You Were Black Before Me
A Story Of A boy Who Became A Mam
Through The Eyes Of Mannie
By: Godwin Levi John
When I was a little boy, around three years old, my mother migrated from Grenada to Trinidad, of Trinidad & Tobago, a neighboring island in the West Indies. Most of her family left their little island of Grenada after the big hurricane destroyed their homeland.
I can still feel the waves as the banana boat left that island. There were so many of us in search of a better way of life. We were refugees, leaving everything behind, traveling with one bag and the clothes on our backs. My mother – my sister – and me.
I remember Tee-ta, my mother’s auntie. She was a beautiful black woman. Of Carib Indian with long, dark, shiny hair. She had exquisite features and her skin was silky smooth. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, second only to my mother, whose skin tone was a beautiful shade of copper.
Tee-ta lived in a village called Saint Madeline. I remember hearing the loud noise from the sugar factory, one of the biggest employers of the village. I can hear the sound of tractors - travelling to harvest the sugar cane from the fields nearby - as if I am living it still. I can even smell the smoke, the molasses, and the raw sugar from the factory.
It was so exciting for me to experience life in Saint Madeline’s village, in the south of Trinidad, when all I knew before was the tiny mountain, Saint John’s Hill, in Grenada, the “Isle of Spice.”
Growing up the as the oldest child in a family can be rough, and sometimes good, especially when your uncles come to visit. I remember, when I was only eight, and they called me Mannie. On one occasion, my uncles came to visit, and I was looking forward to seeing them. One of them gave me twenty dollars and asked me to buy him a goat. He said, Mannie, there is a man up the road with lots of goats. Go buy me one. I took the money and went to Mr. Sukraj and negotiated to buy a goat for fifteen dollars. They did not call me Mannie for nothing. I couldn’t wait to get back home and tell my uncle I got the goat for fifteen dollars instead of twenty! I was so happy to get back to the house, running with the goat. My uncle looked at me and said, “boy, what did you do with my money?” I told him you asked me to buy a goat. “Why would I ask you to buy me a goat? Are you stupid, or what!” Then he slapped me so hard. I took the goat back to get his money. They were all drinking, and I thought it was a prank they were playing on me because I was a little man - Mannie.
Many years later, I spoke to my mother about their behavior. She told me stories about her father and the parties they kept every fortnight, and how my uncle started drinking alcohol at a very tender age.
I was still very confused about why my uncle would ask me to go buy a goat, with twenty dollars he gave me, and then call me stupid while slapping me super hard. I have never forgotten, but now I realize he was drunk, and at the time - his drunkenness was normal to me.
A man of East Indian descent lived across the street – and he was also – always - drunk. He smelled of alcohol and stale cigarettes every time he passed by.
My uncles – and the man across the street - they were very forgetful. That was hard on their families and friends. If it weren’t for alcoholism, they may have lasted longer in this beautiful world, but they are gone much too soon.
I forgive them, you see, because now, I realize my uncles also had a disease. They were all alcoholics.
Oh, there are so many things I remember.
Singing on television was challenging for me, but my memory was good. I was a good listener - because I had to be. I could not learn the same way as the other kids. In addition to being smacked with a ruler for writing with my left hand, I saw words and letters backwards - and found it difficult learning to read and write. Everything looked strange, so I learned to listen. For homework, I simply copied what the teacher had written, and used it as an example to keep up.
This was also a disease. A disease called dyslexia. It affects me daily.
Because no one understood this problem of dyslexia.
YOU WERE BLACK BEFORE ME- LEVI JOHN
The thought of putting my memories on paper started a few years ago. I have so many stories to tell, people always said I should write a book, but it wasn’t until my children also suggested I save my memories, that I thought about it seriously. I would lay in my bed and reminisce on days gone by and all the memories I have.
My memories shaped who I am today, and are now what inspire me to begin, even though the thought of writing scares me.
My earliest memory was the day I met my Auntie Katie, how I became known as Mannie, and why I titled this book, “You Were Black Before Me.” I was only three at the time.
Auntie Katie told my mother I was so mannish, and so black. I interrupted them and told my auntie she was black before me! Everyone laughed at how grown up and clever I was, and they began calling me Mannie. For many years I thought Mannie was my real name, and when people asked me, what is your name? I always said Mannie.
Auntie Katie could have been anything. She was a young, slim woman - and she was so beautiful, she could have been a supermodel. I was told she left Grenada and went to England to study to become a nurse.
I only met my Auntie Katie a few years before she passed. She had kidney problems and was diagnosed with kidney disease.
