In reading and editing the articles of the late Smokey Joe for about two decades, beginning in the last part of the 1980s, if I remember correctly, the one thing that always struck me was his love for Belize and for his friends and associates and contemporaries. Since Smokey (christened Selvyn Wade) travelled to the southern United States as part of a war manpower mission in 1944 at the age of 18, this means he was born in 1926 or so. And that means that Smokey grew up in some really hard times in old British Honduras. From whence the love?
The Great Depression in 1929 hurt the economy in British Honduras badly, because the market demand in the United States for our mahogany and chicle practically collapsed. Then the 1931 Hurricane two years later devastated the capital city, “Belize Town” as it was called back then. If that wasn’t bad enough, when the Americans ended their Prohibition on alcohol use in 1933, Belizeans’ profits from running rum to the U.S. Gulf Coast disappeared.
Belize’s economic circumstances were such that unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid workers began to march and rebel in 1934 under the leadership of the heroic Antonio Soberanis.
These were the cruel circumstances in which Smokey Joe was growing up in this former British colony back in the 1930s, and remember, Smokey was almost jet black, so he was no child of the brown middle classes. He ran these tough streets in the 1930s and early 1940s, but his writings do not dwell on the hardships of the era, but rather on the good times.
I think that the black community in Belize Town had a socialist mentality beneath the oppressive capitalist structure of the ruling British. Black people at the base shared what they had with each other. Selfish greed for money was frowned upon by the Creole culture. The sense was that the boat was leaking, but we were all in it together, and we would figure out a way to survive somehow. This was the community love that Smokey Joe remembered, and which imbues his writings.
Smokey Joe became a highly successful mortician in New York City. In other words, he made more money than he could ever have imagined when he was a child growing up in economically depressed Belize Town. In the last two, three decades of his life, nevertheless, he clearly was being pulled back to Belize by some psychical need.
This same psychical need is being felt by many older Belizeans in the United States today. One reason for this is that America is a place where youth and energy are on a pedestal. Age and wisdom are almost disdained. The Americans put their old folk in homes where strangers are paid to take care of them. In other cases, some older people are trapped in small apartments all day where they watch mindless television to the point of boredom. America is not a place to age.
Now, very few people do not remember their childhood without wistful nostalgia. The reason for this is that as the years go by, we tend to filter out the bad times and emphasize the good times in our memory and consciousness. Children can always find a way to have a fun time in the midst of problems, and this was especially true in Belize Town where, as I said previously, there was always a strong neighborhood and community feeling of togetherness. Here, we were isolated from the rest of the region and the world, and we made the best of it. We had no choice.
Growing up in Belize, I would spend three to three and a half months (school holidays; Easter holidays; and weekend and other trips) of each year at an island called Spanish Caye, which is nine plus miles southeast of Belize City. I loved the privacy, the nature, the fishing, the swimming, the sailing, and the family, but I also enjoyed the luxury of being able to see the glow from the lights of Belize City at night. I wasn’t that far away, in other words, from the activity and the excitement which were my companions in the city the rest of the year.
There were Belizeans, however, who grew up very far away from the lights. In the Districts, there were a few little towns, but there were many villages deep in the bush, where it would take you hours just to reach the rocky roads themselves from which uncomfortable vehicles linked you with the city, where it seemed then that all the lights were blazing and all the action was taking place. Can you imagine being a young Carib teacher in one of those desolate villages in the old days? It would have been quite lonely at times, I imagine.
September is the month when we Belizeans spend a lot of time thinking about our country and our people, and celebrating same. At the base of our social pyramid, September belongs to our musicians. The politicians, as is their habit, compulsively seek to take center stage, but the masses of the people are always praying for them to shut up and for the music to begin playing. This is real.
As we enter this September month, I lament the paucity of Belizean literature, especially historical fiction, a genre where an expatriate propagandist holds sway. Belizean writers are an oppressed breed, because, by the very nature of our calling, writers are a group dangerous to the established order. Writers communicate too directly, as opposed to painters, sculptors, and other artists. For this reason, writers are the artists who are most victimized and oppressed by politicians, even when the writer’s intent was not political as such.
Until Belizean writers are free to express their Belizean selves, and celebrated for such, we will not fully understand ourselves as a people. We Belizeans have now had our fill of American cable television. Let the writers of Belize come forth and speak to us of themselves, of ourselves, and of their and our own Belizean reality.
Power to the people.