About the Author
Grace Jones is a model-singer-actress as beloved for her films and music as she is for her eccentric personal style. Born in Jamaica in 1948, Jones began her career modeling in New York City before landing her first record deal in 1977.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I’ll Never Write My Memoirs
I was born.
It happened one day, when I least expected it, on an island measuring only 4,411 square miles, a teeming mountainous land of wood and water among a chain of islands in the center of the Caribbean Sea at the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. That wondrous isle in the western seas.
I came out of my mother feetfirst. I arrived kicking and pissed off, sticky with fury, soaked to the skin. I was what’s known as a stargazing fetus as well, my neck fully extended. From the very beginning I was going against the grain and making trouble. Perhaps I was holding on to my mother for dear life, somehow knowing what was about to happen next. I didn’t want to leave the one place I had felt at home, where I had been floating for so long, and enter the darkness. Inside, there was light. Outside, instantly, the unknown. The cord was cut. Startled by a strange newness, I didn’t immediately make much of a noise, so I was slapped and slapped, to prove that I was normal. I cried out. I’ll show you noise. I’ll show you normal. I shrieked. In my own uprooted newborn way, I probably cursed.
Here I am.
Grace Beverly Jones. As was the custom, I would be known by my second name. Beverly. Bev. Later, when I was four or five, my skin was so charcoal black I would be engulfed when the warm, sultry night fell, throbbing with nature and a slithering hint of the supernatural. My nickname then was Firefly. You could only make out my eyes and teeth, sparkling in the dark.
My new home outside my mother was Spanish Town, the oldest continually habituated town in Jamaica. Five hundred and fifty years of history, starting a few years after the island of Jamaica was first found—“discovered”—by a Christopher Columbus of Italy in charge of exploring and marauding Spaniards. As St. Jago de la Vega, the town on the plains, at the edge of wetlands in the south of the island, it became the capital when the Spanish settled. They gave it a distinct Spanish Colonial layout, with lots of internal courtyards and walled gardens and a Renaissance-influenced checkerboard of streets placed around a dramatic central plaza. Spanish interest in Jamaica waned when it became clear there was no gold, and it became a backwater of the Spanish Empire. It became Spanish Town in 1655 when the British conquered the island. They kept it as the administrative capital and introduced grand Georgian buildings, reflecting the growing empire’s wealth and importance.
Spanish Town was the Jamaican capital until the port of Kingston—better placed on the coast thirteen miles away, with more natural vitality—replaced it in 1872. The town’s cathedral, built in the early sixteenth century, rebuilt in 1725 as an Anglican church, was the first such building in this part of the world and remains the oldest ecclesiastical structure from the British Empire still standing outside the UK. When I was born, Spanish Town had traces of grandeur but was showing signs of neglect after centuries of colonial rule and the Great Depression in the 1930s; imposed signs of methodical Spanish life, elegant town planning, and aristocratic British influences peeling back to reveal the undimmed Jamaica underneath. It had a faded glory, a shabby gentility, many parts of it cast aside as useless, and was beginning to meet up with the rough, tumbling edges of the capital city as Kingston’s population grew.
They say I’m a lot older than I actually am. In the press, on the Internet, they add about four years to my actual age. I’m often asked how old I am—the world likes to know a person’s age for some reason, as if that number explains everything. I don’t care at all. I like to keep the mystery. I get onstage and tell everyone I am ten years older than they think, and then I hula-hoop for twenty minutes. That’s my age—that’s how I measure it. I wasn’t born wearing a watch, and I never got used to wearing one, and when I was born I didn’t know if it was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and I never really know the days of the week now. Days are days, hours come and go, in whatever order, and I keep up with it, in my own way. It’s hard to remember things in the right order, but I will try.
Time for me is an energy. I’m another energy, and the two energies wrap around each other. The present can seem as distant as the past, which can seem as close as the present. The most exciting thing is what happens next, even if it has already happened.
Because I never say my age, and rarely have to write it down, I roughly work it out by basing my life on an historic landmark. I mark time by what was happening in the world rather than how old I was. I remember moving to America around the time that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Before then, I was living in Jamaica, caged inside a certain goddamned darkness, even though there was so much sun and life. After Kennedy died, I was moving around like a gypsy, looking for the light, for what happens next.
