1955 was delivered by a delightful and original radio personality, the Hound Dog, George Lorenz. At 7:00 p.m. “The Hound was around, Mr. Movin’ was grovin'” on radio station WKBW from Buffalo, New York. The Big Heavy, an instrumental selection by Cozy Eggleston was the wailing signal for the one hour of Rhythm and Blues/Rock and Roll interspersed with The Hound Dog himself, howling, baying in the background. Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke and a host of ‘doo-wap’ groups contributed to buffer the extremes of distress from the weather and from disease. The Hound, as dynamic as he was quirky, acquired a devoted and enthusiastic army of fans among teens. When an artist or a musical offering caught the fancy of The Hound, it was not unusual to have him play the selection three, four times consecutively, each time howling, baying and yelling “one more once!”
Reception from WKBW was not always the most reliable, depending upon atmospheric conditions. Some nights the show faded in and out requiring frequent tuning. After 8:00 p.m. and on nights when reception from WKBW was impossible, an alternate radio station provided distraction from the late summer heat. CKEY in Toronto rebroadcast the games of Toronto Maple Leafs Baseball Club of the “AAA” International League. That August, in my misery I felt a kind of gratitude and near kinship to Joe Crysdale the play by play announcer who did the rebroadcast of the games, describing the game by reading in the studio in Toronto a teletyped account of a game which was taking place in another city and providing, in the Toronto studio, the appropriate dramatization for the radio audience. Although I had no idea what I was hearing, never having played or seen a baseball game, I had begun to connect to some things in my new environment.
In August 1955, as a 15 year old immigrant to Canada I had two friends, an American D.J. with the curious alter ego of a hound dog and a Canadian sport announcer who was relating a second hand account of a game that he did not see, describing esoteric details of a sport that I did not understand. Oppressively hot August 1955 also presented a sobering reminder that life for blacks was fragile and that youth did little to guarantee continued existence to the young who had the misfortune to be caught operating in the wrong environment.
Emmett and Me
…They retrieved him from the Talahachie river in Mississippi where his battered body, weighted down by a cotton gin fan had been dumped, one eye gouged out, a hole in his head from the entry of a gun shot. …He was a black 14 year old who had come to a rural town in Mississippi from his home in Chicago to spend time in the summer with relatives …Trying to impress his cousin and their friends, he had bragged that he had a white girlfriend, had shown them a photo of a white girl. “So Emmett Till, Mr.Bigshot from Chicago, let’s see you do your move on that young white woman behind the counter of that grocery store in Money, Mississippi,” his peers had probably asked. “Alright, just watch me.” …He goes in, buys candy and according to reports from onlookers either whistles at the young woman or, on the way out says “bye baby.”
…To mete out ‘justice’ for the heinous crime of ‘uppityness’ the aggrieved husband of the white woman with his cronies pluck the 14 year old out of the house where he was staying and torture and murder him. …Those charged with the crime are found not guilty by a jury of their peers. …Declared not guilty, they admit the crime and describe the details of the murder to a magazine a few years later.
Sensational newspaper accounts of lynchings of blacks in the United States and articles exposing the organization of the KKK in states close to the Canadian border as well as in communities in Southern Ontario, catalogued the violence, actual and potential at home in Ontario and just over there, across an illusory divide.
The border between The U.S. and Canada did not impede the free flow of radio waves from New York State from where The Hound diffused his nightly R and B into my home in Ontario, why then would the arbitrary imposition of an imaginary line on a continent block the hatred, rampant in the United States, from releasing its brutal contagion to the north, in Canada where I was living? Media presentations about racial violence at these times were frequent enough to feed my reluctance to being in this new and unwelcoming land. In August, after four months in school and left with a fragile sensibility, the result of my racial insecurities, I began questioning my ability to function in this complex culture with the relatively simple abilities that I had developed up until then as a child in the Caribbean.
