Book Review: Ajani’s Wonderful Summer and the Imaging of the Black Boy

by Maggie Brito, PhD

 

“One aspect of the assault on the African family and on Black families has been the removal or lessening of the role of the father in the household.”

The underachievement of boys in educational systems throughout the African diaspora, as well as the fact that the majority of perpetrators and victims of homicides, violent crimes and assaults in the diaspora are young men, are important issues that have been engaging the attention of people from all walks of life, for these are symptoms of crises occurring in Black communities and nation states.

Barbadian author, Dr. Akhentoolove Corbin, is concerned about the crises which exist in Black communities, especially as these affect Black boys. One of his major concerns is that many Black boys throughout the African diaspora grow up without a father figure in the house. We are well aware of this, for many of our Caribbean sociologists have drawn attention to this matter, and the absentee father has been one of the major themes of Caribbean sociology for a long time.

Above: Akhentoolove Corbin, PhD, author of Ajani’s Wonderful Summer

There have been many explanations for the absence of the father in Caribbean households. One is that it’s one of the traumas of the slavery experience of Africa and the landmasses that were affected by African slavery and its holocaust. Families were one of the major targets of the assault against us, and in our era one aspect of the assault on the African family and on Black families has been the removal or lessening of the role of the father in the household.

One of the spin offs of this is a gendered division of labor, one of which occurs in the teaching profession. Within schools, there is a predominance of female teachers, and it is suggested that female teachers tend to favor girls, and so one of the deficiencies boys face is a dearth of male role models. In light of this, Akhentoolove advances the view that boys who are in nurturing relationships with their fathers become strong, learn skills and develop life-affirming social values. He expresses this idea in Ajani, the main character in his collection of short stories entitled Ajani’s Wonderful Summer.

Ajani Clarke is an 11 year old Barbadian who lives with his family in St. Philip in Barbados, in a small village called Barton Village. I was told by Akhentoolove that when he was creating this character, he was thinking of himself as a boy. When Akhentoolove was growing up, there were a number of ways in which children played which were very different from the way children play today. When Akhentoolove was growing up, children made their own toys. They created their own entertainment.  So he thought about his childhood and the friends he knew and created Ajani.

Ajani Clarke, the thoughtful, fun-loving protagonist of Ajani’s Wonderful Summer

Ajani lives with his mother, father and sister in a household we would consider “functional.” His mother and father are both invested in Ajani and his sister, little Tameka. Both parents are employed. His father is self-employed and operates his business from an office in the home. His mother goes to work. So the household is a two-income household, and both children are well cared for. They’re nurtured. Their parents speak with them, engage with them, play with them and take these activities seriously, on the same level of seriousness that the kids take them. Both Ajani and his sister are active kids, and are shown doing active, fun things.

“In light of the many crises faced by boys, Akhentoolove advances the view that boys who are in nurturing relationships with their fathers become strong, learn skills and develop life-affirming social values.”

In the first story, entitled “Ajani and the Marble Contest,” Ajani takes part in a marble tournament between his village, Barton Village and neighboring Deany Village. In “Ajani’s Kite Flying Adventure,” Ajani is shown building two special kites, as he calls them, and taking them on to the community pasture to fly them. There, he meets some little boys who had just moved into the village. They fly the kites together, confront some bullies who tried to steal one of the kites, and ultimately become friends. In another story, Ajani and his new friends and his father, Papa C, go crabbing in Bath Gully, and Papa C teaches the boys the intricacies and subtleties of procuring the Bajan delicacy.

Above: Ajani, along with his friends and family enjoy the simple pleasures of a young boy’s life

Ajani and his friends play cricket on the community pasture

In another story, Ajani and his friends play cricket on the community pasture, and these friends are all little blueprints of the West Indies cricketing legends. Ajani also goes to the beach, where he plays a robust game of football. Because he’s active like this, he has a lively social life. He’s friendly, and has lots of friends from his village and the neighboring villages. Furthermore, Ajani relates well with his elders. These elders include his parents, as well as older people in the community, such as Mr. Harris, who is a rich farmer, who became rich, as the story demonstrates, from the sweat of his own brow in agriculture, where many of our foreparents worked. Another of these elders is Ms. Grant, sightless and serene. He engages with both elders when he gets a summer job delivering newspapers to the people of the nearby villages.

Above: Aajni gets up early to deliver newspapers to Mr. Harris and the people of Barton Village, and has an unexpected encounter with Shorty, Mrs. Babb’s dog

The story in which this happens is “Ajani Gets a Summer Job.” Through his own initiative, Ajani gets this job because he wants to buy his own cricket bat. He has this great dream of one day being on the West Indies cricket team, and one day being just like Sir Gary Sobers, who is his hero. So he tells his father he wants to get a summer job so he can make some money to do this special thing. In that story, there is a scene in which Ajani discusses this job with Perty, Bruce and Roderick, some boys from a nearby village.

We first encounter Perty in “Ajani and the Marble Contest,” and we see he’s very talented, but lacks fortitude. We also encounter Roderick in that story, and observe he’s aggressive. We see Bruce in “Ajani and the Beach Excursion” and notice he has a tendency to be wayward. So when Ajani discusses his summer job with them, they think this summer job thing is hard. They all love the idea of having some extra money in their pockets, but hate the idea of all the hard work it takes to earn that money.