Every birthday party I had after my teens, I always said I was twenty-something. I would know I was thirty-something, maybe forty-something, but never really the exact age.
I didn’t grow older. I grew wiser. The world likes to know the age of someone, so I would be often asked. I am honestly never sure, so when it comes to working it out, to work out how old I am, I take something important, like my son’s age, and if he is thirty-three, and I was, say, twenty-nine when I had him, then I do the math. So if you ask me now how old I am, nothing comes to mind straightaway. To some extent, it could be any number. Even then I am not entirely sure; it’s not because I am hiding my age, embarrassed or annoyed by it, but because it is not something I keep to hand. It’s not the most important thing about me. There are more important things about me than my age that will give you a better idea of who and what I am. I was born. Let’s take it from there.
I know just by knowing that the first decade of my life in Jamaica was during the 1950s. The Second World War had finished. It was a few years before Jamaica would win its independence from the British. Many Jamaicans were traveling to the mother country, Britain, to find a new life. To find new opportunities, my parents were preparing to move north, along the East Coast of North America.
My mother was Marjorie, born in 1930; my father was Robert Winston, born six years earlier. They already had two young children when I was born. My mother was extremely fertile and there was no contraception at the time. Five of the children were born in very quick succession; one year, two were born. Lots of juices were flowing. The children kept coming. Robert Patrick was the first boy; later he would change his name to Christian, Chris. Then there Norman Noel, known as Noel. Then, back to front, me, Grace Beverly. After me, George Maxwell, Max. Another girl followed, Yvonne Pamela, and then another girl, Janet Marie. Eventually, there was a fourth son, Randy, born in America, not Jamaican at all, the baby of the family. When she married my dad, my mother was sixteen. By twenty-two, she had six kids. She was a Walters; her grandmother’s maiden name, my great-grandmother, was Powell, and some in our family think the first African-American to serve as secretary of state, Colin Powell, might be a relation.
They went to America to get away from her family as much as anything. My mom was definitely stifled by the world she grew up in. She was from a very religious family, among the first to open a Pentecostal church on the island. The very first Pentecostal church was opened in Spanish Town in 1933, three years after the first Pentecostal convention was held in Kingston. This was a missionary venture, a spreading of the word to those who felt estranged from standard religion, because they were too poor, or too otherwise troubled. There was a zeal among the converts based on a determination to be heard and followed; their evangelism was vigorous.
Her uncle was a bishop in this church, Bishop Walters, tight-lipped, with a barren gaze. He was a dominating figure who made the church and its unforgiving belief system the center of the family’s life. So I had a bishop grand-uncle whom I thought of growing up as the bishop of Jamaica.
To some extent, his title was self-designated; his was a new untested religion, based on personal calling, its members making up its own rules, following other churches and their categories, so that the leaders became bishops, because that gave them the authority they craved. The Anglicans had bishops; so too would the Pentecostalists. This was one of the attractions of this new religion, that ordinary working people and the lower middle class, who felt snubbed by British and Europe-based churches and their elitism, could claim for themselves a superior religious standing. There were new opportunities for lay and ministerial leadership, which was very attractive. To climb to the top of other religions from a lowly position would take a miracle. Here was a chance to form small communities that could be organized from within, often from within families, instead of having to look to other countries and governments for leadership. There was a whole dynasty of bishops in my family; we are the bishop royal family of Jamaica. I am not sure where I fit into this, although to some extent I have about as much right to call myself a bishop as my grand-uncle Bishop Walters did.
Religion was a way for many Jamaicans to challenge the white-maintained status quo, from eighteenth-century slaves to twentieth-century Rastafarians. It was also a way for those less motivated to resist accepting things as they were. They have every church you can imagine in Jamaica. It’s said that there are the largest number of churches per square mile there than in any other country in the world; it seems like there is a church on every street corner. And some religions are more religious than others.
How successful a church is depends how charismatic your pastor is. It’s all about aura. It’s about conviction. How deeply you believe. My grand-uncle Bishop Walters was an obsessive believer, made religion his whole world and the world of everyone around him. He was in his own way a brilliant performer, and performing is at the heart of the Pentecostal appeal. Jamaicans could identify with that; it is a society of physical performance.
