“Go back to where you came from!” The words hung in the air, this timeless curse and piercing insult hurled through the Ages at the gypsies, nomads, and caravans of people on the move. They are very much a part of the travels and travails of the landless adventurers who peer into the unknown and embarrass the status quo. They explode from the lips and hearts with mushrooming violence and spite at those daring to transcend limitations of circumstances, time, even destiny.
I remember those words clearly, as if they came with the dawn and inching sunlight of this morn. It was a lightly snowing Sunday twilight almost forty years ago on a desolate patch of Hillside Avenue. The enraged accoster was what they called a bum back then; an established empty-headed loser. The perceived crime was a refusal to respond through engagement, stoically not sharing. At the hourly minimum wage of a bottom-of-the-barrel worker, there was precious little available to spare. Like so many newcomers, there is moving on, most times moving up. There is also moving out. In moments of reminiscence, there is always wondering as to where and to what that failed fallen citizen, that brethren moved; the prayer is that he moved from the emptiness and anger that shaped his daily existence.
On the trains, supermarkets, and conversations, the same discordant envy, malice, and frustrations were witnessed from time to time, as aimed at others of the outside. The refrains have those familiar piercing jarring notes to them: they take our jobs; they own homes; and we who have always been here, we have….well, only they know what they don’t have.
Moving on and moving up introduced more nuanced forms of “Go back to where you came from.” Now it was wordless, lacked heat, and packed the intensity of Artic chills. It can get awfully cold on the 50th Floor; or in those mahogany paneled boardrooms with liveried butlers, the flash of silverware, and the muted chimes of expensive china. It is especially so for that rarest of rare spirits: a foreigner, that dark solitary intruding presence in otherwise very bright white surroundings. Delightedly fawning ones are tolerated and used; assertive challenging resistant ones are trouble; they bear watching, measuring, and restraining. They are lucky if they get the time of day, the fleeting taut grimaces that substitute for smiles. Conversations are threadbare and perfunctory, when they exist at all. It is all business: the bloodless formalities of equal opportunity and meritocratic realities. No more of them; no screaming as on the snowy sidewalks, no welcoming mat in the skyscrapers. Those who think they have arrived, are better off checking the class of their tickets.
Like a few others neither mesmerized nor impressed by the majesty of mammon, there came the early realizations of the walled off outsider, even when on the inside in that faraway place. I did confess in this same space, several years ago, that I do not know this new Guyana; that I was a stranger in a strange land; that there is this mandatory relearning and re-assimilating. I call it cultural rediscovery. Others may have lived this before me; stragglers followed in my wake. The consensus is simple yet profound: it is about prophets and hometowns: not liked, not welcomed as in persona non grata. There is hard finality to that; here comes settled serenity and the wisdom to distinguish between what can be changed and that which just has to be left alone. There comes the understanding that what saturates is part of the territory, comes with the destitution of honour and honesty that has gained a stranglehold on this society. Woe and damn to the cultivated minds that have the confidence of character, that thousand-yard stare, and that near thousand-year vision to separate from the hysterias. There was a man 2,000 years ago that the frenzied tried to throw over a hill; he went his own way. For the wise, there is no better lesson.
Like so many economic pilgrims to distant callings, many Guyanese have felt the sting and pain of betrayal when things entrusted attract covetousness and conversion. In my instance, the words heard were, “why would anybody want to come back here?” All things now considered, it is a lovely question; an utterly unanswerable one. In a crafty way, that query has a subtle undercurrent of, “Go back to where you came from.” It is only a shade less truculent, definitely more studied.
It is a different day and different space, but the great convulsing rage of forty years ago from over there on Hillside Avenue is right here. Go back to where you came from! There is a slight problem: where is here. The primordial screams of the serial losers are enlightening: You take our jobs; you take our place; you make us look bad. You are in my country and you refuse to talk to me! To repeat: where came from is right here. Things and places and times change; throughout them all, there is a quaint sameness about people, whether in Jamaica, Queens; or good ole Georgetown, Guyana. It is but a short walk from the metropolitan rat race to the domestic crab barrel.