SOUND FALLS AWAY, and my immediate surroundings are so quiet it feels life is limited to just two sounds: Boney M’s 1978 hit “By the Rivers of Babylon” playing on the radio, and the barble doves’ coos coming from somewhere in the distance. It is either 1979 or 1980. The year is fuzzy but the heat of the summer isn’t. The Boney M song itself is upbeat but it brings me no comfort, and, together, the song and the coos are eerie. Even though I am too young to fully understand the circumstances the Psalm describes, this is the moment I begin to associate the two with a sense of loss and the feeling of things falling apart around me.
I think of the twin symbols of the fears of my childhood, and the sense of uncertainty and doom, more often now—when the presidential election cycle overwhelms, when the discussion about the coronavirus pandemic reverts to talk about which group of the population is expendable, when everything converges to show the dynamics of power. With the world I know shrinking to a small space—1,500 square feet and limited trips out into the greater Washington, D.C., suburbs—I’ve been listening to “By the Rivers of Babylon” on repeat. And slowly, the song is becoming my anthem for this period of quarantine because it is at last showing me something other than the fear I’ve long associated with it. It reminds me now of our resilience and why artists continue to create even as the world falls apart around them.
Originally recorded by the Rastafarian group The Melodians in 1970, By the Rivers of Babylon reflects the lamentations of the ancient Israelites living in exile after Babylon conquered Jerusalem. But for the Rastafarian musical group, the song suggests such persecution persists in the present day. Indeed, Rastafarians apply the term Babylon to any system of government the group deems oppressive or unjust. Like the Israelites in captivity, "By the Rivers of Babylon" refers to the oppressed living in a repressive society and longing for freedom from their persecutors. The song explained who is expendable and who isn’t, and the dynamics of power—two things that the 2020s are laying bare.
By the time I first became aware of Bony M’s hit, we’d been living in my childhood home, a split-level on a hill, for two or three years. The house itself was still relatively new when we moved in. The distinct smell of cement and concrete lingered, particularly in the lower part of the house where there was a bedroom specifically built as the helper’s quarters, along with a large, incomplete room that we turned into a playroom. The children who lived there before us left behind stickers on the mirrors and closet doors—Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and a range of other Disney characters. Outside, the gardens were a kaleidoscope of colors amidst the red dirt on the ground: orchids and anthuriums, ixora and croton and bougainvillea, and a variety of other flowering plants whose names I never learned. And spread amongst the flowering plants and around the yard were numerous fruit trees: cherry, guava, avocado, breadfruit, june plum, otaheite apple, lychee, various kinds of citrus. Seven dwarf coconut trees lined the driveway and a towering bamboo plant grew near the garage, so close to the house its leaves made shadows in our bedroom in the moonlight.
In time, what the family left behind became wholly ours. Some of the fruit trees have survived plant diseases, hurricanes and droughts, and their broad and thin leaves still cover the red dirt, crunching beneath our feet. The pink blossoms from the otaheite apple tree still dust the ground like a carpet, and the apples that grow too high in the tree or which are pecked mercilessly by birds fall to the ground, leaving a sweet smell of fermenting fruit beneath the branches. The gardens and green house are long gone, and in their place my parents grow vegetables like calalloo, pepper, peas, yam and sweet potato. The lychee tree still bears, sometimes a bountiful crop of pink-skinned fruit that’s visible from the main road across the valley.
As a child, the reason the family sold their house, and left behind this bounty of a garden and the entire island of Jamaica was muddled in my young brain, confused with overheard and little understood adult conversations about socialism and capitalism and the fear of a government’s ability to take a family’s property and redistribute it among the masses. What I know now is that the family left out of fear. Endlessly harassed for their presumed or known political ties, the family fled the country, perhaps selling the house for significantly less than it was worth.
I, on the other hand, had lost nothing, had not had to leave my home and country, and yet I lived with a sense of uncertainty and doom, and a fear infused with the words of Boney M’s rendition of the 137th Psalm.
These days when I think of the twin symbols of the fears of my childhood, I imagine myself on our long verandah again, looking toward the slope of land at the back of our house, past the clothes hung out to dry, past the mature avocado and ackee trees and toward the pastures that butt up against our property. There have always been cattle on the other side of the barbed wire fence, so close we could touch them, so close they could charge and trample a small and slow child like me. That didn’t happen but the possibility of it was real to me, another source of my fears.
At school, children talked about “black heart men,” strangers who lurked in lonely places waiting for an opportunity to take your heart out. So the wooded hills behind the administrative building and the block of classrooms for grades 4-6, as well as the open pastures behind our house was where I imagined the black heart men lurked.
