The school library, a rickety wooden one-room affair that had once been the original schoolhouse, was set apart from the rest of the red-brick school buildings. To reach it, you skirted around the main building and then veered right into the feathered shade of two giant red gums. From there, the shouts and cheers of handball and bullrush were eerily silent.
The library offered a magic kind of quiet. Its metal shelves were an otherworldly grey, warmed with a strange, almost pink undertone. In certain sections, such as where the RL Stine, Sweet Valley High and Babysitter’s Club books were shelved, the speckled brown carpet was threadbare from human traffic. In other sections, the dead-straight spines of hardback reference books appeared unmoved from day to day, thin layers of dust gathering on the upper ends of their pages. Even here, popularity was insurance against loneliness.
The library was a default shelter, a refuge of geeks, misfits and outcasts, a stand-on-the-steps-and-scoff-your-cheese-sandwich place for those seeking the reassuring nearness of a staff member and a way to lose themselves in another universe.
I walked up the uneven wooden steps, through the swinging glass door and turned left towards the nonfiction section. My red-and-white checked tunic clung damply to my back. My white knee socks dug into the flesh of my sweaty mahogany calves. Australia’s Most Dangerous Insects. How Things Work. The First Fleet. Understanding Outer Space. I followed the nonfiction section deeper into the library, trailing an index finger along the perfectly aligned spines. I stopped in the geography section, kneeling down to browse.
‘Can I help you there, Maxine? What are you after?’
Miss Richie, the librarian, was a slim woman with mousy brown hair and enormous tortoiseshell reading glasses. When she wasn’t reading, Miss Richie would peer intently over her glasses, brow lowered, eyebrows raised. It made it seem like she was in a constant state of disapproval.
Miss Richie was softly spoken. She wore high-waisted, camel-coloured slacks and billowy faux-silk blouses. Miss Richie was attractive-ordinary. Like the lady in Pretty Woman. Like if you took her to the shopping centre – to one of those makeover places where they primp and perm regular people, drape them in a feather boa and then break out the Vaseline lens – you wouldn’t recognise the vixen that emerged. You would peer, boggle-eyed and wow-who-knewish, at the new glam Miss Richie.
‘I’m doing a project … on Jamaica. For Mrs Dutton’s Grade 6 class. Do you have any books on Jamaica?’
Miss Richie flicked through the card catalogue, then paused.
‘Actually, we do have one!’ she said, not bothering to conceal her surprise
Miss Richie walked over to the middle shelves as if half expecting the book not to be there.
‘It looks new,’ she said, checking the borrowing slip. ‘I don’t think it’s been borrowed before.’
JAMAICA was printed in bold black capitals on the front cover.
‘Thanks, Miss Richie.’ I headed off, book in hand, towards the beanbag area.
‘There are also the encyclopedias and atlases if you need more information,’ Miss Richie called after me, before climbing back onto the long-legged pine stool behind the check-out desk.
On the cover of the book, beneath the title, were illustrated pictures: mangoes, coconuts, a smiling girl wearing a feathered carnival headdress. Inside, the book was divided into different sections: climate, food, geography, people, history.
Jamaica is a beautiful place, the book announced. It explained that it was almost always some mild kind of summer. Everything that grew there – mango, banana, sugarcane – was rich and sweet, and the fields were lush and green. The brown-black soil was almost like compost, not the kind of sandy dirt or terracotta clay you reached after half a foot or so of digging in our veggie garden at home.
The people in all of the drawings looked laidback and happy-go-lucky. It noted that Jamaicans celebrated life through music, and listed some of their exotic instruments: the toombah, tabor, goombay, bongo drums and the abeng, a trumpet made out of cow horn. It also listed different music styles – reggae, calypso, dancehall – many of which were familiar from my father’s record collection.
I sunk lower into the grubby beanbag, engrossed in the pictures and descriptions. Blue ocean stretching for infinity. Jade green mountains. Brightly coloured fabrics.
