This writer was but a lad in his early teen years when I would sneak away from the Wesleyan Holiness Church on Bishopgate Street on Sunday nights to buy I-tal food from the famous I-tal shack, just next to Brownie’s Bakery, east of Papacita Destin’s. We’re talking about the wonderful, healthy, vegetarian treats being served up by the Rastafari Improvement I-sociation, of which, our dearly-departed Ambassador Franklyn ‘King Frank-I’ Francis was a founder. This was the very early 1970’s, an exciting and heady time when anti-colonial and anti-establishment fervor was at its zenith. We “said it aloud that we were black and proud,” as James Brown exhorted us to. We spoke with great disdain about ‘Babylon’ and the ‘Baldhead.’ We adorned ourselves in afrocentric garb, clenched our fists a la our Black Power brethren in America, and spoke of true liberation and righteousness. And the King led us!
We beat our drums, chanting, BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON, and declaring that “We could not sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land.” And yes, we embraced the dread lexicon – “I and I,” “I man,” “Sight om!” “Seen,” “I and I overstand,” “Bagalaga,” “Come forward,” “Hail-up!” “Haile Selassie I, Jah Rastafari!” For the Rastafari faithful, the tenor and temper of the times demanded that they take a stand for that in which they believed. After all, Babylon system had unleashed all-out war on its adherents. Those who thought to “live up in the hills” were hunted down and arrested, paraded before television cameras, and treated with much derision and scorn. Their sacred dreadlocks were unceremonious cut by the authorities, as a means of further humiliation and disrespect. They were ridiculed. And they were always treated harshly by the authorities, “Just for wan chalice, an empty chalice / Policemen beat me, I didn’t have no tampi / The Chalice was empty, but Babylon jail me . . .” (See the treatment once meted out to King Frank-I in a letter by political leader of the United Progressive Party, Harold Lovell, in today’s DAILY OBSERVER).
It was against this backdrop that I, a preacher’s son, would frequent King Frank-I’s I-tal shack. I enjoyed listening to the drumming. I reveled in all the Rastafari, rebellious, revolutionary talk and reasonings. A rap session was a thing of much enlightenment and inspiration. I felt honoured to be sitting at the feet of the King and his cohorts.
Anyway, one evening, a church lady spotted me in the I-tal shack, and she promptly came and dragged me off my stool, with two quick smacks upside my head, telling me, “Parl, just wait til meh tell yuh poopa bout yuh! Yuh-ah smoke dope, and yuh want foo tun rasco, and let-down yuh deestant parents and-dem. Just wait! Ah me and you!”As you can imagine, I was quite embarrassed, especially after the Rastafari brethren chuckled at my misfortune. King Frank-I was also quite amused, but he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and simply said, “Can’t fool the youth, can’t force the youth!”I never forgot those words.
I will also never forget how he would partake of the sacrament for hours, while imparting much wisdom and knowledge to me in his home on St. Mary’s Street. The King is possessed of a sharp intellect – one of our finest thinkers – and he could expound at length on cricket, the Motherland, our rich, black heritage and culture, Antiguan and world history, music, the Antigua Grammar School (AGS), reparations, pan, the holy herb and its medicinal properties, and so on and so forth. His reach was exhaustive. Of course, as you can imagine, after a rap session with the King, I had to step rather gingerly to my vehicle. If you know what I mean . . .
When I was still residing in New York, I would write a weekly column called EDEN’S COMPASS for the DAILY OBSERVER. King Frank-I would read the column, and then send me his views on what I’d written, especially when I penned my recollections about the AGS, or when I ventured into matters pertaining to our black struggle for reparatory justice. As you can imagine, I was quite flattered that the King was reading my material, and that he would take the time out to praise, or not-so-much-praise, my work. I learned a great deal from him, and I am enormously grateful.
Interestingly, notwithstanding the fact that he’d dedicated his life, at a very early age, to the black liberation struggle, and the fight for equal rights and justice, especially reparatory justice, and justice for oppressed Rastafari, the King, while not given to much frivolity, had a wonderful sense of humour. He loved a good joke, and would laugh heartily. I recall that time when I did an imitation of one of our revered headmasters, Dr Alfred Blackett, as he reprimanded me with his hands behind his back, rocking to and fro on the tips of his shiny Bostonians, with the words, “Looook, Quinn! Loook! This will not do, Quinn! The oceans can take thus much and no more . . . I have had it!” That had the King convulsing with peals of laughter. I guess that he too often smiled at Dr. Blackett’s antics and idiosyncrasies at AGS. He too, must have been scolded by the good Doc for similar infractions.
After returning home from New York, I was so very honoured to be invited by the Chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission (ABRSC), Mr Dorbrene O’Marde, and Ambassador King Frank-I, to be a member of that body. Our meetings were marathon sessions with other distinguished reparationists like Ambassador Mamba Liverpool, Ras Colin ‘Bones’ Cumberbatch, Saiid Greene, Lenworth Johnson, Angelique O’Donoghue, and Natalie Clark White, among others. Again, I was always imbued with a renewed sense of purpose after those meetings.
The King has departed this mortal sphere, joining with the ancestors. It is not difficult to imagine that they greeted him with much reverence and respect. After all, his life here on earth was dedicated to us never forgetting that much of what we now enjoy, is by dint of their struggle and toil, their blood, sweat and tears. He never allowed us to lose sight of the fact that we stand on their shoulders.
I recall that King Frank-I told me that he had to make a trip to Africa to spread Roland’s (his brother’s) ashes, over the Motherland. We are not sure if that too is the King’s request. We would not be surprised. In the meantime, my highly-esteemed friend, sleep in glorious power! Your life and work lives on . . .
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