Tuesday, June 29, 2010


“No more Latin, no more French, no more sitting on teacher old bench” was a chant often heard in the Guyana of my youth at the end of the school year. For the entire month of August, part of July and part of September there was no school. Not surprisingly it used to be a grave insult to suggest to any Guyanese man, woman or child that they must have attended school in August. Since there is no school in August the assumption would be that the person who was told that they had attended school in August was uneducated/unintelligent. The time of year was popularly referred to as “August holidays” and many families packed up and moved across the country to spend time with relatives. Berbicians who had relatives in Demerara or Essequibo would send their children to visit for a few weeks and vice versa. My siblings and I visited relatives at interesting places like Courtland, Fyrish, Linden, Sandvoort and Wismar and they visited us at the many interesting places where we lived including Agricola, Kitty and Wortmanville. The Rupununi was a bit of a distance from most of our relatives so there was not much visiting when we lived there.

The several weeks away from formal education during the “August holidays” seemed like a magical time when we traveled by train from Georgetown to Rosignol along the East coast of Demerara and the West coast of Berbice. During those travels I received my earliest science lessons from my parents explaining how the MV Torani (ferry boat) was able to stay afloat with passengers and vehicles as it crossed the Berbice River taking us from Rosignol to New Amsterdam. History lessons about the people of Buxton (East coast Demerara) who stopped the British governor’s train (as it attempted to travel past Buxton) and demanded fair treatment from the colonial government were also part of our journey.

Spending time at my grandparents’ home was a history lesson in itself with the images of African royalty and landmarks like the Sankore University of Timbuktu that decorated the walls and also the many old copies of Ebony and Jet magazines that were meticulously preserved and stored for us. It was fascinating to read stories of events that took place when our grandparents were young and our parents were children. The story-telling times at night were some of the best times spent during those holiday weeks. We learnt about our ancestors who were taken from Angola, the Congo, Ghana, Nigeria etc., and the fact that some of them were first taken to places like Antigua, Brazil and Suriname before being moved (sold during slavery) or moving (after Emancipation) to Guyana. There were also very scary stories about Bacoo, Moongazer and Ol’Higue that would have us scurrying off to bed, scared to be outside after dark. As an adult I realize that those stories were told to ensure that children would not be tempted to wander away from home after dark, they were designed to keep us safe. When my children, nieces and nephews were small I tried telling them the same stories but they were not scared; they were fascinated and had so many questions that I could not answer that I eventually gave up. The scary stories did not travel well from Guyana to Canada.

Similar to the “August holidays” I enjoyed as a child in Guyana, in Toronto there are several weeks of “summer holidays” for students from elementary school and secondary schools. During the next two months unless students are attending summer school they are away from formal education and free to enjoy the summer weather without thinking about assignments and exams.

June 21 was the official beginning of summer, even though we have been enjoying summer like weather for more than a month. With the many video games and other electronic gadgets many children do not have the experience of spending quality time with their elders. This is not part of the modern North American culture. However, from speaking with older African Canadians whose families have been here for generations they recount similar experiences to mine of traveling to visit relatives in small town Ontario, Nova Scotia and British Columbia during the summers of their childhood. There they would hear from their older relatives, stories about their ancestors and the history of their communities.

In her 2005 published book Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island African American author Jill Nelson writes about the enchantment of the summer vacations her family spent on Martha’s Vineyard one of the few places where middle class African Americans could escape the daily grind and living with the daily reality of racism. It was a magical place for the children whose parents could afford a summer vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Many other African Americans living in Northern cities choose to send their children down south to spend time with relatives. Sometimes not such a wise decision for some families including Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till who sent her 14 year old child from Chicago to Money, Mississippi in the summer of 1955 to spend time with his great-uncle Mose Wright. (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=536339677935896178#)

Thankfully not every family experienced the heart wrenching tragedy of the Till family. There are several delightful books of African American children enjoying their summer visits to relatives down south including Donald Crews’ Big Mama’s published in 1991 which tells the story of four African-American children and their mother traveling by train to visit grandparents in the rural town of Cottondale in Florida and the joy they experience spending the summer at Big Mama’s. Crews’ follow-up book Shortcut published in 1992 continues the story of the four children spending their summer at Big Mama’s and their alarming adventure that resulted from not following Big Mama’s safety rules.

How are you spending your summer?

No comments: