Once upon a time was so long ago
A friend and I were at lunch last week. The restaurant was a quaint, converted house with board floors. The day was another scorcher, but on the terrace where we were eating, looking out at fruited trees, it was cool; a lovely little wind wafted about, carrying the sound of some great-sounding oldschool music from the bowels of the house. It was fantastic; the kind of place I’d visualised for a few stories I’ve written.
Conversation was desultory until my friend sighed voluptuously and made a baffled observation. “You know, I’m the only one, among my friends who’re still here, who has a child.” Which I of course understood to mean that I would be completely useless to her in the approaching article of conversation. That’s how it is during long lunches; you give, you take. It would only be a matter of time before I wanted to talk to her about a topic she would have no appreciable skills set with which to deal.
She nevertheless went on to relate an anecdote that involved her teenage daughter, about which she halfheartedly would hear my thoughts. A friend of hers had recently come out as a lesbian in front of them. My friend, a single mother, was understandably concerned because although her teenage daughter is in her high teens, and they have a mature relationship, she was unsure about the appropriateness of this revelation — even though she’d raised her daughter to be tolerant and respectful of people who were different.
“My god, it really is hard to raise children these days,” I said to my friend, shaking my head sadly. “These issues aren’t in the rule books, are they?” As expected, I was of no help. What I wanted to ascertain, though, was her daughter’s reaction.
“Oh, she just kept on texting on her phone. It was as if she hadn’t heard something shocking,” she told me. When my friend asked her later what she thought about hearing that Auntie So-and-So was gay, she affected a bored look. Rolling her eyes, she scolded her mother, “Mommy, it’s not nice to be probing people’s private lives like that. And besides, being gay is really only an issue for your generation. I have friends who are gay, and it’s no big deal.”
Well, there it is in a nutshell. In the attendant hysteria that surfaces whenever the issue of homosexuality (now quaintly assigned the “gay agenda”, as though it’s on some nebulous organisation’s timetable that all of Jamaica become gay), it has somehow escaped attention that the people working themselves up about it are older people. The ones who don’t quite comprehend that morality cannot be legislated. The ones who don’t understand that the world will keep changing even when they are dead and gone.
Let’s make it absolutely clear here: no one is suggesting that homosexuality must be embraced by all. What I am suggesting, however, is that in the same way that we’ve become mature enough to understand that we are all allowed to have varying political viewpoints, we have to understand that everybody has the right to be here pursuing love, life and happiness, regardless of sexual orientation. The world is becoming more catholic every day. In this world, technology advances almost at the speed of light. It must be apparent that marginalised groups won’t be content to keep things at the status quo. Once upon a time, there were slaves on sugar plantations. Once upon a time now seems so far away.
Even as we reflect on what it means to be a 50-year-old independent nation, attitudes toward sexuality will have to factor into the national conversation, such as it is. But even more so, I think we have to examine our attitude towards change in general. As a nation, we’ve come a long way in 50 years. But could it be that we could have progressed even further were it not for resistance to things that could make us better? How many times have we heard someone from a past generation say, “This is how we’ve always done things. There’s no reason to change”? Or, “Promotion in this office is by years of service, not any fancy degree.” Or, “My parents used to run me down and beat me with a stick; if corporal punishment was good enough for me, I don’t see why it isn’t good enough for my children.”
The Jamaican poet and philosopher Earl McKenzie speaks about Jamaicans’ aversion to straight lines, for example. We’ve all been in a bank or a stoplight and seen somebody, a propos of nothing, form another completely unnecessary line. Perhaps one of the things we can meditate on in this jubilee year is how we view change. “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks,” Warren Buffett is believed to have said. Meaning, fear of the unknown is counter-intuitive.
When I was growing up, one of parents’ biggest fears was that their daughters would become involved with the wrong elements: Rastas, for example. Weird, considering the universal appeal of dreadlocks today, right? But back then, Rastafarianism was feared because it wasn’t understood. It took me a long while to discover the Rasta uncle my mother kept secret from us, her brother, a herbs man, kinder and gentler you would never meet. He’d become an outcast, put out of his home for matting his hair and smoking ‘dro. My mother was a tender-hearted woman, but she was a product of her environment; she supported his ostracisation. To her mind, he was no role model for her daughters. That’s how people thought then: according Rastas any societal acknowledgement would eventually translate into an island of weedsmoking, dreadlocked troublemakers. Years after finally meeting my uncle I’ve still never smoked herb and I’ve never been inclined to adopt Rastafarianism as my religion. And all I ended up with was regret about not having had the opportunity to have got to know this relative upon whom years of exile took a toll and whom we eventually lost.
The point that my friend’s daughter so eloquently made is that things and times change; there’s no point in fearing the unusual, the different. Tomorrow, that same unusual and different — like it or not — will become the norm.