Like any Caribbean person with a religious upbringing, I had three notions of Babylon: the city mentioned in the Bible, the figurative empire of false gods and the all-encompassing, anti-black system that I learned about from my Rastafarian friends in the 1970s. So, when I started poet Safiya Sinclair’s memoir How to Say Babylon I thought I knew what to expect.
But this is a story about another Babylon altogether – the cruel and relentless oppression of women, particularly black women. It’s also a story about hope, imagination and resilience.
Sinclair grew up in Jamaica, first-born to young parents who looked to the Rastafarian faith as an antidote to corruption, racism and political posturing on an island where luxury hotels claimed the best beaches and fenced them off from ordinary people, while employing Bob Marley lookalikes to entertain their wealthy guests. Sinclair’s father was one such man, singing One Love for the tourists but making his own music on the side, finding in reggae a way to express “his own helpless rage at the history of black enslavement at the hands of colonial powers and his disgust at the mistreatment of black Jamaicans in a newly postcolonial society”.
Sinclair and her siblings lived in near poverty, cut off from their extended family, and her father became ever more strict and violent: “beatings became a fact of life, like dirt and air, and they arrived without warning, without reason”. He forbade them to cut their hair, eat meat or go beyond the gate, lecturing them on Babylon and the west, moving them from house to house in a downward spiral of discomfort, his very personal and militant version of Rastafari aggravating already hostile public attitudes to the ganga-smoking, polygamous, anti-establishment religion. His children experienced “ruthless moods and lectures”, felt they were walking on eggshells and dreaded the hours he spent at home.
Were it not for the boundless love and creativity of her mother, Sinclair would doubtless have been crushed under the weight of her enforced isolation and her father’s disapproval. By the age of nine she had become “sceptical” and “doubted his gospel”. “A grin of mischief opened ever so slyly inside me, a seedling of a voice that said no.”
It was this voice and her mother’s urging that brought Sinclair to poetry, to a scholarship at a good school (though the ugliness of classism, racism and colonialism was ever present) – and to writing. “I memorized Poe and Dylan Thomas and bled my own dark yearnings into verse,” she says, finding the order in poetry a salve against chaos.
Sinclair’s world turned again when she was published in the Jamaican Observer and mentored by an older writer (another disappointing man with sexual designs on a young, beautiful but powerless black woman). So began her slow extrication from her father’s influence – literary success, a spell modelling in the US, university and eventually the ritual cutting of her locks.
But once in America, Sinclair makes a kind of peace with him. “Here [in the US] is the invention of whiteness, a violence. Here is the original wound. Here I am, homesick in Babylon and I am angry, so angry at all of it. Because for the first time since I left home, I understand how frightened my father must have been for me, a black daughter walking through the inferno.”
It would be easy to think Sinclair’s eventual escape was inevitable. It was anything but. Time and again she tells of utter despair, of sinking into depression and of feeling worthless. It is a testimony to her brothers and sisters, her mother and aunt and her own sense of self that she found a way to nurture her creativity, mining the strength she needed to disobey her father and come into her own.