In the summer of 1978 Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant, was shot dead by the Toronto police in his home on a Sunday morning. Johnson was alleged to have been carrying an axe; the axe was, in fact, a lawn edger. Johnson’s murder and the high profile police trial (both officers were acquitted) became a rallying point for the black community in Toronto and across Canada. Albert Johnson’s memory pervades Clarke’s writing: his characters regularly dream, remember, and share stories of the fate of “poor Mr. Albert Johnson.” In this poem, written in 1979, Clarke responds to this outrageous police violence by addressing directly Albert and Lemona Johnson’s children. Clarke calls on the subsequent generations, who must bear the burden of witnessing this collective pain, to not surrender the beauty and hopefulness of vision that is their true inheritance.
For the children of Mrs. Lemona Johnson
Do not let them choose the fragrance
for your lives and the beauty
In the flowers that you hold to kiss.
Their roses are made from plasticine.
And do not change the diet of your righteousness;
rice and peas are yours: theirs is bloodied steak.
Do not let them turn the pages of your book:
Bible, poetry or dogma, with their cold hand.
Ras Tafari, drums and Allah are your
beating heart. Theirs is board; in crisis, and
Timetabled hard against you. Do not, do not
let them come again into your yard,
Incensed with religion, their evil excuse,
dictator and belching Sunday missionaries, who
Rip the pawned Bible their grandfathers gave
to make your father kneel as if he’d say
A prayer. Prayers in this policing world are
answered with spit, with billy clubs
With cold white bullets spewing from
indecent thighs. Do not, do not let them
Make your father bend his knee to that religion, and
surrender his sanity to their white wards.
You are the black, sane surviving witnesses
to their madness. Do not, do not let
Them forget their white Sunday: fix the images,
garden tool and revolver in the hand of your
Brain, and let that be the text of your immigration.
But, do not let them clip the flowers for your
Nostrils. Your fragrance cleanse their gas. You must
remember. Do not forget that “them killed
Your father.” Face the cold word of their murder!
and do not let them suck your young fragrance.
Marley, Marcus, Manley and McMurtry – givens, among
Babylonian petals in your eyes;
But do not let them blind your fragrance.
Austin Clarke (1934-2016) was a Barbadian-born Canadian novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, and broadcaster.