N E I G H B O U R S
BY; Will Johnson
I was born in a place called “Behind-The-Ridge”. My mother used to think it was behind the face of God and she could not wait to abandon our home and move to another village on our small Caribbean Island called Saba. For the rest of her life she would associate a dream about “Behind-The-Ridge” with an omen of bad luck. She passed on this belief to her children.
Our house was located on the cliffs above the abandoned old Sulphur Mines, so that my mother’s worries were amplified in proportion to the dangers to her children by these additional natural hazards. Not that life then was not hard enough as it was. Times were not kind to us on Saba in the nineteen thirties and forties. Life was already hard and the Great Depression in other countries and World War II increased our isolation and our poverty. We were already severely restricted to a very limited land area and to very rough seas for our sustenance and our survival. We had no need for a great depression followed by the mother of all wars. Throw in a dangerous natural location on that pile of misfortune, and you can understand why my mother had nightmares for the rest of her life about Behind-The-Ridge. Need I remind you that we had no electricity, no roads, no running water, and no chance of any meaningful employment? By the sweat of our brows and with only a hoe to assist us we laid bare the land to produce its fruit.
On the positive side Behind-the-Ridge had some spectacular views, and no mechanical noises to disturb the grind and drudgery of daily life.
Not too far from Behind-The-Ridge, was where the black folks lived, in a place called “The Alley”. Ever since the days of slavery the blacks had their enclaves on the outskirts of the villages. Not too far from “The Alley” lived the Jackson family.
I used to think that the old black local midwife Rosita Lynch born Hassell, who delivered me, did not live far from “The Alley.” She was actually born around there but after she married she lived in English Quarter. Her only instrument was an old rusty scissors. When I get cantankerous I have a tendency to lay the blame on that old rusty scissors which was used to cut my navel string.
From very young my mother taught us to respect people of other races and people in general. To treat people as you would like to be treated. I at times tend to want to jerk out a whole jawbone for a tooth pulled, but on reflection I usually settle for a tooth. No turning of the other cheek for me. But now I have mellowed to the point of thinking, one tooth less, one pain less, so I don’t always exact tribute.
The closest thing to being unkind was a command she issued to me once to hide some ripe bananas she had promised to a friend. Another friend of my mother’s was coming to the house, and according to my mother: “A black person can smell a ripe banana a mile away.”
I don’t know. I used to have my doubts about my mother’s theory. But my good friend of more than thirty years the poet Charles Borromeo Hodge, Jr., with his treatise on the nose of Commissioner Edgar Lynch has renewed my interest in black people’s ability to smell. What distance can it cover and so on? Ripe bananas that is. Borromeo did not get farther than describing the prominence and grandeur of Edgar’s nose in comparison to that of his other colleagues. Borromeo did not shed any light on the various uses which can be made of such a large nose. Can indeed a ripe banana be sniffed out from a mile away?
Borromeo, himself well-endowed in the nose department, should have included in his contemplation on the nose of Edgar its ability to smell. What distance could it cover and so on? What I do believe though is that Borromeo has set the stage for a new form of calypso contest for carnival. This should please those who object to vulgar lyrics in the past. I can hear it now: “Oh what a nose, what a nose!”
I have drifted away from the Jackson family our neighbors. In this week in which we are commemorating the birth of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., I want to eulogize my neighbor the late James Evered Jackson. When our family moved, he moved.
We left our house at Behind the Ridge and moved to the Windward Side. Here again we lived close to yet another “Alley” where the black folks lived. On Saba where so many people lived with the same surname some people were distinguished by their color added to their first name. White Agnes, Black Agnes, White Joe, Black Joe. Once there were two white Joe Simmons’ so one became “Red Head” Joe and the other “Black Head Joe”. My new Neighbors became Tarasitha Rose, “Black Agnes” and her brother “Black Joe” (Maxwell) and a number of others.
For some reason when the slaves of Windward side and Hell’s Gate were given their freedom on July 1st, 1863 they were given Scottish surnames, Maxwell, Jackson, Dunlock, Wilson, Granger, Gordon and so on.
Some years later we removed the old house piece by piece down to the last shingle from Behind- The- Ridge to my mother’s eternal relief and brought it to the English Quarter where it still stands and in the yard of which my mother, father sister and brother Eric are all buried. My brothers Guy and Eric brought the entire house that way on their heads and rebuilt it.
