By June Girvan
Today, June Bawled
Today, Derek Chauvin relinquished his Soul;
George Floyd has his life taken; his breath stopped.
I grieve for today.
I hope for tomorrow.
I remember my father.
I remember my aunt.
I remember Gaston Garfield Girvan.
I remember Rita Burrows Girvan.
Today I bawled.
I bawled in gratitude for the wonder; for the beauty; for the splendour of the souls of men, “white” men, who do not besmirch their own humanity.
I bawl. I hope.
I honour the compassionate souls of persons who lift up the Spirit and well-being of humanity; the empathetic persons who are a credit to our human race.
I live in gratitude for my forefather’s kin who are gifted with the capacity for empathy; compassion; the capacity to be truly human; to exemplify the African philosophy of Ubuntu. I celebrate them. With gusto.
My spirit sings. Dances.
Today I watch the television screen.
I see George Floyd die. Eight minutes 46 seconds. I hear, “Mama! Mama! Mama!” I watch his brother. I watch his son. I watch his six-year-old daughter. I watch.
I am triggered. Anguish erupted. It rose from the depth of me.
I am straddling my favourite limb of the Bombay mango tree, in the front yard of our Girvan family home at 10 Dunoon Road, Jamaica, West Indies.
From this vantage, I can see many heads on the veranda and into my grandparents’ bedroom. In there, are more heads gathered around a bed. My father is in the bed. He is dying.
For many days, I watch.
There are three generations keeping vigil. There is our Nennen. There are his Mama and Papa; his aunts and his siblings: Thom, Edna, Beryl, Lynette, John, and Gloria; his sister-in-law Rita and brother-in-law, Alan. The fourth generation is watching the vigil keepers.
I watch from among the tree branches. There is an endless stream of tribute payers. They are from all walks of life, the lowly and the highly placed. They come and go. Come and go. Silence. Low voices.
Many prayers are being sent up. Many arms wrap around one another. There are women bringing provisions. There are men with hats clutched to their chests, heads bowed. I hear words like “Respect”, “Walk good”. “Prayin’ fi all a Yu, Miss Josie; Mas D.”
My father dies in his parents’ bed.
It is the same four-poster mahogany bed in which he was conceived. It is the bed in which he was born, suckled. At the time of his birth, the bed was at North Hall, Clarendon. It is now in the front room of 10 Dunoon Road.
Number 10 Dunoon Road is a house with four- bedrooms, one bathroom. It is home to some 14 people; four generations. I have no idea where his parents slept during the time of his illness. There’s always room for everyone… one more … Squeeze over. Make a space on the bed; on the floor; a cot in the dining room, the drawing-room; the veranda. Whatever. Where-ever.
I spend my days in the tree. I watch grief happening. From the tree, I see Gaston Garfield Girvan. “GGG” dies after two and a half years of facing his mortality. It is leukemia. I am eight years old.
Embedded in the cells of my Self, is Mama’s voice.
Mama is standing at my father’s bedside. I see her raise his arm. She looks upwards. She holds her belly. I hear her strong voice. She utters words. I don’t understand. Aunt Gloria, in her elder years, shared Mama’s words with Lisbeth (Lynette’s daughter). The words were, “Father, send your angels to take my son home. Guide him into your heavenly kingdom”.
I watch. I hear. Mama’s grief rises from her womb. It travels out the door. It reaches me in the mango tree. It continues beyond. It continues on into the stratosphere, accompanying my father’s departing spirit until her lament is left behind.
Back at the death bed, Mama is hugging her womb. Rocking. Rocking. Rocking.
Papa holds her.
From the mango tree, I see Papa rocking her. Rocking his Miss Josie.
I don’t remember Papa being the demonstrative type. But he is holding her. They are holding each other. They are rocking together. Thelma, their first-born was dead. Now, their second birthed is dead.
My father died at age 42. He might well have lived a longer life, were it not for his dignity and respect for himself. Island sensibility. Choice. Bottom line.
