As Jamaica gets ready to celebrate her 50th anniversary of Independence, Colin Grant turns his thoughts to those migrants who left the island, and set sail for England, around the same time. His father happened to be among the number. Like many of his counterparts, he found life in the so-called ‘Mother Country’ a mixed blessing; they wanted to make a decent living for themselves, but money wasn’t everything. Unable to fully integrate into English culture – they did their own thing, with great panache. In one of the few books to recount the experiences of his father’s generation of Jamaican migrants, yearning for ‘home’ yet trapped in an alien culture, Colin Grant’s comic memoir shines a bright light on the ex-pat Jamaican ‘spirit’.
Bageye at the Wheel is the final part of a trilogy of books examining African Caribbean life in the 20th century. “Growing up in a small British town in the 1970s,” says Grant, “I and my siblings were keenly aware of what seemed to be an absence of the depiction of Caribbean people in history. There appeared to be very little in the local library, or school, to enlighten us. Caribbean figures cropped up in history books, only as part of the back ground or sub-plot, or as victims. Mostly their lives were unexamined; their history was an area of darkness. My two other biographies, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, and I&I: The Natural Mystics – Marley, Tosh and Wailer, stemmed from that feeling; that there was a richly rewarding story still to be told.”
In his own way, Grant’s father, Bageye (the protagonist of Bageye at the Wheel), was something of a Garveyite. He arrived at a code – self-reliance, mobilisation through education, and a deep distrust of white people – that could have been found in the pages of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.
Bageye at the Wheel is painted on a smaller canvas to that of Negro with a Hat, but there are important echoes of the latter in this new memoir, never more so than in Bageye’s adherence to a kind of Jamaican Bella Figura.
In this the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, at Calabash’s Jubilation!, Colin Grant will talk about all three books – how the difficulty in writing with rigour but compassion about a flawed but magnificent promoter could be applied to both men.
Grant concludes: “It is not my intention, by illuminating the previous darkness, to somehow avenge the past, but I am ever aware of my singular responsibility. When I sat down to write about Garvey or Bageye I kept the quotation of J.B. Russworm close to my side: “Too long have others spoke for us [such that] our vices and our degradations are ever arrayed against us, but our virtues are passed unnoticed.””
1. Colin Grant www.colingrant.info author, historian and BBC producer is also an associate fellow at the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick.
2. Colin Grant will be speaking at the Calabash Literary Festival www.calabashfestival.org on: Friday, 25th May @ 7:00pm – 8:30pm; and Saturday, 26th May @ 1:30pm – 3:00pm.