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WORD VIEW: How I remember

Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW: How I remember

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I do not know anything of my great, great, great grandmother who was brought here from the continent of Africa. I wish I knew. I was told once that I have the features of the Ibo tribe, the likely origin of my ancestry. I have no way of knowing whether or not such claim to my ancestry is true.
My grandmother told us, her grandchildren, what she had heard about her own grandmother: a tall, slim, dark-skinned woman considered a rebel by her “owners”. She was defiant, would not accept her condition as a slave woman and so was sold from plantation to plantation.
For a period of her life she was known to carry an infant on her hip wherever she went. The child was half-caste. It is not difficult to imagine the conditions under which she had conceived her child. It is unlikely that she would have been compliant.
I wish I knew how she felt, what her thoughts were, what particular circumstances most fuelled her anger. What were her memories of the land from which she came? Who were her people? How long was it before she lost the hope that she would ever return to her birthplace? Where in Barbados did she die and how? Where was she buried?
My grandmother’s mother, Florrie, or Ma, as she was called, was a small, but fiery and determined woman. She was outspoken and fearless. One story in the family dates back to the time when my grandfather was courting my grandmother.
For some reason, Ma did not like her daughter’s suitor. One day when grandfather knew for sure that Ma was not at home, he ventured into the house. He must have made himself as comfortable as he could, lying across the entrance to the door with one foot hanging out (he may also have been preparing for flight).
Ma somehow got wind of this visit and doubled back, delivering a blow to his heel with a chopper. She was a church-goer, knew herself to be a daughter of Eve, and may have had visions of the Genesis heel-bruising flashing in her head.
My grandmother, to whom I’ve referred in previous articles, was a woman of quiet strength, the kind I admire. She was a fluent reader and had a beautiful handwriting. She worked hard for her grandchildren, was resourceful and was a woman of deep faith.
I recall an incident relayed to me by one of the younger generation in my family. This young woman had found herself in an extremely challenging situation and was not sure what she should do. One night she had a dream in which she felt a hand at her back and the amazing strength of that hand. She knew that it was her great grandmother (my grandmother) even though she could not see her face. From that moment, the young woman felt assured that all would be well.
My grand mothers are now gone but their blood runs in my veins. I am deeply pained when I think of the suffering my enslaved grandmother and others like her must have endured. But if I understand anything about mothers at all, they will endure almost anything with the hope that their offspring will not have to suffer as they did.
I, therefore, honour the memory of my enslaved grandmother by valuing the freedom I have; something I think we have all come to take for granted. Above all, I value my freedom to express my ideas in a society that affords me that right.
If it is true that poetry runs through the DNA from one generation to another, she may well have been a poet by instinct. How much of her poetry died with her? I like to think that I may be the conduit through which she still writes some of her poems.
I honour the memory of my grand mothers by realizing the dreams they never could fulfil for themselves. From no schooling or just primary education to tertiary level education for all of their younger generations; from the fields and a pittance for wages to ownership of homes and well-paying jobs; from oppression in various forms to freedom at almost all levels. If only they could see how their hopes have been fulfilled beyond their imagination.
As black Caribbean women, we still have some miles to travel towards self-actualization and self-acceptance. But we’ve covered quite some distance on the strength of those who came before us.
• Esther Phillips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.