The English Quarter was the black district close to Windward side. There too lived our neighbor from Behind-The-Ridge, James Evered Jackson. Although he could not read or write he taught us many lessons about life, race relations, and neighbors, which I have tried to practice as best as I can.
Although just like Evered was, I too am a practicing Roman Catholic. Unlike him though, I also have the ability to read, and I also look for inspiration from the writings of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Koran and the other great religious treatises of man.
Islam tells you that your neighbor is not just the person who lives next door. A neighbor is anyone living in the 40 houses nearest to you. On Saba that would include not only your own village but also the next one. The life of the Prophet tells us of the man who complained one day to the Prophet about being treated badly by his next door neighbor. The Prophet sent three of his most important companions –Abu Bakr, Omar and Ali – to announce at the doors of the mosque that “even 40 houses away, people are still neighbors” and that “a man who frightens his neighbor will not go to heaven.”
Evered was a proud black man and a wonderful neighbor. On each and every occasion for joy in the black community Evered would bring out his big drum. Like an African Prince way into the night he would roll the drum in praise of yet another step forward for black people. He prided himself on being the first person to own a television on Saba. He had sent me the money to buy the television on St. Maarten. “A great day for black people” is the way Evered looked at it.
In his parties though he allowed for a bit of social discrimination. When his only child, a daughter, married on Aruba, he first invited the Nuns, the priest and the government officials at 5pm, and then at 8pm he rolled out the big drum for his neighbors some of whom he did not socialize with on an everyday basis. His belief that he could not mix the two groups was confirmed when a fight broke out at the next party. The next morning I overheard him telling my mother: “Just imagine, Alma if the nuns had been in that scatter. Mind you, your Evered knows what he is doing.”
He was also proud when Clinton Cranston bought a convertible mustang. Not only did he roll the big drum but he also raised a flag.
He loved Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. Of the latter he said: “That man makes sense. We got to live peacefully together.”
Evered’s pride reached to other areas as well. He prided himself on the fact that in all his lifetime he had only worked one week for the government. According to his oft told tale he made eight guilders for his weeks work and his wife Gusta had to spend twelve. All his life the material things which made him most proud were purchased from his tilling of the soil and selling the products of his labor, and the God he worshipped was with him.
He was a particular man about paying bills as well. When I got married and my New York wife was in the first stages of getting used to a way of life, just coming out of the throes of the “cooking-on-wood” culture, Evereds wife Gusta decided to go to Aruba for a trip.
Evered’s working day on his farm started at 5am. One morning just minutes before 5am I heard my door breaking down. Next door Lorenzo Hassell from Hell’s Gate was already waiting and ready to start on his 7am construction job. As I groped through the dark, while trying to calm my wife, I heard Evered shouting out to Lorenzo, “Will must be dead. Impossible for him to be still sleeping this hour of the day.”
I was looking after Winairs interests for my brother Freddy who was on vacation and Evered had come to pay for his wife’s passage to Aruba. I told him “but it can wait, Gusta is not travelling for weeks.” Evered’s answer to that was “Don’t be a fool, how she can travel if I don’t pay first.” How many people today establish those standards on their financial dealings with others?
Islam says neighbors are supposed to help and look after each other, whatever their race or religion. The Prophet blessed and consecrated the tie between neighbors in a famous Hadith:
“The Angel Gabriel urged me so strongly to look after my neighbor that it seemed he wanted me to make him my heir.”
When I won my first election on Saba in 1971 after having lost the first one in 1969, Evered rolled out the big drum and although he was an early sleeper, it seemed like he played it all night. Long after that I asked him; “But Evered, how come you played the big drum for me all night, and I am not black?”
He looked at me in disbelief and contemplatively said: “But Will, we’s neighbors and that’s different.”
My neighbor Evered is long gone, but he has with him the blessings of Allah as described in the Koran:
“O mankind, we have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most God fearing of you!!”
Evered was a God fearing man as well. I still can recall on Sunday mornings he would be hours ahead of the priest. On his way to church he would admonish his neighbors to follow his example. He would be singing “Amazing Grace” as he gracefully made his way to give praise to his God whom he was convinced worked side by side with him in his fields and that is why his crops never failed. In “Saba Silhouettes” by Dr. Julia Crane there is a long interview with Evered and is a very interesting read for all who would want to know how Sabans survived by the sweat of their brows in former times. May he rest in peace, this blessed neighbor, this noble son of Saba and of Africa, James Evered Jackson.