The feeling started as I watched the cop kneel into his neck. It wasn’t the kneeling. It wasn’t the public lynching. It was the hand in pocket. It was the nine minutes and 29 seconds that ended another black man’s life.
The calm, deliberate pressure on George Floyd’s neck spoke of a cop who knew he would get away with it. And he almost did; but for the 17-year-old who had the courage to press record, he would have; but for her courage to tell her story there would have been a different ending; but for the uproar and the furore among the masses, that life would have ended as so many others had. And I could not shake the feeling. This was not my home. America was where I lived, but it was not my home.
Thirty-two years living in this place did not make it my home. It was where I had lived. It was where I worked. But I was just another black soul going through the motions in a place where I did not belong. I was just another black soul waking up each day in a country that really did not want me there.
That December I took that feeling to Jamaica. Two weeks of quarantine make for lots of thinking. As I enjoyed my time in the Montego Bay resort, I reflected on the fact that I could not have had a better place for an enforced stay. I woke up each morning before breakfast and walked for at least an hour on the golf course before the golfers turned up.
I stood on the balcony of my well-appointed room and took pictures of the sunset over the mountain or the sea lapping up on the shore. I enjoyed the smiles and the kindness of the hotel staff as they aimed to please at each encounter. And boy, was the food good! It was manna to a transplanted Jamaican soul. I was sorry to leave the hotel.
The condominium turned up the day before I was to fly back to the US. And, like I have done all my life, I followed my inner compass. Forget about good sense. I signed the contract. And you know you have made the right decision when the stars align. The time was right. But I only knew how right when I walked into my supervisor’s office to turn in my resignation.
“Don’t resign just yet,” she said. “I converted all your courses to online. You can work from Jamaica. At the end of the year, you can decide what you want to do.”
What? I could not believe it. I waited for some bureaucratic directive to come down and pull the rug out from under me. But what came down was my assignment in writing. I was to teach from home for the semester. Then my friends offered me their country home in the hills while I waited for my condo to be constructed. The Universe had paved the way, or so I believed. I would take it.
I always peek out of the window like an excited five-year-old whenever my plane descends into Kingston. My imagination is always sparked by the expectation of good things to come…seeing old friends and family, guineps and mangoes of summer, sweetsop and naseberries of winter, salt mackerel and bananas, ackee and saltfish with “food” and cornmeal dumplings. Food, as distinct from rice or rice and peas, can be yam, breadfruit, sweet potato, green bananas, or any of the “ground provisions” aplenty on the island. Yes, I’m so glad to be coming home.
But this time there is not much to see outside, beyond the thousands of twinkling lights of Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston. It is dark when the flight descends, and I scan the coastline for the port of Kingston. Although I cannot see the gantry cranes, I feel the customary thrill that returning to Jamaica always tugs out of me. The plane touches down, albeit with a few bumps, yet wheels to tarmac bring resounding applause from the passengers. Jamaicans always are grateful to return home safely and the flight crews from any airline often are thanked for their service in that manner. Notwithstanding flight delays and substandard snack offered on this three-hour first-class international flight, I am so glad to be home. I had flown first class for the advantage of two checked bags, 75 pounds each and another for an extra $150. I had done the math. The convenience was worth it, and I would be living out of a suitcase for several months hence.
As I exit the aircraft and walk toward immigration, passengers jostle each other to get ahead. I approach the immigration area and five blue-gowned ladies step forward.
“Have you been fully vaccinated?” I knew this was about COVID-19.
I return a smiling “Yes!” And I’m glad that I can show off my Moderna vaccination card.
“Would you like to take a test now and be released from quarantine early?” WOW! What good fortune! I had asked a friend to let me stay for the anticipated eight-day quarantine period, but here was an offer of early release! Not to be scoffed at!
“Are you with the Ministry of Health? I asked, wanting to be sure this was legit.
“Yes. If you want to take a COVID PCR test now, see the nurse over there and she will process you.” She gestured to a booth a few feet away. I could not conceal my delight as I scampered over.
“It’s US$100 for the test, miss. Do you want it?”
“Yes, of course!” The price of freedom? Yes, yes, and yes!! Not even the painful, odious, intrusive shove of the thin swab-stick up my nostrils would deter me. Freedom in less than 24 hours? Well worth it. I endured the dreadful procedure, thanked the nurse (I don’t know what for) grabbed my bag and strode toward immigration. I pulled out my Jamaican passport and joined the rapidly moving line. I was so happy to be home!
