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Book Forum: Autobiography and Biography   |    
I’m Your Father, Boy: A Family Memoir of Barbados
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2405-a-2406. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2405-a
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Columbia, Mo.

By Ezra E.H. Griffith. Tucson, Ariz., Hats Off Press, 2004, 188 pp., $40.95; $15.95 (paper).

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Not too long ago Ezra Griffith really knocked my socks off. After a decade of study and writing I had completed my magnum opus (an opus to be sure, and magnum to me) on religion and behavior. A prepublication copy was sent to a host of colleagues whom I respected, hoping for comments that could be used to promote the book. Included on my list was Ezra Griffith because of his seminal studies on the role of religion in African American mental health and because of his reputation as beloved Professor of Psychiatry and of African American Studies at Yale. Much wonderful commentary arrived, but what Dr. Griffith wrote stunned me. Not only did he read the entire book, but he truly understood what I meant to communicate; every jot and tittle. He concluded that my book was written for "those courageous enough to explore their connection—or lack of it—to God and religion." Holy Toledo! He was fully in synch with what I had written.

On discovering that he had just published a family memoir of his life in Barbados titled I’m Your Father, Boy, I eagerly obtained a copy. After reading it I understood why he comprehended my book so well. His book is about his relationship with his father, Vincent, the pastor of a village church in Barbados whose preaching became famous throughout the island. Before every sermon he intoned a brief prayer asking for God’s blessing: "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."

As a youngster Vincent had a precocious sense of independence, rebelliousness, and stubbornness. His life changed in the 1930s when he married and converted to Christianity at the end of a week-long revival meeting (such meetings were common on the island). He was part of the Christian Missionary movement, a Caribbean-wide form of Pentecostal church. As he matured, Vincent preached from the pulpits of many denominations. Ezra notes,

Over the years, my most memorable discussions with him would center on our differing interpretations of Biblical passages or our views of what God expected from his followers in certain contexts.…He also constantly monitored where I was in my relationship with his Savior. He thought it the duty of an attentive Barbadian father to verify incessantly whether his son was hewing to the right religious path. (pp. 21–22)

The book contains myriad anecdotes that provide a vivid sense of life on the island. Women selling peanuts and sugar cakes and roast corn and pig’s liver fried hard as nails that took on an "indescribable consistency." The service-of-song parties that brought people together as the rum flowed, pork chops and chicken were abundant, and participants sang hymns and chanted psalms to their heart’s delight. The philosophical tidbits offered by a woman who helped rear Ezra and taught him that a married Christian woman should never wear pajamas to bed instead of a nightgown. The discovery that for many women pregnancy need not necessarily be linked with marriage. Ezra’s childhood confirmation in the Anglican Church followed by attendance at both Methodist and Moravian churches so that he would get a wider exposure to Bible lessons and learn how to recite poems in public. The freedom that came with owning a bicycle.

For economic reasons, Vincent moved to Brooklyn in 1954 and proudly moved his family there 2 years later. Ezra was introduced to cold weather, apartments that allowed little sunlight to enter, and singing in the choir of his father’s church. He met the bishop of the African Orthodox Church in America, who explained that it was a symbolic rebellion of blacks against the white control of the Episcopal and Anglican churches. Ezra came to realize that the hype of New York City was not realized for many immigrants:

New York is full of those who have been worn out just by the winter alone. It can be a city that tears unabashedly and with vindictiveness at the unprepared who cannot meet the city on its own terms. Mamma was among the unprepared, something my father suspected, although he may not have wished to acknowledge it. (p. 128)

Fortunately the author thrived at Boys High School, although he almost lost his eyesight due to an injury at a soccer game. He was fortunate to encounter two instructors who loved to teach through dialogue before, during, and after class. The fact that neither of these teachers discussed God or religion was puzzling because Vincent

harped on one’s relationship with God as a major justification for doing good and doing right. The two teachers seemed to have some other basis for their moral compass, a possibility that my father was not willing to consider, although he couldn’t make it disappear. (p. 133)

The most delightful portrayal in the book is that of the annual Calypso dance held at the Gayheart Ballroom. All the men wore serious Sunday suits, and the women were lovely in evening dresses. Everyone ate fish cakes and drumsticks and ham covered with hot sauce while the dancing was fueled by Mount Gay rum. As the evening progressed the atmosphere became more frenetic, leading up to the last dance, where

you could grab onto anything moving, old or young, church girl or not. Church deacons danced in the middle of the dance floor where they couldn’t be seen, and married women made moves under cover of the crowd that only their husbands ever saw before. My father was always sensitive about the business of public behavior. So I never saw him join in what we all used to call this "las’ lap," this chance to dance the very last calypso for the night. (p. 148)

The book ends with Vincent’s death back in Barbados and a recounting of his views on race, politics, and religion. At his funeral a tape of one of his sermons was played:

It was a spectacular moment. There he was lying in his casket, and his voice, strong and insistent, was filling up this enormous edifice with his pleas that we get right with God and prepare for the next life. He was flat on his back, dead, and he was still able to prick our consciences with his living voice.

At least he was buried in a warm Barbadian earth, while his wife’s body was laid to rest in the freezing ground of a cemetery in Brooklyn. In a sort of postscript, the author puts into perspective the story of his life with his father and laments some of the changes of modern life that essentially work to eradicate the memories that hold him and his father together.

All in all, this is a gentle book, neatly constructed and never boring. It is honest, truthful, and lacking in hyperbole or sensationalism, so it will not make the bestseller list. But it is a book that lingers in a reader’s mind like one of Vincent’s favorite Biblical quotes: "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms" (Deuteronomy 33:27).




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