IN THE CASTLE OF MY SKIN

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In another class, the boys were buzzing about the queen. The queen, the head teacher had mentioned. Queen Victoria. It would appear that those who stood nearest the wall had over¬heard the older people talking about the queen. She was a great and good queen, the head teacher had said, and the old people had said something similar. They did not understand it. They understood the flags. They understood them be¬cause they did not need to question them. The flags explained their presence, and the parade and the inspector. All these things were simple. They simply were.

But the old people on the wall had talked about the queen in another way. They had talked about her as a good queen be¬cause she freed them. That’s what they said, “a little boy was repeating. They said she made us free, you and me and him and you. I heard them say that. How it was the queen that made them free?” “They must have been locked up once in a kind of gaol. That’s what it was”, one boy said quietly. Most of them were locked up in a goal at some time in the past. And it would appear that when this good and great queen came to the throne, she ordered that those who weren’t free should now become free.

It was beginning to make sense. Now they could understand what this talk about freedom meant. One boy said he had asked the teacher, but the teacher said he didn’t know what the old people were talking about. They might have been getting dotish. Nobody ever had to make him free. The boy understood. The old people must have been con¬victs, and on the queen’s accession, they were freed. It had nothing to do with them. It was disturbing. The thought of not being free. How could you bear it? If you were told that you couldn’t do this or that, and you couldn’t go here or go there. Cruel! Another boy spoke quietly. He was not satisfied with the others’ explanation. It was a case of the pennies and the king all over again. He said he heard someone say some¬thing about slaves. An old woman had said that once they were slaves, but now they were free. And she said that’s what the good great queen had done. She had made them free.

The small boy was puzzled. He understood the meaning of ‘gaol’ and prisoner’. He had seen the prisoners several times. They passed in chain gangs early in the morning on their way to work. And he knew what that meant. They were being punished. After they had served sentence, they would be free again. But the old woman on the wall wasn’t talking about that. She was talking about something different. Something bigger. That’s how it seemed to him. He asked the teacher what was the meaning of slave and the teacher explained. But it didn’t make sense. He didn’t understand how one could buy another man. He told the teacher what the old woman had said. She was a slave, and the teacher said she was getting dotish. It was a long, long long time ago. People talked of slaves a long time ago. It had nothing to do with the old lady. She would’t be old enough. And morever, it had nothing to do with people in Barbados. No one there was ever a slave, the teacher said. It was in another part of the world that those things happened. Not in Little England. The little boy didn’t like the sound of it. He had dismissed the talk about slaves, but he was very anxious for the old woman. Who put it in her head that she was slave, she or her mother or father before her? He was sure the old women couldn’t read. She couldn’t have read it in a book. Someone told her.Moreover, she said she was one. One of these things. Slave. The little boy had heard the word for the first time, and when the teacher explained the meaning, he had a strange feeling. The feeling you get when somebody relates a murder. Thanks God, he wasn’t ever a slave. He or his father, or his father’s father. Thank God nobody in Barbados was ever a slave. It didn’t sound cruel. It was simply unreal. The idea of ownership. One man owned another. They laughed quietly. Imagine a man in any part of the world owning a man or a woman from Barbados. They would forget all about it since it happened too long ago. Moreover, they weren’t told anything about that. They had read about the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror. That happened so many hundred years ago. And slavery was thousands of years before that. It was too far back for anyone to worry about teaching it as History. That’s really why it wasn’t taught. It was too far back.

History has to begin somewhere, but not so far back. And nobody knew where this slavery business took place. The teacher had simply said, not here, somewhere else. Probably it never happened at all. The old woman, poor fool. You could forgive her. She must have had a dream. A bad dream. They laughed quietly. The whistle was blown. Silence, silence!! It came up like a ghost and soon faded again.