My mother loved Guyana for many reasons, but mainly because there was no television. She distrusted television. While we were growing up in Brooklyn, she felt it was a distraction and used every excuse she could find to deter us from sitting, immobilized, in front of the TV. I think it broke her heart to see her curious, creative kids staring like numbnuts at a screen, no matter how hilarious Carol Burnett was. If we did something wrong—talked back, neglected our chores, fought with each other—surely some treat or privilege was confiscated as our punishment. The television was always the first thing to go.
“No television for a week!" my mother would announce as she pulled the plug from behind the large floor-model television that lived in the living room, a slight smirk of satisfaction on her face that read I didn't want you to watch it anyway so thanks for giving me a reason to eliminate it, even if it is only for a week.
I should have known something was really up when my mother sold the television set. It’s not like she needed the money. She just needed us, her five children, to make collages, or color, or paint, or run around and play outside. So when she got rid of my father, she went ahead and got rid of the TV, too. When dad came back to get the rest of his stuff, the television was gone. Soon we would be, too.
No one understood why she chose to find her post-divorce refuge in Guyana, South America, especially so soon—two years to be exact— after the Jim Jones massacre in 1978 where nine hundred people were poisoned by the crazed cult leader after drinking toxic Kool-Aid in Jonestown, Guyana. Thankfully, my mother didn’t go down there with any cult. She went to Guyana to start anew after closing down her elementary school, which had turned from a blessing into a burden, and after ending her impossible marriage, which had turned from a dream into a nightmare.
In Guyana, many of the creature comforts we took for granted—aspirin, batteries, sanitary napkins, denim jeans—were sold for pennies on the dollar to the eager, trade-embargo challenged locals. Mother understood the power of the American dollar. She also understood that in order for her growing, smart, Black children to become self-loving, independent-thinking individuals, something as influential as a television would be a serious distraction. She actually referred to it as “tell-lies-vision” because of the Brady Bunch. And Gilligan’s Island. And The Love Boat. Back then, there was barely anyone on air that looked like any of us. Everywhere you looked, everyone was, for the most part, blue-eyed and blonde-haired. Clearly, we were not about to find positive images of beautiful Black people on that screen. Of course, there was Tootie on The Facts of Life if I was looking for someone who sort of looked like me, or Todd Bridges on Different Strokes if I was looking for someone to simply like.
No one understood why she chose to find her post-divorce refuge in Guyana, South America, especially so soon—two years to be exact— after the Jim Jones massacre in 1978.
In the late 1970s, there were only three channels on television—CBS, ABC, and NBC. This was before Beyoncé was born or a Kardashian was conceived; back when Donnie & Marie and The Jacksons’ variety shows were the highlight of our television viewing experience. My mother would shake her head and say, "Pretty soon we're going to turn this thing on and see people doing eeeeverything, with their behinds all in our faces, with nothing to hide."
Now, every time I see a vulgar music video or explicit movie scene I have to laugh. Not because it's funny. I have to laugh because my mother predicted it all. She foresaw all the digitized debauchery so prevalent in our current culture, where people will do anything to get famous, even sell their own sex tapes with a smile. She saw it all coming. And she didn't want to be anywhere in America when it did.
In all actuality, an eccentric parent leaving the confines of society behind to live free and one with nature is not a foreign concept. In the Kate Winslet movie Hideous Kinky, a young English mom rejects her stuffy lifestyle and runs off to Morocco with her two daughters. In The Mosquito Coast, which stars Harrison Ford and the late River Phoenix, an American invertor’s disdain of city life pushes him to move his family to Central America. Even today, people (maybe even you) have seriously considered an alternative lifestyle (especially after Trump’s election). People call it living off the grid. When I was a girl, it was just called weird, or worse, crazy.
