Karlie grew up red among black people
IN JEST, Dr Karl Watson describes himself as “a simple red man from the Bay Land”.
But anyone seriously probing into the background of the historian, retired University of the West Indies lecturer and former diplomat is likely to discover this is a claim of defiance, informed by the experiences of a white Barbadian whose life has been shaped by the race, class and colour narratives of a Barbados of yesterday.
Watson attributes his socialisation to the environment and circumstances in which he grew up.
Speaking about his “social formation” during an interview with the SUNDAY SUN, he said: “Had I been born in somewhere like Belleville or Strathclyde or the developed Graeme Hall, it is possible that my social consciousness might have been different because all our ideas about class and race and so on are essentially taught to us.
“In my youth, from my parents’ discussions, I was aware of those people who were lightly mixed; those people who were brown-skinned. One of the things that I learnt, or was essentially taught to me in my youth, was that if you wanted to find out which group in Barbados was the most cultured, then you had to go to the high brown group. The high brown group was seen as the real defenders of Euro high culture.”
He pointed out that the colour of his skin was no passport to inclusion among that class of Barbadians, who regarded themselves as the true Whites.
He told the SUNDAY SUN: “The idea of being poor white in this society that ascribed social position, wealth and power to Whites, poor Whites did not fit into that narrative. Poor Whites tended to be excluded because, by definition, when you were white, you could not be white and be poor because you did not fit into the narrative of the rich white man.”
Born in Barbarees Hill, St Michael, Watson was the middle child of seven children born to a working-class father and a housewife.
But he let it be known that it was the experience of growing up in a chattel house on Culloden Road, among black working-class Barbadians in the surrounding Bay Land district, that shaped him.
He described his boyhood home, originally his grandmother’s house, as “a little chattel house . . . with no electricity, no running water, a pit toilet in the backyard; the back bedroom where you stepped on a stone and on to the dirt floor of what was the kitchen”.
“When I was a child growing up there was a huge difference between living in a wooden house and a wall house and very often, in a conversation to locate you in your social class in Barbadian society, people would ask if you lived in a wall house or a wooden house. If you lived in a wall house, that meant automatically you were in the middle classes or the upper classes. If you lived in a wooden house you were automatically in the working class.”
The Watson children’s playground was the pasture of the Bay Estate, the former working yard of the Bay Sugar plantation. His treasured childhood memories are of frolicking in the plantation’s duck pond, which turned into a swimming pool when it rained; of the big marl quarry and a spring where the boys fished for crayfish and guppies.
Amidst these happy memories, the slurs thrown at the white-skinned Watson family when they would walk through the Bay Land on leisure treks to the beach still linger in his mind.
“Often people would say: ‘Yuh think wunnah white, but wunnah red’. That was something that was drummed into my head,” Watson said. There were also taunting calls of “Eddie white mice”.
The message bore some conflict because: “As a child growing up, our neighbours on the left hand side and the right hand side were black and as a child I was just as at home in our house as I was in Miss Mascoll’s house or Miss Pile’s house.”
To these black neighbours he was Karlie, the boy next door. He credits Mr Pile, a fisherman, for teaching him “a lot” about the fish he would bring home, while Mrs Pile, a Seventh-Day Adventist, would take him to Sabbath School on Friday evenings though he worshipped on Sundays with his family at St Paul’s Anglican Church.
“I probably am one of the very few people of my complexion, of my age group, who know anything about pressing hair,” Watson said.
“Miss Mascoll would send me to Miss Brathwaite’s shop. In those days you would get a penny’s worth of Vaseline wrapped in a little piece of brown paper. She had a coal pot and when the ironing comb was red hot, she would tell me: ‘Now, Karlie, get a little bit of the Vaseline and pull it through my hair and take the comb and hold it carefully – don’t burn me – and pull it through the hair.”
The whole neighbourhood was proud when he passed for Harrison College at age nine, though the dogging issue of colour followed him there.
“I enjoyed Harrison College and I have very fond memories of that school,” he said.
Watson painted a picture of a Harrison College of the day, divided into groups with the major divide being “a racial divide”.
He does not forget the “quadrangle”, a set of outdoor benches where white boys sat on one side and black boys on the other, joined by “the poorest of the poor Whites”.
His performance in the school’s sporting activities enabled him to move freely between the benches.
Still, he did not escape the prejudice of the white Harrison College boys. His father never owned a car and schoolboy Watson rode to school on the Progressive Bus Company’s Route 15 bus.
The parents of fellow Harrisonians bypassed him at the bus stop and white boys who saw him disembarking from the bicycle bar of a kind black neighbour the day he missed the bus disdainfully teased: “Watson got bar down to school by a black man.”
Concerned about the racial divide among students, Harrison College teachers Harold Tudor and Ivor Jones sought to impart the lesson that race relations could be harmonious and it resonated with Watson.
As a sixth former on the verge of leaving Harrison College he stood on a bench in the quadrangle and challenged the racist behaviour of his fellow students.
“In my youth, variations of colour and skin tone were far more important in the Barbados of my childhood than in the Barbados of today,” Watson observed in the interview.
But he believed things had changed and challenged the view that in today’s Barbados “rich, controlling Whites dominate”.
He disagrees that Whites control over 95 per cent of the Barbadian economy and advises anyone of that belief to check the statistics, which he said would prove the island’s gross domestic product and productivity “is far more widely distributed”.
Clearly at peace with himself, Watson, smiling as he gazed at the fish scurrying around in the small pond in his garden, said he was not ruffled by the recently levelled charge of “psychosis of white supremacy”.
He is comfortable with his socialisation “because I was raised up among black people,” he said.
“If I had been raised up among white people I may have been different as a person, I don’t know. But for better or for worse, and I think for better, I was raised up among black people.”