Families are complicated. There is often hurt, disappointment, and misunderstanding but also a great deal of love. In Caribbean families, there may be additional layers, fractures that appear due to migration, instability, and the search for a better life.
Nowadays, the term “global nomad” sounds glamorous, but the wandering life of Darwin Fitzgerald Samuel, father of Grenadian author S. Brian Samuel, was born of necessity, for himself and his three sons. In his recently published memoir, “Song For My Father,” Samuel recounts not only his father’s physical journeys but his endurance and spirit of overcoming. The “West Indian Journey” for father and sons was not a simple, straight line, but one with many detours, always in search of opportunity.
I sat down with Samuel for a chat over coffee and croissants at the Kingston home of his publisher, Ian Randle, just before they both headed to Port of Spain, Trinidad, for the annual Bocas Lit Fest, the region's premier literary festival.
Emma Lewis (EL): What was your father really like? Why do you call him a “Renaissance man”?
S. Brian Samuel (SBS): He had a passion for learning — only partially fulfilled, because he never achieved his dream of studying law — but he was always studying something. For example: A Black man, in 1965, played the lead role in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest‘ in an amateur play! He was always breaking barriers. He was always doing something else. He would always give us new experiences, and give himself new experiences. He was always learning something and teaching us.
One Sunday night he made us stay up late to watch ‘Panorama.’ It was about the Belsen concentration camp. He was showing it to us so that we could understand man’s capacity for inhumanity. At three o’clock in the morning in 1964, he woke us up so we could watch Cassius Clay fighting Sonny Liston. He told us, ‘This is going to be a great Black man, don’t you forget it.’
He deliberately and consciously gave us experiences to 'round us out.’ He took us to museums, everywhere. The Secondary Modern schools in England weren’t treating us well.
He was the best father I could ever have. He really filled the gap left by our mother. He was a terrible cook!
When he died [in 1975], my world just fell apart. I searched for meaning. I looked at Christianity and I looked at Buddhism … but I couldn’t find anything.
So the book ends with a chapter about my father, titled ‘Song For My Father.’ When I first heard that tune by Horace Silver, the title resonated with me.
EL: Tell me about your journeys with him.
SBS: Darwin Fitzgerald Samuel was born in Grenada. Then there was [British] Guyana, then Trinidad, where we kind of grew up. That’s when our mother Nelleen left us [they had met and married in London in 1949]. Our father sent us to Grenada for six months or so while he went back to England [where he had been living and working during the war years] to get a job; get a place to live. This was 1960, during the Windrush era.
EL: You have continued your father’s nomadic tradition as an adult.
SBS: So far, I have lived in 10 countries. When I came back to Grenada from Barbados in 2020, that was the 23rd time I moved country, 23 times in 69 years. It’s crazy!
EL: Didn’t you miss your mother?
SBS: She left us when I was six years old. The funny thing is, we didn’t really miss our mother. I have childhood memories of things that happened before then: Maracas Beach, seeing an anaconda on the street; our dog Simba dying; Christmas. The same thing happened to my older brothers (who were called Tom and Gerry!) As I got older, it got to me a little more.
EL: So what exactly happened?
SBS: She was a bit of a celebrity in Trinidad. She had her own radio show, ‘Neighbour Nelleen.’ In those days [the 1950s] Trinidad was undergoing an oil boom; it was party, party, party. My mother, being a Scottish white woman, got invitations that others weren’t able to get. My father worked for Trinidad’s electricity company. He had a nice car, an MG Magnet.
My father had a signature ‘toot’ on the horn when we went to pick her up from work. On that day, he pressed the horn…waited…pressed the horn…waited… He went inside, came out, and then drove home with us. I remember the look on his face: absolute puzzlement. ‘Mummy’s gone away,’ he told us. She went to Nassau, Bahamas. She left immediately. She had another man.
She was just not satisfied with being a mother and a wife. But we three boys were as cute as buttons!
Our father was in real pain. He was giving up a great life in Trinidad. He went to England, worked on the buses, then got a job teaching metalwork. Then he sent for us. He had wanted to study law. There was an implied promise, when he was working there as a machinist during the war as a 19 year-old, that after the war he would get a scholarship. He applied, but they wanted more technical and engineering teachers.
We moved to England in August, 1960.
EL: What was your experience in England?
SBS: I really hated England. Coming from such a happy life in Trinidad, to a place where we were called racist names … I would get into fights almost every day.
Then suddenly our Dad uprooted us: ‘We’re going to America.’ He got a Fulbright scholarship in 1966, and we stayed in a small town near Chicago for a year. We went to the White House. Lyndon Johnson shook my hand! We loved him. Our neighbours were excited about their English teacher in the town, but surprised [about his race]. Coming from England, which was dull and stodgy, we had girls in our class! Colour television! We loved it.
