In the summer of 1969, I had a summer job with the newsmagazines Time and Life. I worked in the wire room where we received, duplicated and collated raw reports from reporters all over the United States. These reports were then sent to editors who developed them into finished stories. It was the summer that movie star Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by Charlie Manson and the raw reports had been suggesting that the murderer was African American.
One would never have thought that any black person in America would have wanted to be found on any road in America during this time, especially with the many riots taking place all over America. But I made my first hitch-hiking journey along with one white and one black student. This trip took us from Staten Island, New York, to Woodstock, New York.
Woodstock was then a tiny farming village that became the scene of the world’s first big outdoor music concert.
When about three miles away from the concert site we began experiencing miles and miles of bumper to bumper traffic but were fortunate not having a car and were able to roam from one car hood to another. Later Woodstock became known as the scene of one of the greatest events of free expression known to the world but to me it was chaotic, rainy, dirty, mucky and congested. But nevertheless filled with great music, love and friendliness and energy; so much so that when it began to rain in earnest we were allowed to shelter briefly in a big tent owned by some boys from New Jersey.
The rains did not stop the music nor did the celebrations stop and I got to hear many of the departed greats live in concert.
Since we had hitched to Woodstock we were some of the very last to leave the garbage dump this beautiful and green field had been turned into. However it was now but two of us both black and when we reached Buffalo New York it was night. We were approached by some African American men in a car who told us that there was a curfew because of the race riots, which had supposedly taken place while we were at Woodstock.
And true to the spirit of America some had been making peace while others had been making war. The men kindly gave us a ride to a YMCA and the next morning we tried our luck at hitching over the boarder to Canada. At the Canadian border we were refused entry because of the nearby riots and because we were black and on foot, but we did find a way to enter Canada and then hitched all the way to Montréal and were able to visit the World Expo in 1969, which was taking place in that beautiful city. I will never forget how confused I was when I heard people speaking French and then witnessing a fist fight between a French and English Canadian.
Woodstock was a landmark in my life and made a radical change in my life because I stopped being a Hawkish assimilationist West Indian immigrant; dropped out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and started questioning the society I had dropped into. However, I did not seek peace but instead knowledge and radical change for black and brown people.
History became important and poetry and indispensable part of my evolving pride and consciousness. And when students were shot and killed by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio, I participated and spoke at a demonstration in their honour at a church on Staten Island, New York.
The world has changed greatly since the 60s and people in America that wore their hair natural went back to straightening their hair and worshiping wealth and material passion’s rather than journeys and discoveries.
Sometimes when I listen to African Americans and see that one of them is now the president of the United States I ask myself why the American university establishment ever believed that teaching African American history and pride would cause separatism and revolutionists.
Perhaps the message learnt is: Give a people the possibility to define what they are and they might very well define themselves as they were taught to see themselves.
Black self-discovery in America led to the black men and women of America becoming Americans, or as they now say African Americans. I still strongly believe that if Cayman had shown some degree of tolerance towards this necessary rite of passage of people of colour our young people might have by now felt more comfortable with who they are and not so many would believe that being black is to be destructive.
I was fortunate like many of our people before to have travelled the world and seen its people. The experiences and joys I collected is not a prison but a wide open oasis filled with opportunities for self-discovery and spiritual independence.
So I have often wondered why young Caymanians that can’t get jobs and respect in their own country have not used their privilege of being British Citizens to take to the road for a while.
True the world is not as considerate or safe as it was; but hell, just take a walk on the wild side. Because that wild unending search for self and self-expression may be less destructiveness than the negative utopian dreams of gang warfare; or being criminalised by the Caymanian state.