At the very back of the book, just before the index, was a page headed ‘History of the People’. Unlike the rest of the book, this page was in black and white, making it seem like an afterthought.
Jamaica was colonised by the British during the Atlantic slave trade, and populated by slaves from West Africa. The original inhabitants of Jamaica, known as the Arawak Indians, are no longer in existence. The current inhabitants of the island are primarily the descendants of slaves from Africa. Next to the writing was a sketch of the inside of a large boat, shaded with a black crisscross pattern. African slaves being transported inside the lower deck of a slave ship, read the caption. I bent closer. The crisscrossed black inside the ship’s hull wasn’t a pattern – it was people. People shackled together at the neck and feet. Black bodies were cramped in next to each other side by side, a seemingly impossible number of them.
It suddenly felt as if the air had been sucked out of the library. I could hear the bell ringing in the distance, the muted footsteps of kids lining up on the outside balcony for library time. The kids – a Grade 3 class – started filing in, chattering and jostling, tomato-red library bags swinging in hands.
Miss Richie was standing over my beanbag.
‘The bell has gone, Maxine. Shouldn’t you be in class? Let me quickly check that book out for you and then you can go.’
She took the book from my hands, carried it over to the desk, stamped the card and noted down the return date.
‘Thanks, Miss Richie.’
I hurried down the library steps, around the back of the main school building and across the asphalt play area. When I reached the double staircase leading to the senior-primary classrooms, I leapt up two steps at a time. Slaves. The people in Jamaica were slaves. From Africa. Had people in my family been slaves? Possibly. Maybe. I didn’t know much about the slave trade, only that for years white people had treated Black people badly, had beaten and chained them and forced them to work for free. I had occasionally glimpsed movies about slavery while channel flicking, but these were all set in America. That had nothing to do with me. Nothing. I also knew about apartheid. A year earlier we had watched on television when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison after twenty-seven years. He had been held captive for demanding that Black people be treated the same as white people. When he was freed, hundreds of thousands of people had lined the streets of South Africa, cheering. We had watched on from our lounge room, my parents both glued to the screen. My mother, teary-eyed, had called him a political prisoner. That had nothing to do with me either. Absolutely nothing.
At home that afternoon, my family’s World Atlas confirmed what the library book had already told me about Jamaica’s climate and geography. There were photographs of the impossibly lush Blue Mountains. Men stood in the centre of sugarcane fields, the taut muscles of their upper arms shiny with sweat. I could smell the wetness of the earth, the salty sea-and-soil air. There was a picture of a kid, three or four years old perhaps, chewing on a sugarcane stalk. I could imagine the stringy roughage of it, feel the sugar-water easing cool down my throat.
The population of Jamaica, like those inhabiting most of the West Indies, are the descendants of African slaves. Maybe it was true after all. Maybe I was the descendant of African slaves. How was it even possible? Me, sitting here on my grey-silver quilt in my rose-pink bedroom in suburban Sydney. Jamaica is an English-speaking country. Although it was first discovered by Christopher Columbus and claimed by the Spanish, it was later colonised by the British. Various patois or creoles are spoken. These patois developed as a result of West African slaves mixing their native languages with English. I thought of my grandparents, of the lyrical way they spoke English, their voices singing down the phone line from London, as if each syllable were a pitch-perfect note carefully selected from a scale they alone were attuned to. Such beautiful language could not be the result of such a horrible history. My grandparents had never spoken of this. They would surely have told us.
Slavery felt like a shameful thing to be connected to. As if being a descendent of these people somehow made me less of a person. These people who were chained, beaten, stolen. These people who had their babies taken from them. These people who worked, without pay, until death. I was them. I was these people, and they were me. I felt like I had discovered an awful secret, something that I should never speak of. I wondered if all of the people who called me and my family names, who treated us badly, did so because they knew what we had once been. Because they knew we weren’t actual people.
