A Black Woman’s Burden

crying-child

A Black Woman’s Burden
Part 1: A History of Violence

Cut by: Davita Cuttita

The other day, I was out with a really great friend of mine who we’ll call Missy.

Missy is a 23 year old Filipino girl and we’ve been friends for about seven going on eight years now. However, ever since her family has encountered some financial hardships and had to move a few years ago, it’s been hard for us to meet up and it is a rarity for us to see eachother in person. Last Saturday, she suggested we go to downtown Toronto which we did; it was fun to shop in the Eaton’s centre and I decided to show her around the city a bit more. We went to Chinatown for dim sum, showed her around the clubbing district, waltzed into a sex shop for shits n’ giggles then hit up a few more ritzy stores and comic book shops before finishing off the day at Red Lobster with glasses of wine and big plates of shrimp and lobster pasta.

Things have picked up positively for Missy and her family, her slightly younger sister will be attending my University come fall and she was thinking about attending post-secondary to study the fine arts but had this decision shot down by her father as he saw it to be “unprofitable” and unrealistic. I encouraged her to browse venues of her interest that may spark his enthusiasm as she told me how controlling her father is.

He monitors her finances and never allows  her to go downtown (her family and I are on good terms so they allowed her to go with me although she did admit she does occasionally sneak downtown on her own). Missy’s internet access and other activities are also closely monitored, censored and restricted. She almost never goes anywhere without her parents or an older brother and admitted that she was unsure how to complete many functions I don’t even think about; such as opening a bank account as her parents did everything for her; especially her father.

“I’m tired of this Davita,” she sighed.

“The world is so big and has so much going on and I want to know what’s happening. My Dad keeps shielding me from everything!”

“What’s the use of having a shield if you don’t have a sword?” I asked her.

“What’ll happen to you when you move out and that shield is gone? Bad people in this world detect innocence and naivité just like that and they’re quick to take advantage of it. They’ll eat you alive.” I said before going silent.

“That’s true. I honestly don’t know what’ll happen to me when I move out. I like what you just said,” she mused. “What is the use of having a shield if you don’t have a sword?”

Missy always tells me how envious she is of my freedom and this occasion was no exception. However, I’m always quick to remind her and anyone else that my freedom does not come without its own set of sacrifices.

In Jamaican culture, you are treated like a person from early on. People will often talk about an unborn baby as though it has some knowledge of the outside world and typically believe it to be an actual person; contradictory to much Western doctrine. It is also commonplace for adults to be having a conversation and a child to come in and pitch in their two cents without being treated condescendingly. Even babies have their own type of respect and are not coddled as much as those Western children in strollers struggling to keep their feet from touching the ground. We do not participate in “baby babble” and oftentimes the adult will jokingly treat the baby as though it is saying actual words or look it point blank in the face and tell it to learn to talk.

You are treated like an individual person and your independence and autonomy are strengthened and respected right from the start although respect for and obedience to your elders is still an extremely integral part of Jamaican culture.

My family comes from humble beginnings.

My mother is the daughter of an architect and a seamstress. The house my grandfather designed and built for his family still stands and we visit it occasionally as we’ve rented it out to friends of the family.

Years ago, my grandfather’s work in other parts of Jamaica had caught the attention of an affluent businessman from England who hired him and set back off to London to prepare of his immigration documents and travel expenses. However, by the time this was all cleared and the businessman’s ticket for my grandfather to go to England arrived in Jamaica, it was too late—he’d already been buried for a week. He’d died of tuberculosis at about the age of 41, leaving my grandmother behind with five children as well as two orphans she’d taken in off the street. Some of the last words he told her as he spat up mouthfuls of blood was that it felt like the blood was “coming from his heart”. That one phrase has been like an omen upon my mother’s family eversince.

My mother was a few months shy of being two years old when he died while my aunt was a teenager. My grandmother could hardly provide for seven children with her earnings so she went to Canada and worked odd jobs in sweat factories and as a maid in abusive conditions while sending money and clothing back to Jamaica. This was especially difficult not only because she was alone in a new country but also because she was an illegal immigrant for ten years of her twenty-something year stay in the country. She often went from job to job and location to location in order to avoid being caught as though she were on the Underground Railroad.

