THE GARDENER OF THE CEMETERY
Dr. Lester CN Simon
We, West Indians, plantation people, Black, White, Mulatto, Doughlah, Mixed, Mixed-up, Indian, Indigo, Chinese and in-betweens, must compute the elemental fact that attention to at least three of the underpinnings of our conjoint, harrowing history must be the pillars of our new society: family, education and how we look after our dead.
We cannot talk of a society until and unless we understand the significance of slavery and plantation life. This is neither a Black Power nor a Back-to-Africa positioning. Truth to tell, the Back-to-Africa fairy tale has led us to tell each other and ourselves many untrue stories. Grammatically and otherwise, we cannot reunite a continent or a country that was never united in the first place. Only when we understand the facts of African tribal differences and the further separation of inter-tribal as well as the deliberate separation of intra-tribal peoples of African descent, will we hold on to, and near-strangle the fact that it’s all about family.
But we have to define what we mean by family and extended family. In so doing, we move from a nuclear family to a peripheral community. Any West Indian society (especially since we fought for and won our freedom) that does not make political, social and economic provisions for this nuclear and extended family, gathering at work and at play, is doomed to extended and perpetual slavery….worse, by our own hands.
Refusing to acknowledge the significance of plantation life and always looking back with myopic eyes whilst refusing to look ahead and plan the building of a West Indian society will prevent us from understanding, among other things, how enslaving and abhorrent it is for West Indian men to rape West Indian women. It also prevents us from accepting that education, not tourism, is everybody’s business. Elementary, my dear. Somebody has to say that if Antiguan and Barbudan nearga think we can build a modern society with the abolition of income tax for 28 years and live and educate children on halfpenny replacement levies administered by unaccountable politicians and uncivil civil servants, slavery is alive and well and kicking.
I wanted to call Observer Radio one day when the host of Voice of The People said that a good friend of his, who was once a Black Power advocate, said that he had to put away all of that when he became the minister of tourism in a nearby island. The sad fact is that the man, as is the case with so many of us, failed to understand what Black Power should be about in the first place. I cannot earnestly welcome tourists and ask them to enjoy themselves in my land, if I am not at peace with who and what I am, what I want to be. Real Black Power means that I have moved on from some outer, dashiki insignia to an intrinsic moral high ground because of the new West Indian society we are building. This is indeed the new, second and misunderstood, mental and societal, post-slavery, “middle passage” that all West Indians of all hues must pass through.
And as we pass through that second “middle passage”, we will one day pass on. Death is always a difficult subject to write about. Like music, it is something we all understand at times and at other times, it overwhelms us to bawling tears. The commonality of music and death is probably echoed in the saying that music in the universal language, the voice of all humanity, the speech of angels. Indeed, William Wordsworth wrote that, “The music in my heart I bore long after it was heard no more”. Plato wrote that, “Music is a moral law….It gives a soul to the universe. It is the essence of order.” Derek Walcott wrote of Spoiler, the calypsonian, “Tell Desperadoes when you reach the hill, I decompose, but I composing still”.
The cycle of call and response and the very nature of creating music out of a simple set of fundamental notes and sounds must be related to our genesis from dust and our exodus, not just back to dust and ashes but to echoing memories of the sacrifices we made, the countless lives we touched and saved, adding to human kind and humanity. We get reminders, sometimes in the most unusual places and at the most inopportune times, of the fun and laughter and sadness, the verbal quarrels and fights and sweet peacemaking that we contributed to this earthy world in our third and most significant “middle passage”.
The everlasting music of death tells me that just as the musician must be paid and must eat first at the feast before all others, so too must the gardener of the cemetery be honoured and respected. You can talk about going to heaven or to hell until you and the cows get there; the simple, earthly fact is that the cemetery is a living place. The biology of its plants and trees, its flora and fauna, contribute to life around us, even when we are literally turned over in our graves after years of interment. For those who forget that business starts with us and think that it is tourism that is everybody’s business, a well-kept cemetery is good business.
Again, we West Indians, plantation people, should have the deepest respect for how we deal with our dead. It is the true test and testimony of the community of the moral high ground we have attained. If we cannot respect the resting place of our dead, whom we used to see and know, how can we talk of God and heaven?
Maybe funerals should be bedecked with tens of shovels so that all of us can get our hands a little earthy. We should banish the backhoe and see who really wants to go to the funeral. We may then be able to look after the gardener of the cemetery. Because those who have passed on have affected our lives; because grieving families, friends and loved ones must know and feel that our innumerable, positive thoughts, our overflowing, cushioning tears and our celebrations of the inter-relatedness of all lives and all deaths, surround them in their moments of grief, we are all gardeners.