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At the time, I couldn't understand my mother's anger. I mean this wasn't really a woman I was punching. This was Nikki. She could take it. Years would pass before I understood how that blow connected to my mom's past.

My mother came to the United States at the age of three. She was born in Lowe River in the tiny parish of Trelawny, Jamaica, hours away from the tourist traps that line the coast. Its swaths of deep brush and arable land made it great for farming but less appealing for honeymoons and hedonism. Lowe River was quiet, and remote, and it was home for my mother, her brothers, and my grandparents. My maternal great-grandfather Mas Fred, as he was known, would plant a coconut tree at his home in Mount Horeb, a neighboring area, for each of his kids and grandkids when they were born. My mom always bragged that hers was the tallest and strongest of the bunch. The land that Mas Fred and his wife, Miss Ros, tended had been cared for by our ancestors for generations. And it was home for my mom until her parents earned enough money to bring the family to the States to fulfill my grandfather's dream of a theology degree from an American university.

When my mom first landed in the Bronx, she was just a small child, but she was a survivor and learned quickly. She studied the other kids at school like an anthropologist, trying desperately to fit in. She started with the way she spoke. She diligently listened to the radio from the time she was old enough to turn it on and mimicked what she heard. She'd always pull back enough in her interactions with her classmates to give herself room to quietly observe them, so that when she got home she could practice imitating their accents, their idiosyncrasies, their style. Words like irie became cool. Constable became policeman. Easy-nuh became chill out. The melodic, swooping movement of her Jamaican patois was quickly replaced by the more stable cadences of American English. She jumped into the melting pot with both feet.

Joy Thomas entered American University in Washington, D.C., in 1968, a year when she and her adopted homeland were both experiencing volatile change—Vietnam, a series of assassinations, campus unrest, rioting that tore through the nation's cities, and an American president who no longer wanted the job. Joy herself was caught between loving the country that offered her and her family new opportunities and being frustrated with that country because it still made her feel like a second-class citizen.

FROM: A Rhodes Scholar, A Convicted Murderer: The Ultimate Twist of Fate
Published on April 27, 2010

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