We close Black History Month with a personal story as Amandla Thomas-Johnson remembers his grandmother Adwina Miriam Johnson’s life, achievements and creativity in the face of obstacles
January 6th, 1931 – October 2nd, 2018
One of my earliest memories of my grandmother takes me back to the early 1990s, when
I was five, in London. The carnival band I was part of had put me forward to compete for the crown of junior carnival King at the Notting Hill carnival, the main carnival in London. I was supposed to wear a great big white bird with long flappy wings, but, with one night to go until the competition, my costume was still not ready. The white feathers were still missing and the bird’s metal skeleton lay exposed. Granny Adwina to the rescue.
I can picture her now in my mind standing there working diligently and without fuss, with little or no instruction, dipping the plastic feathers into glue and sticking them onto the bird’s frame. She worked long into the night. I remember the intense pressure everyone was under to get the costume finished and how this contrasted with her calmness and composure.
I would go on to win, thanks to her.
This memory brings me to what I would like speak about today, namely the three themes that best sum up her life. My grandmother was a woman who, in the face of tremendous pressure and severe personal tragedy, managed to cultivate a life of full of courage, independence and creativity.
Adwina Phillips was born to Christiana Hector and Evans George Phillips on 6th January 1931 in the fishing village of Buccou in Tobago.
Not long before her birth, her parents, known affectionately as “Mammy Tally” and “Daddy Evans”, Tobagonians, returned from Venezuela where they had gotten married. In Venezuela, Daddy Evans worked as a foreman on the railroads and Mammy Tally washed and cooked for Venezuelans who couldn’t get enough of West Indian food.
After saving enough money, Daddy Evans and Mammy Tally bought ten lots of land in Buccou, presumably getting ready for a large family. But there was just one problem: they couldn’t have any children. They tried and tried, but poor Mammy Tally struggled to conceive, turning them into the butt of cruel village jokes. “Look at Evans and his sister going down the road,” the villagers would say.
When, at last, Mammy Tally gave birth, it was girl: Adwina Phillips. And she was the first of ten.
A glance at Adwina’s parents tells us something about the kind of woman she was.
Daddy Evans, a genteel man, tall and fair skinned was fluent in Spanish, and thought to be one of only two men in the village to have travelled abroad. His grandfather was Charlie Duncan, a Scottish man who became shipwrecked on Tobago, and his mother was the celebrated, dark-skinned, “T-Lovely” who had Nigerian ancestry.
He was a respected and well-connected figure within Tobagonian society, his work managing the Golden Grove estate, a huge farm of coconuts palms and of cattle, giving him a degree of prestige.
Mammy Tally, a deeply religious woman was shorter in stature but had a commanding presence. Her strong voice landed her a place in the church choir and she could be heard singing church hymns as she went about the house. She took courses in handicrafts , curtain-making and. Her mother, Caddy, was part of the Quamina family, who are descended from the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa.
The growing Phillips family lived a relatively comfortable life in Buccou. Adwina attended Montgomery Moravian school, but as the family expanded she had to take on more household duties, and so left at Form 4, when she was 14.
She described her daily life to me:
“I used to have to wash clothes for everybody, and long ago you had to iron the clothes
and you would have to cook, and if you wanted to use coconut you would have to grate the coconut. I would cook for everybody, make breakfast in the morning, cook lunch 12 o’clock, make dinner again. That was plenty, plenty work. Then I would comb my two sisters’ hair then I would do mine. And then I would go to school.”
After leaving school she went what is called in Tobago “walking for sewing”, sewing classes which were customary for girls at the stage in their lives. She also began to learn shorthand and bookkeeping.
Some years later, Arthur Johnson, a man from Buccou point, Tobago, entered her life.
“ I didn’t know him at first,” she told me, “but when he came to Tobago, when he saw this nice fat, clean skin girl, he liked the girl one time even though he never even talked to me. He came and told my parents he liked me and that he would like to marry. I had to decide.”
” Now, I had nine other sisters and brothers to attend to, there was so much work and I wanted to get away from the work. I told him yes. When I got away and gone to Trinidad they send three others down there now to meet me, for me to take care of them so that they could go to school. I say look at that eh? I tried to get away from something and they send three of them, Reginald, Lloyd and Leonard. I still have to wash and iron and cook everything for them.”
In 1949, Adwina and Arthur were married in Montgomery Moravian Church in Tobago. Later that year she moved to the city of Fyzabad in the oil belt of Southern Trinidad, which had a long and strong association with the Trade Union movement led by Buzz Butler, who led the famous “Hunger March” from the city to Port of Spain in 1935.
Adwina’s husband, Arthur, himself an oil worker, adored Butler so much, that after Vero, the first daughter was born, he named his only son, my father, after him. Cynthia, my auntie, who is here today, soon followed.
