My focus on the male-female angle of life’s issues was far from clear for me. In fact, the issues were inevitably clouded by race and, the more I questioned the faulty communication between black men and women amongst the Westindians of Panama, the more questions cropped up. Although I couldn’t know it then the communication problem between the sexes would remain a key issue even amongst my acquaintances with United States Blacks later when I’d eventually immigrate.
I was hoping, however, that the things I was noticing about my people would one day become attitudes of the past but I was inevitably brought back to reality by some recent experiences which brought me to conclude that the negative attitudes in Westindian people would be kept alive, surprisingly, by the females. Even at the age of fourteen, life was already teaching me to observe how some women within our clans were encouraging infidelity and other degrading behavior at the hands of men whom they claimed to love.
Yes, the women, it seemed to me, never failed to show me contradictions in so far as their attitude towards their men folk. Take, for instance, their idea of a “good husband.” A good husband and, by extension, a good provider, was a man who left for work at the wee hours of the morning to labor all day without rest at a job he often despised and had very little contact with his wife and children. His presence at home during the day was unwelcome since it usually meant he was either unemployed or sick or injured and couldn’t work. His “loving” wife usually encouraged his wanderings about outside the home just so long as he stayed away until the evening.
This brings us to another set of phenomena that highlighted the relationships between men and women- the men’s “family on the outside.” I’m not sure if Westindians picked up this questionable practice from their Hispanic brethren or vice versa but, growing up, it was very common to see working men with two or three or more children from their simultaneous relationships with women outside their marriage and their wives often knew of them and accepted or were forced to accept this whole arrangement.
Then there were the wives who seemed to get a thrill out of demeaning their husband by viewing him as a cuckold and an “aburrido”- a bore- if he wasn’t “a player” and didn’t practice the manly art of screwing around. If he was an honest working man who tried to save his energy for his job and family, many times the wife would hold him in derision, even “burn him,” as they say in Panama, with another man and even bare another man’s child and challenge her husband to accept it.
Even so, a host of mixed feelings emerged from the bottom of my soul to inform me that this was common enough and the way people in the old West Indies must have lived and viewed the family and the upbringing of children. Some rude reminders of this would lead me to yearn for the moment in which I would reach that longed for independence of manhood around those women I was growing up with.
As such I became a complete failure in communicating my feelings to the women who surrounded me and this seemed to be a model of behavior which I noticed as a youngster growing up Westindian and Spanish- a total inept at communicating. I felt totally misunderstood by every grownup I came in contact with- male or female. What’s worse is that the women folk didn’t seem phased by it- actually encouraged this lack of expression on the part of their children and especially their boys.
“Be here but be invisible,” I would often think to myself as I pondered my future around my school peers and contemplated the irreverence I suffered comparing it to the lack of respect shown to my people of the African Diaspora, particularly to the image the Black Man had in a country such as Panama. I often mused, “If only I could write about such things,” I might be able to reach out to my sons and share my ideas and feelings with them about the place they would have in the history and culture of Panama.
In the meantime, the best lesson I had learned that year about the intricacies of success in school and in society was to remain absolutely quiet about what I did know and remain immobile. It had been a very hard six year sentence for me. Feeling imprisoned at home and in school made interaction and intercourse very tenuous amongst my people whether Panamanians or Westindians.
This story continues.