He had gone to New York for treatment. Aunt Rita, his intrepid sister-in-law (Norman Girvan’s mother), was designated to be the one to accompany him to an alien land, as caregiver.
From Kingston, Jamaica, they flew to Miami. From Miami, they travelled to New York by train.
As Jamaicans, they had no idea of or didn’t grasp the Laws and prevailing sensibilities in the United States of America at the time.
My dark-skinned father and his protective, solicitous pale-skinned sister-in-law had no idea that they were shattering norms. Jim Crow.
The norms were based on the state-sponsored economic exploitation and violation of the human rights and dignity of people of African descent.
The Girvans of Jamaica hark back to the Spanish Inquisition, Christopher Columbus, the Middle Passage/Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Plantation slavery, colonization and determination for self-government.
My own DNA speaks of European, European Jewish, African and Middle Eastern ancestry. In Jamaica, we have evidence of African forefathers; no evidence of European foremothers. Children “sired” by European men, born of African women, were designated “slaves” by their fathers, who traded them to one another. These fathers did not hold their children sacred. Atonement. Reconciliation. I celebrate my life; the chance to visit this splendid universe. It is complicated.
My father and Aunt Rita’s travelled from Miami to New York was terrifying. The experience travelling from New York back to Miami, was more terrifying. Through the grace of God and good, morally healthy un-melanated men, they made it back to Jamaica.
My father should have returned to New York for a follow-up course of medical treatment. Either of his brothers, Thom or John, could have, would have, taken him. He refused. Absolutely not. He would rather die. So, he did. Priorities. Dignity. Legacy. Bottom line.
Then came the getting ready for the funeral. The laying out in the drawing room. The burial at Half-Way-Tree Parish Church. There was the getting ready. June has no shoes. During the watch days, my feet, known to “The Boys”, as “submarine foots” had been lengthening again. Money was short. Children’s shoes in my size of feet were in short supply. It was deemed that I couldn’t attend the church barefooted. Yes, I can. Yes, I will. Priorities. Unshod, uncolonized feet. Resolve. So, I did.
Growing up among family, we children had, from time to time, overheard snippets of The Story. It was a story of un-melanated men with severely damaged souls, or no souls at all. Compromised souls; melanin phobic and dangerous to melanated people of African descent.
The Story was, clearly, a “Shut your ears, children” kind of story.
It was a story deemed not for the delicate ears of children. It was a story of an awful sickness from which children needed to be protected from its impact, lest their hope in humanity be bruised.
Keeping the Story from us children was the family’s “gift” to us; the gift of a hopeful life, to help us keep faith in the better nature of humanity; the possibilities for splendour; keep faith in our fellow men of un-melanated skin; our forefathers kin.
They were keeping hope alive; protecting the hope dynamic; promoting the chance for a spiritually healthy, more noble future, while they hoped for a “vaccine” or something that will eradicate whatever ailed those who suffering from the degradation of themselves; devastating their own humanity.
Years later, cousin Norman and I were visiting with his mother. Aunt Rita, now elderly was reminiscing. Norman and I were “gathering” family stories.
I wanted to hear, directly from her, the story of the journey she and my father took to America. Now was my chance. I steered the conversation to the story.
Aunt Rita started into the story. She began by saying that through the grace of God and some unknown “white” rescuers, they escaped what would be certain violence against her seriously ailing brother-in-law. And, of course, herself.
After a few minutes, she stopped. She trembled. She shook. She heaved. She bawled. We witnessed her being re-traumatized.
There are reasons why many are silent on their experiences in war. There are many versions of “war”.
He had been entrusted in her care. She had proudly, courageously, and fearlessly taken familial responsibility… feeling accomplished by being entrusted with a special Family assignment. She could have lost him. What would she have told his Mama; his Papa; his siblings; their community? What would she tell his children? Her children? Would she have lived to tell her story?
Aunt Rita, the “take charge” courageous woman, the intrepid spirit, had been tested; tested to an extreme. She was now re-living.
Norman and I exchanged looks. We signalled an agreement to each other. We didn’t really need to know the details anymore. We understood.
