To the place I call home

Tarik Garvey

In recognition of Black History Month, the Record is inviting community members to write pieces of advocacy, celebration, grief, discussion, history, or personal experience. This is the second opinion piece in that series. Those interested in submitting an op-ed for our Black History Month column can contact Iman Shumburo ’24.  

The fondest memories of my childhood were formed in National Heroes Circle under the relentless Jamaican sun. Few things compare to the joy I felt playing football (or as the United States calls it, soccer) in papery khaki school uniforms and neatly polished dress shoes. The road circling and running throughout the campus was our stadium; a half-filled water bottle that was crumpled just enough to scrunch each time we kicked it was our ball; a bunch of sweaty, rowdy 13-year-olds was the field. Between the hours of two and four after school, nothing could stop us from morphing into Ronaldinho or Neymar as we yelled, “Salad!” after poking the water bottle clean through someone’s legs. It was near impossible to hold back our cackles when some genius decided to control the bottle with their chest and, as a result, the bottle burst open and soaked their uniform. Good luck explaining why your freshly ironed khaki uniform is soaking wet to your Jamaican mother. Although none of us were any good, and we didn’t have to be, these are the memories, the vignettes, the brief moments that color my recollections of home.

Despite being almost a decade removed from those memories, each time my mind wanders there a forgotten detail resurfaces. Once we played in the garden by the art block. Another time someone smuggled in a tennis ball and we had no use for a water bottle. Maybe sometime else someone brought sneakers to change out of their dress shoes. Though the minute details change from instance to instance, as enduring as the memory of those brief moments of joy is the memory of what happened on the occasions we were caught. 

Mine was an all-boys school that prided itself on discipline and excellence. After-school activities were heavily regulated. Playing football in the streets was classified as loitering. We were in danger of sullying the good name the school had built. On the rare occasion a teacher stumbled upon us sullying the school’s good name we would be subject to a spot check in which our appearance would be scrutinized. Shirts had to be tucked into our pants. Shoelaces had to be tied. But the most important thing was our hair.

Hair was allowed to be no more than an inch off our heads. That is, if you were Black, you were not allowed to grow your hair more than an inch. Otherwise, the principal, the vice-principal, or the arresting teacher would accompany you to the local barbershop for a haircut. Most would comply meekly, but the bold few would always ask, “But what about Jamie?” Inevitably, Jamie, whose hair length made a mockery of “school rules,” was always white, or Asian, or more pointedly, not Black. Such inquisition was always met with a scoff, a roll of the eyes, a kiss of the teeth, and an explanation that never satisfied anyone.

These trips to the barbershop came with a lecture on discipline, respectability, and comportment. What seemed then to be strict school administrators playing favorites I now view as coded acts layered in coded language. Discipline. Respectability. Comportment. Though just random angry words to a 13-year-old, today, they speak to Jamaica’s colonial hangover. Embedded in Jamaica’s everyday institutions are rules and regulations that adhere to colonial standards of “normal” in our own Jamaican version of respectability politics. 

For a school prioritizing discipline and excellence above all else, afros, mini afros, and longer-than-an-inch high hair read as unkempt and ill-suited for success while Jamie’s flowing locks were quite all right. Excellence was not Black if Black looked like us. At 13, no great injustice was done to us. We couldn’t see the anti-Blackness of it. And if we did, there was nothing we could do. Things had always been this way. We would be back the very next day playing to our heart’s content in the streets. It is only now that I am able to see the pattern. Those boys with the too-high hair were the same boys labeled too loud, too energetic, too disruptive, too curious, too Black. Which is funny — and by that, I mean not funny at all — for a country that is predominantly and overwhelmingly Black. Black skin, white masks; Fanon said it.

One of the most memorable scenes from Regina King’s One Night in Miami features an exchange between a soon-to-be Muhammad Ali and Sam Cooke as Ali relays, “Power just means a world where we’re safe to be ourselves. To look like we want. To think like we want. Without having to answer to anybody for it.” I had always thought of Jamaica as an example of this type of Black power. After all, there were no white overlords overseeing the ebbs and flows of our day. At least, that’s what I thought then. That’s the thing about colonial hangovers and systemic oppression: It’s so mixed in with the cement that it forms the very walls around us. You can’t spot it on your own if it’s all you know. Maybe we were “safe to be ourselves” and “look like we want” so long as we met certain acceptable colonial standards of respectability. 

I hold no ill will for the place I call home. My fondest memories were made there. I am only more critical of those memories now. I find it necessary to investigate my most intimate feelings, recollections, and thoughts so as to reveal the contradictions that undergird them. When we say Black power, what do we truly mean? I’m guessing it’s more than Black sovereignty. And what happens when definitions of respectability conflict? I know I want to keep my higher-than-an-inch hair and then some. 

Tarik Garvey ’21 is an English major from Kingston, Jamaica.