Many West Indians sent their children to England for a better education. That wasn’t the case for me. They dumb you down. By the way, I went to five high schools in three countries!
EL: And then you were on the move again?
SBS: Yes! This time it was Jamaica. He saw that us boys were not getting anywhere in terms of education. I was 18. He had re-married, to an Englishwoman; they had a love affair by mail. Until then, he was determined to raise us by himself. He took us to the West End theatre, all the museums, and strangely, a nudist colony!
So in August 1971, I travelled to Jamaica, via New York. I met John Lennon in the immigration line; he said he was leaving England because it wasn’t cool! I forgot to ask him for his autograph.
EL: How was Jamaica?
SBS: When we arrived in Kingston, I saw a scene of absolute chaos. I thought, ‘Why are we here?’ I got into sixth form at Excelsior High School, where my father was teaching. I thought it was a dump, but within a short while, I got to love Jamaica. I passed my ‘A’ Levels very well. I had applied to university in England and to UWI [The University of the West Indies] Mona. I decided on UWI. It was an exciting time there in the 1970s: socialism, anti-colonialism [were] all the rage.
EL: Your father’s death must have been very painful.
SBS: It was just after Christmas. I had just bought the O'Jays’ album ‘Family Reunion.’ Corny lyrics, but I couldn’t get them out of my head:
Then there’s the son
Most sons are like imitators of their father
So, we’re back again to the father
If he is guiding in the right way
The son is definitely gonna be alright…
I was thinking about my father, lying on my bed, when Dad walked in, with his golf clubs. When I greeted him, he said he had a bit of ‘gas.’ He went into his room, then I heard him shout. He was lying on the bed with his back arched; he seemed to be defying gravity. He told me, ‘It’s a heart attack. I’m dying. Goodbye, son. I love you.’ He died in my arms. We carried him out of the house and took him to Andrews Memorial Hospital. He was gone. He was 53 years old.
EL: Then you had a reunion with your mother?
SBS: My brother Tom came out from England. At that time, the British Airways flight stopped in Nassau. He said to me, ‘Let’s look for our mother.’ She had married again, divorced, and was living in Nassau. She didn’t recognise us at first. We told her who we were and then there were tears and hugs. But you have got to forgive, haven’t you?
She was one tough woman: no less than a bottle a day, and three or four packs of Camels, unfiltered. My mother moved to Spain, and died there. My brother Gerry told me the news and again, I bawled all night. I didn’t cry for her. I cried for the mother I never had. Years later, in Grenada, my cousin’s husband gave me a whole sheaf of letters between my father and my mother.
EL: How important were the personal letters, the documentation?
SBS: They were like gold. My father kept all his documents — diaries, letters. He kept carbon paper copies of everything. So we have all this to and fro correspondence.
I had intended to call this book ‘The White Knight Box.’ White Knight was a laundry service in England, where my father used to send all his shirts. They came back starched, in a box. One day he liberated one of those boxes and used it to store all his personal papers. He was a hoarder. He kept everything.
EL: You say you are a ‘Windrush victim.’ Why is that?
SBS: In 1970, I got my British passport. In 1971, I travelled to Jamaica, the U.S., Norway. When I returned to England in 1980, I went to renew my passport. They said to me, ‘Oh. Where have you been?’ I said, ‘Travelling, but I’ve come back now.’ The answer was, ‘Well, you can’t be British any more. You have to be Grenadian, because Grenada became independent.’ They wouldn’t renew it. That really made me angry. My mother was British, so there was a sexist as well as a racist element to it. The Immigration Act of 1981 did away with that, but they didn’t make it retroactive.
EL: You have been a nomad all your life. When are you going to settle down?
SBS: I am building a house in Grenada. I was thinking of calling it ‘Dunromin’ — Done Roaming — an English naming for houses where families have finally settled down, but we will call it Kumusha (we lived in Zimbabwe for many years). That’s not in this book — the next book! Kumusha in the Shona language means ‘home,’ where you were born.
This house overlooks where my father was born; it couldn’t be more home.
Dear Emma, thank you so much for this sensitive and insightful review and analysis of my book. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with coffee and Ian’s excellent fresh bread at his house, which you’ve captured to perfection. Yesterday being Mother’s Day gave me cause to reflect on my own ‘father who mothered me’, and to send him silent thanks.
And thanks also to you, for getting to know me and my story so well.
I thoroughly enjoyed (and learned so much from) our conversation. It was my pleasure to write this.
Wishing you all the best in your new home!