But my mother wasn’t crazy. She was just way before her time. Indeed, there is something to be said about having an unconventional experience in your youth. That long summer I spent there seriously shaped the way I view and use technology to this day. Yes, I watch television. But I’m wary of Alexa and didn’t have cable until my only child went away to college. Because BET at night, all night? That was not happening in my house. I was a single mother, so I had all the control and so: No thank you. My seven-year-old daughter doesn’t need a four hundred dollar Play Station for her birthday. But some books or a Barnes & Noble gift card would actually be awesome.
This doesn’t mean I was the perfect mom or that my mom was, either. This was not at all the case. As are all mothers, we were each fabulously flawed. As are all children, I was resentful of my mother’s choices, a clueless, selfish child more concerned with my wants and needs (pizza, boys, movies, friends, roller skating) than with my mother’s. Now a mother myself I have a better understanding of the motivations behind the move and even cherish the experience, as do my siblings. We all were forced to find creative ways to entertain ourselves.
People call it living off the grid. When I was a girl, it was just called weird, or worse, crazy.
The summer I spent in Guyana, reading became my refuge. I reluctantly started with some Harlequin Romance novels that were left behind in the house we rented and discovered that they were actually kind of good, in a cheesy and contrived kind of way. It was perfect mindless material to read while swaying in a hammock in strange surroundings. Eventually, I’d had enough of the drivel of undying devotion and tossed the book across the room. When I went to put it back with the rest of the books, I noticed one I hadn't seen before. Wedged between Everlasting Embrace and Rachel's' Romance Ranch, I discovered a book called Giovanni's Room by an author named James Baldwin. I didn't know what a Giovanni's Room or who a James Baldwin was. All I knew was that the book in my hand was not another Harlequin Romance. But I needed to know more.
My curiosity about this book and it’s author propelling me to swing open the door to my room in Golden Grove and yell: "Maaaa! Who is James Baldwin?"
"Oh, he's a writer. From Harlem," she answered. “He wrote a good book called... um...Go Tell it on the Mountain. His father was a preacher I believe, if I'm talking about the right person. He uses real big words, though, Kerika, so you might want to keep a dictionary near you. There should be one in this house somewhere."
Thinking back, this was probably why my mother didn't discourage me from reading the book, even though it was sexually sophisticated, seriously sad and way, way over my head. She wasn't concerned about any of that, she just, as always, wanted me and all of her children to read more, something, anything, and use the dictionary, damnit. If I asked my mother what a word meant, her reply was almost always, "Look it up!" Sometimes she would not say anything. Instead she would grab the large leather-bound burgundy Webster's dictionary from the living room bookshelf, drop it down in front of you with a big thud, and then walk away. That was your answer.
Finding that Baldwin book was when I stared really reading. And dreaming about becoming a writer one day myself. And writing letters. And journals. And poems. And listening to reggae on the radio. And jazz, too, since it was on a station that came in clearly. And when the radio wasn't working, I learned to listen to the sound of silence. And, more important, I learned to listen to myself.
Finding that Baldwin book was when I stared really reading. And dreaming about becoming a writer one day myself.
I didn’t listen to my mom, though. She wanted me to stay with her and my younger siblings. But instead, I came back to Brooklyn, where high school in the '80s—complete with classic hip hop, boom boxes, graffiti on subways, and MTV—awaited. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Whitney in their many music videos? I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
Still, with all the noise of my urban life, I have always been able to be authentically myself, never following the crowd, and not afraid to be alone. Or quiet. Which comes in real handy when you’re writer. So although I didn’t understand where my mother was coming from back then, I totally get it now.
My mother has since returned to the States. The next time I visit her, I will be sure to thank her for that summer. And bring her a book.
top photo: Guyana landscape via Pixabay
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Kerika Fields Nalty is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer whose work has appeared in The Daily News, The Source, Variety, Vibe and numerous other print and online publications. Her most recent contributions have been to MsXFactor.com, Currlynikki.com, and Tuenight.com. The author of He's Gone...You're Back! The Right Way to Get Over Mr. Wrong also enjoys speaking and has been a panelist at Bindercon NY, Sister 2 Sister Summit, and National Book Club Conference. Visit her at withyourbadself.com.