My childhood fears were nothing, inconsequential really when I think about the stories the migrant children on the border will tell one day—not stories of imagined fears of losing their parents but the very real horror of secret nighttime transfers to new cities away from parents they didn’t see or speak to for years. Their fear is real. Mine it turns out wasn't but was rooted in the very real crisis playing out across Jamaica then.
Jamaica in 1980 was a place of vivid contrasts—quiet nights and mornings in the countryside, broken by cocks crowing and early morning birds cawing among the leaves of mango and apple trees; not-so still mornings in pockets of the capital, Kingston, where residents spent the mornings recovering from the sound of nighttime gunfire. Each of the two primary political parties adopted bold, distinct identifying colors: a vivid orange for the People’s National Party (PNP) and a bright green for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
I grew up with the awareness that political affiliation was not something one talked about, nor was it something one advertised through the colors one chose to wear. We didn’t wear orange. We didn’t wear green. We didn’t make the V for victory sign. We didn’t raise a closed fist in the air. There are stories of people being killed for wearing the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood, particularly one ravaged by poverty and deeply entrenched with a strong political leader.
Back then, the depth of Jamaica’s political chasm felt like an ever-present thing. All around, in the city and the countryside, political signs decorated utility poles advertising rallies and advocating for one potential leader or another. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the street like police. And throughout the day, a car or two with a loudspeaker attached to the rooftop traversed the roads at a snail’s pace calling citizens to attend a political rally or concert. Politics oozed onto school playgrounds. At the primary school I attended, children sometimes threw the word laborite or socialist around as a taunt, not fully understanding the meaning of either word and perhaps not fully understanding their own parents’ allegiances.
By the time the 1980 election was over, nearly 800 people had died in election-related violence. Thousands more migrated out of fear of the growing violence or what they could lose under either regime, selling their properties at deep discount. One newspaper headline from August 1980, tallied the number of American immigrant visas issued to Jamaicans in a seven-month period at 8,416. Jamaica’s population in 1980 was 2.2 million.
I was much too young in 1980 to fully understand what was at stake for Jamaica then. But I remember sitting and watching for my parents’ red Cortina to turn off the street and up the slight hill to our house, relief settling in when they returned. I remember the palpable fear, the general fear of a coup, the newspaper articles tallying the number of lives taken, full of descriptions of shootings, stabbings, fire bombings and how quickly a political rally dissolved into chaos. Newspaper headlines were graphic and bold, the messages unmistakeable: “Party Rally Leaves One Dead, 36 injured;” “Informed Bogus Bid to Assassinate PM Planned, says JLP;” “Snipers Fire at Jamaican Party Leader.”
On October 30, 1980, Jamaicans voted, ending a long and bloody ideological fight. Jamaicans, tired of the harsh economic times of the Manley years and the experiment with Democratic Socialism, swept the JLP into power. Edward Seaga’s platform of "deliverance" and his promise of "making money jingle in your pockets” had worked.
I don’t recall how easily the entire country got back to life as usual. But by 1983, we were pulled together by a common cause—celebrating Jamaica’s 21st year of independence. “Jamaica 21” signs were everywhere. Buses, cars and light poles flaunted our national colors—black, yellow and green—with 21 prominently placed within. We were a proud people, a mature adult nation, belting out the song that won the national Independence Festival Song Competition that year: Jamaica I'll Never Leave You Again. As a nation, we had survived, and as a people we had found a way to come together again in song.
Forty years after I first associated “By the Rivers of Babylon” with the sense of loss, uncertainty and doom, the song is again reminding me of my fears of what our families stood to lose back then—fears I thought I had long left behind. Above all, the song reminds me of what I stand to lose now, and this time of a different country falling apart around me. Eight years after our bloody 1980 election, I, too, would leave Jamaica. I didn’t migrate out of fear but with the abundant hope of another generation of dreamers looking to America for the vast opportunities it promised.
What I didn’t have then as a child was control over the things around me. None of us do. Not the Israelites whose lamentations we hear in the Psalm. Not the Africans taken from various countries in Africa and enslaved in the west. Not the Rastafarians and every marginalized group who have adopted By the Rivers of Babylon as their anthem.
I keep playing the song, but today I’m feeling something other than the fear I’ve long associated with it. The song is teaching me something else: resilience. And it is answering the question I hear now: How do artists create in a time like this? The question is similar to what the Boney M version of the psalm asks, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in strange land?” And yet we do. We sing, we dance, we tell stories. Our stories and our songs stay with us. These cultural elements survive. And so when I see questions about how artists can create when the world seems to be falling apart, I play By the Rivers of Babylon again, and think of what will survive this chaos: our words, our stories, our movement, our songs.
Donna Hemans is the author of two novels, River Woman and her latest, Tea by the Sea, published June 2020 by Red Hen Press. Her essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Electric Literature, and Scoundrel Time. Her short fiction has been published in The Bare Life Review, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, and Witness, among others.