He had an illegitimate son before he joined the church, and he kicked him out, because he didn’t fit into his new life. The son grew up in England. We were good friends and I used to see him, but to the family it was as though he never existed. You could easily be cut out and cut off. They take religion to an insane, intimidating extreme, using the Bible, and God, to create a world that they can run in their own image.
Pentecostalism became my religion, as it had been for my mother, because that’s what I grew up with. I had no choice. In our religion, according to my bishop grand-uncle, if you strayed, you would be thrown out, into a terrible, hellish exile. They took the Bible literally, all those revamped Babylonian folktales. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If your right hand offends thee, cut it off. If members of your family do wrong, shun them. Kick them out. Ignore them. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16.). The leaders of the religion—the bishops, the pastors—ruled with fear, with a rod of iron. Perhaps they justified it to themselves because in the Bible it says that you have to use the rod to correct a child. We had to read that passage out a lot, as though the fact we were saying it in our child voices made it definitive.
My father’s side of the family, the Joneses, were politicians and administrators. They brought the first books to Jamaica and started the library system on the island. His sister, my aunt Sybil, became the head librarian of the National Library of Jamaica in Kingston.
My father was a very good-looking man, and was very strong, mentally and physically. He was a keen amateur boxer and studied at Dint Hill Agricultural College. Farming was a major source of employment in the area; domestic and commercial crops included bananas, coconuts, pumpkins, peppers, and coffee, and there had been sugar plantations since the Spanish arrived bringing sugarcane with them from Haiti. After the British arrived, the island was turned into one big sugar plantation. The world craved sugar. There was a lack of local labor, and new workers were desperately needed. Africans were found to be excellent workers, experienced with the land, and used to laboring in a tropical climate. Thousands of them were shipped in against their will. To keep the world sweet, Britain took sugar-producing Jamaica as another jewel in its crown, becoming the largest slave-trading country in the world. The cultivation of sugar and the organization of slavery were intimately tangled up.
My father’s family were strict in different ways from the religious way—theirs was an army way. My grandfather on his side, his father, Arthur Patrick, born at the end of the nineteenth century, was a sergeant in the army during the First World War. When Britain entered the war, thousands of colonial men were enlisted in the British West Indies Regiment.
They gave land in Jamaica to anyone who volunteered for the Great War. His land was in the cool, isolated, shamrock-green hills that seem to hover under misty clouds, up above Sligoville, a humble, laid-back village steeped in its own gentle rhythms. It was the first free village in Jamaica, divided in 1835, after the Emancipation Act started to free slaves, into small, hilly lots for ex-slaves to live in.
Before then, the area had been a haven for escaping slaves, who had been stolen from the mountains in one land and now found sanctuary in the mountains of another. It was very near Pinnacle in St. Jago, the home of the first self-sustaining Rastafarian settlement organized by the founding father of the movement, Leonard P. Howell. Landless Rastafarians would leave the spread-eagled concrete jungle of Kingston and head for the hills. It was a place that yielded rich crops, including, of course, ganja. It’s the spiritual home of the Rastas, seen by them as a sacred site, and you could say what became reggae, and Bob Marley, and the whole idea of “one love” began on that secluded rocky hilltop.
There is something in the air up there, and in the earth, and it remained mostly untouched by the Spanish and the British. It was too remote and hilly to build there. Even the Native American Tainos who occupied the land at the time of the Spanish arrival were situated near the coastline and adjacent to life-giving lowland rivers.
My grandfather had a house in Sligoville among a few other houses strewn about that, from a distance, seemed to be abandoned. There are plenty of dirt tracks that lead nowhere, there are acres of gentle sloping land, and the views to Kingston across the hills and the plains of St. Catherine are spectacular. The island beckons in all directions. It’s a less familiar Jamaica for many, away from the heavenly shorelines and the overexposed and protected tourist attractions. The Jones family still has some land there, quietly waiting for us, as if this serene, magical place between the rolling mountains and the wide, wide sky is our destiny. Maybe one day I will think of this place as home. I’ll walk barefoot in the grass alongside a river unmoved by time, letting things flow forward in whatever w...
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