I remember seeing her for the first time, but what stands out in my memory now, as a man with children of my own, is her high cheekbones and her smile. Wow! I could never forget her smile, and how she always embraced me and said I was her little Mannie. She would comment on how I had grown up and then we would smile - and talk about what I told her long ago. “You were black before me,” she would whisper.
She spoke of a younger Katie, who went to the dance and all the guys lined up to dance with her. I could see why, because she was, indeed, a beautiful woman.
She spoke of how people left Grenada, heading for the booming economy in Trinidad & Tobago. People from Grenada were not the only ones who left their islands to go to Trinidad. People came from the windward islands, such as Dominica, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent, and the lesser Antilles, such as Curacao, St Martin and Antigua. Everyone headed for Trinidad in search of fame and fortune. The oil fields in Trinidad brought with it jobs for all types of trades, and if you worked in the oil fields, the wages were even better. Trinidad was prosperous at this time.
Even though I was born in Grenada, I don't really know Grenada as well as I know Trinidad and Tobago. I remember walking down Rosanna Street – it was a dirt road, but they called it a street - on those clear, starry nights. I would think about the time I told my Auntie Katie she was black before me. I would look up to the heavens and say, “God, I love to see people happy. I’d love to sing for the world and make them smile one day.”
So many beautiful things happened in my life in Trinidad and Tobago. Mr. Several treated me as if I was his own son. The woman who lived across the street from Mr. Several had liked me very much. She liked me so much that when I told her my stepfather was a Mason and could build anything she needed built, she gave him a job. He was black before me, but I still got the job for him.
My heart was broken the first time in Trinidad. I met a girl, and fell in love, but she chose the guy who was light-skinned, fair, and I - am simply black. It never stopped me from searching for rainbows, to get where I wanted to be in life.
I was always focused and knew I wanted beautiful things. I wanted a beautiful woman - maybe we'll have one or two children - and I want to sing and make people happy. I have always enjoyed seeing smiles on faces. I know God has given me a gift that I needed to share with others, but sometimes sharing comes with a price – but she was black before me.
I cried when my Auntie Katie reached out to the family to see if anyone were a match and able to give her a kidney. My mother tried to donate but was not the right blood type. No one was a match. Soon thereafter, she got weaker and weaker, until she passed, leaving her husband and their two kids – well four kids, really, because she had two kids before.
I’m sorry I did not get to know her well, or see her often, but during the time I spent with her in London England, I realize what a beautiful free soul she was – she loved to dance and have fun, even though she was ill. She was black before me.
I remember looking at a book, trying to learn to read, and I saw words backwards. It was very hard for me to read because of this. Dyslexia was a stigma in Trinidad. If they think you are challenged, you are a dunce. But many kids who have dyslexia go on to become doctors, or singers, and contribute greatly to our world, helping to create great families.
I never understood why they said ignorance is bliss, and one could be an educated fool. It is how we educate - if we are educated to learn, we can learn a lot, but if we are not educated to learn, nothing we do means anything.
I believe passion is the most important thing in life. If you love life, you love to see other people live passionately. Because what is life without passion? Passion is one of my favorite words. My passion is simply music. Music does something for me. There is something deep within me that when I hear music, every fiber of my being can feel it.
Music is my world. But I am vulnerable in my world, because when I’m in my world, nothing else matters.
I remember sitting with two of my friends in my mother’s gallery - playing guitar and singing with Fitzroy and Claud. It was so beautiful, I then composed a song called, “Tell Me What You See.” The lyrics went something like this:
I WENT TO THE MOVIES AND I SEE
A BEAUTIFUL GIRL LOOKING AT ME
BUT WHEN I LOOKED AT HER
SHE LOOKS AT ME NO MORE
BECAUSE SHE’S A WONDER
A WONDER FOR ME
TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE
We formed a singing group called the D’s, short for the Debonair, and we were very good. We had a manager and we started getting gigs singing in Community Centers and on Stage Shows. It seemed as if my dreams were coming true. We sang many popular songs, such as the Green Green Grass of Home. I remember singing the Impossible Dream. It was one of my favorite songs. We nailed it so beautifully singing acapella, they couldn’t stop us.
When you have a dream and others around you don’t have the same dream, it's hard to go anywhere. So, the group did not last very long, but I never gave up.
I continued singing and meeting new people. Once, when singing on television, I met a woman by the name of Maria. She had a Goretti group and introduced me to some very important people. One of the people she introduced me to, played a very important part in my life. His name was Joseph Carlos Douglass. He was black before me.