My aunt was left to care for and raise six children at the tender age of fifteen. Sometimes all my family had to eat growing up was mangos from a tree in the backyard and drink water either from a tap or a hose. Sometimes they had no food for days on end or would only have a meal once a week.

My grandmother worked hard for over thirty years in sweatshops, factories or as a personal care worker in old age homes cleaning shit and vomit; keeping half dead old people who hated her skin colour alive. She never dated, remarried, went out for leisure or even went on a trip during the day anywhere outside of (or even within) Toronto; not even Niagara Falls. She lived alone and had few friends. Eventually, in retirement she went back to Jamaica and lived there happily in the home my grandfather built. In her vulnerable state however, one of the orphan children she had cared for made off with the entirety of her life savings and retirement fund which prompted my mother’s family to bring her back to Canada. When she got Alzheimers we never put her in a home; instead she had an organized schedule and would stay with one family for two or three weeks in a rotation.

Eventually, she grew sick of the Canadian winter and extremely irate; demanding furiously to be returned to Jamaica. After her request was granted my family sent her back but were cautious enough to put her under the care of a close female friend who lived with and looked after her. My mom checked in with the lady and my grandmother on a regular basis. Shortly thereafter, she had a massive stroke due to a blood clot in her brain and died without a penny to her name.

We’ve searched for the grave of my grandfather but have never been able to find it; even with records of where it *should* be. My mother and Uncle (the eldest son of my grandmother) used to comb the graveyards on weekends looking; once my Uncle searched the Jamaican cemetery all day by himself until he got sunstroke and passed out. Jamaican cemeteries are on top of the dustiest mountains filled with clay dirt with very high temperatures and extreme humidity. Graves are sometimes shared: occasionally six people are in one hole, buried in caskets one on top of the other; further complicating any search efforts. To this day, his grave site remains unknown.

My father grew up in the worst part of Jamaica, Waterhouse. Currently, Waterhouse has the highest murder-per-capita rate in the world. My father didn’t grow up with parents either as my grandmother was about seventeen when she gave birth to him and would often leave her Jewish mother to look after him. On top of that, his father had disappeared in England (only to be found 30 years later but that’s another story) and his relatives and my grandmother’s relatives often fought bitterly over who’d get to “keep” my father, leaving him in a violent tug-of-war between homes.

His whole family on my grandmother’s side lived in one house and he shared a bed with the children of his aunts—eight children would sleep in one queen sized bed. My father had a sister who died in infancy when he was seven and often tells me ghost stories of how he could hear her crying and see her the shadows on the wall of her arms reaching out of the crib (when the crib was empty). As of current, he has one half-sister and nine half-brothers from his mother and father’s other relationships. My father is extremely light-skinned and was often harassed and chided by the police for playing with the “dark” children.

My father was also far poorer than my mother as when he got older, he, his mother, some cousins and aunts lived in an abandoned police station. The police who used to be in there were all shot to death in a gang ambush and my Dad and his brothers went in, cleaned it up and redecorated it: otherwise, they’d would’ve had no place else to go. Almost all of my father’s friends are dead; murdered off by corrupt police officers. One of them literally begged and cried for his life on his knees with his hands above his head, pleading that they not kill him because he had a baby girl at home but they shot him point-blank in the chest and head anyway. Another one was shot point blank by an officer who then ravaged his corpse for his jewelery: my grandmother showed me the spot. It was right across the street from her house on the corner. She was the one who’d found him.

My mother was exposed to very little violence and was careful to make her visits to my fathers’ area extremely brief as the crime escalated. She had a friend in highschool who was very pretty and fell in love with a gangster. My mother, being fearful; tried to encourage her friend to leave the man before anything bad could happen. Her friend laughed it off and it was only a matter of time before she was pregnant. One day as she was eight months pregnant and getting out of a taxi, some men pulled up in a car in front of her and shot her multiple times then drove away—my mother saw the whole thing. She collapsed to the ground and as she died, her stomach shook and stretched uncontrollably as the infant within her went into death throes, kicking and spinning from the lack of oxygen and shock. They both died right there.

