An Open Letter To My Little Brothers: A History Lesson

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Dear Menelik and Tarik,

We are a Jamaican black immigrant family. I’m worried that’s the extent of your knowledge and grasp of both our family history and our heritage. This is no fault of your own and just really a matter of circumstance. As the eldest it is natural for me to feel responsible for both of you. It is my belief that no one can truly know where they are going till they know from whence they came. I think Marcus Garvey puts forth this sentiment most succinctly: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”  I think I’ve jumped the gun. It would be shameful if you both don’t know who Marcus Garvey is. Basically Marcus Garvey is the first Jamaican global icon. He was an intellectual and essentially a civil rights activist before the Civil Rights Movement. He was instrumental in the emergence of a black consciousness that knew no geographic boundaries. He is also Jamaica’s first national hero. But we’ll get back to Garvey when I return home from Denmark. Being eight and a half years and ten years your senior, we have had two very different upbringings. In addition to you both being able to get away with murder in terms of Mommy and Daddy (smile), you both live very cushioned and insular lives. I’m not saying I didn’t have it easy, because our parents always made sure we were well taken care of; but spending my formative years in Jamaica gave me a more complete view on life at your ages than the both of you have now.

“Out of many, one people” is Jamaica’s national motto. This reflects Jamaica’s history of different people of all hues coming to Jamaica throughout its 500 year plus history, mainly people of African descent who were displaced and endured forced migration as part of the Atlantic slave trade to be labor for the sugar-cane plantations of Jamaica. Fortunately for Jamaica it followed a different pathway in terms of race relations post emancipation than the US for instance. In addition to the black population and white colonial masters and other European settlers from Scotland, Germany, Portugal etc., there were also Indians and Chinese who came to Jamaica as indentured servants, there were also pockets of Syrians and Libyans. Eventually all these different people co-mingled or cohabitated if you will (I’m oversimplifying here so as to not get bogged down on the historical details of Jamaica becoming a multiracial democracy). Long story short, by the time we came around, even though somebody was “black”, if you went back in their family history there were a few people who weren’t “100% black” genetically speaking. As a result of this widespread miscegenation --not to say race is never an issue in Jamaica-- the major social division that exists in Jamaica is that of socioeconomic status. Although I’ve always known that I was black, I didn’t have my racial awakening till I was a 12-year-old immigrant having to deal with inane racially charged questions and innuendos from some classmates in South Florida. Up until that point I’ve always just been a middle class Jamaican from Portmore with roots in Clarendon and Trelawny. In the USA, I had become Terrol, the black boy with a Jamaican accent.

You guys joke that I’m a vampire because I don’t sleep much. And I joke that I have two white little brothers because you guys are into Aeropostale, Hollister and like pop music. Part of the reason for this is because you guys have spent the majority of your lives in a predominantly white tight knit bucolic community in Central Florida. In many ways you guys are the “token” black boys. I don’t want you boys to ever be ashamed of academic achievement, being well mannered and being well spoken. And if you face ridicule for being an “oreo”, so be it. Never be afraid to be yourself. In times of doubt, remember Frederick Douglas’ words: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard on incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.”

The two of you spent so much time with me that you wanted to emulate my 13 y.o. penchant for "sartorial splendor" LOL. Me having some fun dressing you boys up, big chain, durag, magnetic earring and all. 

The two of you spent so much time with me that you wanted to emulate my 13 y.o. penchant for "sartorial splendor" LOL. Me having some fun dressing you boys up, big chain, durag, magnetic earring and all. 

But what I want to prepare you for are the more menacing racially motivated occurrences, when having a high gpa, the fact that you are student leaders, that you perform regular community service, that you are good kids and respectful to others won’t matter. All somebody is going to see you as is a black boy. It is my hope that it will be something innocuous like Jacey and I’s experience of being constantly followed in malls and department stores when we used to go to Sawgrass to hang out --we were being profiled because of our style of dress, durags, big chains and tall tees, and if you know your big brother whichever snarky attendant had the audacity to follow and say something to us has never gotten a verbal picking apart like they received that day from a durag clad black teenager-- or my grade nine history teacher overlooking me for an award I deserved and unnecessarily punishing me when I opened the door as the bell rang after the city bus route I took to school in Coral Springs experienced a stoppage in service. You will learn that these situations strengthen your character. But if it happens to be something more emotionally taxing, remember your big brother is always here for you and moreover, you come from a long line of smart, resourceful and resilient people.

Great grandfather, Joseph Gray. 

Great grandfather, Joseph Gray. 

Back to the oreo comment; you guys may not know this but either Grandma’s grandfather (or her great grandfather) was a Scottish immigrant. Why do you think Grandma has blue-rimmed eyes and really really white hair now? You don’t dare run that joke of her being part white though, just warning you. For the past few weeks I’ve been reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie who also immigrated to America 4 months shy of his 13th birthday like me, but from Scotland. In the early years the biography is set in Scotland and you get the impression that the Scots are a hard nose and industrious set of people.  Carnegie with little formal education after entering the work force at about your age Tarik was able to work himself up to being a millionaire and eventually becoming one of the richest men in history. It was determination, dedication and discipline at its purest. Unfortunately, we never met our great grandfather Joseph Gray. But by all accounts he possessed some of these traits in his career as a pretty successful butcher. He may not have made the millions that Carnegie made, but he was able to provide for his children and amass enough money to leave some land to them.

Maternal grandparents Vasco and Veronica Hendricks (née Gray).

Maternal grandparents Vasco and Veronica Hendricks (née Gray).