Adults in the family to whom I could have turned for consolation and guidance were themselves living the insecurities that I was feeling. The function of guidance counseling, rudimentary at best in these times, was entrusted to a Vice Principal and teacher of mathematics who after administering an I.Q. test shortly after my arrival at the school, declared that I should be placed in a vocational stream since I would be unlikely to survive in an academic stream. In my previous schools my standing had consistently been at the top or very close to the top of my class. A plane ride and a change of scenery had removed many of my assumptions about myself! Of course the popular media reinforced the notion of my inferiority in matters of intelligence with frequent statistical studies from respected authorities in the fields of education and psychology.
All was not bleak however, for at fifteen years old the lovely dance of sexual attraction had long since announced itself with a certain urgency. Already sensitized to the yearnings of the human heart through my decade long passion for American popular music which expressed idealistically and euphemistically the drive for coupling, I struggled to find a way to relate to the girls at school and in the neighbourhood. There being no girls of colour my age in the entire city of Oshawa, my opportunities for contact of any kind, innocent or corrupt with girls seemed destined for frustration.
I was by nature shy. I had not taken the initiative in inter gender relations since I was five years old in rural Jamaica, when I had precociously persuaded a play mate to doff her panty to reveal her differences. I was also cautious in making advances to girls on two accounts. The fear of being rebuffed on racial grounds was an abiding terror, a fear which later unfortunately spread beyond matters of relations with the opposite gender. Moreover fresh from the vicarious experience of Emmett Till, torture and murder at the hands of angry white men with hoods and burning crosses, I resisted with some difficulty the suggestions of my hormones.
My first date was a dismal failure. The husband of the family which shared the house on Avenue Rd. that we were renting had a sister who was sixteen. Her family and mine conspired to arrange a date for us. Since we lived in the same house, partitioned to function as a duplex, we simply left our mutual home early in the afternoon to go to a movie matinee together. A short distance from our common home I felt too embarrassed to continue the walk to the theatre together. I left her to walk on the other side of the road. We arrived at the theatre and sat in different rows for the movie. We walked back home as we had gone to the theatre, on opposite sides of the street!
Despite my reluctance to take the initiative with girls and especially after the debacle that was my first date, I did not long suffer neglect from the opposite sex. Apparently I was successfully presenting in my own tentative little way, subliminal vibrations which found some recipients willing to risk the challenges of inter racial dating. Without much advertising, I had found potential consumers for a product which I was not totally unaware that I was offering. How else can I explain that one girl took a taxi once and a bus another time to come unannounced to my home after we moved from our rented home in the south of Oshawa to a new subdivision in the north of Oshawa? Or that I was invited by a mother to date one of her daughters then the other after I declined an offer of the first? In these times, the cautionary tale of my contemporary, Emmett Till’s life and death was never far from my mind.
In my second year at high school in Oshawa I dredged up the courage to attend some of the school dances. At one of the dances a fairly aggressive girl decided that I would be hers for the night and for the near future. Trouble was that she had just come to Canada from Memphis, Tennessee and was newly enrolled in our school. Her entry into the school in 1957 was somewhat of a melodrama because she claimed to have been kissed by Elvis Presley before he hit the big time in 1956.
Katie Kingsley’s claims of labial contact with “The King” of rock and roll to my knowledge were never confirmed, but her accent was undeniable, as were her Southern American origins. I had some initial reservations, contemplating that her initials K.K. were already two-thirds of the dreaded troika of capital Ks that announced the presence of the despised Ku Klux Klan, and wondered if she was hiding another capital K somewhere in her name or in or on her person. Undeniable also were her concerns to make sure that her family did not see the boy with whom she was sharing her saliva and some of her social time. She lived at the southern end of the bus lines in a subdivision near Lake Ontario. After school dances she would insist that I take her home on the bus. She would however leave the bus one bus stop short of her home and walk the rest of the way while I stayed on the bus to the end of the line and back home near the northern end of the bus route.
Our liaison was short lived and quite unspectacular. The unease that I felt in this relationship was real but not enough to put me into a cloister, for although the Mason Dixon line had suddenly deflected northward and for a short time visited me in Southern Ontario through Katie Kingsley and her family, I was beginning to realize that my charms were working in a variety of ways in the winter white world of Caucasia. A few more victories of the romantic variety and I was beginning to allow myself some liberties. But Emmett Till’s murder would remain with me for much of my youth in Canada.
Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Lynching and burning of Jesse Washington