As death dominates Jamaica as much as the sunshine, my family has always raised me and my siblings to be self-sufficient. I find that this is commonplace for all Jamaican children. We are cultivated for survival.

“What if I die tomorrow?” is the common phrase my parents will throw at me.

“Things have to go on as if I were alive! You have to fight, you have to survive! Learn to defend yourself, the world has no mercy; it doesn’t care about you!”

My siblings and I have been taught how to take care of virtually any errand imaginable. We know where to go to pay the mortgage and how (even when it’s due!), we know how to pay the bills, we know how to get loans and credit cards and how to apply for them; what the credentials are. We know how to apply for funding for school (which I receive otherwise it wouldn’t be possible for me to go to University) and are able to care for small children.

I was taught to do dishes at the age of six. Naturally, I was so small that I had to stand on a stool. Once a or twice a week I’d wash every single dish; even if it took me an hour. My mother was opposed to it but my father thought it was good.

I’ve been caring for babies eversince I was eight. I can change diapers, prepare bottles, you name it. At the age of 11, my parents worked so much that I used to care for my youngest brother, then three years old and quite asthmatic. If he had an asthma attack I knew how to distribute care and had taxi numbers ready in case we needed to go to the hospital. I used to bathe him, read to him, clothe him, change his diapers, prepare his meals, feed him, take him out to play, put him to sleep and wake him up as well as pick him up from daycare. Sometimes the snow outside was so high that he couldn’t walk through it and I used to put him on my back or hold him in my arms and walk home as he jibber-jabbered about his day.

By the age of 11 I also knew how to mop, vacuum, sweep, iron, clean an oven, grocery shop, clean the bathroom and do laundry; all of which my sister and I performed on a regular basis before doing our elementary homework. I also dusted quite regularly so that my toddler brother’s asthma would not be provoked. I was also able to cook and when two of my half-brothers arrived from Jamaica (my Dad has nine kids), I was cooking for a total of 8 people; including myself. This only got worse as we moved into a house and two more brothers came, bringing the total to 10. Sometimes I had to cook two dinners as my parents were unfamiliar with Canadian food and preferred Jamaican or vice-versa with my younger siblings. Sometimes I made three dinners because by the time I or one of my parents arrived, no food would be left. However, I’d usually just go to bed hungry in this case.

I’ve attended parent-teacher nights with my Mom to keep track of my little brothers’ progress and tutor them in any way I am able. I still read their report cards and chide them to perform better in school.

At 17, I was self-employed; tutoring children for $60 a week. At 18, I was a receptionist for a staffing agency and worked for less than minimum wage making $6.10 an hour; much of my money went towards saving for my first year of University and buying groceries for my family (which I would carry home because I couldn’t afford a taxi and the bus didn’t go near my house anyway). Again at 18, I was working for a research company as an assistant researcher; one of the best jobs I’ve had in my life until finally at 22, I got a summer internship in finance which I worked while attending French class at University. I had to catch three buses to get to class at six when I got off at four; it would take me an hour and a half to two hours to make the journey there then it took me three hours to make the journey home. Sometimes I was in my business suit all day and after leaving the house at 8:30AM would arrive back home at 10:30PM.

Does this sound like a glamorized version of freedom to you?

My freedom was paid for in blood, sweat and tears.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.

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~ by davitacuttita on March 5, 2009.

2 Responses to “A Black Woman’s Burden”

  1. Uhh…I had a really intelligent comment at the beginning of this piece, but by the time I got to the end I…uh…man. This has to be one of the most intense things I’ve ever read, it’s just so damn real I’m literally boggling. Thank you so much for sharing these experiences.

  2. Thanks for reading, XR Xands. I hope you’ll be able to make it through part 2 (coming soon!).

    I think it’s important that people know what hardships face the “free” Black woman.

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