As you guys know I spent the first eight years of my life living in Ewarton with Grandma and Grandpa. I loved touching Grandpa’s head because of the soft texture of his hair. It is believed that one of Grandpa’s forbears was the result of a union between a Taino and a Maroon. The Tainos were Jamaica’s indigenous Amerindian population that was decimated due to over-exhaustion and diseases brought on by the Spanish. It is believed that survivors were subsumed into the Maroon population. People commonly refer to the Haitian revolution as the first successful slave rebellion in the Caribbean. But in truth the Maroons of Jamaica defeated the formidable British redcoats by employing guerrilla tactics in the mid 18th century, more than fifty years before the commencement of the Haitian revolution. Moreover Grandpa’s father and grandfather was part of the relatively successful Jamaican agrarian class that emerged in the post-emancipation Jamaica milieu. Luthor Cecil Hendricks was a very wealthy man who owned 100’s of acres of land at one point.

Paternal grandmother, Rona Graham (née Mckay)

Paternal grandmother, Rona Graham (née Mckay)

Have you guys ever sat down and listen to Grandma (Ms. Catherine) talk? She is seriously one of the funniest, wittiest and most poetic people I know. This should come as no surprise to you, but then again it may very well surprise you guys. Grandma’s maiden name is Mckay. She happens to be cousins with one of the most outstanding 20th century poets and acclaimed author in his own right, Claude Mckay. He was a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance. I have some homework, for you both. Read “If we must die”. It is then you boys will understand purpose! Claude Mckay was very influential on the architects of the Negritude  (look it up), especially Aime Cesare. I don’t want you to constantly think about your blackness/race, I just don’t want you to forget it!

Paternal grandfather, Colin Graham.

Paternal grandfather, Colin Graham.

Then there is the story of Colin Graham, aka Grandpa. Unfortunately he was taken from us when you boys were 5 and 6. This man had a Horatio Alger story. When you talk about a man who used his ingenuity, work ethic and determination to make something out of nothing, this is that man. Grandpa started out cutting sugar cane on a former plantation where he slept in a tree  at night and after receiving a plot of land from his deceased father’s friend he became a small time farmer where he’d cut cane by day and tend to his small plot by moonlight. Eventually he’d start a very successful bus company called “the Doreen Special” that had routes going all over the island.

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Starting over wasn’t easy. The financial hardships and struggle of our first five or six years are nothing to scoff at. I remember vividly that time. In one specific instance, I remember mommy getting $60 for 24 hours of work, this is around the time when she was staying with old people in South Florida. I remember Daddy even taking a job at one point at a car wash when I just arrived, imagine the sense of responsibility that drives a man who was rather well off in his home country where he was quite successful before the age of thirty (speaking of age, it's already April 10th here in Denmark, join me in wishing "the Don" AKA "Terrol" AKA "Donovan" AKA "Daddy" a happy 48th birthday today!) both as an insurance broker and the owner of two thriving grocery stores and eventually a supermarket to take such a job. And I’m sure you guys remember being with me all the time because of our family situation. I even had to take you both on a double date with Jacey and two girls to see Love don’t cost a thing in 2003. There were times I even had to lend Mommy assistance in doing her hair in a fashion she despised because she didn’t have the expendable income to spend on such luxuries. Eventually Daddy (one of the most driven people I know) was able to start his transportation business and it has grown over the years from him alone to 6 drivers now. One of the best things Daddy ever did for me after catching me sagging my pants on the way to the park the summer after moving to Florida was grounding me and giving me the book Think and grow rich: a black choice by Dennis Kimbro. I guess this is my way of throwing down the gauntlet.

You like myself are the grandchildren of country folk from rural Jamaica, never forget your humble roots; humility is key. Furthermore, we are the descendants of West Indian slaves that worked under some of the harshest and most brutal labor conditions ever. The sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil recorded some of the highest mortality rates and it was a few centuries after the plantation economy had taken root that these places were even able to field a self-sustaining enslaved population. You guys may call me "slave driver" behind my back as it relates to you both and pushing you towards excellence in all your endeavors especially those academically related; and that I’m ridiculously driven. I just want you both to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that I never had. Don’t waste them. Many of the opportunities that I’ve been fortunate to have and that you will have if you stay on the path that you both are on are opportunities that will never be open to family members of ours. Don’t waste them. Although I never lived the life of the indigent, growing up in Jamaica I saw poverty daily. Wanting to help people like the boy you guys saw outside of Grandma’s market stall in Denham Town, West Kingston with torn up clothes in January 2009; that’s my purpose.  I want you both to take a look in the mirror and ask yourselves how can I honor the memory and sacrifices of those who came before me and use my talents to benefit society while reaching my personal goals.

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I wish our mother didn’t have to worry about letting you ride your bicycle alone to soccer practice Menelik, and also worry that allowing you to wear the Yale hoodies I bought you guys will put you in harm’s way because your presence as teenage black boys in a hoodie is perceived as pernicious and poses some form of imminent danger. Alas, that’s the America we live in where the brownness of our skin evokes fear and antagonism. I just pray that you both are equipped to navigate this minefield that is the life of a black teenage male in America.

"Think of yourself as on the threshold of unparalleled success. A whole, clear, glorious life lies before you. Achieve! Achieve!"-Andrew Carnegie. The sky is the limit for both of you, I’m immensely proud of you both, and I’m pleased with the young men you are evolving into. Just don’t get complacent. There’s always more. Any academic and professional success I attain, it is my expectation that they will be dwarfed by both of your accomplishments.

With love always

-Your  Big bro, Terrol

All grown up.

All grown up.

Facebook: Terrol Mikhail Graham

Twitter:@cholesTERROL