“Welcome home Miss Harper!” The immigration officer’s voice was strident deadpan. Clearly tired, ready to go home and not interested in pleasantries.
“How long have you been away?”
“Thirty-two years!” I piped up, knowing this was not what he really wanted to know, but I was high on excitement. “I’m home for good!”
“Why?” His unexpected sardonic response said what he was really thinking — “Eediat.”
But nothing could dampen my enthusiasm. I had left the US for good to live in Jamaica. Nothing could shake my resolve. The non-democratic democracy that leaves people like me wanting could be left in the dust…easily. Does he even understand what it is like to live in a society where my PhD and my 848 FICO score and nice little house in a goodzip code matters little? Where nothing quells the unease that one feels as one walks down one’s street of little cookie-cutter houses and tries not to see the menacing flags in the front yard declaring allegiance to a virulent leader? No more of that. I’d visit often since my daughter still lived in Atlanta, and that was just fine.
“The grass is always greener!” I smiled as he stamped my passport and handed it back to me.
I headed to the Customs area to collect my bags. Not a single porter in sight. I thought things would be different here, but clearly not. But there were lots of carts for free, unlike my boarding experience at the airport in Jacksonville, Florida. There were no redcaps at the departure gate there, and I had paid $12 for a stiff-legged cart that barely held my bags. The fee was really $6 but for some reason I had to swipe my card twice before the cart was released. Lifting my bags was a near back-breaking feat. It was tough going, but I did it. I had no choice.
I spotted the black-smeared white suitcases and pulled the 70-pounders from the carousel, thanking heavens that my near 72-year-old body was in fairly good shape as I braced and swung them onto the cart. No chivalrous man (or woman) here! Oh well! COVID-19 does make independent beings of us.
In the Customs area everyone mills around, grabbing their bags and rushing to get through to the other side. I make my way to the “red line.” I have been given “returning resident” status so I need to declare the car and container of household effects that must follow. I will not have to pay import duty on most of what I will bring into Jamaica.
The bored, unsmiling Customs agent puts me through the drill. I open one suitcase and then another which she rifles through and then waves me on. I thank heavens that I need not lift and open all five bags!
As I leave the Customs area, a young man blocks my path “No carts beyond this point, miss!”
A porter advances to pick up my bags. Whew! Help at last! We walk past the people milling around and peering expectantly as the door swings open and spills out another passenger with even more bags than I have. Outside we walk a few feet and then, to my dismay, the porter deposits my bags on the curb, takes his tip, and turns to walk away.
“Can you not wait and help me put them in my car?” I was at the end of my tether with lifting those giant bags.
“No lady. Mi av fe go back. Mi nah mek nuh money if mi wait wid yuh”
“But I cannot do this on my own!” I wail.
“Weh de car deh? I look around for my niece, but she is not there.
“She nuh come yet? He asked. “Me wi come back.”
As I watch his retreating form, I have little hope that he will return.
It is hot and humid as I watch several cars pull up, and arriving passengers load their bags and pull away. And I despair. But he came back a few minutes later. And a few minutes after that when I told him my niece was not there yet. In fact, before she appeared, good to his word he returned three times to see if I needed help. I was really home.
A few minutes after my kindhearted porter had checked in on me for the third time, my niece pulled up to the curb. She jumped out of the car, gave me a bear hug, and then assessed the task to hand. I’m thinking to myself, this will not work, no way. This car is really tiny. We cannot do this on our own. Where is that porter?
Now, my niece is sinewy 5’8’. Me when I was her age. Me now, I wish…in my dreams.
I swear the four big bags will not fit, but they do. I swear that we will need help, but we do not. Watching her swing the bags into the tiny hatchback car is a metaphor for efficiency and moderation. Makes me marvel at what the body can do and how little we need. Overindulgence can destroy our ability to maximize our body’s potential and there is really no need to have a huge SUV that consumes and spreads the width of a road lane.
We get in and I roll down the window to take in the breeze coming up from the ocean as we speed along the airport road. Huge white boulders to the right prevent sea water inundation that once made the road impassable during heavy rain and sea level rise. This was one of the many improvements since I had left 32 years before. COVID curfew is on, so she must take me to my friend’s home and return to hers before 9:00 pm.