While the Union Jacks were banging the wind with their own jubilation, beneath them stood so many mock-soldiers, tied in allegiance and at attention, because there was a Queen or a King, somewhere up in London: Royal salute, present arms! Order arms! Slope arms! Here the Queen’s or King’s representative, the Governor, with a fowl cock on his head, fluttering like authority and royalty, unknown to most of us, except that handful who went to church at Government House tea parties, to have tea and cucumber sandwiches in 90-degree three-piece suits made in the same cold climate where the Queen or the King was probably drinking sherry), to show some visiting dignitary or a captain from a man-of-war, that in our splendid island or Barbados, Little England, master and slave could meet in other circumstances than those constitutionally arranged by colonialism. That handful should have been in Marcus’ rum shop drinking rum and eating bread-and-fish and talking something sensible. These are the memories of growing up with a dealboard musket on my shoulder, my memories of a proud, little, black, English childhood.
Let me not give the impression that I did not, in those barefoot-afterschool days, swagger with equal or even greater contempt and conceit with the Harrison College students at the lesser mortals: the Combermerians. Do not let it be said that I had no pride, and found none, in the white shirt and the khaki shorts, the college tie of red and gold, with matching flashes, and a book bag slung over the handle of my black bicycle (black – a choice colour for bicycles only!), crammed with knowledge which I garnered then. and never could use since. This included Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus, Caesar, Livy and other trinkets of useless battles and bridges crossed, and something about a man named Hannibal who crossed the Alps. This was done without it being pointed out whether that crossing was tantamount to crossing his racial rubicon, without being told that this Hannibal was not an Englishman, but was rather black like me. There were the many books of Shakespeare, without being taught the one tragedy significant to me as a black man in a white society, Othello, which above all the other snippets of learning, could have anchored me down, steadfastly, to my birth, my culture, my origin.
In the Hall, where a diminutive voice conducted prayers, the language used was English, identical to that in the prose of Burke, or Goldsmith, or Macaulay. A voice not out of my past, because of that past I knew nothing, and was taught less than nothing. There was never a West Indian history book in my bag, which for six years I pulled through Combermere School and through Harrison College for three years, like a wharf rat pulling a lighter.
That voice had once told me to leave the class, because the mauby and buns had settled too soon, too heavily and too finally in my stomach, and had sent me on the afternoon wings of negritistic drowsiness. It was that same foreign voice which said on my school-leaving recommendation (without which no school boy leaving school can exist in the “outside world”), was merely sketching the skeleton of potentiality: Austin C. Clarke entered Harrison College in 1950, as a transfer from Combermere School. He has recently taken the Oxford and Cambridge Higher School Certificate in June, in English, Latin and Roman History. He was an outstanding athlete, and has a flair for writing. Signed: J. C. Hammond.
Hendrik Verwoerd could not have said less on a kaffir’s pass book! And had I this ability to summarize a piece of English prose, I might have been a Barbados scholar, or I might have got a distinction in English! Equipped with this testimonial arsenal, I was left to forge my advance into a society built on recommendations. The gentleman who wrote it had made certain (could he have forgotten?) that there was no mention of my demeanour, my “behaviour” and my “manners”. And since Barbadians believe that “manners maketh man”, I could not be considered a man.
It was a recommendation based on the fact that I had dared to fall asleep in his class that had something to do with English Social History, in which a lot was droned about England, and not very much about society or sociology or history. And remembering now, I wonder what that same gentleman would have done (what did he in fact do?) had he the opportunity to recommend to the “outside world” another gentleman who came to Harrison College with three academic degrees: BSc, MSc and DSc, which, it turned out, he had none of? There is a way of dealing with cockroaches in the closets of Bank Hall and the cockroaches of Hastings Village.
I was left then, with nothing but aggression and ambition, which I could use as antidotes to my poverty. I sometimes wonder, from my new mental safety of Canada, whether fate alone divided those who writhed a shitty living out of their poverty, and those who were buried in the shit and the poverty. I cannot yet understand how I escaped its death knell. Perhaps it was my aggressiveness. I remember the energy I used in order to combat the ingrained prejudices and other disadvantages in my life at Harrison College, and my determination to be outstanding in something.
During my days at the College, to be outstanding with the books (the ability to write a good distinction Latin prose was the exception) was not accorded any unnecessary honour or seriousness. I understand that the Island regards scholarship more seriously nowadays, because the Island is becoming “free”. Everybody who had ambition could not be named Griffith, or Smith, or Williams. But I had to shine. And I chose to shine at athletics. For me, athletics was a more acceptably aggressive way of fighting back, than coming first in Latin Unseen. Apart from the questionable virtues of this acquired foreign knowledge, I thought at the time, that scholarship was a more passive way of presenting myself to a society in which social acceptability was not only superior to book learning, but was also based on hereditary considerations.
Athletics implied a fight, a competitiveness, a visible defeat and a visible victory. It was something that could be seen, and read about, and applauded, (and I needed applause). And since I could not lay claim to the applause of a plausible legitimacy of birth, nor to the plausibility of a knife-and-fork-eating middle class background, the plausibility of my existence had to be won by me, alone.
I understand now (I was not, nor could I be expected to understand it, then) “why I did compete in individual sports. I could not share my honours with anyone. I must be in front, alone, in victory, as I had been alone in the defeats caused by virtue of being, firstly black, secondly poor, thirdly, illegitimate”. It was easier to come first in the 100 yards sprint than to bowl all day, and depend upon the slip fielder to take my catches, in order to see my name in the score book.
My promotion from Sargeant Major in the Combermere Cadet Corps to the rank of Acting Lance Corporal in the Harrison College Cadet Corps further convinces me that Barbados, Harrison College, and other institutions in my Island, are not so very different from South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, the United States and even Canada. ·
It is one thing to want to be a soldier, (and be permitted to be a soldier), and to be given a musket of dealboard with which to hunt for the enemy, a hunt which, “by-George!” takes you into the pits of Hastings and Bank Hall, among the cockroaches and the flies. I had to leave.