From Rum to Roots: An American Dream in Black Gold and Green by Lloyd Francis
In 1937 near Portland Cottage in southern Jamaica, on a huge sugar estate, Linton McMann, the illegitimate son of the owner of the plantation, works making rum. Meanwhile in Kingston, Daisy helps her mother manage an ice business and dreams of joining her elder sister in New York.
Seeking opportunity, Linton leaves the deep Jamaican countryside for New York and the collapse of the ice business and family crises force Daisy to leave Kingston, seeking a new start in the United States. They encounter a vibrant Jamaican-American community in New York, where they meet at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. They become American citizens, marry, and start a family. Ambition drives them to start a business and Linton capitalizes on a skill he learned as a young man in Jamaica, making a drink known in Jamaica as “Roots.” It proves wildly popular and the company, Family Roots, prospers beyond Linton’s and Daisy’s wildest dreams.
By 1986, the drink is a sensation. Money flows in, but something is missing. Happiness is as scarce as freshwater in the middle of the sea. Wrestling with their past while living in a land of plenty, Linton and Daisy discover that truth is the only avenue to happiness.
Lloyd was born in Oakland in 1961, a first-generation American child to Jamaican parents. As a child his trips to Jamaica in the 60’s and 70’s shaped who he became. Growing up in Hayward California he was steeped in the island tradition of reggae, Jamaican cuisine, and patois.
After studying engineering, Lloyd became a staff photographer for the San Jose Mercury News. He left newspapers to work for Yahoo Financial News Network and returned to journalism after 9-11. In 2001 Lloyd reported from Iraq for Newsweek Magazine, and went on to cover the war in Afghanistan. In 2004 he accepted a job with the Army Times Publishing Company and worked in Iraq intermittently for two years. Examples of his work can be found here and here.
Lloyd returned to San Francisco in 2006. He lives with his wife, Leanne, his two sons, Marley and Waylon, a yellow nape Amazon parrot named Aquila and a rambunctious Red Lored Amazon parrot named Cosmo. He frequently takes long walks around San Francisco and Golden Gate Park, looking for great Instagram photographs.
Jamaica is a modern nation with electricity, running water, and all the infrastructure that you would expect in a modern society. However, you can still find some of the ancient past in Jamaica, you just have to be willing to venture into the deep countryside far from the resorts and the sophisticated city dwellers. I found a pocket form the past in a small town known as Roaring River in Westmoreland in Jamaica. Perched on a hillside adjacent to the Georges Plain which stretches to the Caribbean Sea the village has clung tenaciously to life there, first as a brutal plantation under the Beckford family, and then as a producer of sugar cane for WISCO. There is electricity and running water in the village, the village was wired in the mid 1980’s but I chose to live in house that was not connected to the grid.
It was a nice, clean two room cottage. At night, as the insects screamed, I sat on the porch with kerosene lamps, reading Crime and Punishment, rocking slowly in my chair, listening to dominoes slamming on tabletops at taverns that dotted the old rutted road that passed nearby.
To write under those conditions brought a fresh perspective to my prose. Trying to imagine Jamaica in 1937 was not difficult without a bathroom in the house. Being forced to use a chamber pot during the night is an adventure into the past. During the day I spent my time using my laptop next door, but at night I used a notebook to craft my first drafts of scenes. It was quite a contrast from my writing in San Francisco. This is what brought me back four times over two years to this very village and this particular house. My most productive times were late at night when the only thing I could hear was the eternal radio that was left on 24 hours a day. The music, soft, enchanting, and hypnotic, served as a foundation for my imagination.
My fondest memories are of the stories that were told late at night unders the stars about the ghosts, and other supernatural events that surrounded Roaring River. Hearing the old timers tell stories made goosebumps dance all over my flesh. Ghosts, known in Jamaica as “duppies,” roam the land in Jamaica, and according to legend they make all sorts of mischief. But there are different types of duppies, able to wreak all sorts of calamaties on unsuspecting people.
I was repeatedly warned of the ghost known as the River Mummaa. This spirit of the river lurked at night along the banks of the river that wound through the town. People had been known to disappear along the banks late at night after being asked by a beautiful woman if they were interested in some fish. If the person said yes, the spirit would seize them and drag them under the water, drowning them. But what if the person was not interested in fish, I asked.
“River Mummaa nuh believe yuh, mon,” they would answer, “she gwan tek yuh ‘way!”
You can’t win with the ghost from the river. After all, the fish are her children.
Then there’s the Three Foot Horse and the Whistling Cowboy. When I was first told of this phantom, I thought they were talking about a short horse until someone drew me aside and further clarified themselves saying, “Is a three foot horse, mon, cause him have only three foot dem.” You have to understand in patois the word three sounds like tree. “A horse with only tree legs? “Yeah, mon!” If I were to see this three foot white horse with a headless whistling cowboy riding it, I was to outrun him to the nearest streetcorner making sure to get there first. If the horse and rider reached before you, cancel Christmas, you were dead. Who was the rider? “Beckford!” was the resounding answer. Peter Beckford, former governor of Jamaica in the 18th century had a huge sugar estate in Petersfield, a town only a mile and a half away. Roaring River had been an area where they “broke” slaves for the Beckford Estate. Breaking the spirit of some of the slaves who arrived proved to be too much and many people were brutally killed. It was said that one reason the soil in Roaring River was so rich was due to the blood of the slaves who had died defiantly at the hands of their slavemasters.
But the most feared of all the “duppies” roaming the land is the infamous “Rolling Calf.” Eyes belching fire, it rolls along the road or path, chasing anyone it encounters with ill intention. Dragging chains behind it, it’s appearance is heralded by the dreadful clanking of chains. The image was enough to make me want to go indoors. But the older folks explained that rolling calf had not been seen in years around Roaring River.
“Cars,” one woman said. “Ever since cars and electricity come here de Rolling calf dem gone.”
At least they are afraid of something.
When I asked how to esacape Duppies, the villagers made it clear that it was easy to escape if you knew how. The easiest is to drop objects for it to count. Duppies cannot count in Jamaica.
You can always tell if you’re around a duppie if as you are talking to them, their voice sounds very high pitched, nasally, and you suddenly feel your head begin to grow…. If that happens don’t run. Keep calm and start walking away dropping trinkets from your pocket.
Dem can’t count past two.
Make sure that you look at the locals in the eye when they start telling you these stories. I’m quite sure you will see the twinkle that I saw in their eyes when they were telling me.
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