Thus, Akhentoolove sets Ajani somewhat apart from the other boys, who say: well, this is summer, and summer is a time to rest, and so we’re not into all that hard work. But Ajani sees it differently. He takes the opportunity to do something with a certain degree of difficulty to achieve a goal. Ajani is focused and goal oriented, in addition to being funny. He’s a nice little guy. He gets along with people. He’s the kind of boy who walks through life with care.

Ajani is a model for Akhentoolove’s view of how a young person can navigate the complexities of life. One of the ideas he’s throwing out to us through Ajani is that it’s important to have a goal from early in your life, and to have a plan for pursuing the goal, and to follow the plan, because when you do so, you can live a good life. Akhentoolove makes this statement to young people, and to anyone in our communities who have charge of young people, such as parents, teachers, and people who work with kids in sporting teams, or community groups, or youth groups, or arts groups. He’s saying to people who are guardians of our kids that we need to inspire our children, and so, in addition to creating a powerful main character who is a child, Akhentoolove also creates a powerful adult mentor, who is Ajani’s father, Papa C.

Ajani engages with his father, Papa C (left) and his elders and ancestors

The name, Papa C is very interesting, and I suspect Akhentoolove may have drawn it out of our people’s collective unconscious, in which Akhentoolove is deeply grounded. The “Papa” aspect of the name indicates his status as elder, and the “C” is the initial of his name, which is Cofe, which probably derives from the Akan culture of Ghana, of which many Barbadians are descendants. Papa C is the figure of the responsible elder, who is charged with nurturing and developing young lives, one of whom is a boy.

Through the relationship between Ajani and Papa C, Akhentoolove articulates the thesis of the entire collection of stories, as well as the larger community outreach project of which the stories are but one facet. His thesis is that young boys who are in nurturing relationships with their fathers become strong, learn skills and develop life-affirming social values. And so, the ideal relationship that Akhentoolove shows is that between a father and his son. The father-son relationship, therefore, takes pride of place in this collection of stories, and Akhentoolove sees this as the ideal way in which many of the maladies that afflict Black boys and Black men in Black communities and nation states throughout the planet can be addressed.

There are other mentors in the stories. One of them, who appears in “Ajani and the Marble Contest” is Coach, who coaches the village table tennis team. Coach is the main official in the marble contest and the arbiter when a dispute arises as a result of Perty, one of the boys in the contest, doing something he should not have done – he changed marbles in the middle of the contest, which was against the rules. When he does this, what had been a well-organized contest erupts into chaos with the supporters of both teams becoming angry, hostile and disruptive and temporarily interrupting the game. Coach steps up to restore order and to restore the game by disqualifying the one who had broken the rules. This is another powerful statement being made in the stories – that there are rules to follow, that rules maintain order, and that order is important because within the framework of the order, one can achieve something significant.

Above: When fathers mentor their sons, those boys become strong and develop meaningful and positive relationships

Within the context of this story, Ajani’s best friend, Shemar, who follows the rules, won first place and was named Boy of the Clash. Shemar, Ajani’s best friend, is Perty’s foil. Shemar is very much like Ajani in values, and I think also in their size and height. So Shemar, who follows the rules wins, and Perty, who breaks the rules is ejected from the team.

However, though Perty was disqualified, his team scored more points than Ajani’s team. This is because Perty’s team rallied more strongly, since the points he gained from being the team’s best player – and he scored most of the points – were subtracted from his team’s score and given to Ajani’s team. As a result, Perty’s team decided they were going to play even more strongly and they won by a slight margin. Interesting statement.

These statements are being made to young boys, and more importantly, to their guardians – their parents and anyone who takes care of them. The idea is that in the face of so much that goes wrong, in the face of the many deficiencies that exist in Black communities and Black nation states, this simple remedy – the remedy of making sure each child is mentored by somebody who cares for that child – can go a long way to ameliorating, and maybe even completely eradicating the worst of the maladies which afflict us.

Each one of us can choose to be a significant mentor of the children in our families

This collection of short stories is being presented to us at a time when we are witnessing very alarming events in our communities, which some may call trends. I prefer not to see them as trends. I prefer to see them as maladies from which we suffer because of certain choices we have made. Because the problems we encounter occur as a result of choices we have made, we can correct them by changing our choices.

“Somewhere there is a child who can do with a good, kind, loving mentor who genuinely cares for him and genuinely wants to see him thrive and succeed. Each one of us can be that mentor.”

One of the choices presented in this collection is that each of us can choose to be a significant mentor of a child in our family, in our school, in our community. The child does not have to be one to whom we have given birth as mothers and fathers. The child can be one for whom we have responsibility. She can be a child in our extended family. He can be a child in the school in which we teach, or a child in our village, or neighborhood, or apartment block.

Somewhere there is a child who can do with a good, kind, loving mentor who genuinely cares for him and genuinely wants to see him thrive and succeed. Each one of us can be that person, that mentor. Even though Akhentoolove’s primary audience is boys and men – because he’s particularly concerned with this situation as it affects boys and men – he also reaches out to mothers and their daughters.

Akhentoolove’s answer is very do-able, because each one of us can do this. Each one of us can take a child under our wing and protect that child. Teach that child values. Teach that child skills. Give that child ideas. Give him the tools he needs to succeed in our world as it is now and as it will be in their future.

 

 

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