KEI MILLER – AUGUSTOWN (2016)
This is a book that expresses searing rage at the plight of the downtrodden of Kingston’s slums: freed from slavery but not oppression. But it is also a book about those same people finding hope in myth, song and tradition.
The story follows a family from the slum across different moments in time, and the major characters in their community.
The inhabitants of Augustown are in constant conflict with the police – either in battle or falling victim to harassment. The symbolic act of cutting of a Rastafarian’s dreadlocks is oft repeated and takes on a much wider symbolism. It happens to a fruit seller, then later to a schoolboy – like the passing of an inheritance of inequality:
He was folding himself into himself. He was learning how to become withdrawn and surly. He was learning how to be defeated. And once learnt, it was a lesson Kaia would find impossible to unlearn.”
When the older Rasta hears of the boy suffering the same fate, it is a tipping point that triggers a protest, hitting a nerve among all the Rastafarians.
Which one of them does not know a similar story, maybe of a Rastaman riding on his bicycle, of batons knocking him off and into the road where he brushes his body: of police searching his pockets for ganja seeds and leaves; of being thrown into jail, of having these Babylonian officers hold his head tight in the grip of their fat arms and having his locks cut off? And which of them has not listened to Babylon laughing its key-keh-keh laugh?”
As I read the Rasta fruit seller have his wares knocked off his cart by an arrogant police officer, and as we see, a lifetime later, that same man lead a silent protest march, I could not help thinking of Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in late 2010 to protest police abuse in Tunisia, triggering the Arab Spring.
Kei Miller finds an even deeper historical parallel; he has the Rasta march of protest be the descendant of the slaves marching away from plantations after their emancipation, and from their to the deeper injustice of slavery. He roots the injustice of the Augustown community in direct lineage to slavery. Those first freedmen were free, but not as free as they should have been, for the one great wrong cannot be undone:
Their feet felt strange with this knowledge that they could go wherever they wanted to go, though some of the old people said that where they really wanted to go was across the large sea, and for that they would have needed wings.”
It captures the spirit of so many jilted liberation struggles:
…time would teach them disappointment. This place was no freedom, and Massa Day was not done. Massa had only changed his name. He was no longer ‘Busha’ or ‘Buckra” or ‘Massa’. He was now ‘Boss” or ‘Miss’ or ‘Sergeant’. Sometimes Massa even changed his skin from white to black, making this whole freedom thing complicated. There was further to go; a longer journey ahead.”
But this long pent-up rage has disastrous consequences for the story’s protagonists. The storm that finally breaks is the anchor of the plot, though its most beautiful moments come during calmer moments.
Augustown is built around the story of a preacher from the 1920s who claimed he would fly. But in this book, and through the oral histories of the community he becomes a mythological figure of stoic resistance. As central character, Ma Taffy, blind but stronger in other senses, tells her grandson that Bedward was:
…a man who try his best to do something big, and to reach any higher than we did think a man like him could ever reach…’
The old woman pauses. She suddenly doubts the earnestness that has crept into her voice, and shrugs.
‘Then again,’ she continues, ‘is probably just the everyday story of this goddamn island – just another striving man that this blasted country decide to pull down.”
Refreshingly, this is a story with very strong female and very sensitive and vulnerable male characters. Fathers do not stick around very long or are absent altogether.
But all the characters struggle to be themselves, to maintain their dignity in the cruel, divided world they inhabit. When two distant characters who have witnessed great injustice later in life pass each other, they avert their eyes:
To meet those eyes would be to face something neither of them wants to face – the guilt of being small in this world and unable to stop terrible things from happening.”