Any time someone had asked me where I was from, I explained I was born in Australia. ‘But you look African,’ the person would often say, confused. I’d shake my head as though that was the most ridiculous proposition in the world. My parents, I would explain, had been born in the West Indies, but grew up in London and moved to Australia after they were married.
After dinner, I helped to clear away the dishes and wiped our long dining table, carefully drying it with a tea towel. I then unrolled my project cardboard, weighing down the corners with four drinking mugs. Finally, I rotated my HB pencil in the sharpener, watching the wafer-thin twirls of red-rimmed wood fall softly onto the table.
I began by measuring out three lines of dots – each exactly one centimetre apart – down the centre of the cardboard and down each side, then joined the rows up to form horizontal writing lines.
I carefully outlined ‘Jamaica’ across the top in bright green bubble writing and drew coconut palms on either side. I filled in a border of dancing girls, kicking their legs up under brightly coloured skirts, just as they were shown in the library book. I wrote about salt fish, banana fritters, ackee, and rice and peas. I wrote about the humidity of a tropical climate and carnival time in the West Indies. I wrote about growing sugarcane and bananas. I made sure that my letters just nicked the top and the bottom of the lead-pencil lines, the way Mrs Dutton liked them to.
I tried not to think about the Black bodies chained up under the hull of the ship, or about the Arawaks, who simply did not exist anymore – as if they had one day all held hands and walked out into the Caribbean sea.
Each evening, for a week or so, I eased down the plastic band restraining the cardboard roll and continued working. By Friday, the project was complete. I stood proudly before the finished project, surveying my work. I looked first at the green bubble writing, then the orange flying fish and turquoise water. I felt well pleased with my efforts. The writing was neat. The pictures had been traced clearly. All of the shading was between the lines. Mrs Dutton was known for never giving full marks for a project. ‘We all need something to strive for,’ she would insist. ‘Nobody’s work is perfect.’ My previous marks had ranged between 86 and 99 per cent. But looking over my Jamaica project, I was convinced this would be the project that finally proved there was an exception to the rule.
Mum walked up behind me, drying her hands on a tea towel. I could sense her reading over my shoulder.
‘That looks great!’ she enthused. ‘Well done! There is a bit of space down the bottom there, though.’
She pointed to a four-centimetre gap running across the bottom of the cardboard.
‘You can probably fit some more information there if you want to. Have a look back and see if there is anything you might have missed out.’
I glanced up at her.
Jamaica was colonised by the British during the Atlantic slave trade, and populated by slaves from West Africa.
‘You, um, …’
Mum hesitated. ‘You haven’t written much about the actual, um, cultural make-up of the Jamaican people.’
‘I wrote about the instruments and drums and carnival time.’ I pointed towards the relevant paragraph, titled ‘Bacchanal’.
‘Well, okay. It does look great,’ she enthused again.
I picked up my lead pencil. At the end of the handwritten information, in the gap left at the bottom, I carefully wrote ‘THE END’ in fat bubble writing, outlining the letters in heavy black biro then carefully shading them in with a purple Crayola pencil.
Mrs Dutton smiled as she handed back my assignment several weeks later. It was the kind of smile you give little kids you think are super cute.
‘I never give 100 per cent in assignments,’ she said in a gentle voice, ‘because no child ever does an assignment perfectly.’
I rolled the elastic band from the cardboard, straightened the project out and looked down at my assignment mark. In a red circle in the top right-hand side, Mrs Dutton had written 99.99 per cent, followed by a big exclamation mark. I looked back up at my teacher.
‘Jamaica sounds like such a beautiful place to visit,’ she said smiling. ‘While I was reading your project, Maxine, I found myself desperately wanting to go there for a holiday!’
She looked at me pointedly. ‘I lived for a while in Fiji, you know.’
I stared at her. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I cleared my throat.
‘That must have been … nice,’ I said slowly.
‘Your assignment made me think about the end-of-year concert. We still haven’t chosen an item for our class to perform. I have two songs in mind that I think you will love, Maxine.’
After lunch, as we sat cross-legged on the dark orange carpet, Mrs Dutton played the songs on one of the school’s rusty metal cassette players. The first song was about harmony and getting along with people. It had been written by a group of school children just like us and the words didn’t make that much sense. The second one was called ‘Jamaica Farewell’.
‘This song was made very famous by a Jamaican singer named Harry Belafonte,’ Mrs Dutton told us as she pressed play. Calypso guitar strains filled the room. I recognised the song from my father’s record collection.
Down the way where the nights are
gay … The boys at the back started tittering. And the sun shines daily on the mountain top. I took a trip on a sailing ship, and when I reached Jamaica I made a stop.
The song slowly faded out.
‘So, those will be our two items for the end-of-year concert,’ our teacher said. ‘I was thinking we could have some of the girls dancing onstage while the others are singing. I will have a think and pick two or three suitable people.’
I sat up straight, hopeful that Mrs Dutton’s eyes would fall on me. This was my kind of caper. I loved being on stage. I had sung in the school choir all through primary school and we often had to coordinate actions with our singing. Mrs Dutton knew I’d be able to do it. Besides, the song was about Jamaica and she had chosen it because of my project. Plus I looked Jamaican. I was a shoo-in.
The end-of-year concert was organised by age, with the Grade 6 class performing last. We filed onto the stage for our first item and stood in three rows, about eight kids wide. I lowered my head and crept into the back row. Mrs Dutton looked us over, her back to the audience. Her enormous Christmas bell earrings jangled as she turned her head. She frowned, then pointed at Mahana, Billy Leung and me. ‘You three! Come over here. Come into the front row.’ She shuffled us towards the front of the stage, gently pushing a handful of the other kids into the row behind. She looked the class over again, her smile widening.
As the introduction music started, Mrs Dutton stepped off to the side of the stage, raising her arms to conduct us.
Oh, Australia, let’s build our community, higher and low. Let’s help each other, and learn each other’s language so we can get along.
I opened my mouth wide, loudly belting out the words.
Mrs Dutton looked across at me, beaming encouragingly. I felt a hand push me in the back. I stepped forward a little, momentarily winded.
Our country is made from all nationalities …
Something hit me in the back of the neck. I could tell by the weight and wetness that it was a spit ball.
Many people from around the world …
Several of the kids giggled behind me.
Let’s share and care for their personalities …
Another missile landed on my left shoulder. One of the boys must have prepared a pocketful.
Help them settle in …
Once the first song was finished, Brooke and Sarah stepped out from the back row. They were wearing their ‘Jamaican dancing girl’ costumes: fuchsia skirts with ostentatious ruffles down the showy side-split, matching feather-strewn bikini tops and a large hibiscus flower tucked behind each of their right ears. Their matching waist-length blonde hair had been brushed shiny and set into bouncy end-curls. Mahana, Billy and I stepped back a little, to give them room to perform.
The song started. As we sang, Brooke and Sarah began to sashay, shacking their hips and kicking up their fake-tanned legs. They had been rehearsing the choreography for several weeks with their teacher at Donna’s Dynamic Dance Academy.
I looked out into the audience, squinting against the harsh stage lights. I could see my parents, sitting in the middle of the third row. Mum was fighting back a smirk. A stony, withering look was cemented on my father’s face.
As the song progressed, the boys behind me ramped up their accents. Soon they were singing in caricatured patois, mimicking Belafonte.
Down deeey wee where deey nightz dem geeeey, and de sun shine deeeely on de mowntayn top …
Mrs Dutton beamed, thrashing her arms about, enthusiastically coaxing us to sing louder and more spiritedly as we neared the finishing crescendo.
This is an edited extract from the memoir The Hate Race forthcoming from Hachette Australia in August 2016.