Despite the income Arthur brought home, things weren’t easy. Because of the large size of the household – Adwina and her husband, their three children and her three brothers – Adwina herself had to find other sources of income. As a sign of the independence and shrewdness that was become a strong feature of her later life, she advertised her sewing services and started to sell Avon cosmetic products locally, not always with her husband’s knowledge.
She proudly remembers being able to buy one more dress for Vero and Cynthia to go to church in and be able to give Buzz a small stipend.
She enjoyed it when on Sundays her husband would ask the family to dress up and take them to visit a family member, sometimes her father’s brother, Uncle Oscar, or a friend, who, unusually for that place and time, had a strange and wonderful new electrical appliance, a television.
Or sometimes Vero or Cynthia would cook on Sundays, each taking it in turns each week. Adwina taught them both to sew, a skill that would serve Cynthia well when, years later, she moved to Canada. Meanwhile, Arthur, a hard-working disciplinarian who was known locally as “Castro”, after the iron-fisted Cuban leader, kept a close eye on Buzz who soon excelled in his studies.
And then one day, Arthur came home. He had dinner, as usual, And then he went to lie down in a back room, something he seldom did. He didn’t wake up.
It was 1976 and Adwina would now live the greater part of her life as a widow.
Return to Tobago
Adwina returned to Tobago to settle in a house she had started to build with her husband but which he never lived to see completed. She continued to sell her Avon cosmetics, ceramics, which she made herself, dresses and crotchet work.
This commercial turn to get by as a widow was met with a creative zest that is still on display in her living room today: Tall white ceramic vases sit on the floor; on the shelf a green eyed ceramic white cat sits among red flowers and a white ceramic unicorn rears up on its hind legs; floral crochet work adorn the tops of sofas and armchairs which host plump satin cushions, deep red, too pretty, in fact, sit down on, let alone touch. All were made by her.
She also applied this burst of creativity and passion to her food and baking, displaying kitchen skills that would make her famous locally and have her grandchildren salivating whenever they knew she was coming to visit them in Canada or England.
Her mother taught her to cook from a young age. She would cook for the whole family, but, she said ” it was no fancy dishes”, mostly stew peas, rice, provisions and the big Cavali fish her father used to bring home from the village. A woman’s cooking group she joined in Fyzabad opened her eyes up to even more ideas.
Soon she was bringing hot sponge cakes out of the oven and pone and macaroni pie too. Taking advantage of that great abundant mango tree that stands guard, arms outspread, in the middle of her back yard she would make red mango, and if you were lucky – very, very lucky – mango ice cream, too.
In the 80s, her Canadian-born grandchildren – Amanda, Sydney and Josh – also came to live with her and attend school in Buccou Point for several years. She would in turn travel regularly to the London to see her other grandchildren, myself, Jamila and Themba.
Faith began to play an increasingly important part in her life . She was brought up and married in the Moravian church, but when she returned to Tobago she became a Pentecostal and a regular at Marinatha Christian Church.
Her faith was a deep and personal one, and it didn’t bother her if she happened to miss church. When asked about her faith she told me: “I just like to read the bible and sing and digest whatever I feel to digest.”
This was normal, Adwina always did things her way, she was very particular and could at times be very exacting. When I saw her for the last time, she quipped:
“I only like black pepper in pigeon pea soup, vegetable soup. but not in beef soup. “I don’t want to see no black thing. I’m a very strange person.”
Her my way or no way approach to life – her strength of character – can in part be attributed to her mother, family Matriach Mammy Tally, but down to her experiences as the eldest child and carer for her nine siblings.
The resilience she displayed in the face of a number of personal tragedies must also have played a part in transforming her into a strong and independent woman.
Among all our greatest fears are losing our life partner and outliving our children. Well, Adwina not only lost her husband, she lived almost half her entire life as a widow. And she outlived not one, but two of her children. Three of her siblings died within the last year also.
These took a toll on her: she would tell me about seeing her children in her dreams, years after they had passed away. But she managed to keep going.
I discovered last night, at the wake, that even when she took sick – just last week – in the hours and days before she passed on, she was still smiling that shy smile, making jokes and laughing with her throaty laugh.
If there is lesson I think we here today can take away from her life, it is to appreciate what we have, to count our blessings, even in the face of adversity.
In many ways, my grandmother’s life has echoes of the Prophet Job, who lost everything but still remained steadfast.
Adwina Miriam Johnson. January 6th, 1931 – October 2nd, 2018. Courageous, Independent, Creative.
Amandla Thomas-Johnson (@tjamandla) is a reporter based who has worked on documentaries for Channel 4 Dispatches, Vice News, and Aljazeera and has reported for Middle East Eye and BBC Radio 4. He has reported from across three continents and currently resides in Senegal where he is writing a book about Radical Black Women in London in the 1970s.
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