Shaken, frightened at her reaction, we agreed never ever again to touch the subject with her. We ate lunch in silence. Why had we probed? Why?
“Not very ting good to eat, good to talk”.
Today, I watched a man nonchalantly, casually suffocate a fellow man. Casually. He took his time. Eight minutes 46 seconds. Mr. Floyd is calling for his dead mother.
“Mama! Mama! Mama
I think of Chauvin’s mother. I think of Mr. Floyd’s mother.
The pain in my womb is excruciating. I remember Mama helping women in grief over their child; women who wailed, “Mi belly bottom droppin’ out”.
There but for the grace of God, is Gaston Garfield Girvan. My father.
I watch George Floyd’s brother lead prayers. He asks for “Justice on the left, Peace on the right”. I bawl.
From the eves-dropped stories, together with what we gleaned from his mother that day, Norman and I pieced together a story. It really is a “Shut your ears children. Shut your eyes children” story.
On the journey to New York, my father and Aunt Rita were just lucky. Some courageous “white” Good Samaritan-type men came to their protection. On the return journey to Miami, they were again rescued. Men with undamaged souls. The beauty, the sheer wonder of un-melanated men with Splendid souls! Glorious men.
How do I honour and celebrate these honourable “white” men? Men who are keepers of the social contract to be our brother’s keeper?
I pay forward.
God bless these men and their children and their children’s children. God bless the woman named Rita Burrows Girvan. My Aunt Rita.
I pay forward.
I can’t remember ever telling my children about this.
How do we speak of such ugliness to children? How do we have the conversation? Where do we start?
How does one manage the business of truth-telling, without “infecting” another generation?
When is the right time to risk sullying the otherwise magnificently beautiful universe in which one gets to visit for a just little while?
When is the right time for ”The Talk”? How do we give “The Talk” without negatively stereotyping all un-melanated men? I have never figured that out. “White” has become su0ch a sullied, besmirched term, when applied to people; to persons.
Had I ever really cried for the loss of my father? I can’t remember. I do know I have been angry.
Mostly, I have been angry with my father. Why? He could have left me a letter, with instructions as to how to be in the world? With the time given, he could have done that. Turns out, he left me a model. It is the story of one’s dignity; respect for Self. Priorities. Island sensibilities. He had shown me.
Today, I bawled. I dried my tears. I give thanks to and for my “ubuntu” community folk to say, “Thank you for hope. Thank you for keeping hope alive.”
I have been profoundly blessed with the wonder of “ubuntu” folk in my life; folks who are moral kin to the protectors and the rescuers of my father and my aunt. They are persons with undamaged souls. Splendid folks.
In 2014, the United Nations deemed it necessary to proclaim a Decade for People of African Descent, with three pillars: Development. Recognition. Justice, with people of African descent recognized as a distinct group, whose human rights must be protected and promoted.
These “Ubuntu” folks have not needed the United Nations to tell them to be “ubuntu” minded.
I honour the unknown men who protected; rescued Gaston and Rita Burrows Girvan.
Now, in my Evening Time, I honour every one in the generations of Girvans who is paying forward; each in our own way.
Our Gaston and Rita were protected; rescued. They were just lucky. George Floyd was not.
I weep for George Floyd’s children; his family.
I weep with community. I weep with our world.
I bawl for all of us.
I grieve for today
And for tomorrow?
I do have hope for our tomorrows.
This new generation is HOPE.
We are now all in it together.
Justice is us.
Catalysts for justice.
Justice for George Floyd; a name for CHANGE.
A dead mother’s child, Grandfather, Father brother, uncle, cousin. A MAN.
Justice for all the George Floyds before him.
Paying forward. Paying forward.
Things have to change. HOPE. It’s the time.
Out of ONE we are MANY. Of many, we’re ONE.
Say his name. George Floyd.
Derek Chauvin and George Floyd both have a “white” man’s name. There’s history in names.
Who took Derek Chauvin’s humanity?
Black Man’s Burden.
By whom, how, when, where, for what purpose, did he get so profoundly broken?
June Girvan is President of Black History Ottawa.