Editor’s note: In honor of Caribbean-American Heritage Month, we present an original poem from one of South Florida’s premier writers and poets.
By GEOFFREY PHILP
Special to South Florida Times
An American Education
Why did my voice quiver during my first lesson
to a group of black, white and Hispanic (read Cuban)
kids about diagramming a sentence? A browning
from one of the “best schools in the islands,”
I’d discovered, after being pulled over for driving
through Bal Harbor, that speaking the Queen’s English,
which had spared me a from night in the Matilda’s Corner
lockup, wasn’t going to save me from being handcuffed
as the patrolman checked with dispatch if I was illegal.
By the next year, my tongue claimed a new syntax.
And while I coaxed the class into locating the predicate,
subject and the problems that arise with commands,
four white cops armed with batons forced Arthur McDuffie’s
mind to accept the possibility of heaven. After the lines
were drawn, the lecture ended abruptly. My students hadn’t
grasped agreement, but I’d learned what it meant to be black.
The death of Arthur McDufiie in 1981, was a turning point in my life. During the subsequent riots, I slowly realized that I had to discard many false identities and align myself with the struggle for social justice that many other Caribbean-Americans such as Marcus Garvey, Kwame Touré (Stokely Carmichael,) and most recently, Eric Holder, have done. It is a tradition that I am proud to continue.
Born in Jamaica, Geoffrey Philp is the author of a forthcoming novel, Garvey’s Ghost, and a collection of poems, The Orishas of Ives Dairy. His work is represented in nearly every anthology of Caribbean literature, and he is one of the few writers whose work has been published in the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. A graduate of the University of Miami, where he earned an MA in English, Philp teaches English and creative writing at Miami Dade College.